Who Killed These Dogs?

A picture and the subsequent conversation on Facebook has compelled me to write this blog post.  The conversation is about a picture making the internet rounds.  It is a picture of four dead dogs lying on the floor of a shelter truck.  At the top right of the picture are the words, "If you breed or buy, you are responsible for this."

I cannot express how offended I feel about this message.  I also feel embarrassed because not long ago I was on the "Don't breed or buy while shelter animals die," bandwagon.  Why?  Because it's easy to blame breeders and non-shelter-adopting dog owners for the problem of pet homelessness and euthanasia.  It's easy to imagine that pet homelessness would be solved if there were simply more homes for pets.  It isn't true, but it's easy.  Just as easy as it to pretend that human homelessness is about not having a home.

The victim in this kind of campaign is the innocent, perhaps ignorant, average person who loves dogs.  The person who has done nothing wrong but is suddenly saddled with the challenge of solving a problem that they didn't cause, don't understand and really cannot fix.

The relinquishment of pets has several causes, but none of them are a mystery.  First and foremost is the failure of dog owners to educate themselves BEFORE they get a puppy (ring any bells?).  If potential dog owners would do this one thing it would literally wipe out all of the other causes of pet homelessness as we know it and save thousands of lives.  It is seriously, truly, honestly that simple.

If this happened the puppy mills would go out of business quickly because the now savvy, educated market would no longer be interested in their product.  If this happened veterinarians who suggested keeping puppies at home until they are 16 weeks of age would go out of business for giving out-dated advice.  If this happened even those dogs who might become homeless would be quickly snatched up because they would be house trained, well-mannered, friendly and have good bite inhibition.  If this happened dog trainers would be busier than they’ve ever been conducting puppy classes and teaching students how to participate in all the sports and activities they wanted to do with their friendly, well-behaved dogs.

But this isn’t happening.  So those of us working in rescue are faced with a constant barrage of untrained, ill-mannered and sometimes downright dangerous dogs who are unwanted and unadoptable.  We know they didn’t start out this way and we know they didn’t have to end this way.  On a daily basis we are faced with punishing the innocent dog with death while the guilty parties who created this mess walk away.  We can’t help but think that someone, besides this dog, must pay.

We think, and rightly so, that it is unfair that this dog was created only to be destroyed by no fault of his own.  We blame the breeder.  It’s not a wrongful placing of blame.  That is until we stretch it out to include all breeders.  We lump them all together.  The professional breeder, the backyard breeder, the accidental breeder, the puppy mills and the pet stores that sell their wares.  Once that group is rounded up we can put all the people who buy from them in one category, too.  All the same, all to blame.

With each newly relinquished, returned or euthanized dog our anger and resentment grows.  We start to resent dog owners in general and tell ourselves that this whole problem exists because people are just stupid.  They don’t know what they’re doing.  They don’t care.  They cannot be trusted.  They are not like us. It is us against them, except that they are the only ones who can save us.  Now there's a recipe for resentment.

And this is when our rescue minds really bend the wrong way.  Faced with yet another dog who will probably die due to circumstances beyond his control we decide to twist, mangle and distort reality.  We decide that since we can’t see a way to educate the public, we will find a way to throw their mistakes back at them.  The dog is the victim here, so we advocate for him.  The more damaged he is, the harder we fight for him.  We sugar-coat his behavioral problems and minimize the danger.  We prey on the emotions of the public, sell them a bill of goods and convince ourselves that if anything bad happens it is because people are so stupid.  After all, there are no bad dogs, just bad owners, right?

So here we are.  We’re angry, hurt, helpless and have resorted to less than honest tactics in order to save every dog we can.  We hate the public for causing this mess and we’re posting pictures of dead dogs on Facebook to let them know just how angry we are.

Meanwhile, a dog-loving person who knows nothing about any of this walks into the shelter…what now?

How about some honesty?  Here’s what I want the dog owning public to know.

If you are at the shelter to drop off your untrained, ill-mannered, people biting, dog aggressive dog because you can’t or don’t want to deal with him anymore, I want you to know that you are responsible for what your dog is now and everything that happens to him from here on out.  I am saying that as a matter of fact, not as an accusation.

Ignorance does not relieve you of responsibility.  We do not hold people unaccountable if they shake a baby simply because they claim they didn’t know it would cause damage or death.  It is your responsibility to know these things.   

At some point we have to stop allowing people off the hook for not knowing that keeping their puppy inside for four months could cause serious behavioral problems.  Dog owners who are surprised that their dog grew bigger and failed to train himself must be held accountable for not preparing themselves.  

If you're going to get a dog it is your responsibility to know how to care for it and to call on professionals when you need help. If you find that you didn't prepare properly and therefore things are turning out badly, you shouldn't be allowed to dump your mistakes on the community, shrug your shoulders and say, "Well, I didn't know."  

If you are at the shelter looking to adopt a dog, I want you to know that you are not responsible for the fearful, reactive, hard to deal with but heartbreaking dog who is up for adoption. If that dog ends up being euthanized it is not on your hands.  Nor is it on the hands of the shelter that euthanized it.  It is the original owner, whoever they acquired the dog from that is responsible for where that dog is now.  

If you adopt an aggressive, fearful or otherwise damaged dog without understanding what that means for your future as a dog owner, you have been duped by the rescue/shelter because you walked in there uneducated and not knowing what you wanted.  No different than what happens every day on used car lots. Buyer beware and be educated!  Many people have a mechanic look over a car before they buy it.  More people should have a trainer look over dog before they adopt it.

Speaking of which, let’s not leave the training profession out of all of this.  We are also guilty of placing blame on the average pet dog owners.  We complain about their lack of education without remembering that it is our job to educate them.  We concern ourselves more with dog friendliness than with people friendliness while lamenting the fact that owners don’t seek us out.

If you are a trainer who is so focused on animals that you haven't bothered to develop fantastic communication skills with people, because after all you don't really like people that much anyway and you believe that dogs are suffering because people are just stupid and don't want to learn, then you have a hand in all this.  

EVERY person who comes to a trainer is an opportunity to save dogs' lives.  The macho jerk who thinks it's stupid to give the dog a treat for peeing outside is your opportunity to make a difference.   He is going to tell all of his macho jerk friends about it.  The woman who is taking advice from both you and the neighborhood pseudo-trainer is an opportunity to make a difference.  Show them both why your information is better.  

And every person you see or talk to who either has a puppy or knows someone who has a puppy is literally a dying body in front of you waiting for CPR.  If you don't know how to use your charm, wit and expertise to chat up those people and make them want to listen to you then you have more dog trainer training to do!  The dog training profession is absolutely, positively a people business.

And when we see propaganda like the picture that started this thread, we have an obligation to every one of those dogs who have died to speak up and tell the truth.  It was hard for me.  Not here, but elsewhere.  I felt like a bitch stirring up trouble.  But you know what?  Tomorrow I go back to work at the shelter and dogs will be dropped off by uneducated owners, dogs will die, dogs will be adopted, dogs will be assessed, and dogs will be trained.  The people who landed those dogs in a shelter will not feel responsible, while the people who didn't will cry.  

Am I angry?  You bet.  Do I think the anger is justified?  Absolutely.  But if we want solutions we have to channel that anger and attack the problem where it will make a difference.  I love it when a great dog finds a great home, but I’m not naïve enough to believe that an adoption, or even a thousand adoptions, is going to stop dogs from dying.  Puppy classes will.  Educating kids will.  Educating the puppy buying market will.  Pictures of dead dogs won’t.