Saving Ollie - Part 3 in a series about a shelter dog with severe beahvior problems

Click to read Part 1
Ollie’s aggression posed a threat to the volunteers and staff at the Animal Adoption Foundation’s shelter facility. They accepted that risk in hopes of improving Ollie’s aggressive behavior, however, and the gamble paid off. Next they had to consider the risks of having a dog like Ollie in their adoption program.

Placing an aggressive dog involves risks to the adopting family, the general public, the dog, and the shelter. The dog might bite someone in his new family. He might bite a stranger. If his behavior declines and the adopters return him to the shelter, it may be harder to improve his behavior the second time. It can also hurt the shelter’s reputation, and (although I’ve never heard of a case) possibly even expose the organization to legal liability.

I was concerned about more than Ollie’s aggression when he came back to AAF. A human tragedy, whose details I won’t go into, had originally brought Ollie to the shelter. The event itself undoubtedly traumatized him, and then he was left for days alone in a garage without food or water. He came to AAF 40 pounds underweight and in terrible shape. My experience suggested that this tragic history might actually increase the likelihood of an inappropriate adoption.

Shelters often publicize dramatic stories like Ollie’s. The publicity highlights the wonderful work they do, and often brings in hundreds of inquiries about adopting the dog. These calls lead to donations and occasionally (although far less often than you might expect) to the adoption of other dogs from the shelter. Unfortunately, publicity seldom seems to bring out qualified adopters for seriously troubled dogs.

Stories of dogs that have suffered at human hands strike a chord deep within many of us. Hearing about animal cruelty or neglect can provoke a visceral, almost irresistible desire to do something to protect the dog and right the wrong done to him. This compulsion can strike almost anyone. I’ve spoken with several people who had never owned dogs before, and who were as surprised as I was by their sudden need to rescue a dog whose terrible story they saw on television or read about in the newspaper.

This noble desire to do something can lead to impulsive decisions. Well-meaning people with no relevant experience often become convinced that they can handle a dog with serious behavior problems. Their earnestness convinces shelter workers – even the toughest of whom can be influenced by their own longing to see happy endings to the saddest stories – that they can provide the right home. Unfortunately, most cannot, and the dogs usually come back to the shelter within weeks.

I have seen this situation play out over and over again. Heartbroken embarrassed families return to the shelter with dogs whose behavior has usually deteriorated. The dogs – having failed their chance at adoption – are often euthanized. A heroic determination to redeem the lives of dogs that have suffered horribly, a lack of knowledge about animal behavior, and an opportunity for good publicity lead shelter staff to make decisions that ultimately hurt everyone involved.
I worried about witnessing this familiar chain of events again with Ollie. In addition to his dramatic story, Ollie generates plenty of interest without the aid of a PR campaign. AAF is located on a busy highway and many passersby have stopped to inquire about the strikingly handsome Harlequin Great Dane they couldn’t help but notice in his outdoor run as they drove by. Most lose interest when they hear about Ollie’s behavioral issues, but not everyone does.

“I’ve had Great Danes all my life. I can handle him,” some tell us. “I’ve trained plenty of dogs. He just needs a good leader,” is another common reaction to hearing about aggression. Then there’s my personal favorite, “we want a guard dog anyway.” All these comments make me cringe. Anyone who takes on a dog like Ollie needs to understand the risk and work necessary to keep him safely confined, stable, and happy. Sadly, people who understand the challenge of owning such a dog seldom want to adopt one.

AAF, to their credit, didn’t need my advice on this subject. They understood that Ollie’s new home needed to be carefully selected. They rejected anyone who failed to recognize the severity of Ollie’s issues, made training sessions with me a requirement for adopting him, and have had me interview serious potential adopters. My only input to these decisions was to insist that the adopters, rather than the shelter, pay for at least a portion of the mandatory training sessions. This wasn’t a mercenary decision, but rather a way for adopters to demonstrate their commitment to and understanding of the effort required to own a dog like Ollie.

Ollie is still waiting for the right person to adopt him. He’s been back at the shelter for over 18 months. I prefer seeing Ollie stay in the shelter to seeing him placed in the wrong home. One problem, though, is that I’m not sure what kind of home would best meet Ollie’s needs. I’ll explore that question in my next post.

Click to read Part 1, Part 2

Part IV