The responsibility of rescue

Thanks for helping me find the best place for a dog like me

I recently returned from a trip to Puerto Rico, where in my other life, I often travel with groups for my work in organizing active, educational travel adventures for women and students. While staying at the Seagate Hotel, run by Penny Miller, who years ago was among the go-getters who helped get a shelter and clinic built on the island, I met several of the dogs who have been lucky enough to have found a home, even if only temporary, there with her.

Stray dogs in Puerto Rico are called ‘satos’.  Many people believe the name to designate a particular breed of dog, an idea which is supported in part because there is a certain ‘look’ to these dogs. A typical sato has short legs, big bat ears, a long body and a tail that would make a larger dog proud. But because dogs are imported to the island (from puppy mills in the U.S.) for sale in pet shops and because as a territory of the United States it is possible to transport dogs to and from the U.S. with only a health certificate, you will find any and all breeds of dogs, and their subsequent, too often homeless, offspring, wandering the streets, beaches, forests and parking lots, foraging for food.

It was my experience in traveling in Puerto Rico and witnessing the suffering of the homeless dogs on the islands that I became involved in rescue work. Along with the support of shelters and rescue groups on the islands of Puerto Rico and Vieques and the local shelter in my hometown I helped to find homes in Vermont for satos. Due to the fact that there are few small dogs available at our local shelter, the little dogs of Puerto Rico were quickly adopted. I like to think that all of their stories have happy endings, but I know too much about the realities of rescue to believe that to be true. In my enthusiasm to get dogs into homes I realize now that, despite my and the shelter’s best of intentions, some dogs likely did not find the pot of gold at the end of their rainbows. It has been several years since I have done more than allowed dogs to be flown back to the States as part of my baggage (since 911 dogs can no longer fly unaccompanied) but I still feel a connection to these often resilient and as often clownish, pooches.

While attending a seminar about the handling and capture of feral dogs, presented by Mark Johnson DVM of Global Wildlife Resources I met a woman who had adopted two satos recently rather than see them euthanized due to their extreme fearfulness. Her frustration with both trying to help these dogs along with the knowledge that someone chose to send these dogs to another shelter where other dogs like them were euthanized because they were not adoptable, was palpable and completely justified in my opinion. I understand why people become upset about the transport of dogs from one area of the country or world to another, in order to find them homes. Groups like the Massachusetts Animal Coalition strive to help the homeless animals already in their area.

And although I understand the reasons why someone might not support the transport of dogs for rescue I am also of the mind that ‘a life’s a life’ whether it started in my town, Puerto Rico, Kuwait, Tennessee or a reservation in the Southwest. It is true that both the financial & environmental costs of transporting dogs are higher the further away the animal is, the cost of ignoring their plight seems much higher to me. I am always inclined to support someone when their motivation comes from a place of compassion and caring. It is a human response which we need more of. So even though constructing a new building may be less expensive, I can understand and support why people might fight to refurbish a historic, old, crumbling gem- or spend their nights chained to a sequoia tree to prevent its felling. When someone questions, usually derisively, that, why when there are so many homeless, starving children in the world, am I so bothered with helping dogs, my response is this: There is plenty that needs to be done to make the world a better place, and while no one person can do it all, each of us can do something. Find what moves you and act on it. If helping children, or elders, or environments, or cultures, moves you, than do something. Especially do more than just finding fault with what someone else is doing.

Knowing that a fearful, anxious dog has been handled, transported, handled again, gone through vetting and neutering, possibly rehomed and returned to the shelter a number of times, before he is ultimately put down, nags at me though. I imagine the suffering and horror that the dog has had to endure and rue any of my involvement in facilitating that to occur. I routinely speak with people who profess that they will never adopt a dog from a shelter again after an experience with a fearful rescue dog. And who but the people doing the rescue have the experience and the responsibility to prevent that from happening? I know that rescue work is not easy and I’m not meaning to find fault with any particular rescue group or dogs from any specific place, fearful dogs can come from anywhere, but we need to remain diligent and educate ourselves on the realities of fear based behaviors.

I think it is good to be moved to help dogs and compassion for them should be nurtured and reinforced however it manifests, but our responsibility is great because we often know more than most of the people adopting these dogs and certainly more than the dogs themselves about what possible future awaits them. Our responsibility lies not only in finding dogs homes but in ensuring that the people who adopt them will seek out shelter dogs again in the future, wherever in the world they are from.


17 comments so far

  1. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    Great post!! I have a lot of respect for the people that work in rescue. They work hard, receive little thanks, and for every happy ending there are a multitude of unhappy ones. I also agree with your delicately made point – the number one priority needs to be the ultimate long-term success of the adoption, not simply finding a pet a home. Full disclosure of a dog’s issues/challenges and needs is a must to avoid putting an adoptive family in a situation they are not capable of handling.

    It would be great if the adoption process were more like counseling, rather than shopping. As it is now, the focus is put very much on how the pet looks. (And for good reason-primarily because it works! Who can look into the big brown eyes of a beagle puppy and not melt?) But if you focus on how cute a dog is and get attached to it before you even meet it, you could be setting yourself (and the dog) up for disaster! I can imagine the heartbreak and guilt associated with returning a dog to a shelter. And, dogs that have been returned have a much harder time getting adopted again. It’s a no-win situation.

    It would be far better if we took a “don’t judge the book by it’s cover approach” where the rescue/shelter staff would match up a family and a dog based on personalities, likes, needs, and capabilities – after getting to know both the dog and the people. Of course, that would take longer and it poses it’s own problems. First, shelter workers are already overburdened, and secondly adoptive families are not always patient. We live in a society of instant gratification.

    It seems we need a shift in the way our society approaches adoption. It feels like a change is coming, and I hope it leads to more pets in happy homes and more people having a pet they adore.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Amy good points! I am beginning to believe that most Americans do not have lives which are compatible with the needs of most of the dogs out there.

  2. tundrah on

    This is a timely post for me as I am working to adopt out my first foster dog without much, or really any, support from his rescue. I have been reading a lot about the adoption process specifically lately. If you havent seen it already, the KC Dogs Blog has had some heated discussion about it recently which I found very worthwhile:

    I hate to admit it, but I agree with your observation about people’s lifestyles/compatibility. Most people do not want to change their schedules, habits, etc., to accommodate a dog. I got up at 6am and was out the door at 6:15 to get to the dog park before everyone else showed up. Is that slightly insane by most people’s standards? Probably. Can I expect that of a potential adopter? Probably not…

    Its tough. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing that link, there were very interesting comments. I was turned down a local breed rescue because I did not have a fenced in yard and refused to lie and say my dog would only be walked on leash.

      The glory of most dogs is that they are so adaptable that they can learn to live with practically anyone, anywhere. It is when we are looking at dogs with behavioral challenges that I think we need to be extremely wary of who we adopt them out to, if we decide to adopt them out at all. Skilled handlers often forget that most pet owners are not going to be able to manage and train a challenging dog with the same ease they themselves might be capable of.

      Also the misguided belief that many of these dogs just need love and time and will ‘come around’ causes many heart breaking situations.

  3. Lizzie on

    How true.

    I would not have believed just how much my lifestyle would have to change when I adopted Gracie. I still take her out after midnight when it’s all quiet. I’m never in bed before 1am and up just after 7am. I have two other dogs with differing needs and a retired husband who is always around the house. I’ve not been on able to take a vacation since 2008, and am barely without her during the day.

    Like Debbie says I expected Gracie would ‘come round’ in time, with love and patience. Clearly she will not, nor will she be ever be an easy relaxed dog outside of the home, which is the only place she feels safe.

    There is only so much a person can do for a dog like Gracie, or Honey. I beleive that you can’t ‘train out’ learnt behaviours that have been repeated and repeated for many years, as in Gracie’s case.

    Sunny is blessed as he has Debbie.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Hey Honey and Gracie got their share of some karma too! Indeed any fearful dog out there with an owner who is willing to learn about fear based behaviors and try to give their dogs the best life they are can, is a darn lucky dog. The alternatives can be horrendous.

      • Lizzie on

        Yes, most are unthinkable alternatives for these dogs.

        In a way, my naivety about fearful dogs was a good thing, as had I known then what I know now, I would not have taken Gracie on, believing that I simply did not have the skills to cope with her! And on that score of course I am still learning 🙂

        Commenting on what Tundrah said with regard to help or support from the rescue centre, yes there can be very little if any, and in my opinion, also, very little thought is given to the many many fosterers who take dogs straight from the centres, and do most of the hard work with them before they find suitable homes.

        I take my hat off to them.

  4. fearfuldogs on

    For non-fearful dogs I’m of the mind that any decent life in a home with caring owners is better than being put down, living on the streets or in a cage. But when it comes to fearful dogs I believe that since it doesn’t matter how good and kind owners are, the dogs are still living with 24/7 terror in some cases. Some dogs will come around, if only enough to be able to tolerate their main caregiver or family members. But few people want to live with a dog that needs the kind of care and requires the type of schedule altering management these need.

    If something happens to me I have left instructions on how what can/should be done with my dogs. There is one rescue site that I think Sunny would be happy in, but he’d be a lifer with them most likely, so that will require he goes with an endowment for his upkeep if they’d even take him. Barring that I want him humanely euthanized. I have tears in my eyes even typing this, but knowing how limited his people skills are it’s even worse thinking about him being scared all the time and suffering. Too many people are misinformed about how to handle fear based behaviors in dogs and I don’t want him subjected to that kind of what I see as, abuse.

    • Lizzie on

      I am of the same mind Debbie. I know my husband could/would not cope with Gracie, nor would I expect him to. I see her as my responsibility, she only relates to me, in fact yesterday Brian made the observation that as far as Gracie is concerned he might just as well not be here. It took him a long while to suss that one out 🙂

      Whilst I can see that Gracie is capable of learning, and indeed she has learnt many things, in essence she will always be a fearful and reactive dog. She spent her former ‘life’ terrified every single day and therefore developed strategies in order to be able to cope with whatever happened to her.
      Over here in the UK puppy farms are just that, farms run by former livestock breeders. The dogs are kept in barns with no light, are never handled, unless they are required for mating, and then handled very roughly always being cornered and picked up by their legs or what ever the farmer can grab hold of. Worst still they never leave their pens, AT ALL. They are treated in the same way as cattle or sheep. And it’s not just men, I found out that Gracie’s former owner was a woman! Grr….

      When Gracie first set paw in my house all she could do was run around like a thing demented looking for a dark place to crawl into, and no doubt would have been relieved to have been put back into her pen on the farm because that was all she knew and at least she knew what to expect. As Bruce Perry quoted, fearful/traumatised children prefer the ‘certainty of misery as opposed to the misery of uncertainty’.

      As long as I keep to her now familar routine and don’t put her in new or different surroundings, she can cope and I know that she’s not under stress. But deep down I also know that if she were to be removed from my care her behaviour would revert to what it was before and I could not bear the thought of that.

      • fearfuldogs on

        I love that quote by Bruce Perry. Expect to see it in a blog one day soon!

  5. Nancy Freedman-Smith CPDT on

    Excellent! You should enter this for DWAA and APDT

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Nancy, that’s a really nice thing for you to say!

  6. melfr99 on

    Amen! A very thoughtful and thought-provoking post Deb.

    I am of the mind that a fearful dog is better off in a home (with someone who understands their needs) than to be out on the streets. And, that includes transporting them if need be.

    But, I also believe that a rescue has the responsibility to make sure the dog is put into a home with support from them on how to work with a dog that is fearful. I am less concerned about a fenced yard or always being leashed than having a loving home with someone who understands and knows what they are getting into. I knew after 2 weeks of fostering Daisy that I could not, would not let her be a victim of a system that does not understand dogs like her. I have no doubt she would have been returned because of her fear.

    Now she is a happy dog, more than I ever could have expected, and I swear she smiles at me all of the time!

    Just an added word of advice (Deb you may disagree with me): A puppy mill dog often does better when they have another confident, but gentle, dog who can show them the ropes. I have seen it firsthand with Daisy… and with Jasper. From what I have heard, Jasper’s sister, Jasmine, has not done as well. She is still fearful and is the only dog in the home. I don’t know if I can link the two, but I will say that Jasper is a confident and happy dog. I think it’s because Daisy has in turn shown him the ropes.

    • Lizzie on

      You are quite right Mel about having another dog in the home to help an ex puppy farm bitch. In fact who rescued Gracie insist on it. They will not let a dog be adopted unless there is at least one other dog in the family.

      Sadly in Gracie’s case it has not really helped. 😦
      The owner of Many Tears says however that she needs to be with other Labs but I have two Xbreeds.

      At the moment though I am not in a position to take on any more rescues as I have both my hands full with the three dogs already here, and one retired husband!

    • fearfuldogs on

      I know that Sunny sure benefited from having my other border collie Finn around. Dogs that are not afraid of other dogs and enjoy their company probably do benefit from having another socially adept dog around. A dog with fear or reactivity toward other dogs may just be stressed out by having them around. And many dogs can learn to deal with other dogs, but never really love or seem to enjoy their company.

      It’s hard to compare dogs, even those from the same litter or same set of circumstances, since due do a host of other contributors, they may be fundamentally different.

      It’s also hard to recommend that someone with a fearful dog take on another dog, if they don’t already have one, since there’s no guarantee that things will go smoothly and managing and training one challenging dog can be overwhelming enough as is for most folks.

      If a dog has positive responses to other dogs and can be encouraged to move and behave differently when around them, then it’s one more tool for owners to use to help their dog change how they think and feel about a whole variety of triggers. Finding ways to spend time with other dogs can be a great way to help these dogs. I have used training classes and dog walking trails to expose Sunny to people, not because he can see the other dogs behaving appropriately around people, for most scared dogs it doesn’t really matter how unafraid another dog is of something, in much the same way I can watch people ski down black diamond trails and still freak out at the top myself, but if being around other dogs makes him feel good I can use that response and the wonders of classical conditioning to create an association between that good feeling and humans.

      Just some thoughts.

  7. georgia little pea on


    my name is georgia and i am a shelter dog. i am not fearful but i do have some issues like riding in cars and dogs that bark at me. i have been living with my family for almost 15 months now and it’s still hard work for them [and me!]. i don’t think they’ll give up though because they love me a lot.

    There used to be another shelter dog that lived here who was VERY fearful of everything…cars, loud noises, angry voices even if they were on the telly and especially ladies with sun hats. it took many years but he eventually became happy, confident and quite fearless by the the time he died last year.

    thank you so much for writing about stuff my humans can use to help me : )

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing your story and I’m very happy that you have found the blog and helpful!

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