Why dogs need rescue

Sometimes the best intentions aren't enough



Nine-year-old Sheltie needs new home without children. . . .”

“German Shepherd mix needs new home without other pets. . . .”

“Two Cocker Spaniels available; owner moved into nursing home. . . .”

“Kentucky shelter has two Redbone Hounds that will be euthanized Friday if they are not picked up. . . .”

“Ohio Shelter is looking for rescue group to foster two adult American Eskimo dogs and five puppies that were impounded in a cruelty case. . . .”

Newspapers carry the ads and Internet e-mail rescue lists pass the word from state to state across the country. Basset Hounds, Beagles, Akitas, Weimaraners, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Dobermans, Cockers, Labrador Retrievers – these breeds and mixes and more find their way into the homes and hearts of people who devote their lives to saving dogs.

The reaction of many shelter workers, rescuers, and potential adopters is to look at these dogs as victims of neglect, abuse, laziness, or other human failures of character and integrity, but it isn’t necessarily so. Many dogs lose their homes for reasons beyond the control of their owners, and many more are surrendered out of ignorance about or despair over their pet’s behavior.

The spectacularly outrageous reasons for surrender stick in the mind: He doesn’t match the new furniture; she keeps having puppies; he’s too big; she’s not a good watchdog; he’s too old to be fun any more; and the kids went to college and we want to travel without being bothered by finding a kennel for the dog are enough to try the patience of anyone who cares about dogs. But there are other reasons – reasons that reveal the pain of giving up a beloved pet and anguish over the failure to build a bond with a pet that just isn’t working out – reasons that provide opportunities to help the owners as well as the dogs.

Lifestyle changes

It would be wonderful if dogs could live out their lives in a single home, but alas, ‘tis not always possible. People get sick, get divorced, lose their jobs, get transferred to foreign countries, face financial hardships, and get overwhelmed by life’s circumstances, and sometimes such unforeseen travails result in a need for Fido to find a new home. Most people do not want to surrender a pet to shelters that kill dogs when they get crowded, and no-kill shelters are usually full, so rescue gets the call.

Adding a child to the family often results in displacing the dog, especially if it is a large or energetic breed or mix. New parents often flinch at the prospect of dealing with a young, rambunctious dog that has no manners. They don’t want to “get rid of” the dog, but they see no other alternative, so rescue gets the call.

Sometimes families move from homes to apartments or from a large home to a small one. Many apartments do not accept dogs, and those that do often limit tenants to dogs that weigh less than 20 or 30 pounds. Many small homes will not accommodate all of the dogs owned by a family, so the third or fourth pet might need a new home. If the family is unsuccessful at finding someone to adopt their pet, rescue may get the call.


Many rescue groups have good working relationships with shelters and are notified whenever a dog of a particular breed comes in as an owner-surrender or a stray. Some shelters charge an adoption fee to the rescue, but others are just pleased to get the dog into a situation where it is likely to be kept until a new home is found. Some shelters, however, only call rescue groups when a dog is old, sick, crippled, aggressive, or placed on death row because space is limited.

Some shelters contract with local governments to take in stray dogs, and if these dogs are not reclaimed within a specified period of time, they may be offered to a rescue group.

Shelters that double as county or city humane agencies sometimes receive animals that have been neglected or abused. These dogs generally remain in isolation at the shelter and are cared for until the case is resolved. In rare cases, when the number of dogs impounded in a cruelty case is higher than the shelter can accommodate, rescues may get these dogs to foster for the duration of the legal proceedings. Depending on the disposition of the case, the dogs may then be offered for adoption by the rescue group.

Great expectations dashed

Many adolescent dogs are surrendered to rescues and shelters because people made poor choices of either a breed or a puppy source. The dog may be more energetic than expected, may need more grooming, exhibit unacceptable behaviors such as jumping, barking, nipping, chewing, or strain the budget to provide food and veterinary care and replace damaged furniture, shoes, and other objects.

Some of these dogs would remain in their homes if owners attended basic obedience classes and availed themselves of information about general dog behavior and breed characteristics. Dogs that learn to sit, lie down, come, stand on command, walk nicely on a leash, and understand their place in the family pack hierarchy are dogs more likely to remain in their homes.

Unlike shelters that simply accept dogs that people bring in, rescue workers often try to help people resolve their dilemmas so they can keep the dog. There isn’t much anyone can do to help people keep their dogs when lifestyle changes force difficult decisions, but if the dog is merely badly behaved and the owner is desperately searching for a way to end his frustration, rescuers can often offer a sympathetic ear and some training hints that contribute to mending or establishing the all-important human-animal bond.

Rescue dog temperament

By nature, dogs have submissive or conciliatory postures that enable them to survive in a pack hierarchy. Some dogs also have dominant behaviors, but it is the tendency to show deference that often leads people to believe that the dog was abused in a previous life. However, most dogs surrendered by families that have fallen on hard times are simply submissive dogs or are cowed by the change in their own circumstances. These dogs generally do quite well once their situation stabilizes, but the body language – ears back, tails tucked between legs, shrinking away from human reach, hiding behind furniture, etc. – adds to the myth that most or all dogs in rescue have been beaten or worse.

The bottom line is that people who acquire dogs as pets are like people everywhere – they make mistakes, are careless, have unrealistic hopes and dreams, and at times are overwhelmed by life. When dogs get caught in the crossfire, rescues are there to help the dogs – not to blame or accuse or denigrate the people, but to help the dogs.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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