A current trend to increase adoptions is for animal shelter personnel ignoring the aggressive behavior of an animal as reported by the animal’s owner or keeper. Shelter personnel wish the animal to have a clean slate and treat the animal as having no background information; they are confident that their own evaluations are sufficient to determine the animals fitness for adoption.
It is not uncommon for various factions in a shelter to view an animal in different light. One of the most common problem that my last shelter faced was our volunteers posting glowing comments about animals on social media that were not consistent with the staff’s evaluations. The volunteers felt that they knew better because of the behavior that they witnessed when walking the animal, even though the previous owner and staff assessed the animal differently. They didn’t realize that they were observing the animal from a very small window. People would come in to the shelter and discover that the volunteers lied to them so as to facilitate the placement of the animal. Fortunately for the community, our shelter staff had the integrity to report the correct information or refuse to accept the adoption application.
This trend of passing marginal animals or animals with aggression in their history is getting animal shelters in trouble. I frequently read about cases in which an adopter is subject to a serious incident and then finds that the animal’s history of aggression was not shared with them. It became so commonplace in Virginia that laws were drafted to force adoption organizations to give out the animal’s history, good or bad.
Many shelters have placed their animal placements ahead of public safety due to the pressures of being no kill. Not only have people been harmed, but many shelters have been sued for their callous actions.
The greatest challenge facing animal shelters is the balance that must be made to protect people and to protect pets. Animal shelters must face the decision to put people first or to put pets first. In 95 percent of the time, it isn’t an issue. But in those remaining 5 percent, it becomes the battleground that creates the most media carnage for animal shelter personnel.
Should animal shelters release potentially dangerous dogs back into their community? On the surface this seems pretty simple, until you begin to fight the battle as to what determines a dangerous our an aggressive dog. Dog held for long periods of time can become aggressive as a result of their long confinement. Where along that process does a dog move from being adoptable to being unadoptable?
Is it worth euthanizing one “potentially” aggressive dog to prevent a future worry of the dog injuring a child? This is the constant worry that all animal shelters face. Many shelter personnel take the easy road and don’t question the adoptability of an animal: if the animal has a potential home, then let it leave the shelter. Many shelters that have taken this road become faced with the lawsuits of their careless actions.
Many dogs that have displayed aggression in the shelter eventually reassimulate into society to become perfect pets. We cannot look into the eyes of these animals and determine their behavior in the environment that we are sending them. Every adoption is based on a gradient from low risk to high risk.
The community that we serve seems to see only in black or white. Many people claim that we should give EVERY animal a chance and many believe that NONE of the high risk breeds should ever be released to the public. Although animal shelters conduct behavior tests, the tests run the failure of the bias of the evaluator. But the biggest hazard is the adopter.
No matter how much adoption staff empathizes the need for responsible pet ownership, the greatest failing point is the pet’s owner. It is amazing the number of new pet owners who call to report that their new pet ran away during the period of the car and the house because the owner didn’t think the dog should be on leash. One of the most common phases from dog owners prior to a dog bite is, “Don’t worry he won’t bite.”
When pet owners fail to act responsibly, it furthers the risk of a failed adoption. When an animal gets into trouble as the result of a bad pet owner, it is usually the animal shelter that gets into trouble for failing to have the foresight in seeing a bad combination of a questionable dog and a bad adopter.
Many shelters have taken a beating in the media as a result of not being physic. Every adoption presents a risk. The shelter is forced to decide if they will weigh the balance toward protecting people or saving a pet. Wherever you find that balance, you can be sure that someone will be under constant pressure to move that line one way or the other.