America's dog-"rescuing" mania.

Pets and people.
June 3 2003 10:46 AM

Canine-11

Why Americans are obsessed with "rescuing" dogs.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

I was walking in a nearby park recently when an enormous mutt—a Lab/shepherd mix, from the looks of it—came bounding down the wooded path, plowed into my belly, and knocked me down, touching off a spirited tiff with my two border collies.

As I clambered to my feet, a middle-aged man came chugging up, agitated and out-of-breath. He began belatedly scolding the genial and oblivious dog, whose name was Bear, explaining that Bear was a rescued dog, "probably abused." So the guy—who introduced himself as Stan—didn't want to train him to come, sit, or stop ricocheting into people, not yet; Bear had been through so much heartache already. He did lecture Bear—"no," "bad dog," "why don't you listen to me?"—long after the fact and well beyond the point of usefulness.

Finding Bear was no cinch, it turned out. Stan told me he had combed animal shelters for months but found that in the Northeast, at least, the number of abandoned and adoptable dogs has fallen in recent years; new leash laws had resulted in fewer lost and straying dogs, and a sharp rise in neutering and spaying meant fewer dogs running around period. Stan didn't want to simply buy some fancy purebred pet, he explained, not when there were so many creatures in need. He preferred to save one from misery, possibly even death.

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So Stan went online and located Bear not in New Jersey, where we lived, but in a "foster home" in Alabama, via a rescue site listed on Petfinder.com. The demand for "rescued" dogs is so great that groups often have to scour faraway rural areas these days to find abused dogs for people to adopt.

Bear was transported north, by volunteer "transporters" located via mailing lists on the Net, and delivered to a local New Jersey "fosterer" for evaluation. "Screeners" check possible homes and new owners. Stan and his home and family were thoroughly evaluated before he was permitted to bring Bear home. "Believe me," he said with some pride, "it was easier for me to buy a house than to get this dog." The screeners returned more than once and let him know they would be back periodically. He signed a document promising to care for the dog and to never let the dog walk off-leash.

Now he was crazy about the dog, he confessed. It seemed to me that at least part of that feeling stemmed from his pride in having spared the animal a grim fate.

How did he know that Bear had been abused? I asked. "You can just tell," Stan assured me. "It's obvious. If you come near him with a leash or collar or stick, he looks terrified."

I'd heard such stories countless times. It needs to be said that there are innumerable and well documented stories of horrific abuse inflicted on dogs. At a Brooklyn shelter I visited a few months ago, I saw dogs that had been burned almost to death, abandoned, starved, poisoned, nearly drowned, beaten, and horribly mauled after being used as training fodder for fighting dogs. Rescue volunteers go to extraordinary lengths to save and care for these dogs.

But many professional trainers and dog lovers have become wary. They often roll their eyes when people explain that their dogs have been abused, seeing that as an excuse for obnoxious or aggressive behavior and as a way to avoid the effort of training. Many also sense a need for some dog owners to see their pets as suffering victims, rather than animals.

Pet behaviorists will tell you that it's usually impossible to know what dogs have actually been through, since they can't tell us. Dogs who are simply adjusting to new homes or poor training frequently show the same behaviors as ill-treated dogs: cowering, trembling, eliminating, shying away from the unfamiliar.