Tuesday, November 9, 2010


 Consider for a moment the lot of a shelter dog.  He gets fed twice a day, and if he is lucky he gets taken out for a daily walk.  Really lucky shelter dogs have indoor/outdoor runs, and they can go outside of their living quarters to relieve themselves.  Some shelter dogs get a kong or some environmental enrichment item to improve their stay in the shelter.  Its pretty bleak though.  The best thing that can be said for the dog in the shelter is that he knows what to expect.  No one is abusing him in the shelter and although it may be noisy and not always comfortable, the dog in the shelter quickly learns the routine and can predict the rhythm of the day.

Dogs in rescue sometimes fare better; and sometimes they don’t.  Some of them get placed in a foster home which may or may not be a great place to be.  Some dogs in rescue get to be housedogs with a family.  They usually get two squares a day, walks, trips out in the yard and often a bit of training or at least some attention.  They usually live in a more enriched environment and they usually get to spend time hanging out with people, in a more or less normal fashion.  Often, fosters stay with their families for weeks, months or years at a time.  Foster dogs often get quite attached to their families, and experience loss when they are moved along.  Some fosters get shifted around a fair amount though; they may spend a couple of days or a week with one person, and then several days or a week with another.  They may be shipped willy nilly for thousands of miles, often a couple of hours in one car and a couple of hours in another, all with different people at each leg of the journey.  In some rare cases, dogs are shipped by air, transcontinentally!

And what of the lot of the research dog?  Here is a dog who will spend the first part of his life learning about the cycles of the lab he is born into; and some of these labs are not bad places to live in as a dog.  Two square meals a day, environmental enrichment, other dogs to interact with and usually some interesting things to do.  Behavioural and nutritional research dogs in particular have pretty good lives-eat this food, get this much exercise, learn something and give blood once a week; not too bad.  Universities now have ethics committees to ensure that the research that the dogs experience is as humane as can be achieved while still yielding useful scientific data.  Private labs are increasingly sensitive to the scrutiny of the public and the media to their work.  The dogs used in research at the very least have it better off by far than did their counterparts from generations past.  And when the research is done, they are often available for placement.

Taking the outcasts, the lost souls, the dogs that are unwanted, left over or otherwise not in a home such as yours or mine is a very popular option for dog ownership.  What could be a better thing to do than to take a dog who needs a home and provide him with one?  What could be a better thing to do than to help a homeless animal?

Consider for a moment the three scenarios offered above.  Consider the shelter dog who is basically on offer for the first comer.  Few shelters have effective screening and placement programs.  Most shelters will require families to fill in an application form, and some shelters will even interview the family.  The commonly used shelter evaluation programs are not predictive of future temperament of the dog.  Few shelter evaluations take into account what environment might be most appropriate for a given dog.  If a family with four children under the age of ten want the reactive, visually sensitive, fearful lurcher, then it is caveat emptor, go right ahead and adopt that dog.

Consider the sensitive, willing and affiliative dog who ends up in rescue.  This dog spends six months living with a nice family and bonding with the people in that family and then one day, he is whisked away and into a new home; his “forever” home.  This dog doesn’t know that the people he bonded to haven’t died.  This dog has no frame of reference for what has happened to him.  And this dog is going to be a lot more careful in the future about bonding to his new family.

And what of the research dog, placed into a family for the very first time?  This case is perhaps the most insidious of all.  Who wouldn’t consider the rich and varied environment of their home better than a sterile run with cement walls and bars for a door?  How could the calm of your home be anything other than better than the cacophony of a kennel full of barking dogs?  This dog placed in a home for the first time will be faced with flooring that he is not familiar with, smells he has never before encountered and a variety of new surfaces.  Not only are the surfaces new to these dogs, but for the most part these dogs have never seen a variety of terrain as rich as your typical living room.  Most research dogs have not had the opportunities to see surfaces at different levels.  Many of these dogs cannot negotiate stairs, and cannot accurately assess the environment that they find themselves in when they are placed.  On top of this, television screens and computer monitors can really frighten dogs who have no context for them.

The fact is that dogs have to learn about the environments that they will encounter as adults before they are about 4 months of age.  Certainly by five months of age, the window has closed for dogs to learn to accept a varied environment.  Young adult dogs are strongly predisposed to form strong social bonds with the people they encounter.  And dogs forced to live in their own toilet loose any house training they may once have had.

There is an entire industry dedicated to rehoming animals, particularly dogs who are displaced or who grew up in labs.  Rescues, shelters and research facilities are working hard to place these animals in family homes, and they are placed in the thousands every year in North America.  Not one person involved with this industry would consider for a moment going into a run with a dog and hitting him with a stick.  Ethics committees involved in research labs require that enrichment plans be made for every animal that is being used.  Incredible amounts of time, effort and money are allocated to treating these dogs humanely while they are in the care of the placement organization.

Where we fail is when we place these dogs.  Placing a dog implies a commitment to caring for where they end up.  It implies that you want to improve the dogs life.  When you place a dog without a minimum level of screening, you depend upon the family the dog is in to recognize that the dog may be stressed and to have the skills to deal with the dog’s stress.  Few families come with those skills in place.

I recently spoke with a young woman who had “adopted” a dog from a research facility.  When she was considering taking the dog home, she visited the facility daily to walk the dog.  Harvey, a large hound type of dog, had been used to train people take blood and in a nutritional study where was given a supplement and his blood was collected for analysis.  He grew up in the research facility and was a popular dog amongst the techs there.  Harvey was easy to handle and would walk on a leash with a gentle leader.  The new owner, a woman named Anna, arrived one day with a snare type collar.  One of the techs expressed concern about the use of this tool as it might harm the reputation of the facility if someone was to see a snare used on a dog.  No mention was made of the injuries that can occur when you apply a chain snare to a dog’s neck. 

Harvey went home with Anna later the same week that she introduced the snare collar to him, and Anna began in earnest teaching him that pulling would result in being strangled.  When she got home, Harvey was turned loose in her apartment and she went about her day.  When her husband turned on the television, Harvey tried to jump out a window in fear.

I met Anna at a workshop I ran about Different Breeds and their Different Needs.  She was bubbling with enthusiasm and was keen to tell me about her recent acquisition.  “He has been with us for two months, and we can have friends over now without him cowering in fear,” she reported.  For two months, any visitor scared Harvey so much that he would hide.  He was especially fearful of men.  And every time that Anna walks Harvey, if he pulls she jerks his neck with the snare collar, potentially injuring the nerves that go down his front legs and scarring his trachea.

I made Anna aware of the dangers of using a snare type collar and her response was telling.  “Don’t you think that careful use of a collar like this is safe?  After all it isn’t a hard jerk!” was her reply.  I don’t think any use of a chain snare is acceptable.  The risk of a serious injury is much too high.

Growing up in a research facility, Harvey had in no way been prepared to live in a home.  He had in no way been prepared for guests, televisions or noises in an apartment building.  And Anna believes that dogs don’t carry fears through their lives in the way that people do.  She takes Harvey for long walks and feeds him the best food available.  She gives him excellent medical care and she spends time with him every day.  Anna did not recognize that Harvey was experiencing fear on a daily basis, and she felt that he would just get over his fears.

When I asked Anna if she would have brought Harvey home if he had needed daily physiotherapy for two years, she was emphatic.  “Of course not!” she said.  What she didn’t realize was that the kind of behavioural therapy that Harvey needs to adjust to the world he is being asked to live in is as intense as daily physiotherapy.  Between physio sessions, you would normally rest.  Harvey cannot rest; he is bathed in his fears.  The television will turn on, and the computer too.  There are unpredictable noises in the apartment that he has no context for understanding.  Harvey had met very few men in the research lab; most of the people he met were women, and he never met a child until he was out of the lab environment.  When Anna is not directly working with him, he is surrounded by all the things he is unfamiliar with.

On top of this, although Anna is a veterinary student, and she took a lot of psychology courses in university, she does not have the experience or the training to help Harvey to understand and accept his new world.  When he barks or lunges at unfamiliar things, Anna can stop that behaviour cold by jerking on the snare collar, without addressing the fear that may be driving the undesired behaviour.  In effect what the collar allows Anna to do is to flood Harvey with experiences without allowing him to respond at all to them.  Eventually, Harvey will learn that it is dangerous to bark and tell Anna that he is afraid of something, as it is more painful to react than it is face his fears.  The result may be a dog who engages in stress behaviours such as panting, pacing or yawning or worse in self mutilation behaviours such as excessive licking.

Anna is in general a kind person.  She loves animals; you have to love animals in order to get into vet school.  If given a stick, Anna would never beat a dog.  Unwittingly though, with the best of intentions, Anna is doing just that.  She is repeatedly, systematically beating this dog. 

The research facility that placed Harvey with Anna has a role to play in Harvey’s abuse.  To begin with the tech should have been alerted to Anna’s inexperience in dealing with behaviour by her choice in equipment.  Choke and snare collars were once the gold standard in dog training equipment.  Since the 1990’s they have been replaced by a variety of tools that are better suited to managing an unruly dog.  Head halters, Easy Walk Harnesses and flat collars with training are all choices that would be less likely to leave Harvey with permanent damage. 

Before Harvey became available for placement, people knew that he was slated to rotate out of the research facility; the facility that Harvey was in only allows dogs to stay for a maximum of two years, regardless of how well suited they may be to their lives.  As a puppy, no one made sure that Harvey was exposed to men, women, teens, children, people of different races and people dressed in clothing other than surgical scrubs or lab coats.  No one made sure that Harvey had seen a television turned on, computers or household appliances.  Harvey, comfortable and secure in the research lab was never prepared for the life he would face outside of those walls.

When we take an animal into our heart and our home, we agree to take on the care and wellbeing of that animal.  When we take on the job of placing multiple animals into multiple homes, the responsibility grows exponentially.  Shelter dogs deserve to be placed in homes suited to their needs.  This implies knowing what their needs are, which in turn implies carefully asking them about who they are.  Dogs in rescue need to be able to form bonds with those who are going to care for them between the time they are in their homes and the time when they are rehomed, and count on those friendships lasting beyond the time they move on.  And research dogs deserve to have the socialization that will allow them to be successful when they move out of the research facility and into a home.  Anything less is effectively beating a dog without a stick.


  1. Suenestnature, did she allow you to try and help Harvey?

  2. Sadly, no. In fact she was very defensive and angry when I told her that choke chains were dangerous. Her statement to me was “Don’t you think that careful use of a collar like this is safe? After all it isn’t a hard jerk!” and frankly, that says it all. She knew what she wanted to know and wasn't interested in the risks associated with the equipment OR the opinion of the person telling her not to use it.