No one really wants a dog that acts like an ass, pit bull owners especially. Non-pits might get a free pass from animal control and/or their neighbors for first offenses, but the same will put a perfectly wonderful pit bull in dangerous cross hairs, especially if his owner is anything less than stubbornly committed to working out the kinks in his stewardship. Breed scrutiny is so not fair, but it is a reality still.
We run five separate classes each weekend, and see up to 60 dogs on busy days. With so many people moving through, we get to enjoy dogs from every corner of the bay and every situation imaginable: Found dogs, inherited dogs, big money purchased dogs, fostered and adopted dogs, mixy dogs, stable dogs, sketchy dogs, my-brother-went-to-jail dogs and lots and lots of my-kid-moved-out-and-left-me-with-this-big-unruly-problem dogs (those are usually attached to pissed off and very determined middle age women who kick ass and excel in class).
As much fun as it can be, Saturdays never come without a few disappointments, especially with dogs that are in danger of losing their homes. We want so much for everybody to do well, but some owners struggle more than others and occasionally, class is too little too late. You might guess that our bigger challenges might come from the street kid with the beefy he-man dog, but, not at all. We love having these guys in class and we share their pride in owning a big sexy, well trained dog that turns heads.
Our toughest cases tend to come from a whole other subset: the well intentioned but totally mis-matched shelter adopters and their new-ish dogs, many which are scooped up in a brave and exciting rush to save a life. This honorable approach to getting a pet has gotten more popular as rescue dogs earn status in the public eye. But a rushed adoption can bring big headaches if a home isn't fully prepared and supported. In some cases, an adopter's expectations can be overly romantic and wildly unrealistic and can domino them into all sorts of avoidable problems with their dog. They might find themselves struggling with a personality that is beyond what they can handle and not even realize that they need help until after their new dog gets into trouble a few times. Even sadder, they may have actually selected this pet out from a line-up of hundreds of more appropriate personalities. Life seems to like lobbing curve balls at people just to keep things interesting.
Don't get me wrong. We absolutely love helping people get on the right path with their dogs - sometimes all the way to CGC fame - but it can be discouraging to count the number of homes on our Pit Ed class wait list that need emergency support so soon after "saving" their dogs from a local shelter or rescue group. It's fun to think of shelter adoptions as a blissful event and walk into the happy sunset for both the dog and his new family. But their honeymoon can end days or weeks after the fact when untrained dogs fall back into some of the same behaviors that caused their original homes to give them up in the first place.
We're resigned to spending a part of our week on adoption clean-up duty, and we do our best to help struggling owners get the information they need to be good stewards. In many cases, the classes make all the difference but sometimes we're not so lucky and a home gives up on its pet before we can help them with changes. Those are the situations that twist our stomachs in knots and drove me to write this particular blog.
Of course it's never a dog's fault when an adoption goes south. Overwhelmed shelters can get itchy to move dogs out, and adopters know how to say all the right things to someone who's worried about a stressing dog and/or dwindling kennel space. And rescues know that promoting death row dogs with pleading ads can bring last minute miracles from big hearted sorts who graze the Craigslist Pets page. While these approaches can certainly get dogs into homes, they can also set an adopter on a very difficult path that they may or may not be able to navigate.
Whose job is it to keep dogs in their homes?
I had to wonder if animal behaviorist Ian Dunbar has been experiencing some of the same failed-adoption frustrations when I read his January column in Bay Woof. He wrote that last month was "National Train Your Dog Month," but instead of pointing his message at dog owners, he put out a compelling challenge to shelters and other dog advocates.
He said, "To minimize the unnecessary deaths of countless dogs, all Bay Area doggy professionals must unite to proactively educate.." We always perk up for a call to arms for proactive education and Dunbar's words couldn't have rung truer.
"...far too many dogs are surrendered to shelters because their owners were unaware of how to prevent predictable puppy/adolescent behavior, temperament, and training problems. Without appropriate education, unlucky pups are likely to be surrendered to shelters before their first birthdays. Today's science-based dog trainers have all the answers, yet, sadly, few people seek their advice until problems develop.
We can only decrease euthanasia in public and private shelters by decreasing shelter populations. This can only occur when we Increase Shelter Output (adoptions) by refining behavior rehabilitation programs in shelters AND Decrease Shelter Input by teaching prospective and new puppy owners how to raise their pups to be charming and cherished companions. The latter option is quicker, easier, and cheaper." - Ian Dunbar quoted in Bay Woof
The behavior mod programs he's promoting may look like an unreachable luxury to busy shelters whose main goal is to get dogs out the door. And teaching prospective dog owners how to prevent classic behavior problems can certainly seem like "someone else's job" to an organization that's flooded with animals. But as difficult as these goals can be, embracing these efforts is vital to keeping disenfranchised dogs - pit bulls especially - safe and supported and out of the shelters a second or third and final time. In some cases, shelters are unaware when some of the favorite dogs they worked so hard to save end up back in danger of dying in another overwhelmed shelter, in another county with never enough adopters. It happens often enough for us to join Dunbar's trumpet call to animal care professionals to reform ways we all work to adopt out dogs and - especially - to help them stick in their new homes.
Berkeley gets it.
There are reasons to feel optimistic about possibilities. One of the best examples is in Berkeley - the town that we bragged about some time ago for its ongoing work to help pit bulls and to create a sustainable balance for the pets in its community.
Berkeley can drive me nuts at times (It's still legal to walk your dog on an invisible voice-command-only leash. Yep, for real), but we have to give this city of idealists a mountain of credit for actually wanting a system that supports pit bulls and other pets in crisis, and then for keeping that goal front and center for several years until it started to gel. That includes everything from working to meet dogs' needs while in the shelter, supporting home visits and owner education in front of adoptions, and training and information after the dog goes home. Their system is far from perfect, but they continue to offer one of the best Shelter Adoption models we've seen for pit bulls, and we stay committed to giving them a good chunk of our weekend for that reason.
The alternative is just more of this. From a recent email to BR (names deleted to protect the well-intentioned):
"Hello. I adopted my dog from the ____ shelter 4 months ago. The volunteers showed her to be fun-loving and sweet around children, so we brought her home. However, we are seriously considering turning her back in based on her repeated door dashing and attacking cats and dogs in the neighborhood. Just Saturday she attacked a dog walking on a leash and the woman walking her was frightened and angry. She is very difficult on leash and I'm at my wits end." - shelter adopter
It's doubtful anyone would want a dog that's this poorly managed in their neighborhood (I wouldn't), but a simple home visit and fence check would've helped the dog and her new owner tremendously. And at least one mandatory training class. Why not? Especially if it saves a life. In the meantime, this dog is in danger again and other pets have been put in harm's way. (Note to any pit bull haters who may be grazing: This situation isn't a "pit bull thing." Trainers get these kinds of notes every day from owners of every breed imaginable ... but only one breed will be systematically singled out and condemned for it.)
Here's a scenario we love to see:
Kim wanted a pit bull but also knew that she'd need support since she was new to the breed. A Berkeley Shelter staffer considered her wish list and intro-ed her to an immature male named Jake. She fell in love, got home checked, adopted, then started BR's Berkeley-based classes and got her boy trained and socialized. Nice.
But Chapter Two is even more important: Nature came calling as Jake was maturing from a young dopey pup to a strapping adult, and one day he decided to puff up and spark at another dog. No big deal -- it looks bad, but this very manageable show of bravado happens to the best of dogs. Our trainer Linda got to see the whole thing and gave Kim quick advice and a gameplan to help her be a better leader and to steer her boy off the path of being a nuisance. That support helped her take her commitment one step further and she and Jake soon earned a Canine Good Citizen title together. Without Berkeley's vision, Kim might've found herself alone with a dog that sparks at dogs as habit, the breed would've taken a hit ("bad, scary pit bull") and in the end, a shelter might've received yet another out of control adolescent that staff decided to euthanized. But they won't. Thank you Berkeley.
Maddies Fund is Watching
Maddies Fund recognized Berkeley's shelters recently, and promoted their effort with this lovely article. We were so happy to see the template spelled out so cleanly. Berkeley Jams on Pit Bull Adoptions
"The biggest problem facing homeless pit bulls is the lack of accurate information," said Kersey. "How you educate people is crucial, so it's equally crucial that you first educate your staff and volunteers to do a good job talking about the dogs." - Sara Kersey, Berkeley East Bay Humane Society
My one quibble is the headline: "Solving the Pit Bull Problem." Maddies, with all due respect, pit bulls aren't the problem. But they certainly experience problems when their people fail them. Other than that, some great quotes and hopefully, some inspiration in here for other shelters who are struggling with similar issues.