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.
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.
But dogs, like so many other things, are a mirror of the society we—and they—live in. And a growing number of Americans not only need to rescue a creature, but to perceive those creatures as having been mistreated. Somehow, our dogs have joined us in our culture of victimization. Since we can only guess what has happened to them, they are blank canvases on which we can paint anything we wish. Add to this the fact that millions of dogs are indeed abandoned or maltreated and do need homes, and it becomes clearer why animal rescue is a booming social phenomenon.
The dog rescue movement is relatively new. A generation ago, a person in need of a pet went to a breeder or to a local dog pound. There, he or she "adopted" rather than "rescued" a dog. There was and is no numerical shortage of abandoned dogs: The Humane Society of the United States estimates that between 8 million and 10 million enter the U.S. animal shelter system each year, with about 5 million unable to find homes and euthanized. It's worth noting that nobody really has any idea how many of these are actually abused.
But this hardly matters. Rescue workers have become the special forces of the dog world: dedicated, fearless, driven, intensely organized, wily, and resourceful.
The Internet has propelled and shaped this movement. Type "dog rescue" into Google, and more than 700,000 references pop up. Rescue groups have formed for almost every breed in almost every city and state, some with scores of members, fund-raising campaigns, sometimes their own vans, plus badges, caps, T-shirts, and bumper stickers. Through this national network of sites and lists, dogs can be rescued, re-rescued ("re-homed" is the preferred term), and transported all over America. Thanks to sites like the online clearinghouse Petfinder, any dog in need of a home can be eyeballed by anybody in the country with a computer. Last week, Petfinder had nearly 100,000 "adoptable pets" on its Web site, with sophisticated software that permits potential adopters to search databases for the pet: What breed? What age? What color? Housebroken? Deaf, blind, or injured?
Rescue fantasies are familiar to therapists, who see them particularly in people who were themselves mistreated or ached for escape from loneliness and alienation.
Some rescue workers have encountered people they call "hoarders" or "compulsives"—that is, rescuers with a dozen or more dogs. Hoarders are especially drawn to hopeless cases, dogs that are severely injured or especially aggressive. They are often confident that they can "flip" the dog around. And sometimes, they simply can't say no.
Rescues can also provide an outlet for thwarted political inclinations. Social problems seem overwhelming, government remote. People can't easily stop a war or even get a stop sign installed on their blocks. But as a neighbor of mine explained, "I can't seem to do much for people these days, so the least I can do is rescue a dog." In sophisticated cities and their suburbs—New York, Washington, San Francisco—where everything makes a political statement and children are always being taught "values," it means something to have rescued a dog as opposed to having simply bought one.
Something buried in the psyches of certain dog-owners needs to alter animals' fates and leads them to see those animals as having suffered. Owners of rescued dogs I have talked to tend to have holes of one sort or another in their lives: "Saving" an "abused" dog can sometimes fill that hole. It makes the owner a hero: a literal savior. It makes the owner necessary: This poor abused creature can't possibly live without the person who saved it from misery and death. And it gives the owner a willing, and ever grateful, target of endless love.
But while the lavish and forgiving affection showered on rescued dogs may be psychologically satisfying for the pet owner, it isn't always good for the animal. Seeing a dog as a victim in need of rescue, too traumatized to be confined or to learn simple commands and behaviors, actually impedes proper care. It undermines a dog's ability to be well-socialized, to live happily in a home, and to coexist with humans in general. Dogs like to be trained. It calms them, gives them a sense of order. When we respond to them in terms of our own needs, rather than theirs, we do them no favors.