Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on insights into what it’s like to work in animal shelters today. To read Part 1, click here.
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Welcome back to Petful’s 2-part series on working in the field of animal rescue. The following is an extension of my conversation with a former shelter owner/freelance consultant and a professional trainer. For matters of professional privacy, they’ve asked that their real names not be used.
Nikki: Seasoned professionals who work in these shelters are dealing with unique stressors not found in other professions. Why is this often underappreciated in light of the core mission?
Carol: Sheltering is an incredibly stressful field. The burnout rate is high. People love animals and often have strong feelings and emotions about them and their welfare. Often, the emotions and strong feelings of the community, as well as the trends within the field, make the decisions for those on the “front lines” really difficult.
Any time these decisions involve euthanasia for aggression or medical issues, it brings unique pressures. However, euthanasia must be considered if the shelter does not want to place aggressive or potentially dangerous dogs into the community.
Lisa: The majority of shelter workers have some degree of compassion fatigue. Every shelter employee must learn how to prioritize taking care of their mental/physical and spiritual health. They must learn what activities can give them a departure from the stress and pressure, if even for a short time.
Nikki: What are the most challenging factors involved in the vetting process that can lead to undesired outcomes?
Carol: For me, [it’s] dogs with low aggression thresholds. Aggression has many forms and many subtleties, many of which are not always easily recognizable or obvious when the animal is in the shelter. Due to these factors, aggression and level of risk can certainly be hard to accurately identify.
There are many reasons that aggression can be suppressed in the shelter — the newness, stress, number of people, smells and sounds can act to suppress aggression. Also, there may be certain triggers to aggression that don’t present themselves in a shelter setting and therefore are really difficult to predict.
Lisa: In my experience consulting with shelters around the country, behavior staff and those employees who conduct assessments are under more and more pressure to place [more dangerous dogs] up for adoption or send [them to a] rescue.
Nikki: Elaborate on instances where a person returns an animal to a different shelter because of guilt, conflict, not wanting the staff to be aware of their decision or other circumstances. What tracking system is in place to monitor those situations?
Carol: There are many shelters and rescues that will not take dogs back into their system that have shown aggression once in the home. This can be due to insurance, liability or a desire to try and influence their return statistics due to the pressure to have low return rates (LRR) and [if they have] a high LRR. Other shelters have policies that stipulate the dog must be returned to them for any reason.
No one is really prepared for the realities of living with and managing a dog with low aggression thresholds until they have done it. Then, once they have done it, they still loved and adored the dog but would not choose to do it again because the experience is so difficult.
There is no way to track how many times a dog has been “rehomed” or how many times a dog has been through different rescue or shelter systems unless the dog was returned multiple times to the original shelter. Even still, this would only reflect the times the dog has entered the 1 shelter system and not reflect any times the dog may have been through other shelters or rescues.
Lisa: Almost all shelters and rescue groups have in their contract that if an adopted dog didn’t work out for any reason, the dog must be returned to the organization.
Thus, when and if an adopted dog doesn’t work out, according to anecdotal surveying of professionals, most people will not contact the shelter to report problems. When euthanasia is recommended, professionals report that 100% of owners privately euthanize and do not inform the shelter, mostly for fear of breach of contract.
With a little TLC, this rescued dog goes from aggressive to adoptable:
Nikki: From your perspective, in what area(s) is there a lack of public awareness with regard to animal rescue?
Carol: From my perspective, I feel there is a lack of public awareness regarding the dramatic increase of severely problematic and aggressive dogs that we are seeing in shelters now as compared to 10 or 15 years ago. Shelters that must make euthanasia decisions are less supported and more criticized than ever before, when so often, those decisions are made to prevent dogs with a high potential for aggression from entering the community.
None of the decisions that shelters make at this time are easy — they are all very complex and involve innumerable factors and pressures. It is now more popular than ever to adopt or rescue a dog, and from a shelter perspective, it is now more difficult than ever to have wonderful, adoptable family pets available for people to adopt because of this increase in aggression within shelter dogs.
Lisa: I think there is a gross underestimating of the numbers of gray area and dangerous dogs in shelters and rescues today. I think most believe there are many, many good dogs getting euthanized and only a small portion of dogs are actually aggressive or dangerous.
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This article was written by Nikki Forston. Nikki is a freelance writer/documentary film producer based in Philadelphia. A long-time proponent of animal rights, she’s also an advocate in the mental illness community. In partnership with a forensic psychiatrist, she’s participating in a new initiative that aims to improve treatment parameters for individuals diagnosed with severe mental illness.
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