Once upon a time there was a dog named Bobo. Bobo was born to a Lab mix in a lush Miami backyard and by the time he was six weeks old he had been deemed "the cutest pup" by a neighbor’s kids and was taken away from his brothers and sisters to live in another home — which also had a lush backyard. What a lucky pup!
But, as with many other cautionary tales I have told in this space, this one has a sad ending.
Bobo began as a model puppy; which means he pee-peed and poo-pooed on the nice rugs and chewed up socks and tennis shoes and (heavens! the final straw!) even Mommy’s Jimmy Choos! So Bobo was sent outside to live in the lush backyard with the pool and lots of fancy, plastic designer furniture that he liked to chew when no one was around — which was almost always. When the kids did take the time to occasionally play with him he got too rough. They bopped him on the head whenever he did this, but he wouldn’t stop and so they left him alone.
Then one day a friend of the kids came over and played in the yard with Bobo. Bobo got a little rough and bit him. Then Dad discovered the expensive furniture chewing habit Bobo had acquired. Next thing he knew, Bobo was in the back of a Range Rover on his way to Animal Control. The kids cried for thirty minutes until they were contented by a trip to the mall and new Nintendo Gameboys for each.
So it was that Bobo, almost full-grown but rambunctious, non-housebroken, head-shy and fear-aggressive, especially around children, went to live in a three-by-four cell in a noisy concrete block building.
Bobo didn’t even get a chance to catch distemper, parvo, or any of the other diseases he hadn’t been vaccinated against. He was euthanized after he was deemed unadoptable — both for his history of biting children as well as for his fractious behavior.
This is a true story.
This is how it happens in most shelters around the country. Bobo's story is the norm in every way with one exception: aggression is not always part of the picture. When it’s not, dogs will get a chance to strut their untrained stuff in front of every potential adopter. Housebreaking status, history of destructive behavior, and fear of simple things like leashes are not always apparent to prospective owners. The overwhelmed staff often wants only to see every dog adopted regardless of their suitability to their new homes. The intentions are honorable; everyone hates to see the dogs euthanized.
Most of these dogs are eventually returned by the frustrated owners and ultimately face the death penalty, nonetheless.
For the few of us willing to adopt adult dogs or older puppies, behavior is by far the biggest challenge. Although the dog-educated among us know the warning signs of complete unsuitability, most adopters are oblivious to anything beyond their children’s entreaties.
As a vet, part of my job is to immediately identify new adopters when they come in for their first visit and to connect these individuals with a network of dog people in a training environment that is appropriate for their schedule, financial status and personality. I know that if I don’t point out particular behavior issues and tell them exactly what they must do to solve them — down to the phone number, address, costs and class schedules — I’ll never see that dog again.
You may think that it's not my place to do this, but if not me, then who?
I see euthanasia as the biggest health risk facing these dogs. And if their behavior is the cause, then it is surely in my purview to prevent that through any method I can. If that means that I must recommend specific trainers, groups, or even drugs (God forbid!), thereby offending some in the training community, then so be it.
Shelter medicine is actually an emerging discipline in vet schools. New programs at UC Davis and U Penn, among others, have been established with the express goal of improving the health and well being of shelter animals. Ultimately, that goal can be translated to mean reducing the total number of euthanasias performed, as shelter facility euthanasia is by far the biggest killer of pets in this country.
Enlightened, well-managed and more financially able shelter establishments have become increasingly aware that even something as simple as leash training is enough to reduce the rate of shelter returns. I worked for a time with an organization that served to train shelter volunteers in the training of potential adoptees.
The results at the one facility I observed were predictable: the shelter’s return rate dropped, adoptions were up, and the length of each dog’s stay was cut almost in half. Granted, this was a small, no-kill facility in an affluent neighborhood with willing volunteers aplenty. Nevertheless, programs like this demonstrate the fundamental importance of behavior in the adoption of shelter dogs. Often, simple socialization is all these dogs need to build loving ties with their new families.
The Bobos of this world will always be out there, but perhaps in some not too distant future not all will suffer the euthanasia solution. With widespread adoption of socialization and training programs, maybe our "Bobos" will just be the subjects of cautionary tales we tell to show how far we’ve come.
Dr. Patty Khuly