Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Free to a Random Home of Questionable Quality

I know some of the topics I'm covering lately are on the controversial side, but I do feel they need to be discussed rather than shied away from. These are my feelings and opinions, based on my own knowledge and experiences. However, if you have thoughts, ideas, or opinions that you would like to share, I always welcome your respectful comments. 

Over and over and over again, I come across people who ask questions such as:

"With all of the homeless, needy animals out there, why do shelters charge a fee?"   
"Why don't they just give the animals away to anyone who shows an interest in taking one home?
"Wouldn't giving the animals away be better than having to kill so many?"

The obvious answer is that it costs money to care for animals and run a shelter. Even funds provided by a city or county for an animal control type of operation have limits which are surpassed by the number and needs of animals that are actually surrendered by the community. In my county, those funds do not even cover veterinary expenses. Keep in mind that the shelter's adoption fees also cover the animal's spay/neuter surgery, rabies vaccine, micro chipping, and sometimes more. If you paid for these things at the vet's office you would end up spending a lot more than the amount of that adoption fee.

That said, the issue goes far beyond shelters or rescues having a lack of funds. What if money wasn't an issue and our shelters really could afford to give away animals for free? Can someone really provide a great home even if they can't afford the animal's adoption fee?

One thing that I know without a doubt (because I grew up in poverty and am nowhere near wealthy now) is that you don't have to be rich to love or care for an animal. I've had animals all of my life and I always found ways to raise the money necessary for things like food, toys, and even basic veterinary care. Sometimes this meant giving up birthday money, going out to mow lawns or selling some of my own property but I didn't see any other option. I knew the value of an adoption fee and that I was saving a lot of money by not having to pay the vet for spaying/neutering directly. Having witnessed puppies born in my neighborhood and suffering from parvo with my own two eyes, I knew that vaccinations were never going to be an option and so I planned for them accordingly. I learned at an early age that there is no such thing as a free pet. Taking on an animal immediately meant considering whether or not I had the cash on hand to, at the very least, get it to the vet for routine care. This is not to say that I was a perfect pet owner (in other ways I was pretty ignorant) but I can say with confidence that I always did everything I could to the best of my knowledge and ability. My priorities were likely organized very differently from those of the average kid, or even the average adult.

Our newest foster dog, Sugar.
She has hypothyroidism which
was left untreated until she ended
up at the shelter as a stray
that no one came looking for. 
My point is that being able to pay an adoption fee means that you (hopefully) have at least a little extra money to devote to the care of an additional pet and family member. It means that even under the worst possible scenario, you have a little money to give that animal what it needs. Think about it this way: What happens if your pet gets hit by a car or suddenly becomes ill? Can you, at the very least, afford to take the animal to the vet and get a prognosis? Do you have a standing relationship with a vet who would work with you on payment arrangements if you can't afford expensive surgery or treatments? (Do not expect this to happen often, especially if you're not a regular client. Vet clinics are ultimately businesses that have to make a profit in order to stay afloat; they can't afford to always go out of their way for people who may or may not end up paying for services). In a worst-case scenario, can you at least afford to have your vet quickly and humanely end that animal's suffering or is it going to linger and suffer in pain while you try to figure out how to come up with the necessary funds? Is "Plan B" going to be to leave your miserably sick or injured pet right back on the shelter's door step; the very place you thought you had rescued it from?

An adoption fee is really all about being able to afford very basic care. This doesn't even address the very common situation of finding out that your pet has allergies/sensitivities and does poorly on cheap, lower-quality dog food (as many dogs do).  If the free dog you were given spends most of its life hairless and bloody from terrible skin allergies (or parasites) is it really better off? What if it starts having seizures and you can't afford to have that treated? No one thinks these things are going to happen to their pet, but they happen every day! We, out of nowhere, spent a couple of hundred dollars at the emergency vet just a few months ago because Cricket was showing terrible symptoms of bloat (look it up, not a good thing and can easily be fatal). Do you really want to be a in a situation where you and your family have to sit around and basically watch a dog suffer and die because you don't have the extra money to help your pet?

What about the issue of training? If you're a regular reader of my blog, you've probably come to realize that good trainers are often hard to find, and a little direction from a professional can go a long way. When your puppy gets older and begins to relentlessly jump on your kids is it going to end up right back at the shelter? What if the neighbor who you took free training tips from causes you to put so much fear (they may refer to it as "respect") into your dog that it becomes aggressive and impossible to handle? A training class might turn out to be absolutely necessary for you and your dog but  trainers don't usually work for free. While I have volunteered a great deal of my time it has to be acknowledged that certifications and continued education are not cheap.

All of that said, I know firsthand how hard it is to see pictures of shelter animals that desperately need homes and those of us with big hearts immediately want to reach out and rescue them. Pet lovers have a nasty habit of becoming so emotional about the plight of an animal that we can forget there is a larger picture which absolutely must be looked at. Reality is that taking in a pet that you do not have the means to care for is not really going to help once that animal becomes ill, injured, or needs an expensive type of food. Reality is that there is no government program to provide food or medical care for animals (we have enough issues related to trying to find some balance in programs like this just for humans). And let's face it; even if we had endless monetary resources, we would run out of space. Too many people who can't afford (or are unwilling) to spay and neuter ensure that we have an endless supply of animals that will need care in the future. Giving them all away as they come into a shelter isn't going to solve the problem if people can't afford (or are unwilling) to keep them.

"Rudolph" urgently needed a place
to go. Thanks to a kind-hearted foster,
he got out of the shelter, into a warm
home, and then went on to
a great forever home!
Fortunately, aside from actually adopting a pet, there are other ways to help save a life. Many organizations will allow you to apply to be a foster home, where you take a needy animal home with you and care for it until a permanent home is found. Not only does this benefit the animal by getting it out of a shelter environment, but it can give you a much better idea about whether or not adding a pet on a permanent basis is really a good idea for you. When resources are available, and depending on the resources of the organization, there are even situations in which some or all of your foster pet's financial needs will be met by the rescue or shelter. This is an ideal situation for someone who wants to help animals but can't afford the upkeep.

Another way to help is simply by sharing information on adoptable animals with others, especially those animals located at shelters that have to euthanize for space. Our shelter recently avoided what could have been a tragic situation by doing just this! So many pets were surrendered just before Christmas that it seemed impossible to avoid having to put some to sleep in order to free up kennels. But thanks to the efforts of shelter staff, volunteers, and supporters, dozens of pets were instead adopted and no one had to lose their life.

Spread the word about spaying and neutering to prevent all of those "Free to a Good Home" puppies and kittens from ultimately ending up in the shelter when the cuteness wears off or the expense becomes too great. Forget about letting your dog have puppies to teach your children "the miracle of life." Why not teach them about the miracle that is saving a life by fostering or volunteering instead?

When it comes to doing right by our animals, we have to attain a careful balance between our head and our heart. The heart tends to call the shots impulsively, but it is just as important to remain realistic as it is to remain caring and compassionate. Ultimately, education is the answer. Imagine how many lives we could save if more people realized the damage caused by people who don't spay or neuter their pets (pure bred or not). How many lives would be saved if people didn't dive into pet ownership without considering the immense responsibility involved? Think about how those animals got to the shelter to begin with and we can really start to make an impact and solve the problem of having way more animals than we have suitable homes.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Ohana" Means Family.

How long did it take after you brought your dog home for her to act as if you hung the moon? Did she quickly start following you around, taking your lead? How long was it before she was seeking out warm spots near you to take her naps or just sit and observe her new world? She might have even “picked you” before you even decided that you were going to take her in! At some point you became her safety net and one of the people she trusts.

Dogs are domesticated creatures that have had thousands of years to become what they are today. They are so separated from wolves at this point that it is extremely unfair to compare the actions of the two. In fact, recent research has shown that even young puppies will naturally seek guidance from the face of a human being while a wolf will not. Dogs are not just reliant on people, they are so tuned into us that they might as well be an extension of us.

Dogs do not read us as they read other dogs. Dogs know how to read us as human beings! How amazing is that? They pick up on our human emotions, the tones in our voices, even our facial expressions and body language! They are so attuned to our feelings and actions that they can detect when something “isn't right” and alert us of a seizure or panic attack. They are able to be our guide dogs or emotional support animals. Dogs care about their people even more than they care about other dogs. Just watch two pooches fight over who gets to sit in “Mom's” lap and you'll see what I mean. You are already the leader of the pack, even if you have failed to expand on your ability to communicate through training. Even better than being leader, you are loved unconditionally. Because we've developed such an amazing relationship with this animal, you already have his adoration and respect. You don't have to get on all fours or roll your dog over on its back or growl or otherwise act like a crazy person to earn that respect. (However, if you're looking to confuse and scare your dog out of its wits that would be a good start.) Fido is very smart. Fido knows you're not a canine and so he's not going to read your actions the way he would if they were coming from another canine. 

Dogs aren't merely “pack animals” at this point. In fact, do the world (or at least your dog) a favor and throw that mentality out of the window. It incites far too many negative and incorrect thoughts or interactions. Dogs are family.

Whether or not you see things this way or treat your dog this way really doesn't matter. Your dog has considered you family from the start. You may have lost your attachment to him, but he will still wag his tail excitedly and thank everything holy (which is you, for all he's concerned) upon your return. Your new baby or new hobby might be more important to you but that isn't the case with him. You will always be the most important being in the world to your dog as long as he's a part of your life; sometimes long after you leave him with someone else.

There's a quote that I keep hearing and it almost literally drives me mad: “Before you have kids, your dog is your baby. After you have kids your dog is just a dog.”

If only I could find whoever thought they were clever when they made that statement for the very first time. I understand where it's coming from but here's a reality check: Before you had kids, your dog was family. After you had kids, your dog was just neglected and/or abandoned family. Unless, of course, you don't let that happen.

There are many ways to include your dog in the family and to keep his role as a family member in perspective. In fact, if you have kids, a dog, and a busy schedule, then the following points are absolutely vital to the balance of your entire household:

  • Family members don't live outside. Dogs only thrive when they can spend time with their human family. To banish a dog to the back yard is to ask for behavioral problems that are caused by lack of stimulation, anxiety, and boredom such as excessive barking, digging, or even territorial aggression (against strangers or dogs on the other side of the fence or the other end of his chain).
  • Family members are included in the fun. Sure, there are limits to what you can and can't do with your dog, but try to plan activities that include him such as trips to the park or games in the yard. If your dog is unruly and makes this difficult to do safely then consider that...
  • Family members sometimes need further education. I can't think of a better activity for a family with a dog to share than obedience classes. Most instructors will allow well-behaved children to join in. Personally, I encourage this. Everyone in the family needs to be on the same page when it comes to teaching your dog how to be well-mannered. This is also a fantastic way to bond with the four-legged member of your clan.
  • Family members must have rules and routine. Take what you learn in obedience class and apply it consistently at home so that your dog learns exactly how to behave appropriately. No one should be hitting or screaming at the dog in an attempt to train him. If the trainer you've consulted condones this type of behavior (or any that involves causing your dog pain, fear or discomfort) then you should look for another one immediately. Pure positive reinforcement results in a healthy, safe relationship with your dog and has the added benefit of teaching your children how to properly communicate with and respect animals. 
  • Family members aren't perfect. Go ahead and acknowledge that your dog is still going to make a mistake from time to time. Maybe your child's new toy looked deceptively like a dog toy and he mangled it or he had a little too much water to drink and had an accident on the floor. Yeah, it's a pain to clean up but he's family; it happens.  

I've noticed that even among self-proclaimed dog lovers there is a disturbing amount of leniency on this issue. People tend to worry so much about insulting another person or causing conflict that they make or accept excuses from others as to why the dog “has to go.” It's as if they forget that dogs have feelings... or maybe they just don't care enough? Maybe they don't realize how incredibly hurt and confused a dog becomes when you pass the leash to someone else and walk away? Maybe this is why I prefer dogs to people; when things get inconvenient they still want to be with me. They've never walked out. You can look into your dog's eyes and know in an instant that he's never even considered living without you as an option. 

One of my favorite quotes is from the Disney movie, Lilo and Stitch:

Ohana means family.

Family means nobody gets left behind...

or forgotten.”

This is a quote to live by. If you're one of those people who claims that your dog is a member of the family, then keep it in mind when you consider giving that family member away. Contact me (or another local trainer) if you need advice on behavioral issues or how to further involve your dog as a part of the family. I'm always open to help: terri@alessoninphysics.com

If you're not one of those people and find yourself seeing your dog as “just a dog,” then maybe it really would be best to find your dog a home with a family that will treat it with the love and respect it deserves. This is the least you can do for a creature who never once stopped doing this for you. And if it comes to this, please don't simply drop him off at a shelter. Take the time to find a loving home for him yourself. There are too many dogs already living on borrowed time in our animal shelters. Adding one more means another is pushed closer to death's door. I know that in my county our shelter staff do the best they can, but unfortunately there are a lot of people out there who have decided that their dog is not a true member of the family.