Home > Animal Rescue, Animal Welfare Issues, Dog Behavior, Pet Adoption, Pet Safety > Where does a rescue or shelter’s responsibility end when it comes to a dog?

Where does a rescue or shelter’s responsibility end when it comes to a dog?


Jack Russell Terrier SnarlingWhen you work in rescue, you encounter a wide variety of situations that you not only can’t anticipate, but for which you also don’t have an easy solution. Things are rarely in black and white. Answers aren’t always easy, and many times you second guess yourself.

There is no question that rescues are there to save every animal they can. No one wants to be the one to make the decision to euthanize an animal. When an animal is in pain and suffering, the answer is a little easier because you know that it will no longer need to suffer in pain. But when it involves behavior or genetics, it can be so much harder to know what to do.

I often struggle in this middle ground. I firmly believe that many animals are euthanized when they could have been saved. Proper training and dedication can help many a dog who is fearful or has fear aggression. But, I also believe that there are animals being saved who should not be. Many of these are animals are ones who but for the perfect owner, would be a danger to others, people or human. and dedicated and self-sacrificing that without said owner, they would be a danger to others, people or animal.

Perhaps my strong sense of what is right and wrong prevents me from seeing other possibilities and options, but in a world where mistakes can happen, where perfection is impossible, I just cannot see how saving a dog that is a potential danger to other dogs is the “best” decision.

Last year, I participated in a group discussion involving a dog who had killed an older resident dog in the foster home he was staying in. The foster mom had made an urgent plea for someone to please take the dog. Many in the group expressed their condolences. Many praised her for being able to see beyond her grief to want to save the dog despite him killing her dog. A few of us expressed our condolences and broached the topic of euthanasia. She was seriously considering it.

But then, the person who had originally rescued him was able to get the dog into a no-kill shelter just south of here and he was saved. That was a little over six months ago.

Since then, I’ve often wondered…

Was the shelter informed about the death he had caused? If the shelter was informed, did they plan on or did they tell prospective new owners about the danger (I am assuming they are legally required to do so)? And, if they have told prospective owners, and he was rejected on that basis, would he spend the rest of his life in a shelter?

I also wondered if he had been placed in a new home and if the new owner knew understood the risks involved if the dog were to get loose or live in a home with another dog. I wondered if his new owner was experienced with dogs with behavioral issues. I wondered if he or she was continuing to work a training and behavior modification plan with him, like his foster mom had been trying to do, and if the he had harmed another dog since being shipped across the border.

j0387553I hope he is in a home where he is the only dog, and that he is living with someone who knows how to work with him and will make sure he does not harm another dog again, but I will always wonder.

I fully support rescues and shelters transporting dogs to places where they can have a better chance at living in a real home. I also support trying our very best to help a dog who has behavioral issues rather than choosing euthanization first. So many dogs have been saved this way.

However, when it comes to dogs with serious behavioral issues (or a history where another animal in the home was killed) I wonder where a rescue or shelter’s due diligence and responsibility begin and end. Is it okay to pass on a dog who has serious issues as long as the receiving rescue or shelter is aware of it? Is it okay to simply hope that the receiving rescue or shelter will do the right thing and inform the new owner of the possible dangers? Is there a right and wrong decision when it comes to this dog? I don’t know. Maybe there isn’t, I just hope it wasn’t passing the buck.

What do you think? Where does a rescue or shelter’s responsibility end when it comes to a dog with serious behavioral issues?

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  1. January 10, 2016 at 9:45 PM

    I have attended behavior workshops at Best Friends Animal Society, which is a leader in the no-kill movement. Their position, which I support, is that they will not re-home a dog that has killed or seriously injured before. To do so would be unethical. They will give these dogs a home for life in managed conditions – using euthanasia as a last resort. If rescues are knowingly re-homing animals with serious behavior problems, then in my view they are adding to the problem rather than helping solve it.

    • Mel
      January 10, 2016 at 10:05 PM

      Thank you for sharing that. I think I had heard Best Friend’s take on that back when they took some of Michael Vick’s dogs, but completely forgot about their position until you mentioned it. I think that makes the most sense. Thank goodness they are able to keep a dog if he cannot be re-homed. At least they have a chance to live an enriched life there. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I very much appreciate it.

  2. January 10, 2016 at 9:55 PM

    The shelter I am associated with will not adopt out dogs that are surrendered as biters or have demonstrated any sort of aggressive behavior. These dogs become “release to rescue only” dogs. Meaning that if a rescue wants to take on the responsibility of rehabbing or finding an appropriate home, great. They do not euthanize for space or necessarily behavior, and do a wonderful job of moving animals. However, they are a government entity, being a county shelter/animal management, so their top priority is the safety of the people. Because of this, they will not adopt out a potentially dangerous dog, but do maintain excellent relationships with local rescue groups.

    • Mel
      January 10, 2016 at 10:07 PM

      Thanks for sharing Rebekah. Our shelter had a similar policy. But if the dog was too dangerous, it could not go to rescue because the shelter felt the liability was too high. I love they at least give a rescue a chance to rehab them, I wonder does the shelter ever follow up to see how the dog is doing?

  3. January 10, 2016 at 11:46 PM

    I think it is absolutely their responsibility to be open and upfront about a dog’s potential issues. I would think there’s a liability issue if they aren’t.

    • Mel
      January 11, 2016 at 6:12 AM

      I would agree. I wonder if they diminish that responsibility when they ship the dog to another state? Maybe not?

  4. January 11, 2016 at 4:58 AM

    Our local Humane Society will everything in its power to rehabilitate and find a home for difficult dogs however, there are occasions when due to severity of mental and/or physical challenges, euthanasia is the only safe route. They do have 2 full time dog trainers on staff so are very competent in their ability to make “that call.” They also review adoption requests and will deny an application for numerous reasons. Overall, I am impressed with their operation. Our Ray was in training for 4 months before he was considered a candidate for adoption.

    Where the problem really frustrates me is that any “fool” can breed dogs and sell the pups. Any fool with the delusional belief that they can train their own dog without any guidance can be raising a problem. Any fool who buys a “tough image” dog, to prop up their own ego is potentially raising an accident waiting to happen.

    I could write a small book about the numerous scenarios where a perfectly well balanced puppy ends up with serious issues and ends up in a shelter. Perhaps the questions about euthanasia and difficult dogs are simply masking a deeper problem. Why can anybody legally sell dogs when they have no proven record of competence? Why can anybody consider adopting a dog without being directed through a training program? Why is a living, breathing, feeling creature, with all the emotions inherently involved, treated in much the same manner as a used lawn mower in that anybody can buy one; sell one, and use one, with no prior knowledge of it?

    As a culture, we should be ashamed with how we have allowed “man’s best friend” to be treated with such nonchalance and general lack of interest in their well being. Giving our revered police dogs; search and rescue dogs, and service dogs for so many situations … why do we treat all their “relatives” with such a lack of interest?

    We need a culture based perspective shift, but what politician(s) would take that challenge?

    • Mel
      January 11, 2016 at 6:11 AM

      It sounds like your Humane Society is thoughtful and responsible. Amen to everything else you said @ColinandRay. I completely agree.

  5. Dawn Darkes
    January 11, 2016 at 11:13 AM

    I think the ethical, moral and legal thing to do is advise anyone the dog may be placed with of the issues. That way an informed decision can be made and greatly increase the chances of a successful adoption of the dog. Even if waivers are signed, if a rescue deliberately withholds this type of information I believe legal liability would attach should the worst happen.

  6. January 11, 2016 at 12:40 PM

    I personally believe that any aggressive dog can be rehabilitated, as long as it’s not an actual mental problem, I mean if it’s just from fear or being abused. But I also believe it would take a person who really knew what they were doing to take on such a dog. The last thing you want is some well-meaning person taking on an aggressive in an attempt to “save” it and then getting seriously hurt as a result. But I think people are all too quick to label a dog “aggressive” or “mean” and euthanize it when the dog is really just scared and could be helped by an experienced trainer.

    • January 11, 2016 at 12:50 PM

      Absolutely, wholeheartedly, and totally, agree with you. 🙂

  7. January 11, 2016 at 12:42 PM

    Haha, taking on an aggressive dog, I meant, not taking on an aggressive.

  8. January 11, 2016 at 7:39 PM

    Perhaps my perception is a bit skewed from living in the south (so. many. dogs.), but I believe that the sane, safe and stable dogs should be priority. Dog aggression, human aggression, serious resource guarding or serious shyness…I think euthanizing is the way to go. The general population can’t handle those issues, and many of them are a danger to both people and other dogs. A lot of shelters won’t disclose – and some don’t even know of – the dog’s issues, so the adopter/s are blindsided.

    – Dachshund Mommy

  9. January 11, 2016 at 8:50 PM

    You and the commenters pose some interesting yet complex issues. I think every situation is probably different. I’ve seen a couple of local rescue groups who are grateful just to place a pet and then wipe their hands clean once the dog is off to the new home (more numbers oriented than anything). Others work tirelessly with people and even take pets back when placement doesn’t work (total and complete caring). Given that rescues are always counting their pennies only adds to the complexities of placement. Clearly it’s not a cut and dried black/white issue. Thank you for bringing it up-it’s definitely the kind of thing to consider when working with rescue groups.

  10. January 12, 2016 at 8:52 AM

    I would like to think that if a dog is given a chance to feel safe and really loved, all things are possible to include rehabilitation. Well written post.

    • January 12, 2016 at 9:09 AM

      The only aspect of rehab which so many people do not seem to grasp is the time it can take. Our Ray was considered “difficult” (although many are worse) and he took about 2 years before he suddenly grasped the idea that the whole world was not out to get him! It will be 3 years this coming March and we are still working with him on a number of issues. We also love him dearly and wouldn’t change him for world. 🙂

  11. January 12, 2016 at 11:52 AM

    I always make it a point to note that rescues are not created equal and we always follow up, provide support and will not take dogs that have a history of aggression. As a foster I would on both rehabilitating the dog before being listed as available and disclosing all information to potential adopters. The last thing you want to do is have a dog returned because of issues that could have been mitigated. We also provide swaddleshirts to all of our dogs going through adoption as this helps with their transition.

  12. January 13, 2016 at 9:11 AM

    there is a darn good chance that dog is still at the shelter.

    A lot of rescues require an extensive form be filled out about the dog’s history, so hopefully, they know all about it, and hopefully they have a behaviorist on staff to work with the dog and help him with his attitude/manners/aggression. A lot can be done with training, but you need a dedicated team to do it.

    but I am with you. All of those resources dedicated to this one dog could probably have been better spent saving other dogs who do not need all of that specialized training and time. I’ve seen shelter spend thousands fixing a torn cruciate and fixing bad teeth on a dog that was nearing the end of it’s life, when that money could have gone to fixing hundreds of stray animals, which would prevent additional pets from coming into the system.. but sometimes shelter staff NEEDs a win in order to keep doing what they are doing. Spending the money on that one pet is often more about keeping morale up with the employees than it is about the animal.

    and since there isn’t one big pool of money for all shelter animals everywhere to pull from, if the shelter in question has the time and the funds to do it, then they are well within their right to do so.. If the pets within the shelter’s reach are able to be cared for, then an outlay of money for a single pet is often worth it. Burnout is real, and it is dangerous.

    • Mel
      January 13, 2016 at 9:28 PM

      Really great points Connie. I think the point about feeling the need to “save” one is so key. Yes, burn out is very real. People have no idea how hard it is to work in a shelter. Thank you for adding to the discussion!

  13. July 8, 2017 at 11:15 AM

    I believe that the responsibilities of rescue or shelter’s are different from each other and totally depend on the condition of dog. I knew some rescue who believes in kill policy when they end up with all treatment and did not get any positive results.

    But I am not in favor of this or see my dog dead just because medically he cannot be treated. It is a better idea to give your dog to the organization who believe in no-kill movement and provide them a better place to live at least in their final hours.

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