Regular readers of this blog may have caught on to the fact that I am a Christmas maniac. It should come as no surprise that I’m already humming songs from my favorite Christmas shows, one of which is the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
I admit, the “Island of Misfit Toys” always gets to me. For those of you not in the know, the “Island of Misfit Toys” is a place where unwanted toys go, toys that have something odd/unlovable/different about them (like a Charlie in the Box!).
Sometimes, I feel like people think I am like King Moonracer, the winged lion ruler of The Island of Misfit Toys. I get emails and phone calls from people that assume I have a substantial waiting list of applicants who are absolutely dying to find a dog with severe behavioral problems. “Casey, do you know of anyone who is looking for a dog that has killed twelve chickens, four cats, bitten twelve people forty seven different times, has severe clinical separation anxiety, pulls on the leash, defecates on the pillow, and chases cars?”
Sadly, I don’t. The chances of me finding a home that wants such a dog and has the ability to rehabilitate him are slim to none. This dog should probably only be placed with a trainer or an exceptionally behaviorally-savvy owner. The trouble is, most of the people I know fitting in both categories have already met their doggy quota.
I remember when I first recognized the full extent of Monte’s reactivity and the corresponding potential for danger if he was not a) well-trained and b) well-managed. I was overwhelmed and over my head. I remember thinking to myself, “this is not what I signed up for.” Nobody at the rescue had told me about the full severity and extent of his behavior problems. I don’t blame them for this, he wasn’t at the rescue very long and they did not have someone on staff knowledgeable enough about behavior to do accurate assessments.
I remember thinking, “maybe we should take this dog back to the rescue.” This thought was inevitably followed by the thought that if I didn’t want to invest the time rehabilitating this dog, who would? I mean, I’m not the type of pet owner to shirk responsibility but I realized that this dog would require a substantial investment of time to even approximate a life of doggy normalcy (or should I say, abnormalcy)?
Truly, Monte was the type of dog that should only live with someone that a) is a trainer or b) wants to work as much as if they were. I actually chose to become a trainer because I figured, if I was going to have to learn this much about dog behavior to live with this dog, perhaps I should learn enough where I could help someone benefit from my experience. Monte was a “project dog” as opposed to a “pet dog.” True, he was a great friend and companion but he was also a full time job and I could never, for one second, let my guard down without risking endangering my dog, myself, or other people and dogs in my community.
While I admit that I love all my dogs equally yet differently, I’ve never learned as much from a single dog as I did from Monte. I miss him now deeply and ache when I think of the hole he’s left in my heart. At the same time, I’m honest. I know that another household might have been a death sentence for Monte. Would I judge this family? Do I think a reactive Saint Bernard is the dog for everyone? Absolutely not. Is every family capable of or prepared for the commitment of successfully owning and training a dog with severe behavior problems? I don’t think so.
These kind of dogs are project dogs. They need a very special home if they are to find forever homes where they will be able to reach their true potential. Sending a dog like Monte home with a first time dog owning family with three other dogs and four kids would have been an absolute disaster. He would have been a significant danger to everyone involved, including himself. This family would not have enjoyed life with Monte, and Monte would not have enjoyed life with this family.
Trainer Sue Alexander, of Dogs in the Park in Guelph, Ontario, had a beautiful blog recently called The Left Side of the Dog. This blog really hit home for me in a number of ways. When Sue said “imagine you see the most beautiful dog in the world,” that’s how I felt when I first saw Monte. When she talks about viewing “the left side of the dog,” in abject horror, that’s how I felt when I found out about his behavior problems and what we were in store for in terms of rehabilitation.
It’s easy to guilt trip owners for choosing to relinquish their dogs, safe on a pedestal. The fact is that some dogs should not be placed with your average dog owner who just wants a happy, playful pet. Living with a dog like Monte was, for some time, literally like living with a loaded gun – in the hands of someone ill-equipped for the amount of responsibility, it could have been a disaster. Adopting a dog like him into a family that is looking for a stereotypical “dog experience” is like giving a hand gun to a three year old, squeezing your eyes shut, and hoping it works out for the best.
The people that choose not to live with these dogs are not bad people, they’re likely very good people that love dogs a great deal and find themselves in over their heads.
There are exceptions to this rule, and there are certainly many dog owners that have no business owning dogs – people that change dogs as casually as they change a pair of pants, craigslisting a dog at the first sign of minor behavior problems only to rush out and get another dog that they won’t train and eventually rehome. But for many families, rehoming a dog is one of the hardest decisions they’ll ever make and one that is already fraught with guilt, sadness, and frustration.
There’s a big difference between “getting rid of a dog” that counter surfs when a baby gate, training an incompatible behavior, or keeping your counters cleaned could solve the problem, and making a tough decision regarding your ability to live safely with a dog that is a danger to himself, your family, or two and four-legged members of your community. Most families are not equipped for the latter and should not be judged or blamed for this incompatibility. Many of these dogs are salvageable, but may require more work than a family is willing or able to put into a dog. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, it just is.
As dog lovers, we want to save dogs intuitively. We are drawn to the fearful dog, cowering in the corner, our sympathy forcing us to pass by the friendly, bouncy dog that just needs a little help on sits and downs to be a great companion. We want to rescue the dregs of doggy society, without realizing the commitment involved to help this dog not only survive, but thrive and live happily in his environment.
Special needs dogs require special abilities owners.
Are some dogs unadoptable? This is a really hard question, especially for me, the human equivalent of King Moonracer, that really wishes with all my heart that the answer were no. There are many things that I hope to see in the future, collaborations between trainers and rescue/shelter operations, which can substantially reduce the number of unhomeable dogs.
But the sad fact remains that adopting dogs with significant behavioral problems into unsuspecting pet homes does dogs and their handlers no favors and exposes both to the potential for significant emotional and/or physical damage.