Another tragic fatal dog attack has occurred this week. The breed of dog is irrelevant in the long list of factors involved in this case.
The basic order of events are:
Dog bites child in previous home, leaving multiple wounds.
Dog lands in shelter
Rescue group that claims to "rehabilitate" dogs with severe aggression problems pulls the dog from the shelter
Dog undergoes three months of "rehabilitation" at rescue using aversive methods, including the shock collar he was wearing when adopted
Rescue group adopts dog to a woman who lives with her 91 year-old mother
Dog attacks elderly mother within hours after adoption
Victim dies after undergoing surgery
(Note: this post was originally written shortly after the attack. Additional details may have emerged since that time - anything significant will be added at the end of this post)
The rescue's website has a statement expressing their condolences to the family, claiming that none of them "could have predicted this horrible event."
Except that they could have.
While no one can predict dog behavior with 100% accuracy, past behavior is our best predictor of future behavior. If a dog's choice when startled, scared, or hurt is to bite with enough force to cause injury, then the next time they are startled, scared, or hurt, you can pretty much predict that the next bite will probably cause injury.
Now, a bite is not the same as a fatal attack. I do believe that the rescue, given the repeated use of reality show language on their website, lacked a fundamental knowledge of behavior necessary to see the warning signs of such an attack. However, they DID have prior knowledge that the dog had previously injured a child.
In addition, they ignored three significant indications that this might happen:
The reality show from where they seem to get most of their information about behavior has multiple warnings not to try the methods without a professional. Other than running a rescue for 8 years, there is no indication that anyone there was a professional qualified to work with cases like this.
You can't live in the world of dogs and not encounter debates about training methods. So, it is highly unlikely that they never encountered any warnings about the use of aversive methods for aggressive behavior.
Many shock collar manufacturers now have warnings not to use these tools on dogs with aggressive behavior. One such warning:
"WARNING. Not for use with aggressive dogs. Do not use this product if your dog is aggressive, or if your dog is prone to aggressive behavior. Aggressive dogs can cause severe injury and even death to their owner and others."
So, there are at least three warnings that were ignored, in addition to the knowledge of the dog's past behavior.
They absolutely could have seen this coming. Maybe not to this degree, but that the dog could harm someone, and still they chose to place the dog in a home with an elderly woman.
In the end, the dog STILL dies in the shelter.
But now a woman has been mauled to death and her daughter watched it happen, unable to stop it, even after hitting the dog with a hammer.
How many people will adopt dogs from this rescue now?
How many friends/family of the victim will adopt their next dog from any rescue?
How many dogs of the same breed will be passed over in shelters and rescues because of this incident?
If they are charged with criminal negligence (and I think they should be), how many dogs will they save then?
If they are shut down, what will happen to the 20-30 dogs that live at their facility?
BAD RESCUE HURTS DOGS
Sadly, this incident isn't as isolated as it seems. There has been a surge in similar rescue groups...with similar results. Dogs placed that are killing other animals in the home, biting owners and their family members, etc., all shortly after adoption.
Good, responsible rescues work very hard to ensure that the dogs they place live a good quality of life, while still protecting public safety. I'm happy to work with many responsible rescues and will continue to support them any way I can.
Aggression can almost always be managed and modified so that the dog can live a good quality of life without being a risk to the public or their family. But this requires a home in which all family members are both willing and able to implement changes. It also requires that the family is willing and able to practice management and training for however long it takes, even if it means they will have to do it at some level for the life of the dog.
When a dog is homeless, either in a shelter or rescue, finding that family is going to be very difficult. And if that family is unprepared for the realities of living with a difficult or dangerous dog, or ignores instructions and takes the dog to a dog park or a park full of children, there is a higher risk of tragedy.
No one wants to see dogs die in shelters for behaviors caused by neglect, abuse, or any of the other ways humans fail dogs. Not me. Not my colleagues. Not the shelter workers who frequently go above and beyond to save dogs.
But, every time an IRRESPONSIBLE rescue pulls a dog with a known history of aggression and places that dog in a home, they are hurting dogs everywhere.
Working with the families who live with difficult and dangerous dogs, I know that they can make the most amazing pets. I lived with and deeply loved a very dangerous dog of my own.
Difficult and dangerous dogs take a toll on good adopters. Committed owners often structure their lives around them, living more isolated lives. I've seen it affect relationships, with the restrictive life taking a toll on marriages and friendships. Imagine if you suddenly couldn't enjoy many of your favorite activities like hiking, camping, or hosting dinner parties because the dog you adopted won't tolerate anyone but you. It happens more often than you might think.
Too often, the dog's fate is the same. Euthanasia for the behavior problem. It just happens months or years after adoption, and after breaking the heart of a dog lover who tried to do the right thing by adopting a rescue dog.
And when the dog is gone, too many people choose to get their next dog from a breeder. Rescues not only lose that adopter, but the adopter's friends and family, as well, who watched their struggle and eventual heartbreak.
One of my biggest fears is that an incident like this is going to catch the attention of a lawmaker looking for a cause (and re-election). And when legislation is written that dictates what dogs can be adopted and what dogs can't, the number of dogs euthanized in shelters is going to skyrocket.
And so, in addition to this tragic incident, this rescue - and countless others like them - are jeopardizing shelter and rescue dogs everywhere.
No one wants to see dogs die in shelters.
There are plenty of times that the stress of the shelter environment causes dogs to exhibit aggressive behavior that doesn't appear in the home. The shelter has to take these behaviors seriously. They can't just take a risk that it won't be a problem once the dog is adopted. But many shelters also know that the dog may have a better chance in a foster home and reach out to rescue groups who might be willing to try.
If a rescue has the space and resources available to put that dog in a foster home for further evaluation and training, I fully support that. It's one of the many reasons I started offering webinars, so that rescue groups, as well as dog owners, could get low-cost instruction on evaluating and working with these dogs.
Sometimes, the behavior disappears once the dog is in a home environment, or a couple weeks of behavior modification makes the behavior easy to manage and change. But, sometimes, the behavior persists, gets worse, or will clearly take more time and resources than the rescue can devote to one dog.
Rescues need to be prepared to make difficult decisions when it comes to public safety and the quality of life of these dogs. Warehousing the dog at a kennel, shipping them to a training facility for two weeks and thousands of dollars in training is not a solution. It's a band aid, at best.
Sometimes, the best a rescue can do is give the dog a chance they wouldn't have had in the shelter. But if that isn't enough, then it is the rescue's responsibility not to put that burden on the adopter...either before or after the dog harms someone.
Bad rescue hurts dogs. Saving as many dogs as possible means being responsible and placing dogs who best represent what rescue dogs can be with a little extra care.
The Rehabilitation Myth
Dr. Reisner provided a very thorough explanation of the factors behind the fatal attack
The Perils of Placing Marginal Dogs
Rescue Decisions: The Dog or The Community, from Paws Abilities
Rescue Best Practices Guide