Why does the dog:owner relationship sometimes fail? Where do rescue dogs come from? And who is to blame? It’s a big problem for society and animal welfare in general, distressing and disappointing for the individuals involved, and often means a death sentence for the dogs. Aside from that, it’s also an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others so we don’t have to make them ourselves.
In the US the number of dogs euthanized in shelters each year is thankfully on the decline but currently stands at around 4 million, which is 4.8% of the 83.3 million strong dog population, or 1 dog out of every 25. This is truly appalling!
In Australia the situation is slightly better. Though there is a lack of good data on this issue, it can be estimated from information collected by the RSPCA, some local government councils and the organisation Deathrow Pets that around 75,000 dogs are euthanized each year through shelters and pounds. According to the Australian Veterinary Association, the current dog population in Australia is 3.41 million. So from this it is apparent that around one dog out of every 45 Australian dogs is put to death each year because it has been abandoned, still a shocking statistic.
So why are dogs abandoned? A large part of it definitely lies with us humans.
In an ideal world every person who adopts a dog is making a firm commitment to providing it with a caring, forever home. However we all know that isn’t always the case. Some people abuse the freedom they have to acquire a dog by being irresponsible. Puppies of all breeds are adorable, fun and hard to resist. Seeing their appealing antics in the pet shop as you walk past, or at a friend’s house can easily lead to an impulsive adoption. US figures suggest only 6% of shelter dogs were sourced in pet shops, so the where do the others come from?
Some of the other information that is currently available provides a few clues.
Here’s one. In the US 83% of owned dogs are sterilized compared to only 10% of dogs and cats that enter a shelter. Dogs that end up in Australian shelters are also a lot less likely to have been desexed than the national average. Of Australian shelter dogs, 34% are entire bitches and 49% are entire males – a measly 19% of rescue dogs are desexed. Compare to the average Australian dog, 78% of which are desexed (National People and Pets Survey 2006). So while 4 out of 5 Aussie dogs are surgically sterilized, only 1 out of 5 shelter dogs are.
This suggests that folks likely to bail out of dog ownership tend to be those who either aren’t interested in or can’t afford sterilizing their dog. If they can’t afford to sterilize their dog, this begs the question of why they acquired it in the first place! To make matters worse, the inevitably resulting unplanned litters contribute about half of all puppies relinquished to shelters. Pups that initially escape this fate are often given away or sold cheaply to get rid of them. Unfortunately puppies so easily acquired tend to fall into the hands of owners acting on impulse who aren’t seriously committed financially or emotionally to their pet. Their adoption is often short lived and their chances of winding up in a shelter down the track very high. Indeed, 65% of pets (dogs and cats) in US shelters were originally obtained at free or low cost.
Caring dog owners simply don’t keep bitches unsterilized unless they specifically plan to breed from them, in which case they wouldn’t relinquish them to a shelter in the first place. In short, the finger of blame for many of the abandoned dogs in our society can be pointed at a minority of people who are just basically irresponsible.
Given the large number of dogs orphaned by their original families, there’s considerable pressure from humane groups for people to rehome shelter dogs in preference to obtaining their dogs elsewhere. PETA, for example, claims that every time someone buys an animal from a store or a breeder, it takes away a home from a shelter animal but is this true?
Where Do Rescue Dogs Come From?
It has been found that mixed breed dogs are much more likely to be abandoned than purebreds. In the US, close to half of all dogs are mixed breed, yet they make up almost three quarters of those in shelters and are almost twice as likely to be euthanised. Similarly, in a study conducted in County Cork Ireland, crossbreed dogs were found to make up just 6.4% of all registered dogs but accounted for 22% of those entering shelters. Purebreds that lose their homes often have more safety nets: breeders will often take back any of their dogs who end up homeless, and there purebred rescue groups for the most popular breeds aimed at finding new homes for them.
And though the US Humane Society claims that 25% of dogs admitted to shelters are purebreds, this figure is probably a gross overestimate of the actual proportion of euthanized dogs that are purebred for two reasons. Firstly, research in Philadelphia found more than 67% of purebred dogs captured while roaming and entering shelters are soon reclaimed by their owners, compared with just 41% for mixed breeds. Also, shelter staff going only on the appearance of the dog, are likely to overestimate the number of purebreds admitted based on resemblance to a particular breed.
The table below represents the results of another US study (New et al), and shows that while breeders supplied 1 in 5 dogs owned in the US, these dogs only accounted for 1 in 10 of the dogs in shelters. So to say breeders of purebreds are killing shelter dogs is simplistic to say the least.
So where do most shelter dogs originate?
As New and his colleagues work depicts, dogs acquired from a friend, a shelter or picked up as a stray, are most at risk of losing their homes, and those sourced from breeders, or kept from a litter bred by the owner, have the most secure future. Dogs given as gifts have outcomes slightly more secure than average, and those bought from pet shops slightly less.
Owners who opt to adopt from shelters are making a reasonable outlay - certainly not the “low-to-no-cost” price tag statistically associated with a high risk of relinquishment. People who adopt from shelters normally have an altruistic desire to give a dog another chance at life. These are society’s responsible owners. And yet while almost a third of dogs owned in the US were rescued from shelters, according to one study one in 5 of them wind up back there. This means shelter dog owners are close to five times as likely to give up on them, as dogs of other origins. This begs the question: Is there something wrong with shelter dogs?
It is often claimed that dogs that enter shelters are, for the most part, good pets unluckily surrendered due to owner lifestyle issues. But the facts show this is not the full story. On the side of these claims, yes, many owners face real difficulty finding suitable accommodation that accepts dogs, and as a result may have to give up their dog. In Australia this accounts for around one shelter dog out of every four or five admitted (almost 30% according to one study Marston, Bennett, Coleman). Other owner related reasons include family upheaval, ill health, financial problems and lack of time to devote to the dog.
Tracking over 20,000 dogs admitted to shelters in Victoria, Australia, Pauline Bennett examined why dogs are admitted to welfare shelters and what happens to them when they get there. She summed up her findings this way:
As expected, we found that many dogs are relinquished to shelters because of owner issues, such as moving house or a change in family circumstances. Sometimes these issues are unavoidable but often these are perfectly lovely dogs, surrendered primarily due to a lack of owner commitment. Many other dogs are relinquished because of canine behaviours, such as boisterousness, hyperactivity and aggression, which owners are unable to tolerate. Not all dogs are created equal. Some suit the requirements of modern owners more than others.
According to a recent US study (National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy) the top reason people surrender their dogs to shelters are due to behavioral problems followed by housing situations, incompatibility with the family's lifestyle, and finally because the dog didn't live up to the owner's expectations.
Altogether it is true that about a third of all dogs given up to shelters are there because of the owner, not the dog. But what about the other two thirds?
Relationship-Busting Canine Behavior
The unfortunate fact is that many dogs are relinquished due to undesirable behavior. Forty percent of surrendering owners in the US cited behavioral problems as one of the reasons for giving up on their dogs and the situation has been found to be much the same elsewhere. According to the RSPCA, of all the dogs euthanized in their shelters across Australia in 2010, half met this fate due to behavioral problems. And a recent UK study similarly discovered that the most common reasons dogs were relinquished were their problematic behaviors and their need for more attention than the owner could provide.
What types of behaviors drive owners over the brink? And, more importantly are they treatable and could they have been avoided by being better informed before acquiring a dog?
Potentially dogs are capable of performing a wide variety of deeds displeasing to their humans, but according to interviews with people presenting dogs to shelters, there are two biggies. One is the dog that, despite the owner’s best efforts, persists in eliminating in the house. There are significant breed differences in ease of housetraining, so some dogs will undoubtedly be harder to train than others. Nevertheless, all dogs are trainable and this issue may say more about lack of competence in the owner than any permanent defect in the pet.
The other biggie is a lot more difficult to treat and of considerably more concern to new owners and wider society. I am talking, of course, about aggression. And it is a frighteningly frequently cited problem – aggression is the main issue in 40% of dogs given up for behavioral reasons in the US. Likewise in the UK (Diesel et al, 2010) aggression, anxiety and disobedience were reported as the most prevalent problems, and the most commonly reported reasons for relinquishment. It has been reported that one in ten dogs presented at shelters are there due to hostility toward people with most of them having bit at least one person. Of all dog bite incidents leading to hospitalization or death in the US, more than 40% involve children under the age of 14, with the most severe injuries incurred by five to nine year olds. Given that being “safe with children” and non-aggressive is an important attribute of the ideal dog, are shelters a safe place for people to source their pets from?
Many shelters recognize this and exercise as much duty of care as they are capable of by subjecting dogs offered for adoption to temperament tests with the aim of screening out those predisposed to aggression. This is admirable but - I hate to say it – ineffective at negating the considerable risk involved in adopting out such dogs. Given the seriousness of the issue, researchers have had a careful look at the track record of temperament screening and it’s currently not very good at all. Disappointingly, more than one in five shelter dogs that pass aggression tests have a documented history of biting that the test therefore failed to detect. When followed up 13 months after adopting dogs that passed such a test, owners reported that 41 % exhibited lunging, growling, snapping, and/or biting, and a further 30% problematic barking .
Another danger of relying on such tests is that most dogs at genetic risk of becoming biters – yes, some breeds are more prone to bite than others - only develop the trait when they are about two years old, which tests done earlier obviously won’t pick up (Houpt). So if you are considering adopting a young dog from a shelter, it is doubly important to take its breed into consideration and have its temperament properly assessed first.
And simply spending time in a shelter has been shown to cause psychological damage to dogs.
For a dog uprooted from its family home, being plunged into the narrow confines of a cage with dozens of other similarly stressed out, bored and under-exercised dogs around must be very unsettling. Most shelters are underfunded and staffed by deeply caring but overstretched volunteers who would find it impossible to afford the time needed to give each dog much human emotional attention or reassurance. Unfortunately, the stress experienced by some kenneled dogs can also impact their immune response and health
Influence of Early Rearing on Adult Behavior
While some dogs are genetically programmed with a predilection to social "delinquency" by their breed or breed strain, whether it is expressed or not, how, and to what intensity is very much influenced by the environment they are reared in and experience. With dogs being left alone much of the time, sometimes barely interacted with even for the short periods each day when their owners are home, and for some not even taken out for exercise, social isolation is a fate suffered by many dogs in our society.
Dogs have evolved to be social creatures, like their ancestors the wolves. Yet, unlike the wolf, modern dogs have been selectively bred for thousands of years to be utterly dependant on us for their sustenance and their social life. Many modern breeds are the result of a deliberate attempt to produce dogs that as adults display the puppy-like tendencies we find endearing, such as playfulness, submission and even a puppy-like appearance. The problem modern dogs face is the conflict between this bred-for reliance on us for security, companionship and leadership, and their effective daily abandonment to lonely hours of boredom and isolation most of the time. We have made them need us then denied them our company. Faced with this conflict it is surprising that only some dogs develop neuroses.
Such social isolation in dogs is associated with the development of aggression as well as other unwelcome traits such as excessive barking, destructiveness, digging and escaping, any of which can be incompatible with continuing to live harmoniously with their current family. As we have seen, in a shelter environment these behaviors often escalate .
Indeed, separation anxiety is more common in dogs adopted from shelters or found as strays than in those sourced from a breeder, pet shop or friend . This suggests that dogs suffering separation anxiety are more likely to be abandoned and to either be genetically predisposed towards developing the problem (some dogs of breeds are more at risk than others), or to have suffered some of the other causes of separation anxiety which include over-attachment, a change in family or environment, traumatic experiences that occurred when alone or similar early negative experiences which include being abandoned or spending time in a shelter.
Puppy Mill Puppies Permanently Damaged
When a puppy mill breeder is closed down for animal cruelty local shelters are compelled to receive hundreds of physically and psychologically abused dogs and attempt to find homes for these poor animals. Though with lots of love the majority of these dogs improve a little over time, the emotional scars they bear are largely permanent, with many former breeding dogs displaying persistent behavioral and psychological abnormalities.
Tracking over a thousand such dogs two years post adoption researchers found that dogs originating from puppy mills were abnormally fearful of everything – people, other dogs, stairs and even being touched. Indeed, rehomed puppy mill breeding dogs were six to eight times more likely to score at the highest level for fear than normal dogs. They also make less than ideal pets in other ways that matter, exhibiting greater house soiling, phobias, repetitive and compulsive behaviors, and aggression to other animals, and are harder to train.
In following these dogs’ progress, one of the researchers, Dr Franklin McMillan told USA Today:
“The majority of the dogs improve over time, and it’s important to note that many of them lead very happy lives, but many also continue to struggle emotionally for the rest of their lives—just trying to gain comfort in a world we all take for granted. To them the world and all the people in it just can’t be trusted—it is something to always fear. The damage done to these dogs is heartbreaking.”
“The saddest stories are those from the kindhearted people who adopt these dogs and work hard for years to give them love and acceptance. They’ll sometimes report that even after several years the dog will simply sit and stare blankly into space,” McMillan says. “They tell me that it’s like ‘he’s not really there,’ or that the little dog is reminiscent of a severely autistic child.”
Don’t overlook an animal shelter as a source for a good dog.
Adopting a dog from a rescue kennel can be rewarding in many ways. Though by now you should understand the risks involved, there are without a doubt a lot of wonderful, well socialised dogs in shelters that are ready and able to be someone’s ideal pet. Not all dogs wind up in a shelter because they are bad. After that cute puppy stage, when the dog grows up, it may become too much for its owner. Or, there has been a change in the owner’s circumstances forcing him or her into having to give up the dog.
Most of the time these dogs are housetrained and already have some training. If the dog has been properly socialized to people, it will be able to adapt to a new environment. Bonding may take a little longer, but once accomplished, result in a devoted companion.
However, in light of these findings, it is wise to steer towards dogs that have at least spent some time in a foster home environment where their normal behavior was observed and assessed, and a more reliable match therefore possible with an adoptive family, or to adopt them under the condition that they can be returned if it doesn’t work out.
Think before you get a dog!
If we can learn anything from these tragic misadventures into dog ownership it is don’t jump into dog ownership without looking first. In the UK a large proportion (83.7%) of people surrendering dogs to pounds admitted they hadn’t actively researched aspects of dog ownership before getting their dog. This might have led them to choose a breed that was not a good match for their lifestyle. Lack of preparation would have also left many ignorant of how to manage their dog’s behavior and prevent unwelcome habits arising.
When it comes to owning a dog, failing to plan is definitely planning to fail. For the sake of dogs and their people everywhere, there is a need for sound, scientifically based advice on how to set the relationship up to succeed in the first place which is what Perfect Match Puppy is all about.