Open Letter to Rescue Groups
Earlier this year, I had a table at a 'Pet Awareness and Adoption' event that changed the way I feel about these events, and some of the rescue groups who participate in them. I have spent many hours, and sleepless nights, thinking about the events of this day, and what we can all learn from it.
I am not going to name the location because I do not wish to focus on the hosts, nor on the individual rescue group personally. This could have happened at any public adoption event, and to any of the countless rescue groups or animal shelters that showcase adoptable dogs at these events.
I was witness to a young girl being badly bitten by one of the adoptable dogs. I'm not going to ignore the fact that this dog was a pit bull type dog. In my estimation, he was around 75-80 lbs, and completely over stimulated by his surroundings. I have been waiting for the media to run the story, as I did not wish to bring unwanted attention to the family if they had not yet spoken to reporters. However, amazingly, the story never made the news. I feel that this is an important learning opportunity, and I cannot remain silent because if nothing is learned and this horrible event happened for nothing.
This incident was the result of an epidemic among many rescue groups and animal shelters. These groups are started by good people who want to save dogs. They are passionate; and I get that. But as I have said before, they're doing many things in such a way, that in the long run they are further damaging the image of the dogs they are trying to save. Many groups take the tough cases, the sad stories of abuse and neglect. They believe and trust that some poorly-educated and unqualified trainer with no legitimate, recognized education or credentials can rehabilitate them. They believe that punishing low-level, aggressive behaviors magically makes the dog safe. I, and other educated and credentialed behavior professionals, are vilified when we explain that it doesn't work that way. When you punish the low-level signals, you eliminate the warning that the dog is worried. You suppress all of their warning signals and call them cured. The attack that I witnessed is one very predictable result.
I saw this dog when I arrived at the event. I walked by him several times, and he caught my attention. He was stiff, his mouth was closed, he licked his lips and held his breath. His eyes were wide and hard as he looked around. His tail was low and still. Every movement he made, from glancing at passers by, to licking his lips, even taking a breath was met with a "pop" on the leash and the tight bite of the prong collar around his neck. I'm sure the handler thought she was "correcting" him for *thinking* about reacting inappropriately. I've heard this advice given by the trainers who work with some of these rescue groups. I have heard this from rescue volunteers in several groups who have been instructed on how to handle their dogs in public by professional (though non-certified) trainers. It goes something like "don't even let him THINK about lunging or growling." The handler in this case was, in my opinion, oblivious to the dog's anxiety. She wasn't even looking at him! She popped the leash when she felt him move as she chatted with other people. I moved along to my table, as I did not wish to make the group uncomfortable (unsolicited advice is generally not appreciated).
My table was about 100-150' away. I did not see what happened immediately preceding the attack. I will not speculate as to what I think happened. It doesn't matter anyway. I will never forget the sound of the girl screaming, she was about 8 years old, maybe younger. I ran toward the screaming and saw that the dog was latched onto her leg, on her upper thigh, in a full bite right near her hip. The handler was pulling back on the leash with the dog's skin bulging around the prong collar; a man kicked the dog in the head, two times that I observed; another man was trying to pry the dogs mouth open with his two hands. I looked at the woman I recognized with the rescue group and asked if she had a break stick, she said "no." Someone behind me said "you need a stick?" and handed me a camera tripod. Well it was something; and I did try to get it between the dog's molars but it was too big and too round. I looked around for something smaller. The little girl never stopped screaming. Someone poured a bottle of water over the dog's back. He did not let go until he was ready to let go. It seemed like forever but was probably a little over a minute, maybe two minutes.
When he finally released his grip, I moved away with the girl and her mom. I saw the wound before it started to bleed, when she pulled up her pant leg. He left a full bite impression, and you could see the avulsion of most of her thigh, where the teeth had penetrated entirely through, from one side to the other, beneath the skin. I rate this bite a level 5 bite on the Dunbar Bite Scale. If there hadn't been so many people immediately intervening, it would have been much worse.
I am certain this young girl needed surgery, and she will likely battle the psychological trauma of this attack for a long time. So will those of us who witnessed this bite.
I do not know if animal control took the dog, or what happened to him that day. I grabbed screen shots of the posts with him from the rescue group's Facebook page when I got home that evening, but the next day they were gone. The day after this attack, all evidence of this dog had been removed from the rescue's Facebook page.
I have heard that this dog is still in foster care. If this is true, it deeply concerns me. This dog has demonstrated that he is capable of inflicting terrible damage. If there were not five people on him immediately, this attack could have easily been fatal. His bite in uninhibited. Bite inhibition is set at around 20 weeks of age, it is not something you can train into a dog later in life. The circumstances of a bite like this are irrelevant. While he was stressed and overstimulated, he was not being beaten or provoked. Nothing happened to him that wouldn't happen in a real-life situation. There is no amount of training or rehabilitation that will ever convince me that this dog is safe to live in my neighborhood, or yours. Also, living in a crate for 24 hours a day, and never being walked in public is not fair to the dog! It isn't his fault that he is dangerous, but the restrictions that would need to be put on him in order to keep the public safe would equate to a terrible quality of life. To be kept alive is cruel, and not "rescuing" him at all.
This is a wake up call for many rescue groups to take responsibility, educate themselves, and make better decisions with safety in mind... Or get out of the game.
Bully breed-specific rescues have an added responsibility to present and put up for adoption only the best of the best. This breed type has been a great family dog for generations, but now they are stigmatized. There are still millions of wonderful, friendly, gentle pit bulls and bully breed dogs. But they are not the ones we hear about.
They are not the ones pulled by so many rescue groups. Some rescues seek out the sad stories of poor breeding, abuse and neglect. They spend thousands of donated dollars to send these broken dogs to a "trainer" with no formal education or recognized credentials for "rehabilitation." WHY?! The rehab almost exclusively involves "training" with pain, force and intimidation to suppress all of the warning signals, so the dog no longer "looks aggressive." Or, the rescue group may try and do the training themselves, with no education about behavior or learning at all.
Let me pause here and state that there are many responsible rescue groups who do educate themselves, utilize educated trainers and credentialed behavior experts, and do not place dogs with known aggression issues. I am sure I would leave so many out if I were to name only the ones I have experience with. I just want to make a point to mention there are people doing it right, and some of the things I mention as a sort of "best practices" list are from their models.
A responsible rescue evaluates dogs with some formal assessment tool. This doesn't need to be the only and final say, but there should be some degree of testing to measure for sociability and aggressive responses to everyday stimuli at the very least.
A responsible rescue only takes in the best dogs, who score high on sociability toward people, and do not show overt signs of anxiety, fear, or aggression.
A responsible rescue works with formally educated and credentialed trainers and behavior consultants to ensure the mental health needs of their dogs are met with current, scienced-based, dog-friendly training methods. They do not send dogs away to boot camp, and they do not train their own dogs with coercion, intimidation, choke/prong/shock collars.
I'm sick of hearing that this is just my opinion. The top trainers and highest credentialed Behaviorists, behavior consultants and veterinary behavior colleges in the world and their respective professional associations have issued position statements about the potential risks of using pain, force and intimidation in training. A responsible rescue does their homework. A self-educated trainer with a differing opinion does not become a valid expert just because he says he is one. And being popular, or the host of a TV show does not make one qualified either.
A responsible rescue learns how to read stress in dogs, and makes every effort to reduce that stress when it is observed. They do not bring a stressed or sensitive dog to a busy adoption event. If one of their dogs at an event becomes stressed, they remove him. Otherwise, it sets him up for failure.
A responsible pit bull type rescue only adopts out the best, cream of the crop, ambassadors of the breed-type. There are so many outstanding and social bully dogs! If a dog shows concerning behaviors while in their care, they need to make difficult decisions. This may mean keeping a dog in their rescue for life (which is okay if a foster is willing - but maybe not okay if they're living in a concrete kennel or a crate), or it may mean considering euthanasia. This will certainly ruffle feathers, but it's too important to sugar coat. Rehabilitation can happen in a willing home with a committed and bonded family, not in rescue. If there is a serious bite, the dog should be euthanized. Rescue groups need to consider quality of life of the dog, and they need to consider how putting a dog into the public limelight with reactive, predatory, anti-social, or aggressive behavior will reflect on the breed perception as a whole. We are swimming upstream with the public! Otherwise intelligent human beings are afraid of an entire race of dog. Every time a dog is "rehabbed" (warning signals are suppressed), and brought out into public, we are risking another horrific story that fuels that fear. It may sound cold, but I love this breed too much to keep seeing this happen! If there is questionable behavior, if there are any red flags, and there is not a willing foster to keep the dog, then let them die with dignity. There are fates worse than death.
This should go without saying, but a responsible rescue always discloses any behavior (or health) history to potential adopters. They will not be able to keep the dog safe if they don't know what has happened in the past.
A responsible rescue will do a home-visit and check references. They will focus on matching each dog with a family they will fit into. Rescue groups need not be so rigid in their policies that they exclude good, loving, stable homes because of silly things like fencing or income. Each dog will have their own needs, and so will each adopter. Policies need to be flexible sometimes.
A responsible rescue will always take a dog back, without malice or blame, if it doesn't work out for any reason. Sometimes it just isn't meant to be and this isn't always, or even often, the adopters fault. If a family cannot manage a dog, guilting them into keeping that dog is not fair to the family, and it's certainly not fair to the dog.
I think the attack that I witnessed was preventable, and yet it was inevitable. Some rescue groups need to think more with their heads, instead of their oversized hearts. They need to educate themselves and work with qualified professionals, not the "miracle workers" who create time bombs by punishing away all of the dog's communication (for a high price). They need to be open-minded and honest with themselves about the fact that they (like ALL of us) sometimes let their heart cloud their judgement and make mistakes. They need to take responsibility and learn from their mistakes.
To any rescue group out there who doesn't know where to start, who wants to evaluate their procedures, I am begging you to reach out for help. It is not my intention to discourage you. You won't like some of what is suggested. It will be hard to hear, but the intention is to educate and make your rescue the best it can be. Growth is not an easy process. There are tons of qualified professionals who would be thrilled to help set up some "best practices" to help prevent tragedies like this from occurring. Please contact myself, or Dog Star Daily, or one or more of the professional associations for dog trainers or behavior professionals.