Are Trainers Responsible For The Death Of Shelter Dogs?

cocker spaniel looking at woman eatingIn the dog training world, which has a number of difference sects, stone tossing between them is a common occurrence. I confess I’ve lobbed a few myself. Some of the criticisms voiced are valid and important, others less so. In many cases there is a fundamental agreement between camps, with differing implementations.

The number of unwanted dogs killed daily in shelters around the country is staggering. There are various reasons why this is, and not what this post is about. It is about the assertion, by some trainers, that other trainers are responsible for this situation. When I hear a trainer say that other trainers, because of the way they train, are the cause of dogs being relinquished to shelters my response is, “show me your numbers.”

In a study conducted by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) researchers went into 12 animal shelters in the United States for a year to find out why dogs were being given up. This finding stands out- most dogs (96%) had not received any obedience training. Read it again and let the implications of this sink in. When a trainer claims that other trainers, because of the way they train, are responsible for the death of dogs because they were unable to get the desired behaviors using their chosen method, they are stretching things more than just a bit. I don’t know how that 4% of dogs were trained, or whether their owners complied with the trainer’s recommendations. We never even met the other 96% and not all were given up because of behavior.

There are likely a multitude of reasons why owners dealing with behavioral issues don’t consult with a trainer. What I have experienced is that when an owner fundamentally has a good relationship with their dog, they are more likely to seek out solutions for keeping them. If this solution requires spending time or money, they’ll at least consider it. If someone does not have a good relationship with their dog it’s easier to give up on them. What constitutes a good relationship will vary, but I’ll risk it and say that part of that relationship includes the dog making the owner feel good. The dog looks at them, cuddles with them, plays with them, hangs out with them, etc. I live with 4 very different, often challenging dogs. They might be considered by some to be pains in the butt, but they’re my pains in the butt and they’re not going anywhere. They make me feel good more often than they upset me. Though it did take time and effort to get there with some of them.

The assertion that not getting a dog to stop annoying behaviors is the cause of their relinquishment to shelters, an assertion I hear too often by trainers, some who I think should know better, seems a shallow conclusion to come to. Getting a dog to stop any of the annoying behaviors that can frustrate and anger an owner is important, but this only addresses a part of the problem. It’s an important part, no question, but that an owner has even consulted with a professional trainer is an indication that a crucial piece of the puzzle is in place, the owner cares enough to do it. A trainer’s goal should be to maintain that caring relationship while other issues are addressed. We need to carefully weigh our options for modifying behavior so as not to damage what might be a fragile emotional bond from the dog’s perspective.

Dogs are failed in many ways, but suggesting that I’m contributing to that by the way I choose to train, is tossing far too big a stone at me. I suspect that whatever methods an individual trainer chooses to use, if the foundation of their training rests on creating trust between a person and their dog, and as a trainer maintains a loyalty to the dog as well as the person writing the check, they too may resent having to dodge stones.

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7 comments so far

  1. EngineerChic on

    And sometimes, the dog is in a shelter for non-behavioral reasons. We have adopted dogs who were surrendered because:
    1) Owner bought a new house, did not want dog hair everywhere. (no lie, this was on the intake form) Dog was a devoted, people-centric shep-mix with really good manners and a breeze to train.
    2) Divorce. One side fought for the dog & after they got it, decided they didn’t want it after all. Other side had already signed lease in no-dog-allowed apartment & was heartbroken about the dog.
    3) Hunting dog who was a stray (must have gotten separated from his pack).

    I think we should also acknowledge that sometimes a dog is in a shelter because they are aggressive or very unpredictable (despite having had a good start in life). A lot of this is probably due to bad genes, so not the fault of the dog.

    It isn’t a popular thing to talk about and until I saw it I couldn’t believe it is possible. But I’ve met caring people who had a dog from puppyhood that had to be euthanized because of frequent aggression. Multiple trainers could not resolve it (though the dog had excellent obedience skills most of the time, so the training had helped in some aspects). The owners had children and even I was afraid of the dog after spending 10 minutes with it.

    I don’t think that was a case of “bad trainers” or “bad owners”, if I had to guess is was “crappy genetics led to crappy brain chemistry.” Its possible that pharmaceuticals could have helped, I guess, but if I had to choose between spending (limited) funds on surgery for a friendly dog or trying different medication to manage an aggressive dog, I would choose surgery on the friendly dog.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I suppose one must be careful about assuming all the information a pet owner might provide when relinquishing a pet is correct, but aggression was the only behavioral issue listed in the top 10 of why a dog was being turned in to a shelter.

      Which only convinces me more that when someone blames a type of trainer for dogs being in the shelter they are off base.

  2. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    Agreed. I feel the same way about the pets-as-gifts cautions we see before the holidays. The NCPPSP data shows that shelters are NOT flooded with pets given as gifts. I’m not saying it might not happen in some places, but it isn’t a cause of pets in shelters. And since I sat on the board of the NCPPSP when these studies were done … trust me, I spent a lot of time with the researchers and data.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Roxanne! It’s hard to get past some ideas once they are planted in your head and someone has made a case for.

    • engineer chic on

      Agreed, I have never seen that as a reason someone wanted to surrender a dog. Giving someone a pet as a gift is still a pretty dumb idea (unless you are the parent of a kid who has been begging for a pet for ages). But I haven’t seen many (any) gift-dogs in shelters.

    • KellyK on

      I’m not sure the NCPPSP list shows that the shelters aren’t flooded with pets given as gifts, so much as it shows that people aren’t citing that as the primary reason. (Which isn’t to say that there isn’t other data that *does* show that, just that I don’t think the list of reasons alone makes that case.)

      A couple of the top reasons, such as “no time for pet” and “inadequate facilities” and “doesn’t get along with other pets” seem like partly a case of “bad fit”—having the wrong pet for your current life and home. “Bad fit” in turn, seems a lot more likely with a gifted pet than with a pet that was chosen by the people who would be caring for that animal.

      Since you were on the board when those studies were done, you have a much better idea than I do what was found out about the number of animals given as gifts or any connections between that and other causes.

      Though really, “What are the main causes of animal surrender?” and “How does X affect any given pet’s odds of being surrendered?” are two different questions.

  3. Marilyn Marks on

    Good to know (the numbers) and thanks for doing the research!


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