Tuesday, April 16, 2013


I love my clients.  They are the reason I get up in the morning and go into the training hall.  I love the people and I love the dogs.  Often the dogs I love are not the easy dogs, the dogs who never get into the garbage or who don’t jump up.  Often the dogs I get to love are the troubled souls who do get into things, and who snap at the other dogs in the home or who charge the door and scare the neighbours.  These guys, bless them, are the dogs who in spite of their fears and anxiety, in spite of their concerns and their problems keep trying to gain a foothold within the environment they live in.

Recently a good friend did what she has always considered the “right thing”. * She wanted a dog and she went to a rescue and they placed a very sweet older Bernese Mountain dog in her home.  On the first day, while cuddling on the couch, another dog came over to sniff him, and he growled and when she tried to redirect his head back towards her, he bit her, inflicting a level 4 bite.  Dismissing this as a dog unsettled in a new home, she didn’t really factor this behaviour into her choice to keep him.  He was very cuddly and very, very sweet, and after all, who wouldn’t be unsettled in their new home?

It turns out that the rescue that this dog came from had a policy of shifting their dogs around, and in the past year, this boy had been shifted between at least ten homes.  Let’s give you a closer picture and give this dog a name; we will call him Kelly, although that was not what he was called.  Kelly was surrendered by someone to the rescue, and placed in a foster home.  After about a month, he was shifted to another foster.  Then six weeks later, another shift.  Every 4 to 6 weeks, he was shifted for about a year.   

When working with dogs, it is important to try as much as possible to see things from their point of view.  Consider what this must have been like for a dog who cannot explain things to the people he is with.  Some homes had kids in them, and some homes had other dogs in them and some homes were really busy and some homes were really quiet.  From Kelly’s perspective, he was never settled, and could never predict from one day to the next what his life would be like.

When my friend was looking for Kelly she wanted a big, fluffy galoot of a dog who would be a great hiking companion and who would snuggle in bed or on the couch with her.  She also wanted a dog who would be good with her other dogs.  By the time that Kelly was coming to class he was regularly growling at the other dogs in the house, and was becoming a bit difficult to handle.  His leash manners were non existant, and he had a few difficulties getting up from lying down and on the stairs into the house.   

One of the important things that we do at Dogs in the Park is to determine when a problem may have at its source a medical issue, so I asked my friend to take Kelly to the vet for a check up.  When I watched Kelly move, it looked to me like he was limping and he seemed to have a lot of difficulty gaining his balance when he got up from lying down.  I wanted my friend to make sure that there was nothing wrong with Kelly before we started working on his behaviour.  

At the vet’s, they carefully examined Kelly and looked at how he walked and moved, and checked his proprioception, or ability to determine where his feet were in space.  It turned out that Kelly had almost no awareness of his back feet.  When the vet turned over his hind foot and then allowed him to support his weight on it, he fell over.  He was unaware of where his feet where and likely unaware of pain in them too.   

When the vet checked his joints though, there was a different story.  Poor Kelly showed significant pain and stiffness in both hips, one knee and one elbow.  When the vet tried to turn Kelly’s head to the left and right, he could move it to the right without issue, but resisted turning it to the left.  As it turned out, Kelly was in significant pain.  The veterinarian disagnosed Kelly with suspected cervical spondylomyelopathy, suspected hip dysplasia, suspected elbow dysplasia, and suspected arthritis in his joints.  My suspicions that there was more to Kelly than met the eye turned out to be correct.  The vet recommended a very expensive MRI to confirm her suspicions.  Radiographs are much cheaper but for a dog with the problems that the vet suspected Kelly had, the vet felt they would do little except to indicate the need for an MRI.  In preparation for this, the veterinarian drew some blood to make sure that Kelly was healthy enough for the sedation that would need to be used in the procedure.

My friend went home with a large bottle of Meloxicam, and a very heavy heart.  An MRI would cost $2500, and that would be just the start.  If the MRI showed any one of the suspected conditions, she would be looking at the possibility of surgery at an additional fee, and then physiotherapy, and pain medication and a ramp into and out of her house and months of nursing this dog, and keeping the other dogs from bumping him both before and after the surgery, and only then could we begin training.  This was not what she wanted when she rescued a dog, but furthermore, she couldn’t afford the diagnostics much less the treatment.  The initial vet visit including medication had set her back almost three hundred dollars.  With a very sad heart, my friend called the rescue to let them know that she could not provide what Kelly needed and see if they could help in any way.

The first thing that happened was that the rescue challenged the diagnosis by the veterinarian, saying that the dog had been a normal, healthy active dog when he was turned over.  Then they challenged that Berners only rarely got cervical spondylomyelopathy, and that it wasn’t very likely that Kelly could have this.  Then the rescue told my friend that they would be talking to an owner of a dog who had the same condition.  After that were the flurry of emails suggesting neutricutical treatments and suggesting laser therapy.  My friend replied back that the dog needed diagnostics, and that she could not afford them, and that the dog was in pain.

My friend is pretty typical of someone who rescues a dog.  We know that there are dogs in need and we want to help.  We have the time and energy for a particular type of dog; she wanted a young, active, dog friendly dog who would fit into her home.  She thought she was getting a dog who had been health checked, and was stunned to face the numbers that she was facing just to find out what was wrong with Kelly.

Caveat emptor is the term we often hear when it comes to purchasing goods, but it is something we often don’t think enough about when it comes to dogs in rescues.  We expect that the rescues are going to listen when we tell them what we want in a dog.  If you call up and say “I am looking for a small, easy to handle healthy dog for my family with four children” you don’t expect a German Shepherd or a Saint Bernard.  If you call up and say that you want a healthy active young dog you don’t expect that you will be given a dog with serious orthopaedic issues. 

Sadly the story gets worse.  The contract my friend signed with the rescue stated that in the event that she could no longer take care of the dog for any reason, she was to arrange to return the dog to the rescue.  After an entire weekend of trying to arrange to send the dog back, my friend was told that the dog wasn’t a faulty toaster to be discarded or returned, and that she was liable for the care of this very ill dog.  In the meantime the dog stayed quietly at home with pain meds on board and for the first time, attempted the stairs to the second floor of the home.  Pain relief is SO important.  With the rescue refusing to take the dog back, and the bills too great for my friend to meet, the decision was made to surrender Kelly to the humane society in the hopes that they might be able to afford to evaluate him and if possible place him.  In the event that they couldn’t place him, he could be humanely euthanized.

Over the next 48 hours, the rescue contacted my friend almost a dozen times, threatening her several times and calling her very terrible names.  The rescue alleged that she didn’t care, and that she was a cheap skate, and in one telling email, suggested that they did not get vet care for their charges because they didn’t have the money to do so.  What an unpleasant end to what should have been a joint effort to get help for a dog.   

When the email came in with a threat to set fire to her home, my friend called the police.  She was grieving; she wanted this dog.  She paid for this dog.  She has spent time and money and effort on this dog, and when she could not meet the dog’s needs, she tried to get him the help he needed.  And in the end, she had to call the police, file a complaint and get a restraining order.  

As an interesting end point to this story, the blood work that was done in preparation for possible sedation came back this morning.  Kelly has kidney disease.  The vet suspects he is in the end stages of kidney disease and will die soon in any event.  My friend has made the final choice in this sad story.  She has decided to take Kelly to the vet tomorrow morning and share his last moments with him, and have him euthanized so that he can be free of the pain and the illness.  It is a sad day.

I am so angry about this situation.  This is a dog who was in so much pain that his dog trainer picked up the issue.  He was in at least ten homes that we know of in the rescue.  His profile on the rescue website acknowledged that he did not like going up and down stairs.  During the year that the rescue had this dog, they did get him heartworm tested and gave him heartworm medication, which means that he was examined by a vet and a tech at least once.  No one actually "saw" this dog.  No one saw his pain.  The vet informed my friend that this pain didn’t appear suddenly; it was long standing.  When my friend went to meet him in the first place, she remembered that she noticed that he walked funny, and the rescue told her that he walked just like the other two Berners she owned.

If an individual or a group is going to get involved in rehoming dogs, especially a large number of dogs, they need to have a plan.  The dogs who come in need so many things, and food, water and shelter are just the beginning.  I am often told that I don’t understand rescue, and that they just don’t have the resources to do behaviour evaluations after feeding and providing veterinary care for these dogs.  Now we have a rescue that doesn’t even have the resources to provide a complete veterinary examination before they place the dog.  It is time in Ontario for rescue to be regulated.  I would like to see any organization that is going to place more than 8 dogs a year required to be licensed and have minimum standards of care.  The dogs in rescue ALL deserve good food, and clean water and environmental enrichment and a complete veterinary work up and a behaviour evaluation.  Anything less is just sad.  Sad for the families.  Sad for the dogs.  Sad for society.

It’s a sad day today.

 *Please note that due to the ongoing nature of this case, and the restraining order, names, specific medical conditions, and the breed of the dog have been modified, while staying true to the events that happened.  This is not a recent event, and we saved it to post it at a time that would ensure the safety of my friend and her family.

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