My Top Ten adoptions of 2016

My Top Ten adoptions of 2016

When I started volunteering here in November 2013, there were two types of dogs here: long stay and short stay. There were almost 100 dogs who had been here more than three years in 2014, almost half of our residents. With growing links in the wider community, a network of amazing people means that we have one dog – one dog! – who has been here since 2014. That’s Kayser We have twenty-seven dogs who arrived in 2015. I think that is seriously cool. I mean – just wow. Think about it. Not one single dog who was at the shelter when I first arrived is still there.

Most of our long, long-term residents left in 2014 and 2015. Smoke, with 11 years of shelter life under his belt. Ufo, with 7. Dalton with 6. Nichman with 5. Paulo with 5. One by one, those dogs found homes. When we started 2016, Douggy was our longest-termer, with five years to his name. Elios was not far behind, with four years. It’s not going to surprise you that their names are on the list.

The dogs on the list are some of our longer residents, dogs who waited a long time for their home. They’re also some of the most difficult adoptions, with complex behavioural difficulties. Some of the dogs are just those who touch your heart because they’re such sad cases. They’re the adoptions that have really made me pinch myself because I couldn’t quite believe it was true. I confess that I wait, holding my breath, those first forty-eight hours and cross my fingers that there aren’t any problems.

This is a list of the adoptions this year that have really made me smile. They’re the adoptions that give you faith in people and give you that fuzzy, warm feeling that is so vital when you’re involved in rescue. They’re also the adoptions that represent the work that we do and the dogs who come to us, be they old or young, in good health or poor. They represent the destinations of a lot of our dogs too, be they adopted in France or elswhere. I can’t tell you how hard it was to pick out only ten!

#10 Brook

Brook was found wandering the street. This gentle, sweet old lady was clearly so attached to people and to find her on the streets in such neglect was really sad. Despite some early offers of adoption, someone in a neighbouring area thought Brook was her dog that she’d lost over three years ago. Problems with transport meant that Brook had a wait for the lady to come and identify her, but it was not to be. Happily, one of the couples who’d originally contacted me for Brook came a couple of hours to come and get her. Although there are other oldies on the list, what touched me most was that the couple had not long since lost an old dog themselves. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye when people, despite their grief, choose to pick up another oldie whose life expectancy is perhaps not so good.

#9 Jet

Arriving at the refuge as a puppy in summer 2014, Jet was unceremoniously returned here as a two-year-old. What chance was there for this poor dog who had been given little by way of training and had suffered as a result of a change in circumstance in the house. Luckily, his good looks won over his adoptant, and although he has still a lot to learn about walking on a lead, he’s doing superbly well. I know I must drive people crazy with my naggings when they adopt a puppy – but there’s nothing worse than getting a puppy back when they’ve had their best chance at life stolen from them.

#8 Dawson

This is one of my favourite adoptions, because Dawson was such a lovely guy – so overlooked because of his age. For our dogs between 7-10, they are neither fish nor fowl: not young enough for those people who want a juvenile, and not old enough for those who want an oldie. As a result, our diamond dogs wait an eternity. I can’t tell you how hard it was watching Dawson ageing at the refuge, even though he was only here 14 months, those months took their toll on this sweet, sweet dog. Dawson went to a partner shelter in Germany where he was adopted within hours. Happy New Year, Dawson!

#7 Carlos

Carlos was another diamond dog like Dawson who suffered for his middle-age manners. Another of our boys to go to Germany, he was quickly adopted and we get regular photos of this wonderful dog enjoying life to the maximum. His son Tyron was adopted locally and we get lots of lovely updates from his family too. Good to know these boys are treasured as they should be. Carlos was one of my twelve advent calendar dogs in 2015. The advent calendar seems to bring lots of luck, although I never heard of anyone adopting one because of it! I like to hope it gives them all a little Christmas magic.

#6 Guapo

Arriving with his sister who was quickly adopted, Guapo suffered the fate of many of our young, big, energetic dogs: an endless wait. Loved by all the volunteers, he was quick to come for a cuddle, glad for any affection and a dog that seemed destined to stay for a long time. Happily, 2016 brought him a forever family. Seeing him bouncing on the trampoline or sitting in front of the Christmas tree no doubt brought a tear to every volunteer’s eye. He even has a husky neighbour who’s virtually identical!

#5 Ushang

One day in summer, a landlady brought in a transport crate with an animal inside it that had been left by one of her former tenants. At that point, we couldn’t even tell if it was a cat or a dog, and it took some attempts to get the dog out. Ushang was chipped, having been registered in Réunion, but his owner had died some years before, leaving her apartment and dog to her son. He’d run up debts and done a runner, leaving the dog behind. Ushang clearly hadn’t had any care for years. He was blind and deaf. This poor little guy found the refuge enormously stressful and we knew we needed to get him out of there urgently as he wasn’t eating. But who would adopt a blind, deaf dog? Luckily, a very kind family stepped in and Ushang went to his new home. After a couple of big operations to clean up his mouth and teeth, Ushang, now renamed Truffles, is living out his retirement in the most marvellous style with his Weimeraner girlfriend.

#4 Loulou

Poor Loulou was another one, like Jet, adopted as a puppy, brought back at 8 months, adopted again, brought back. In the end, he had three failed adoptions behind him, and all because – guess what – he’s a dog! His penultimate adoption was vetted carefully. She had experience with terriers, liked Loulou, heard all about what he needed. However, she failed to heed that advice, let him off lead within 5 days of having him and then was upset when he chased a deer. Loulou is another of our dogs who went to a smaller shelter in Germany, where he was subsequently adopted – hopefully by people who either use a lead or don’t mind the odd Dear Hunter moment.

#3 Teddy, Zakari, Zouzou and Zoe

In 2015, the refuge was called to take seven dogs who’d been kept in unsanitary conditions, suffering from neglect and very poor socialisation. The seven included six spaniels. Suzette and one of her daughters were quickly adopted, but Zakari, Teddy, Zouzou and Zoe went on to rack up some hard adoptions and returns. In the end, despite the fact it would make them difficult to adopt, the refuge decided they could only go as pairs. To cut them off so completely from the world they knew was divorcing them completely from any sense of safety. Zoe and Zouzou were adopted first, in April 2016, and their progress was slow but steady. Zakari and Teddy were adopted by one of our regular volunteers who really understood exactly what they needed. It takes a very special soul to adopt such damaged dogs, and although you count progress in minuscule steps, these four can finally begin to live for the first time.

#2 Elios

Despite his lovely nature, Elios had chalked up over four years of refuge life. Despite being okay with males and females, he was lost in among all our other black labradors. This boy saw over 2000 other dogs adopted before him, countless changes of companion. Finally, a family came for him and it was his turn. I can’t tell you how hard it is to return a dog to an enclosure when their companion is adopted: to do it as many times as we did with Elios was just heartbreaking. I don’t have to tell you that the video of him playing Fetch was the best thing I saw all year. I could watch that video a hundred times. An amazing, amazing dog who was just so long overlooked. I’m sure life must be strange now without any companions at all!

#1 Cleo

Along with Elios and Carlos, Cleo was another of my twelve advent dogs for 2015. He was also the oldest of the three. He was quickly reserved to go to Germany, but a skin infection turned out to be more complicated and we couldn’t let him travel without a clean certificate of health. So Cleo waited. As the year dragged on, spending his time with a shy dog meant Cleo too took on a little of that reticence. He withdrew into himself and his smiley, happy face, even for a treat, was rarely seen. Trip after trip went off to Northern Europe. Cleo was never on it. Finally, just before Christmas 2016, Cleo’s truck rolled up. He was adopted directly and seeing his photos now, I can see his happy face has returned.

Some of these dogs have been adopted in France, some by English-speaking residents and some in Northern Europe. It goes to show that we depend so very much on an international group to help us home our dogs. It takes a lot to go from so many long-term residents and it has involved a huge amount of international marketing, promotion and advertising. Our staff and volunteers work constantly to find homes for our dogs – gone are the days when dogs spent years waiting for a home. It’s not just marketing. The staff and volunteers at the Refuge de l’Angoumois also work hard to ensure that our dogs are promoted to the people who arrive at the shelter looking to adopt. So many people form the beating heart of the Refuge de l’Angoumois that it is impossible to single any one out individually: we work because there are so many of us who are tireless in our efforts for the dogs (and cats!)

I think that is truly worth celebrating.

I’ve not included any post-adoption photos – if you want to see how our dogs are getting on, come and join us in our Facebook group Refuge de l’Angoumois, Charente 16 where you can see videos of Guapo on a trampoline, Cleo on a couch, or Elios playing fetch.

I think as we move forward into 2017, it’s important to remember how far we have come, that we are far from the days of Smoke and Ufo, of the big scary boys at the top of the block, of Nichman, Dalton, Wolf, Darius, Salma, Alaska, Fairbanks… names that all our ‘old’ volunteers know by heart. I love it that our new volunteers fall in love one week and I have the happy job of telling them that the dog has been adopted next time they come to walk our dogs. I feel very proud of our shelter and what we do here. 2017 may bring sad dogs and traumatised dogs, thousands of kittens and hundreds of stray cats. It may bring disappointing legal victories and new prosecutions filed.

I hope that 2017 brings adoptions for our remaining long-stay dogs: Kayser, Hagrid, Estas, Amon, Aster, Junior, Pilou, Dede, Diabolo, Kody, Doggy, Sam, Gaston, Jafar and Fifi. Although with twenty new dogs on the books to photograph this afternoon, I’m always sad to see places filled as soon as they are emptied. Thanks very much for your support in 2016 – our dogs depend on it. These ten adoptions are by no means the only ones that make my heart swell with joy. The adoption of every single animal, whether they are here for a day or a year, helps fight the tide of neglect, abandonment and abuse. On behalf of all our adopted animals, thank you.

Why I won’t judge you for buying a dog from a breeder

Why I won’t judge you for buying a dog from a breeder


Having looked at what a puppy needs in its first few weeks of life, and why a puppy might not be the most suitable choice for your home, you’ll probably be surprised to hear a staunch rescuer say that one of the phrases I never say is “Adopt, don’t shop!” Kind of ironic, I know. I’ve never shopped. I never will. But why do I wish people would be less glib about peppering posts with this phrase when people are looking to acquire a new pet? And why is the “B” word such a dirty word?

One of the most popular (and controversial) articles on a popular dog website is a commentary from an adopter about why she judges people for buying puppies from a breeder. It’s always a topic that causes polemics. Good traffic for websites, if not very understanding, sensible or kind.

I have a confession to share as well. Once, a woman contacted me to make a statement about how she was ‘unliking’ my Facebook page because “our ethics were not aligned”. Why? I had posted a link to my friend’s dog training page. She’s an excellent trainer, by the way. Like frighteningly good. She’s a positive trainer – so why were my ethics not aligned to the woman who contacted me? Here’s why. My friend has five dogs, and has had two litters of working cockers in the last two years. When I received this snooty message, I was being judged for endorsing the business of someone who breeds one carefully planned litter of working dogs once a year. Somehow the eight puppies that my friend has caused to be brought into the world in the last two years makes her responsible for our shelter having eight hundred dogs through our gates? I don’t get it.

If you are a die-hard “Adopt, don’t shop!” comment-maker, please try to make it through to the end of the post before you tell me that our ethics are not aligned and cut me off though.

Quite honestly, there are a couple of reasons that I’m tired of hearing “Adopt, don’t shop.” The zeal and fervour of the self-righteous Rescue Radicals also makes it impossible to have an honest dialogue about some very important issues to do with what makes a good dog and why a rescue is not for everyone. If you work in rescue, you’re probably afraid to even mention the B word. Even my favourite trainer of all, Nando Brown, justifies his own choice of a “bought” Malinois by countering that he has done his fair share of rescues; indeed, he has two rescue dogs himself. So why does he feel like he must justify his decision to own Fizz and remind us of the great work he has done? Why are we at the point where our top animal professionals feel the need to remind us that they do rescue too? Is it that they feel the burning eyes of Rescue Radical Judgey-ness upon them?

Two people at the shelter have recently had quiet conversations with me about how they would love to breed dogs but are afraid of the reactions they would get. Despite the fact that they love particular breeds, and breeds that are popular for good reasons, breeds in good health with few known genetic issues, breeds not represented in French shelters, these animal lovers are afraid to promote the dogs they love. Instead, they do a bit of work for breed-specific rescues and try to keep quiet about how they wish they didn’t just have to deal with damaged versions of the dogs they love. Do these people know how many dogs there are in refuges? Of course they do. These people WORK in animal rescue. They’re the ones picking up dogs and cleaning up the mess that people make. Of course they know how many dogs are in rescue. Does it mean they don’t love Shelties or Salukis? No. They own muttleys. Or they own damaged versions of the breeds they love. I guarantee you that they own more muttleys than you do and that they’ve taken on dogs with so many complex issues that you wouldn’t think it possible. But they are afraid to breed, to promote a breed, to even mention a breed. It’s a dirty secret that is more difficult to talk about than many other topics. The Judgey Brigade has made it impossible for us to even talk about the B word. Somehow it’s okay to rescue a Beauceron or a Malinois, but not okay to want to have one any other way.

It’s clear to see why. Here’s a nice, sanctimonious, time-wasting example. Some lovely person with too much time on their hands (and a dog they themselves bought from a breeder) contacted me to ask me if I knew that one of our volunteers actually had puppies for sale? Shouldn’t we be adopting and not selling?! That volunteer is a member of a Neapolitan mastiff rescue group. She personally rehomes more mastiffs than anyone else in France. When a mastiff comes in, if she can’t place it, she pays for its stay, she walks it, she trains it, she tries her damnedest to make it adoptable. She does pre-visits and post-visits. She lives and breathes mastiffs. She is the most invested person – a breed ambassador. And the do-gooder who thought our volunteers shouldn’t be involved in breeding needs to consider one thing: the volunteer doesn’t actually have puppies “for sale”. She has over twenty homes lined up before the actual mating. Her puppies are never “for sale”. They are homed before they are even conceived. I wish every dog born had a breed ambassador like this.

Let me make this clear. Breeders are not contributing to shelter problems. Our shelters in France are not filled with pedigree dogs. We don’t have Shelties, Salukis, Springers and Samoyeds for adoption. Not ones with papers. That’s not to say we don’t have ones without papers, but they usually don’t come from anyone I would class as a responsible breeder. This is a really important distinction. Breeding dogs covers the people who pay thousands for the parents’ DNA, who have health screening, pages of heritage and don’t really care about Crufts, as well as those who churn out over seven hundred dogs a year or those whose labrador gets out when she’s in season and runs amok with the village ne’er-do-wells.

Backyard puppy farms are definitely responsible for our problems. Accidental breeders are really, really responsible for the dogs in shelters, but responsible breeders aren’t. People who think their girl should have a litter before she’s spayed with some mate they found on Facebook are also partly responsible for our problems. Anyone who thinks the world needs more brick-headed labradors is not a responsible breeder. Anyone who has three or four breeds up for sale at any point is not a responsible breeder. Effel, the pedigree beauceron with me in foster care didn’t have a responsible breeder. If you sell an energetic beauceron puppy to an elderly disabled lady, and you don’t answer her calls when she goes to a retirement home, you aren’t a responsible breeder.

Responsible breeders are not the problem. By and large, when we get a pedigree-registered traceable dog in through our doors as an abandonment, many of the breeders will come and pick it up that same day. When one of our American Staffordshires was at risk of being put to sleep because he couldn’t cope with refuge life and he’d bitten someone in excitement, the breeder did a ten-hour return journey and placed the dog in a really good rehab programme because he didn’t have space himself to take him back.

Good breeders hate the idea that one of their dogs is at the shelter. You wouldn’t believe how few pedigree dogs come to the pound in the first place, and how very, very few of those are unclaimed. Responsible breeders’ pups leave with birth certificates, chips, addresses for emergencies. They are traceable and trackable. Dogs from responsible breeders don’t often even make it through the shelter doors. Look on Seconde Chance if you don’t believe me. It aggregates dogs for adoption across all the shelters in France, and is searchable breed-by-breed. When you look at the seven Dutch Shepherds available, five are mislabelled. One is clearly a mali cross. Three are seniors (which is an issue in itself) but only two even look like Dutch Shepherds. None of them are LOF-registered, meaning they came in without microchips, tattoos or birth certificates. You’ll find this with breed after breed. Airedales on the site: 4. Proper ones who look like Airedales? 0. Akitas on the site: 4. Number who are proper Akitas: 2. What about a really popular breed, the French Bulldog? 22. Proper Frenchies: about 15. Responsible breeders did not cause this issue. You can bet your bottom dollar that not a one of those Frenchies came from a breeder that only bred Frenchies.

Do we get dogs that have come from puppy farms, unchipped and unvaccinated since birth? All the time. They arrive unchipped, unregistered, unvaccinated and without paperwork. Huskies, Czech wolf dogs, Malinois, hunt breeds, labradors … we get a lot of popular types of dogs who arrive without a chip or tattoo. No responsible breeder would let you leave their home without the pedigree of the dog (if they’re pedigree, which I’ll come back to later), the dog’s birth certificate, copies of the health tests of the parents, (for pedigree dogs) and a microchipped animal that has had its first vaccinations if not its second. Those first vaccinations and a microchip can cost up to 120€ so you can imagine why some breeders wouldn’t give them. It wipes out a big chunk of “profit”. Dogs that are microchipped don’t cause the same problems for us.

So how many of our dogs conform to a pedigree standard? A lot. They’re what we call ‘type’. They look like a breed without us really knowing if they are. Because they’re not chipped, there’s no way of knowing if either parent were pedigree or not. We get a lot of ‘type’ hunt dogs who don’t have paperwork, but they’re working dogs and they’re not “field trial” kind of dogs who need both hunting abilities and Kennel Club papers. We get Anglo types and Ariègeois types, beagle types and terrier types. A good number are not hunt dogs but are popular breeds that people don’t want to pay a lot of money for, like Yorkies or Labradors.

The vast majority of our dogs are not French Kennel Club dogs that have come from a proper breeder in the first place. Their dogs are what we call ‘race’ or ‘breed’. They conform to a breed standard and have Kennel Club paperwork. One or two of our dogs have these papers, and by and large, these are not dogs found as strays but dogs handed over by an owner. A number of those dogs are Category 1 or 2 dogs whose adoption depends on that paperwork. Pure pedigree dogs who’ve been chipped and vaccinated are usually surrendered because of changes in the owner’s circumstances. Most breeders on the documentation refuse to take the dogs back because – guess what – it’s actually fairly easy to predict who will surrender a two-year-old dog, and if you don’t care about that, you aren’t going to care if the dogs end up in the shelter. Luckily, most pedigree dogs (except for Amstaffs and rottweilers, which are subject to breed-specific regulation) leave the shelter quickly, even if their breeder thinks so little of them to care what happens.

And we’re a rural shelter, so we accept a good number of working dogs. That’s not to say all hunters are evil barstewards who kick out their dogs though. Many have dogs who are BOTH tattooed and microchipped. Most of them also have an orange collar with a mobile number on it. I’m not going to get into the whys and wherefores of hunting with dogs, but hunters who are out every day don’t have muttley hounds without paperwork. Sure, a dog is a financial commodity. That’s the reason why they have pedigrees and field trials. No. We’re talking about some random country “agriculteur” who sells “breton spaniels” on Le Bon Coin for 250€, not a premium setter going for 500€ just for breeding rights. Those random country guys who sell hunt dogs cheaply are sadly far too frequent. Their dogs are not so good at hunting and not worth finding if lost, so they pass over to us. We get A LOT of these dogs. Wire-haired fox terriers, wire-haired dachshunds, griffons, pointers, setters, spaniels. That makes up an enormous number of our entry numbers. So do you think these come from people like my friend, whose next litter are already homed even though the mating hasn’t happened yet?

On the whole, we aren’t getting in dogs from registered, licensed breeders. Nor can we say we get a lot from proper hunters. One ‘breeder’ brought one of her breeding bitches in herself and handed her over, saying she was dominant. I suspect that, at four, the female was hard work. The woman currently has four different breeds of dog on sale, so let’s not call her a responsible breeder. The dog had all the paperwork and I’m no GSD judge, but there was no way she was anywhere close to a breed standard. And if you want to see my neighbour’s 400€ allegedly pedigree “Labrador”, you’ll be surprised to see something more akin to a pointer. But hey.

So where do our dogs come from?

Accidental matings. Yes, even those dogs sold as a ‘cocker’ from a LOF mum, where the father is perhaps the collie from up the road. This is why matings are declared with the Société Centrale Canine, a birth certificate is issued, and then the offspring must be seen by a judge as the dog matures.

Dogs sold on the internet without papers. “Type” doesn’t mean “Race”.

Farmers or “agriculteurs” breeding indiscriminately and trying to make a quick buck before drowning the rest. I’ve been to three farms in the last month to investigate this joyful practice.

Purposeful back-yard breeders who want to make 200€ without incurring costs.

Hunt dogs without papers. Most are muttleys or sans papiers.

Back-yard breeders or rural ‘agriculteurs’ used to be responsible for a lot of the adverts we saw. Not so much anymore since advertising dogs has become much stricter in 2016. But it’s easy to see the ten local “breeders” offering popular breeds at cut prices or to find groups on Facebook where French bulldogs sell for 300€. When you look further, you see their adverts for shih tzus, spaniels, GSDs and French bulldogs… If they can’t provide details of DNA health tests for the parent dogs, or they have more than two breeds on site, you’re probably talking about a back-yard breeder. And yes, they can show you mum. But it doesn’t mean they’re a responsible breeder.

In reality, we aren’t getting so many of the 80,000 Kennel-Club-registered dogs born in France each year. One or two. But not thousands. There is NO causation, then, between responsible breeding and shelter numbers.

There IS a high causation between irresponsible breeders whose dogs leave unchipped and unvaccinated and the number of dogs in shelters.

This is why the law in France has changed. The laws changed as a result of input from vets, shelters, charities and breeders.

Not any of these groups want irresponsible or accidental breeding, or puppies on sale for 200€. If the bodies who write our laws are saying there is a correlation between backyard breeders and numbers in shelters, why are so many people still on the “Adopt, don’t shop” bandwagon treating responsible breeders as if they are the cause of the large number of dogs abandoned in France each year?

When you look at the books of shelters in France, it’s clear to see what the problem is and where the problems lie.

Do I agree with pedigree breeding? That’s a whole different question. With a Mali who had crippling arthritis and an American cocker with chronic ear infections, food allergies and eye problems, you may see what my viewpoint is based on. I wish people would care more about the personality of their dogs, and people bred for personality rather than looks. There’d be fewer crazy-energetic brick-headed labradors about.

But there IS a certain something to knowing the breed type and their behaviours. Tilly, bred in the US, is up and down the same dog as my Nana’s American cocker, bred in the UK, in the 80s. Seeing her on the table that first night was like seeing the ghost of Sunny. They look alike, sure, but they have a lot of similar behavioural quirks. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve called Hagrid, a mali cross at the refuge, Tobby. They even do the same door nudge “double tap”. For all of those who say that breeds don’t have particular qualities, I’d like them to come and meet a few Anglos, a few fox terriers. But by and large, the behaviours that dogs have in common go wide across the species, and the quirks and foibles are only noticeable because they are unusual. We fall in love with breeds and I hate that we do. We generalise about breeds and I hate that we do that too. We see humans as individuals and animals as ‘species’ and we have prioritised looks over personality in our dogs. I wish we loved mutts as much as we love pedigrees. I know my heart melts for the gentle Amigo souls with their dubious heritage and their deliciously gentle natures. My own personal jury is still out on “type” or “muttley”. One gives you a bit of an idea what you’re getting. The other, well, it’s pot luck really, unless you know both parents. I’d much rather someone took two nice muttley dogs and said, “Do you know what? These dogs would make lovely kids between them.” Throw in a few health-checks and that’s how I wish dogs were ‘made’.

So do I think all dog breeders are causing the problems in shelters? No. Only the ones who do it for money. Do I think pedigree dogs are okay? Hmmm. That is a very complicated question indeed. Just because I may not agree with pedigree or closed books at kennel clubs doesn’t mean I think breeders cause problems in shelters.

Do I think that you should ALWAYS adopt and not shop? No. No I don’t think that at all. Will I judge you for buying a pedigree dog from a reputable breeder? No. Will I judge you for buying a cut-price unvaccinated unchipped dog from some woman on the internet? Damn straight.

But it’s not just a question of heritage and kennel club papers.

Why shouldn’t you adopt a pedigree? Should we give up our breed fancying?

In all honesty, if you want a breed, you may find one in a shelter somewhere. Like Westies? Get in touch with a rescue Westie association. People do give up their pedigree dogs all the time. Births, marriages, divorces and deaths mean there are often adult pedigree dogs available. If you want a breed-standard rescue puppy, you might have to wait, but you might find one of those too. You don’t have to give up on pedigree to rescue a dog. That said, finding a Weimaraner in a French shelter will be tough, and that goes for any number of “types”… unless you like labradors or griffons, beagles or anglo-français, and you don’t care about kennel club papers.

Nor do you have to give up on adopting a puppy.

That comes with a massive, massive caution.

You’ve seen or read Marley and Me, I’m sure. In that, the owners realise what a mistake they’ve made when they see Marley’s dad, who is something of a nutcase. Well, with rescue puppies, you can’t see that. You have no idea if the parent dogs have great personalities or not. Not only that but in-vitro stress, inherited fear levels, removal from mum before they’re weaned, poverty of experience between 5 and 7 weeks… all proven factors in the development of a “stressed puppy”. And yes, that means that our puppies MAY be a harder adoption than you might think because we’ve no idea what they are bringing with them.

By the way, this is also why I wouldn’t buy a puppy from a back-yard breeder since the same pre-natal, neo-natal and post-natal conditions exist for those puppies too. That’s the one time I would say “Adopt, don’t shop.” After all, if you’re running the Russian Roulette of cheap puppies, you might as well support your local shelter. They’ll probably be less traumatised than one from a puppy mill.

The facts are simple. If we want well-adjusted dogs, we need two well-adjusted parent dogs living in calm, well-adjusted homes, going through pregnancy untraumatised and raising puppies in optimal environments. You can’t guarantee that with a rescue puppy or a backyard breeder puppy. Now I don’t know who my dog Heston’s parents were, but he was abandoned at a day old and hand-reared. He’s a very good dog. Not a great dog, but a very good dog. He’s still reactive, but he’s not the only one of his litter to be so. He’s smart and he’s healthy, but one of his sisters died because her blood didn’t clot after a wound. Heston has not been an easy pup to raise. He has made me have to be the best I can be, and I’ve made huge lifestyle changes for him. Raising him is probably why I will never raise another puppy again. Give me the old giffers who walk in and crash out within ten minutes. I love Heston, but he is precisely the kind of dog who end up in refuges at two years old, because they are highly energetic, smart, big, muttley and male. How many other people saw a dog like this up for sale or adoption and felt like they had their work cut out for them? How many give up a dog that had such an unknown heritage? The answer is easy to see in the dogs handed over to shelters, the dogs found on the street. Unplanned parenthood for dogs isn’t just about the NUMBER of dogs that result from that mating, but the QUALITY and PERSONALITY. Accidents would be okay if the dogs that had bred had well-balanced personalities. But they’re not the kind of dogs that get out and go a-wandering when it’s season time are they? Dogs with high energy, nervous dogs, fearful dogs, reactive dogs – those poor-quality accidental matings – are what seems to be behind a large number of dogs handed over to our shelter at the very least, to say nothing of the unsuitability of homes that puppies are given to. Let’s be honest: if your dog has got pregnant by accident, do you really care that much about who has these puppies with their crazy personalities? I’d had four dogs by the time I got Heston. I’d owned animals all my life. I grew up surrounded by dogs. I have a big garden, and I am at home for large parts of the day. But I was unsuitable. I kind of muddled through but there were a lot of times it was really, really hard work. He made me get good. He still barks at people who come on the property. I managed 1km without a lead lunge today and that is as good as it gets. He knows several heelwork routines, can find the scent of gun oil or oregano over 200m of dense, distracting territory and he is handsome as dogs can be. But I had a lot to learn with him and I’m lucky I had the space and time to do it.

My shelter adoptions and fosters of adult dogs have been relatively easy, behaviourally speaking. But then I had to choose carefully because I’ve little support if it doesn’t go well. Sadly, I couldn’t take on the dogs who need a lot of support – a true rescue. Amigo wasn’t really a ‘rescue’, and neither Tilly or Ralf. They were adoptions. Those dogs settled in days. Tobby, he was a ‘rescue’ with his mouthy ways and separation anxiety. The truth is that many people pick up a rescue dog (or puppy) and are not prepared for it. These are adult dogs with poor experiences and a past they may never come to terms with. I don’t want people to be so guilted out by “Adopt, don’t shop” messages that they take on a dog that they simply can’t cope with simply because they’d love a dog but they feel too guilty to choose one from anywhere else but a rescue.

The truth is, we like dogs. We want dogs in our lives. If we rely on puppies from back-yard breeders, raised in terrible conditions, or accidental muttleys, all that’s happening is that we’re creating more and more and more dogs who have problems. And if we put pressure on people to adopt, the people who will take a great, well-adjusted dog are reduced. If we turn dog breeding into something that ethical, honest dog lovers turn away from, we leave it wide open to idiots who’ll mate brothers and sisters in the name of pedigree. We look at the GSDs at Crufts this year with an attitude of disgust. The breed pool and closed books of kennel clubs have become so narrow that the dogs are clearly in very poor physical health. Talk to a Dobie owner if you don’t believe me. And we’re not talking about years and years of breed narrowing. We’re talking about a couple of decades, and the “slopey” GSD is what you get for a pedigree GSD. We have been very effective in the last 50 years or so at making pedigree dogs into dogs with genetic health risks, and we’re only just taking steps to try to weed out those problems. But some of the best people I know who SHOULD be rearing GSDs aren’t doing so because they also work in rescue and they’re worried about the way they’ll be viewed.

The truth is that few people other than great breeders think about the mental health or personality of dogs. Few people think “this dog is a well-balanced, healthy individual” and thinks to breed puppies who will also be well-balanced and healthy. A responsible breeder considers personality as much as looks, but we are discouraging breeders like this and leaving the “market” wide open to unscrupulous people who couldn’t give a monkeys about personality, health or DNA tests.

We are effectively encouraging the proliferation of dogs with behavioural problems if we discourage responsible breeders or if we discourage breeders who are breeding great dogs who don’t even have paperwork or breed.

And where does that end? If every single person who bought a dog in the next year went to the shelter instead and no puppies were born at all, I guarantee you the shelters would not be empty. Not in the least.

Some shelter adoptions are HARD. I mean, really hard. They take persistence and determination, years of work and expensive rehab. Take my lovely Hagrid. We’ve been working with him on the mouthiness, but that dog is not a dog for every home. I can’t bring him here because he doesn’t do male dogs. He needs people with great experience of handling shepherds, who have plenty of time and secure land for him, who will continue to teach him and train him with his mouthiness, who aren’t afraid of him, who will spend a big proportion of their day on him and will make the same kind of time-expensive changes to their life that I have made with Heston. A one-dog or two-dog household with no children, no grand-children, experienced owners who’ve had wily shepherds before. I’d possibly take him if I had no other dogs, and only now I’ve learned more about wily, bitey shepherds from Tobby. Then again, I’m not sure I have enough time and resources for a Hagrid in my life. But we have many other dogs like Hagrid, Julio, Gaza, Gilda, Loyd, Larry, Sam, Jack, Daluk,  … these are not dogs for first-time dog owners, people who work, people with children, people without dog experience, people without ten-foot fences. Of those dogs, ONE has paperwork, by the way. Of our twenty-six dogs who have been at the refuge over a year, how many even look a little “type”?

Want to play “Guess the Breed?”

Does this look like a problem caused by breeders or even by backyard breeders? Or does it look like a problem caused by people whose dogs had accidents? It sure as hell looks like our poor sixteen long-stay dogs are more accident than design. Do you think the average person wanting to adopt a dog could cope with some of these dogs? By the way, there’s not a one I wouldn’t adopt. But there are twelve of the sixteen I can’t adopt because they don’t do males. With the best will in the world, if these sixteen represented all rescue dogs, I’d have my work cut out finding one that suited my home life and skill level. Do you think any breeding at all went into the ‘making’ of these dogs?

It’s not just our unruly or hard to home dogs that have issues, either.

Take Zouzou and Zoe, adopted some months ago from the refuge, so traumatised that they have developed a range of bizarre guarding behaviours, resistant to touch, to comfort, always a flight risk… Take our nervous hounds who tremble at the slightest touch and run away the moment anything spooks them… Take our destructive dogs who can’t be left with blankets… Take our old dogs who need palliative medical care… our boisterous dogs who’ve never had a lick of training… our unsocialised dogs who hate others… our dogs who kill cats and other small furries… our dogs who are scared of children… our high-energy dogs… our category dogs who need owners with licences and training….

Our dogs left at the refuge for months on end are sometimes here because the number of owners who would be a good home for them are really, really few and far between. That’s not always true – we have a number of dogs passed over because of age, colour, size and gender, but it is generally true. Often, our highly adoptable, well-trained, well-adjusted dogs walk out of the door within days.

When people who think that it is more “noble” to adopt rather than shop take on a dog, they often do it for the wrong reasons. You have to know that you are at a good point in your life for a RESCUE dog. Because that’s what these dogs are. They aren’t cheap dogs. They aren’t the “ethical” choice. They aren’t the Fair Trade equivalent of animals. They are RESCUE dogs. Some of them are very damaged. A number come with a risk of separation anxiety, with aggression issues, with a past. A lot escape that, which is great. But if you think that if my friend stopped breeding and I started putting “Adopt, don’t shop!” on posts that are nothing to do with me — if you think that this will find homes for the sixteen dogs above — have at it and tell me why.

Sadly, misguided ethical adopters are on the rise. I think this is because of a number of reasons. If you choose a dog because you have convinced yourself that it is the ethical choice, the moral choice, then you are soon going to find the stench of burning martyr strong upon you as you are faced with complex behavioural issues or requirements.

Hagrid, Gaza, Zakari, Teddy and Daluk don’t need owners making an ethical choice, they need owners who are not blinded by their own moral goodness. They need owners going into adoption with their eyes fully open, completely prepared for any eventuality, otherwise that adoption will fail. I’ve seen these dogs returned from well-meaning owners (and occasional idiots) and “the ethical choice” is the very last reason you should adopt. If you feel smug about having a RESCUE, then you have gone about it the wrong way. Feel happy to have a dog that’s right for you and you’re right for it. If that is a dog you bought, so be it. If that is a rescue, so be it.

In the meantime, I’d like to see fewer articles by smug people whose only connection to the rescue world is that they have adopted a few dogs.

Don’t adopt a dog because it is the ethical choice. Adopt a dog because you fell in love and you know you can provide a home that is right for that dog.

And stop blaming the breeders.

Blame your neighbours who don’t sterilise their dogs. Blame the back-yard breeders who’ll sell a “knock-off” pedigree. Blame the people who keep them in business and buy from pet stores rather than homes, who prefer to buy a Yorkie for 200€ off some dodgy website rather than pay 1000€ for a Yorkie whose parents aren’t related to each other and who’ve had a suite of genetic tests. Blame the cult of pedigree dogs. Blame people who walk into Dogs 4 Us and think that they can buy a dog here.

Tell people to “Shop Better” rather than “Adopt, don’t shop”. But don’t think that a rescue dog is for everyone, or that a person who buys a dog is immoral. If people “shopped better” and bought puppies from great homes (regardless of paperwork, pedigree or price) rather than “buying easily and cheaply” then there would be fewer dogs in shelters.

And if people who couldn’t ensure their muttleys wouldn’t reproduce got them sterilised, then there would be fewer dogs in shelters too. In fact, if people stopped letting their dogs have accidental litters, our shelter could probably close. If people stopped thinking that you can buy a great dog for 300€ from Facebook and if breeders cared enough to register and track the dogs they cause to be brought into the world, we’d definitely close.

So I will never judge you for buying a puppy from a responsible breeder. I will never blame you for wanting your puppy to have the absolute best start in life, great genes, a great early experience. How could I blame you for that?

But… I will also say that despite their questionable heritage and their poor experiences, a rescue dog can prove that much of this doesn’t matter. We have great dogs walk through our gates every single day. There are times when I feel like I should say “Adopt, don’t shop.” But instead, I’d say “Before you buy, check out your local shelter… and your not so local ones. Maybe you’ll find a dog that fits right in. But if you don’t, good luck and please make sure you shop responsibly.” Many, many of those misshapes, mistakes and misfits make great family pets. I know. Ralf was just about the easiest adoption ever. Amigo is a dream of a dog and I wish I could have fifty with his sweet, sweet nature.

Stopping saying “Adopt, don’t shop!” will not only stop alienating people, it has other benefits too.

That way, we keep the conversation open between responsible breeders and shelter workers, and we keep our eyes open about what makes a good dog after all. And then, maybe then, we’d have an honest conversation about whether Kennel Clubs are a good idea at all and why pedigree dogs are perhaps causing so much heartbreak with inherited diseases, quirky behavioural throw-backs and genetic dead-ends. There are battles to fight, people, but guilting people into rescue isn’t one of them.

Hopefully you won’t be unliking my page and thinking that our ethics aren’t aligned now you understand a little about where I’m coming from. A little understanding and acceptance would go a long, long way.

A tale of Tiggers and Eeyores, or why puppies aren’t always for every home

A tale of Tiggers and Eeyores, or why puppies aren’t always for every home

We’re often told that puppies will fit right in to our household, but is that really true? Is a puppy always the right choice to make when it comes to a multi-dog household? An emergency vet visit and an afternoon of puppy cuddles got me thinking about how adding a puppy into the mix isn’t always the best decision. Reading a blog post from the Dog Lady, Theo Stewart, got me thinking about how hard it can be for an older, established canine resident to accept a cute bundle of loveliness into their life.

A couple of weeks ago, the story of a tearful visit to the vet with a five-month old puppy who’d been attacked in a moment of excitement by an adult dog brought it home to me that puppies are not for every home. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen an adult dog wounding a younger one. Sometimes, those wounds have been fatal. The story of a nine-month old mauled to death by an older dog is an unfortunate result of a situation that is not always the joyful experience it should be.

And to my right, the seven little wriggly dachshund x terrier pups remind me just how much at least one of my woofers would have hated these little fosterees. Tobby, my ancient Malinois, literally took to the streets when I had puppies here. Puppies were not for him. Randy Wobbly Tobby, so delighted when I turned up with hounds or arthritic old lady labradors, delighted to see poodles or bichons, happy as Larry when I brought home stinky old ladies, would have found it very tough to accept seven velvety beans. Not only did I have to manage all the puppy play and land-sharking, mopping up and random acts of chewing, I had to keep an eye on Tobby, who would slip off during a quiet moment, slide out through a badger hole in the fence and trot off up the road in search of a home where there were no puppies, thank you very much.

Whether it was the lack of quiet, the fact that puppies need constant reminders of what’s to play with and what’s not (including Wobbly Bob’s tail and arthritic legs), or the fact he got less attention, we can only speculate. The fact was that he was not a fan of puppies, not one bit.

And Amigo’s not arsed either. I mean he doesn’t mind telling puppies off, but they never take any notice of him, even when he’s snarling in their face. It’s like being told off by Richard Briers, to be fair, but even so, my gentle old guy and I sit with our feet up out of reach on the couch and try not to get cross about the ankle biters. Effel growled at the boxer puppies here last week. Even Heston had a grump. My four-year-old collie cross is usually so very happy to have a roll about with some bitey babies, but those puppies were not his cup of tea. What a change from 18 months ago when I had to manage the growls of Tobby and Amigo, and Heston’s joyful baby-sitting. Would I trust him with a puppy? Absolutely. Does he still enjoy puppies? Not like he did.

Tilly, so happy to play with puppy Heston (and the only time she ever played with another dog), spends all her time putting puppies in their place and grumbling if they disturb her peace. Heaven help any puppy that got near her food bowl. Separate meals for any puppy who spends a dinner time here. It’s not often I have to do that with the adults.

I mean, part of it is that puppies don’t learn easily, do they? Irascible, tenacious little beggars. I spent forty-eight hours watching Margot the nine-week-old boxer cross biting her brother Olly so hard that he was squealing and squealing. She played tug of war with his tail, chewed his ear, rode his back. So much for puppies learning from other dogs that their bite is hard or they are playing too rough. Little Ayan, here with me now, engages in some quite heavy-duty hazing of her brothers. Mama, the young labrador who had seven puppies at the shelter in the summer spent the last three weeks of their time here looking to escape from her babies having had more than enough of her offspring’s insistent attempts to play and mug her for milk. Little Nellie is at the same point with her six-week-old offspring. She literally couldn’t be any further away from them. Her job is done. Time to move on.

So, small puppies with their lack of social boundaries can be hard work for adult dogs, even if they are your offspring. And so many people choose a puppy because they have difficult dogs who won’t easily accept other adult dogs. We adopt a puppy because we think that our older antisocial dogs will adapt to them. One lady was telling me that she wanted one of the puppies I have here now because her elderly fox terrier won’t accept other dogs — she thinks the dog will ‘mother’ a puppy. We have many misconceptions about how puppies are accepted into family groups, but if the reason you want one is that your existing family pet is intolerant of adult dogs, is it really sensible to think that they’ll like a small puppy who might learn how to behave in ways that don’t annoy the older dog? And what if they don’t? Even if they do, they’re subjecting a dog to a life with an antisocial misery — is that going to make any creature in that house happy apart from the owners?

So why might a puppy not work with your own very social dog group? My dog group might not look like the most social of all families, but they put up with some shit. I’ve had over thirty dogs and pups stay the night here in the last year — some for longer than that. Tilly might grudgingly accept them through the door with a bit of a bark. Amigo might hide behind me. Heston might show us just how fluffy his tail looks and Tobby might have licked them to death, but the adult dogs were more easily accepted than the pups.

Part of it is just the energy levels. I mean, those puppies can be like crazed land sharks on speed.

Having a new crazy land shark about reminds me very much of the incident in The House at Pooh Corner, where Eeyore falls into the river.

“How did you fall in, Eeyore?” asked Rabbit, as he dried him with Piglet’s handkerchief.
“I didn’t,” said Eeyore.
“But how–”
“I was BOUNCED,” said Eeyore.
“Oo,” said Roo excitedly, “did somebody push you?”
“Somebody BOUNCED me. I was just thinking by the side of the river–thinking, if any of you know what that means–when I received a loud BOUNCE.”
“Oh, Eeyore!” said everybody.
“Are you sure you didn’t slip?” asked Rabbit wisely.
“Of course I slipped. If you’re standing on the slippery bank of a river, and somebody BOUNCES you loudly from behind, you slip. What did you think I did?”

Sadly, outside of children’s books, animals can’t talk or reason, and no post-BOUNCE analysis takes place when a younger animal BOUNCES a bigger one. Being bounced is not acceptable for dogs and they can’t fall back on words to sort it out. Eeyore was absolutely right to be grumpy that a bouncy creature should come into his corner of the world, especially when he had the whole of the forest to be bouncy in. That doesn’t have to be a puppy. My foster Effel is a fairly bouncy dog as it is, despite being seven years old. Tobby didn’t much like being bounced by him either. And the fact is that dogs, like Tiggers, are prone to bouncing where there are other dogs.

So a couple of weeks ago, when a man arrived home from work, setting off the excited bounces of his new five-month old pup, the resident adult dog didn’t much care for that excitement. The outcome were some fairly serious bites, from a dog who had never bitten before. Joking and Tigger comparisons aside, rambunctious, excited behaviour which is hard to control for a young dog can be precisely the kind of behaviour that other dogs take exception to. It’s going to happen at flashpoints where there’s high energy, and unlike Eeyore who begrudgingly accepts his bouncing, your older dog just might not.

But it’s not all about flashpoints and making sure your young dog is safe around your older ones. It can’t all be sorted with crates and playpens. Much of it is also about energy levels and frustration tolerance.

That was very much evident at a local dog play day. Two young dogs were left playing long after the others had run off their energy. One was nine months, the other eighteen months. Play, although it can continue into adulthood in dogs, doesn’t always. And play, like with other species, is often more exuberant and even more necessary when you’re young. Even the six-week-olds sleeping next to me know about toys already. In fact, one has woken up and is already mouthing a chew toy whilst his siblings sleep on.

The question to ask yourself is whether your adult dogs can handle a puppy who needs to play and wants to explore the world. A puppy who might bounce from time to time. Whilst you might feel goo-ey and parental when a puppy comes along, you know how tiresome the land-sharking can be if you’re not in the mood. You can’t choose when a puppy will decide to sink its teeth into your boots, or chew your laces, or trip you up. Your adult dog can’t choose when a puppy wil sink its teeth into their ears, or chew their tail, or run through their legs. And whilst you have all the love in the world for your new addition, which you understand is just learning the rules and needs a little help, who’s to say whether that’s evident to a dog or not, especially when, like Tobby and Amigo, you have told that puppy off over and over again about bouncing you into rivers. The difference is that as a human, you can manage your emotions. You can go out. You can find some space. You can invest in a puppy pen and supervise from a safe distance. Those aren’t choices your older dog can always make if owners have just blithely thought the older dog would accept a younger one.

For that reason, your adult dogs may prefer you adopt another adult dog rather than a puppy. An adult dog’s personality is already formed. Their behaviour patterns are more established. It’s easier to find a dog who matches your own adult dog’s size and energy levels. An adult dog may be the sensible choice. They are better at managing their behaviour and also managing the behaviour of others. It’s easy to see those ones who’d accept every single dog who ever crossed paths with them.

Another reason that people adopt puppies is to replace a dog who has died. Sometimes it’s for companionship for their own dog, or to stop separation anxiety. Sometimes it’s to fill the hole the old dog left in the family. It’s for this reason that many people feel like it would be very hard for an adult dog to join their family, as the family group has already been established and they think that their existing adult dogs won’t accept another adult. Or they think that dogs are more accepting of puppies, who will learn to fit into the group more easily. Whilst this can be true, there’s no reason to think that dogs like or accept puppies any more than they would like or accept an adult dog.

Sometimes, people feel that they don’t want to adopt an older dog because losing the last was very painful. They think they will have more years with a puppy, which may or may not be true. This morning, I read in one group of an eight-month-old wire-haired pointer that just dropped dead on a walk. No dog is immortal and space between losses doesn’t make it any easier, I’m afraid, even if you think it will. Some people like to stagger the ages of their dogs, so that they won’t end up with a geriatric group, or a group who need a lot of care all at the same time. There are many reasons why people choose to adopt a puppy instead of an adult dog.

But the sheer number of young dogs abandoned at the shelter tells you how hard youngsters can be. Over 80% of our dogs are less than 4 years of age. A very short socialisation window, a long adolescent period where you may not be able to exercise the dog physically at a level that is compatible with their energy levels for fear of muscular or skeletal problems, youthful exuberance, lack of time to train and work with your adolescent dog… and you have every reason why young dogs can be boisterous and bursting with energy. Are these things you are prepared to cope with? If you don’t have time and energy yourself, a puppy may not be the right choice for you or for your existing dogs.

Take Heston. He’s four and a half. He has so far enjoyed playing Uncle Heston, and he has very much enjoyed working with young puppies up until these last guys, although to be fair, he’s not been as relaxed as usual having a big bouncy boy with us in foster and following a few other changes in doggie personnel. He’s generally a great dog to introduce to young dogs. He self-limits well, never being rough or over-exuberant. He has great body language and communicates well with puppies. But even he seems to be getting tired of puppy play. I think sometimes of getting a younger dog to be his companion, since my canine family group is very much an ageing one. But would a puppy be the right choice? Certainly, my other two dogs would find it tough. Amigo is very deaf and not tolerant of puppies. Tilly is a dog who just likes to be undisturbed. Would a puppy work with this group? At the same time, am I happy with an ageing group?

The best answer has come from my foster dogs. Heston’s most favourite was a game young lady called Galaxy, a similar age and size to him, female, playful and fun. She was two at the time, to his three and a half. Although I would love a puppy, a dog like Galaxy would have been the best option, I have no doubt. She didn’t upset the oldies, didn’t have excessive training needs and came here with an energy level that suited all of us. Her personality was already established and because I could see the adult her, I knew what I was getting.

A Galaxy wouldn’t end up bouncing my oldies, wouldn’t give me as much of a runaround, wouldn’t have an energy level that caused my other dogs to pack their bags or to spend their days on guard in case someone comes to bite their legs or steal their bed. She’d also give my ageing group a bit of vitality without being a nutcase about it.

But if you want to introduce a puppy into the mix of your older pack, there are many benefits to that too. Dogs are social learners so having an old hand around the place will help with rambunctious younger dogs. At the shelter, we really don’t like for people to adopt a puppy as an only dog: these dogs are so often returned at the adolescent stage having had no real or meaningful interaction with older dogs. I can spot you a dog who’s lived out its life as an isolated, often unsupervised puppy a mile off. They have poor bite inhibition, low frustration tolerance, exuberant behaviour and often very coarse social skills with other dogs. Julio at the refuge is one such dog, having arrived after nine months of isolation. Maki is another. When you adopt a puppy and you don’t have another dog, you have a lot of work to do to keep it socialised. Although genes have a large role to play in how social your dog will be, the difference between a well-socialised husky and a poorly-socialised husky is bigger than the difference between a terrier and a spaniel. If you are picking up a puppy known for independence and pugnaciousness, like a terrier or bull breed, or a puppy bred for seeing off intruders, like a shepherd, it is your absolute responsibility to ensure they are socialised if they live on their own. And that is not always easy to do. Puppies like these really benefit from having supervised and mindful guidance with older dogs in the home.

Ultimately, whilst you may have been hoodwinked into the myth that older dogs will more readily accept a puppy, it is not true and it can lead you into very dangerous territory where your own dogs’ sense of security is destabilised. And just because your dog will accept a non-hormoney-smelling nine-week-old, can you predict safely what will happen when your puppy comes of age? Just because they know each other certainly doesn’t mean that they won’t fall out. Indeed, some of the worst fights (usually to the death, or to very serious injury) have happened between an older dog and a dog on the cusp of manhood or womanhood. That’s why, hearing of an SBT killed by a shepherd, seeing “nine months old” told me pretty much what had happened. Early sterilisation is not without its risks, and if you are doing so to keep the peace, you still might never avoid the problem completely.

You may also be under the illusion that puppies can easily learn not to chase cats when in fact, an older dog with a modicum of training and no reaction around cats at the shelter is a much better choice. Your young puppy only has to learn ONCE how fun it is to chase a cat (and how natural it feels!) and you have a young animal with very poor impulse control around your other treasured pets. Can you really supervise your puppy until it is at least six months old around running cats? And even if you can, can you stop the little green light of “that looks like most marvellous fun!” coming on in your puppy’s eyes? As an owner, you need to be absolutely on top of your game with that.

So if you’re thinking of picking up a little bundle of fluffy loveliness, think of your existing doggie dynamic. Think of how much time and training you can offer. Think of whether you have the time and skill to mould a dog whose behaviour is exemplary. Too often we assume that a dog is rambunctious or unmanageably energetic through some fault in their background, in their breed, in the parents. Yet I can show you littermates whose behaviours are so completely opposite that you would never believe they were siblings. You have to invest time to get the dog you want. If you don’t have the time, wait until you do. I will, in all probability, never have a puppy again. Having to mark out four months or so of being at home or finding puppy sitters, getting in all the socialisation and making sure I do everything I should… it’s exhausting. Plus, I could pick up ten dogs today from the shelter who come with far fewer needs and would settle in minutes, not days.

So, if you have an older family group of dogs or cats, don’t accept at face value all the times you’ll be told that a puppy will be accepted by the group. Whilst Tiggers might be acceptable to laid-back Winnie-the-Poohs or motherly Kangas, or super-social Rabbits, they certainly don’t make life easy if they keep bouncing the introverts by mistake. Sure you miss out on all the cute puppy moments, but puppies are only puppies for a very short period of time.

In the next post, I’ll tell you why you’ll never hear me use the phrase “Adopt, don’t shop!” and why I think there are times you might be better to shop for a puppy than adopt from a shelter. I know – controversial!

Puppy Power: getting your puppies off to a great start

puppypower

Watching a video that Nando Brown posted of his Malinois Fizz, I couldn’t help but compare her to Hagrid, our resident shelter smart boy who’s now one of the dogs who’s been here the longest. Fizz has had everything right: good breeding, a great upbringing, an owner who more than understands the demands of the breed, who did absolutely everything he could have done to raise a great puppy; Hagrid has had nothing right: accidental breeding (he’s a Mali x GSD with no pedigree), an upbringing that didn’t teach him a soft bite (kind of essential with mouthy Malinois!) and who ended up in the shelter, aged 4.

It made me sad for Hagrid, because despite all those things against him, he could do everything Fizz was doing: spin, twist, sit, stand, down, through the legs, stay, play dead. Well, almost all. I never got him to jump on my back. It’d be like trusting Hannibal Lecter with the cooking. He is who he is despite everything. I wonder who he could have been if he’d had a great upbringing.

Having two puppies here on a 48-hour stay also reminds me just how important it is to do right by your dogs. Like it or not, puppies are like amazing little sponges, yet most of us teach them one or two appropriate behaviours and they learn five or six inappropriate behaviours all for themselves. The windows of opportunity are short with puppies, and some of them are downright contradictory. There are also a lot of things that you have to depend on someone else to do, even if you get your puppy at six weeks as I did with Heston (he was found in a box at one day old). For this reason, it’s vital that you work with the foster home or the breeder as much as you can before you get your puppy. So many of those windows of development are closed by the time most breeders are happy to hand over a puppy at eight weeks or more.

Neonatal period (0-2 weeks)

For puppies in the neonatal period, most of what they experience is with touch, since they are unable to see or hear. Even their smell is very poor. They also respond to warmth as well. Contact and warmth are vital for neonatal puppies, and you should expect the breeder or foster carer to spend considerable time with the puppies on them as well as on mum. Pups like to huddle, so spending a couple of hours every evening with a puppy resting belly-down on your chest is a great way to start getting them used to you before they are too old to be scared. It’s a good way to start that contact, touching all parts of them, especially ears, legs and feet. It’s a great way to start a puppy off in life if it is already used to human touch by two weeks. Very young puppies may easily be physically harmed, but because they cannot hear, smell or see, they cannot be easily harmed psychologically. Anything you can do to start off touch and warmth will help build a great foundation for later. This helps puppies learn that humans are safe.

Transition period (2-4 weeks)

This is the period when adult dog behaviours begin to appear, and watching puppies at this age is amazing. You get to see all those canine instincts appearing. In the third week of life, puppies begin to orient themselves, beginning to find their way around and explore. As their eyes develop, they become more interested in objects at a distance. Growling and play fighting will start to emerge, so it’s vital that puppies have contact with others in their litter to learn how to play. They also begin to hear sounds in this period. Teeth start coming in around twenty days depending on breed, so you really want to start handling your puppy before then so that they are used to it before the bite instinct kicks in. Since puppies can hear from this point on and will move towards things other than their mum, you can also start to call them or encourage their approach. Puppies will also sit at this point, and you can start off rewarding them for this simple skill too. At the end of this period, you should be rewarding your puppies for calm behaviour, sits, settles and helping them to learn that humans are safe.

Socialisation period (4-6 weeks) 

This period of a puppy’s life is marked by a lot of interaction and surveillance. If you thought you were tired before, this is when you need eyes in the back of your head, especially with a big litter! There’s a reason this period of a puppy’s life is called the socialisation period – it is the age at which they learn social play and the age at which they form social relationships with humans as well as other dogs. Their curiousity is really high but their fear response is minimised. Meeting and playing with other dogs is vital during this time – but since puppies are unvaccinated, many breeders and vets are unhappy to do this. It’s a big risk. On the one hand, you risk a number of infectious diseases or fleas being transported by the other animals, and on the other, you risk them learning to associate other dogs with feeling afraid. Even seven-week-old puppies can quickly learn to be very afraid of other dogs, trembling and yelping at the slightest contact, or taking much, much longer to interact with them.

During this period, it is absolutely vital that puppies have handling and contact.Puppies become fearful of handling around five weeks of age, and if they aren’t habituated to handling during this period, they can become very fearful. Like feral kittens who will remain feral if not handled around the three week mark (or at least be very, very difficult to socialise), the same is true of puppies. By fourteen weeks of age, the socialisation window is almost entirely shut, but even at seven weeks, puppies can develop a fear response to human handling. What they need now is handling, and lots of it.

At this age, puppies will also start to eat more solid food. There is no reason at all they should be eating from bowls (except to learn how to eat from one – and remember to vary the materials you feed them in from plastic to metal or porcelain!) and so you can use their food needs to build up that bond with you. The pleasure centre of the brain is part of the reward centre too, so all food and contact combined will teach a puppy how great human contact is. A food bowl with puppy food is a wasted opportunity. Burying treats in a snuffle mat, using them as rewards for approaches, teaching the puppy their name (or to respond to “puppy!”) and you’ll quickly find yourself working your way through their food needs for the day.

It doesn’t help with toileting though, if puppies aren’t getting three bigger meals a day, so this is the time that you need to take regular outside breaks and if you use rewards for toileting outside, you can use them for that. Smell and habit are much stronger tools for puppy house training than reward, so be vigilant with mopping up, change the mop water regularly and make sure that puppies go outside the moment they are awake, about ten minutes into active play and before they nap. Even at this age, puppies will build up toileting habits and routines that can be pretty hard to break.

Around 5 weeks, puppies will also start behaving as a group, following one another about. It’s important at this point to have one-to-one time with each puppy and continue individual contact and handling. Puppies who have little exposure to people and a lot of exposure to other young dogs can become very ‘dog-focused’ and can find it more difficult to form attachments to people. For some types of puppy (some terrier litters, for instance) from 7 weeks, you may find them targeting one individual of the group – which is why it becomes vital that group play is supervised. A puppy that learns early that picking on another weaker dog is fun can learn some very indesirable behaviours. The last thing you want to allow is a young puppy to learn that bullying or hazing is fun. This is especially important with breeds that have been selected for tenaciousness, like terriers or bully breeds.

Puppies also learn in this period to use chewing as a method of investigation. Mouths are like hands, and if toddlers are grabby, puppies can be little land sharks, sinking their teeth into absolutely everything. It’s vital at this point to start to swap “bad” chewing for “good” chewing so that puppies build up a preference for what you want them to chew. Towards the end of this period, you will want to be teaching bait-and-switch, where puppy will swap a toy or whatever it’s chewing for a treat or for another toy. Giving up a toy or something they’re chewing should always bring reward.

This is really the period that you want your puppies to be beginning to experience the world, without overwhelming them and traumatising them by constant, unplanned exposure, but they still need to be with mum and littermates. They are also unvaccinated. That’s a big demand on breeders and fosterers, requiring almost a twenty-four hour presence, eyes in the back of the head, lots of exposure to new things, lots of contact with humans and other animals. Since puppies should not leave their littermates at this time, if you’re interested in buying or adopting a puppy, getting really involved with them at this age will not only help out the breeder but also familiarise them with you.

Juvenile period (6-24 weeks)

This period is marked by learning all the things that are nice and all those that are frightening. Helping your puppy develop their attention spans, building in frustration training and learning motor skills is important. It’s also the period at which serious psychological damage can be done. A single event can cause a fear response and it can take some enormous counter-conditioning or desensitisation to get over it. Take, for instance, the puppy whose first experience in a car is a terrifying one. How many trips in a car where there is a positive association does it take to get the puppy to see the car as a temporary event before something very pleasurable, or a negative association where they see it as a temporary event before something very unpleasant (like the vet). It also covers the period in which puppies move from their family unit to their new family, so it’s vital there is good communication between the breeder or fosterer and the new home.

There are several really important things your puppies need to learn during this period, alongside the usual obedience programmes.

This period is marked most by the fear response, so teaching your puppies how to handle the introduction of novel experience is key. What you really don’t want (even if you are teaching a gun dog or a SAR dog) is a puppy who investigates without checking in with you. Puppies who learn that humans decide when things need investigating and when they don’t are puppies who end up as safe dogs. Even hounds, gun dogs and SAR dogs need to know a cue to investigate. Take it from me… puppies who investigate everything without your supervision are puppies who become Hestons. My collie x retriever had some amazing self-taught investigations during his formative weeks, and although that’s bloody marvellous for an independent dog, it’s a recipe for disaster. He may be the best tracking dog in the town, but it took me a gazillion years to teach him to investigate on cue. “Find it!” is a great cue for dogs of breeds who have great eyes, noses or investigative sequences. “Leave it!” is also incredibly useful!

It’s also the period when puppies get vaccinations and meet the vet, which makes it vital to make that experience as positive as possible. Sadly not all vets are as keen to help you habituate young dogs to the vet, so choose a vet and a surgery that has minimal stress for your puppy. The movement for fear-free veterinary care is only just in its infancy – kind of strange when you think about it! – but if you think of how hard dentists had to work to overcome their fearful reputation in the 60s and 70s, it’s the same with vets now.

Vaccination health is not the only crucial health care you need to begin at this age. Puppies should also get used to having their teeth brushed. Seriously! If I were starting again with a puppy, it’s the one healthcare routine I would build in from the beginning. Dental hygiene is so fundamental to other aspects of health that you need a dog who has a clean set of gnashers. The toxins from mouth bacteria can get into the bloodstream and cause all sorts of health problems, including problems with the heart and kidney failure! So many people are obsessed with what they feed their dog as a way to prolong their dog’s life and extend a healthy lifespan without taking into account that the biggest difference you can make to the lifespan of your dog (other than long-lived parents and grand-parents) is dental hygiene! Unlike the “raw food/biscuit” debate which will rumble on until proper longitudinal surveys have been completed on both sides, there is no debate about dental hygiene and its importance. Handling your dog’s mouth will also help with “mouthiness” as well. The last thing a vet needs is a bite for looking in a dog’s mouth! Just make sure you use specialist dog toothpaste! Minty breath is not for dogs. This from a girl who used to laugh at her neighbour for brushing his cat’s teeth! Now I think it’s the most fundamental aspect of health care.

No article about good starts for puppies would be complete without a mention of food. Although you may think that a packet of dog biscuits from the supermarket is suitable, puppies need specialist foods for their age and also for the size of dog they will become. It’s vital that large breeds or those prone to dysplasia or muscular issues don’t grow too fast. It’s also essential that the balance of energy and protein is just right for a puppy. This is why home-made meals are not recommended by your vet. Indeed, early research on a litter of Bernese mountain dogs showed that their home-made raw diet had left them with severe nutritional deficiencies. There are plenty of good freeze-dried, pre-packaged raw diets or biscuit diets for puppies constructed by veterinary nutritionists that you can buy from internet stockists. But the packets sold in the supermarkets are unlikely to offer the nutrition your puppy needs. One thing is also for sure: one size does not fit all. The biscuits for a small breed dog are not suitable for an older dog, and young dogs have different calorific needs and nutritional requirements than an adult dog.

You can also follow Kikopup on Youtube for lots of great videos. She has some great videos about teaching calmness, settling, sitting, following and not teaching other skills that encourage excited behaviours. Ian Dunbar’s excellent books on Dog Star Daily are free and vital for everyone with a young puppy. He has free books for “Before you get your puppy” and “After you get your puppy”.

If you haven’t booked your puppy in with a really great force-free positive trainer to learn a reliable recall as their flight instinct kicks in, I can’t stress this enough, especially if you have dogs who are led by their eyes or their noses. Okay….what I should say there is ANY dog! All dogs, even ones bred for territorial behaviours, can get into real trouble if you don’t have a recall that has been tested every which way you can. For dogs who are particularly territorial, such as shepherds, you also need to get that socialisation in. This is also very true for dogs who are bull or terrier breeds. Top notch manners around other dogs are absolutely crucial for independent dogs, especially if they have an instinct for the tail end of the predatory sequence. If you get off on attacking moving objects, is there anything more important than learning how to behave around cars, small furries and small humans with faces in the bite range? I couldn’t help but see all those rehoming announcements yesterday for shepherds who need homes without other animals and without children and think that there is a lot to be said for more careful breeding and for the right socialisation to combat latent behaviours that you don’t want to encourage. The cattle dog that nips at children, the collie who stalks bicycles and the shepherd who bites passers-by are all examples of dogs who really, really needed their owner to teach them when it’s okay to do these behaviours and when it is not. All dogs are individuals and all can be very poor examples of their breed, but you owe it to your dog and the people around you to know what floats their boat, effective ways to channel that behaviour and effective ways to focus it in the right way.

That said, all dogs have sets of behaviours that are incompatible with good manners. Biting, jumping up, mouthing, barking and helping themselves are also all behaviours that will need a bit of work.

This is why it’s vital you get your puppy from a breeder or fosterer who knows what they are doing, who knows more than the average human being about dogs. It is their responsibility to do everything necessary until the dog passes over into your hands. The best breeders and fosterers will actively encourage you to help them out in that four-eight week period, or will be happy to do those things themselves. Then it falls on you to take up the reins.

It’s also why a puppy is not for everyone, and not for every period of your life. If you don’t have the time or the skills to take on a puppy, you might want to consider an older dog. Next week, I’ll tell you why.

 

 

 

 

Why 2017 is the year to volunteer

Why 2017 is the year to volunteer

volunteer

I’m not going to lie to you. Volunteering can be emotional and it can be messy. Somewhere between the people who come once and make a big song and dance about how magnanimous they are on Facebook, and the volunteers who always, no matter what you ask them, and who say yes time and time again, there are the regular volunteers who are the lifeblood of any charity.

These are the volunteers who come up with new ways to raise money, who offer new ideas. They’re the volunteers who are there on a quiet Friday morning or a lazy Sunday afternoon. They’re the ones sharing on Facebook and helping out behind the scenes. They’re the ones quietly drip-feeding the world around them, keeping the name of your charity in everyone’s minds. Sometimes they’re the volunteers who come in and get their head down and get on with it. Many times, they’re the quiet ones. Often they’re the ones who bring a smile to the world-weary, the ones who turn up and make the impossible into something that’s – well – possible.

In animal rescue, these are the quiet guys who turn up and walk the dogs week-in, week-out. They’re the ladies who you see in the vet’s with a carrier full of sick kittens. They’re the names you see on facebook who run groups and make sure lost pets have the best chance of finding their owner. They’re the faces you see day after day, offering advice to adoptants, doing home visits, helping move animals from one place to another. They’re the people who come up with fundraising ideas and muck in at events, the people with grimy hands who’ve spent an afternoon sorting out assorted bric-a-brac to sell at a car boot sale or yard sale. In between the Armchair Warriors who paste a thousand petitions on their feeds and the weary full-timers, these volunteers are the mainstay of any organisation. And all organisations depend on volunteers like this to keep going.

So why should 2017 be the year to volunteer? What’s holding you back?

Many people think they don’t have enough time to volunteer.

I confess I had a silent tut to myself when I saw someone saying they didn’t have enough time to volunteer because they had ironing to do and a car to clean out. I’m just going to share with you the life of one of the ladies I most respect: six kids, a business, studying a masters degree, 17 chickens, 10 sheep, 4 dogs and two cats… and she runs a rescue voluntarily. I would say this lady lives life to its fullest, but she’s not sacrificed her own life for work or rescue.

Most people don’t have quite that life (and if you do, you’re forgiven for taking a bit of a back seat!) but don’t think you don’t have enough time to dedicate to volunteering. Some roles take three or four hours, an afternoon maybe. Some people give an afternoon a week. If everybody did three hours a week, charities would be cock-a-hoop. If you have a hundred volunteers who give three hours a week, every week, that’s three hundred hours. That’s only fifteen volunteers per day. Only! But it equates to almost eight members of staff. That three hours a week for a hundred volunteers works out at a budget of almost a quarter of a million euros. Small drops make big oceans.

Some people think they couldn’t handle working with animals. They think they’re not strong enough or that they can’t handle the emotional intensity of animal rescue.

Believe me when I say there are jobs for everyone. You’ll have seen, no doubt, the video of the lady in her nineties who volunteers every day in the UK. We had our own nonagenarian, Louis, who was our “petting therapist”. Every day, he’d sit in reception with a dog who needed cuddles and companionship. Big or small, they hopped up next to him and he spent the afternoon giving some of our dogs the attention they craved. If you can sit, then you can pet.

Other people do other kinds of jobs if they can’t work with animals directly. Some do admin jobs. One volunteer comes in every single time our shelter computers break, which is pretty often. Seeing Florian under the desk is a pretty regular thing. He designs logos for associations as well. Just because you haven’t got time when the shelter is open or you don’t feel able to work directly with animals doesn’t mean there’s not a job for you to do.

Some people feel that language is a barrier – here, in France, if you’re a retiree or a mum who spends most of her time with other ex-pat mums, it can be quite understandable that volunteering can be a bit of a stretch. For that, having bilingual members of staff makes a huge difference. But, where there is a will, there’s a way. I can’t count the number of times our shelter directrice has come up to me and said “I smell a rat!” – I don’t know how much English she ever spoke in her life before so many English speakers descended on her shelter, but I do know that I’ve never seen so many French speakers who aren’t confident with English trying to speak to English speakers who aren’t confident with French. I think that is pretty cool. And, let’s face it, there are jobs that require no interaction at all, if you’re the antisocial type. We have 200 dog bowls that need washing, and 30 cat litter trays to clean out. Grunting is more than adequate. Volunteering in France will definitely help your language skills. Believe me. When you’re trying to explain the consistency and colour of diarrhea, you’ll find your language expanding miraculously. And there is always someone to help you.

It’s not all about what’s in it for the shelter, though.

What’s in it for you?

Volunteering in France is a great way to learn the language and to become truly part of something. It was through volunteering that I actually – after five years of living in France! – found actual, real-life French friends. Not clients or people I work with. Not mums from school. Actual friends who invite me to their houses sometimes. If you live in the Charente, you’ll know that this kind of stuff usually doesn’t happen unless you have known someone for fifty years or you accidentally married a French person.

You learn a language and make friends because, guess what, volunteering is great for building a sense of community. Doing good things makes you feel good too. It reduces depression and it gives you a purpose. The routine is vital for those who are suffering with depression, and feeling part of a community is a big part of great mental health. It brings you in contact with people you would never have met in any other way and it forges friendships that would never have happened in a world beyond volunteering.

When you volunteer, you meet people. If you’re like me and you work too, that puts you in touch with a whole new business market. Don’t get me wrong, I’m tired of the cynical sellers connected to the pet industry who want to use the shelter as part of their plan to branch out to new customers. Be they pet food sellers, dog trainers, photographers or kennels, there are definitely some pet industry professionals who are in it for clients. But there are plenty who are pet industry professionals because they love pets, and more clients are accidental by-products of volunteering. If you come at it from the angle of “this will expand my target audience”, you’ll fail miserably. If you come at from “I love animals!” that will stand out a mile. And you might be at odds for how this will help you if you’re in an unusual business. I can’t count the number of times I’ve pushed my crafty friends in the direction of one of our volunteers who also runs a craft business. Personal connection is everything for word of mouth, and volunteering gets you out of your usual circle of contacts. You just don’t know what other volunteers get up to in their day jobs, but you can bet your bottom dollar that once they find out what you do, they’ll be happy to recommend your services.

Volunteering is also a way to improve your confidence, especially if you’re more wallflower than party animal. Most of the volunteers at our shelter are fairly extroverted, but there are plenty who are shy guys or prefer to just get on with it. It’s great for reminding you what you can achieve, especially if you’re feeling unsure of yourself.

It can also help you learn new skills, or apply your skills in ways you never did before. Take me. I’d studied photography, but had never really done much between landscapes and travel photography. Now I have 30000 photos of dogs and kittens on my laptop. I’ve had to use Photoshop and editing programs like Inkscape in ways that I never had before. It also got me interested in how animals learn. I’ve got a masters in how people learn and I loved psychology at university, but now I am loving having this mid-life turn of focus. I still love teaching English Literature. It will always give me a thrill to get teenagers to the point where poetry isn’t horrible anymore. And I still love writing. In fact, it’s given me something to write about! But volunteering is also the reason I’m studying further, and almost half way through a canine behaviour and psychology course. I’m really, really looking forward to writing my dissertation and blending all that I know about changing people’s mindsets with working with animals. So many dog behaviourists say that the owners are the problem not the dogs that I’m looking forward to exploring the shadow side of working with human clients over dog problems. Volunteering has invigorated me and given me an opportunity to bring what I know to a different arena. That’s pretty exciting. My book list is enormous, and it’s all about animals – so much so that I have turned into a colossal bore, I’m sure. I was talking about altruism in birds at lunch yesterday. I’m sorry to the people I was with. Luckily, they tolerated my enthusiasm and we ended up talking about sweary parrots on Youtube.

Volunteering also allows you to give back to a cause that you believe in. For so many years, when I worked full time, my donations were financial. Now I’m really enjoying the practical side of volunteering and a chance to do something a little different. It also turns you into an advocate. How many of us have been convinced to adopt a shelter animal by someone who worked with or believed in second chances for animals? That’s pretty powerful.

It can be fun too. I mean belly laugh kind of fun. You’d probably not think that working in animal rescue could be fun. A few weeks ago, a member of staff enlisted me for a pick up in a dodgy part of town. We had a nervous Amstaff and a Malinois who hated the Amstaff to pick up. And a cat. It was pretty horrendous, and it was pretty sad. The poor Amstaff wouldn’t get in a crate at all, so we had to drive kind of holding her over the seats, and the Mali was so distressed that she did a massive poo in the transport crate. When we got back, there was shit everywhere. I mean everywhere. And you can’t leave that shit for someone else to clean up. Nope. That is YOUR job. Well, the unfortunate member of staff hadn’t got the hose pressure just right and ended up getting a back spray of dog shit. I cried laughing. It just couldn’t have been any more shitty than it already was. We both ended up crying laughing, and it was absolutely the best medicine. If you don’t have people to help you find the ridiculous in amongst all the shit, helping work is pretty flipping miserable. In the rain, in the mud, the sight of two volunteers wearing bin bag skirts and silly hats just turned the whole sad misery of life in an animal shelter on its head. Now I know that dogs appreciate laughter more than tears or anger, and our laughter is vital to the animals’ mental health. That’s what I tell myself. I can even show you studies about tone of voice and what’s going on in a dog’s brain when we smile. Smiling volunteers are essential for sad dogs. Fun and laughter is good for our souls as well as for theirs.

And if, just if, you find a dog or a cat that you fall in love with? Well, who’d argue with that?

So go on, I dare you. Make 2017 the year you volunteer. Stick it on your New Year’s resolutions list. Sign up today. Don’t put it off a moment longer. We need you! Dig out your Yellow Pages and find somewhere – anywhere – that needs a helping hand. I guarantee you’ll start 2018 feeling really glad that you did.

 

 

Killing Me Softly: Why a dog’s safety should be our number one concern

Killing Me Softly: Why a dog’s safety should be our number one concern

safety

Shelters have difficult choices to make when it comes to the animals in their care. You may have a number of volunteers who care deeply about dogs and about rescue, who want to do their absolute best by the animals. Unfortunately, although we may all say that animal welfare is our number one priority, there are certainly times when we need to step back and make a reasonable and rational decision based on good dog science. Caring for animals and understanding animals are not always things that go hand in hand.

Before I go any further, let me clarify. I don’t expect every dog lover or dog owner to be super-knowledgeable about dogs. I don’t expect every shelter volunteer to have a masters in animal ethology. Most of the time, we humans and our pets get along just fine. We’ve had thousands of years of collaborative interspecies learning. Some would argue that dogs understand us a whole lot better than we understand them. Most of the time, caring for animals and loving them with your whole heart doesn’t put animals’ lives at risk.

But for certain dogs, certain breeds even, they need us to have a higher understanding of what it means to be a dog. Caring for them isn’t enough. Couple our kind and caring hearts with a love of a breed type and you have a potential recipe for disaster, especially if that love for a type isn’t paired with much breed knowledge.

That’s most clear with dogs like Flambeau, on the right. Flambeau is a husky. I think that much is evident. And people generally know enough about huskies to know that they have certain physical needs as well as certain inbuilt behaviours. That dense undercoat makes them less suitable for life in a warm house. Imagine being stuck in a centrally-heated house in a fur coat that you simply can’t take off. How long would it take before that becomes cruelty? Huskies are one of the land animals who can use up the most calories in a day for their size – sometimes over 11,000 a day in sled racing. They have stamina and speed in their blood. Who would disagree with the fact that it is cruel not to give them the exercise for which they have been bred?

Flambeau came to the shelter having been surrendered. He’d been living down at the bottom of a garden for 4 years. Nobody would disagree that this is cruel. Dogs are social animals and whether they need sheep, people or other dogs around them, they don’t thrive on their own.

But Flambeau, as other huskies, attracts interest of many people who don’t put animals’ needs first. Living in an apartment, working full time, not being able to take him out for a good load of exercise every day… sure, it’s a home. But is it a good home? Many volunteers would celebrate the adoption without considering how suitable a home that is for Flambeau.

Dogs adapt. It’s what they do. But should they have to? And does that come without cost?

The cost of adapting to an unsuitable life can be high for a dog. Dog behaviours are likely to “pop out” as they struggle to adapt. They vocalise, howling, barking, whining. They chew. They may bite. They dig. They may suffer separation anxiety or boredom. They might sleep more or stress drink, pace or become depressed. These are often behaviours that cause an animal to be surrendered.

That’s why I’ve had four offers for homes for Effel, my foster beauceron, and four times had a conversation where I’ve had to explain about a dog’s needs. Effel has very mild separation anxiety. He enjoys human company and dog company. He also feeds off movement energy like many pastoral dogs, and has nipped. A home with children, or on his own, or left to his own devices is as cruel to me as a home where he is left at the bottom of the garden. If shelters think with their hearts, they may allow dogs like Flambeau and Effel to go to homes that are making high demands of adaptation that the dog may never be able to reach. If we think with our heads, we are often accused of overlooking good homes. I can’t count the number of outraged people I’ve seen on Facebook moaning about how they were turned down in the adoption process. Like, how very dare a shelter care enough about an animal that they might have a standard?!

Sometimes, yes, those expectations are unrealistic. I would like Effel to go to a home where he has a big, bouncy mid-aged, well-trained, playful girlfriend. He needs a secure garden and I’d prefer it was a big one. He also needs owners who don’t work, or who work from home. His attraction to movement and mouthy reactions mean it is essential they don’t have children in his future home. I appreciate that those things are unrealistic and I’ll have to compromise on his behalf. That said, I am not going to wet my pants if someone who works all day, has children, who has an old setter and no secure garden offers him a home. Maybe I’d think differently were he in the shelter rather in foster, but he has needs too and I need to be rational about those. To what extent can I expect him to curb his nature? How will doing so manifest in adjustment issues?

And do you want to know something? I am not at all sad that I’ve pissed a couple of people off by suggesting Effel is not the right dog for them. Anybody who can’t see that they are an unsuitable home for him doesn’t really care about him. Do I want him in such a home?

For other dogs, we can care so much that we ignore their needs. This is why we need to be so careful in how honest we are about the dog’s needs and in our screening process. If we don’t understand the dog’s nature and we don’t find a home that is a good match for those needs, we are putting the dog’s life in danger.

Take Hagrid. He’s the toothy GSD x Mali on the left. He’s been hard to rehome and we’re just starting to consider homes in other areas to help him find somewhere. One thing is for sure, rotting in the shelter is doing him no favours. But caring too much and not understanding his needs could very seriously put his life in jeopardy. His behaviours are such that, if they are not understood, he runs a risk of biting. Once out of the shelter, we have no way to ensure that his owners don’t decide he’s unworkable and take him to be put to sleep. 

Then we could all shake our heads and blame his former owner for not teaching him a soft bite, or try to be compassionate and say things like, “well, they couldn’t risk him biting the children!”

Much better to accept that some dogs will be just hunky dory in a home without small, flappy, unpredictable humans. That is especially true if the dog gets all big-eyed around stuff that moves. The predatory sequence is part of any dog’s genetic heritage. Some of those behaviours have been suppressed though selective breeding. Some have been accentuated. But all dogs have the capacity to do those things. Scan, eye, stalk, chase, grab-bite, kill-bite, dissect, consume. Even your little poodle cross may find himself swimming upstream after a family of ducks, not quite sure what he’s doing there or how he got there. Like it or not, some of those natural predatory behaviours can pop out when a dog is excited or stressed, even if they have never done before. And if they are nearer to the surface and more easily apparent, then we have to be careful where these dogs find a home. A dog whose aim is to stalk and chase is going to find recall difficult. Can you imagine this dog in a home without a fence? Put them in an unfenced home on a main road with lots of traffic and you can see why this wonderful rehoming would turn out to be a death sentence. A dog like a terrier who was bred to enhance those grab-bite/kill-bite skills… if they find it hard to control those impulses when excited, do you want them around children? My old woofer Tobby was one of those. Add pain and old age to the mix and you can see why it was vital that he went to a home without children and with adults who knew what they were doing. His Malinois “chase-grab/bite-kill/bite” skills were close to the surface but very rarely popped out. By this, I mean we both did a good job of managing his life so that he didn’t have the urge or the opportunity. That couldn’t be guaranteed in a home with kids or kittens.

Back to Hagrid. Now, I’m not going to be all starry eyed about him, or put my rescue coat on and think that all dog adoptions are shiny-happy-marvellous. In fact, I’ve found myself explaining so many times to people about his behaviours that you’d think I wanted to keep him at the shelter forever. The trouble is that often, they are homes where he is going to be face-to-face with things that bring out his predatory drive, which he isn’t always successful at managing.

Because he’s not successful at managing these natural, instinctive, normal dog behaviours, it absolutely needs us to be on his behalf.

So what are those behaviours, and what security measures do we need to put into place to find him a suitable home?

I’ve done the C-BARQ and Monash Personality Questionnaire for him. It looks like this:

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The grey is an average of all dogs who have a profile on the C-BARQ assessment. That’s interesting in itself. You can see that “non-social fear” is fairly high, as is chasing. There are things wrong with owner-reported surveys, of course, but the C-BARQ has high reliability.

What does this tell us?

Hagrid is an energetic, excitable and touch-sensitive guy. He has issues with movement and a desire to chase moving things. He’s also not a dog who tolerates other dogs in his space. Nothing that’s news to me. He can be left alone, which might give him the makings of a guard dog, but he is not aggressive towards humans and he is not afraid of humans, which makes him a rather crappy guard dog. I mean, what use is a guard dog who doesn’t scare people off?

The kind heart in me is saddened by how long this magnificent dog has spent waiting. I’m desperate for him to move out of the shelter. I love him. I’d have him in a shot if I didn’t have other males. If you ask me, he is one of the smartest, keenest dogs in the shelter.

That said, I think it’s absolutely vital that he go to a home where he is understood and where his needs are met. For HIS own safety, he needs an environment with little chase potential and no opportunity at all for him to get out. He needs a home where he never comes in direct contact with children and where his owners are both kind and experienced in channelling a dog’s energy.

If his safety is not met, it could likely put his life in jeopardy. One bite may be all it takes for him to realise that screams and flapping arms from children is the most fun he’s ever had. Whether he hurts a child (or an adult) or not, a home that does not pay attention to his safety is a potential minefield. A ticking time bomb. Safety means freedom from the risk of injury. That goes two ways. It’s not just safety for the people who keep him, but Hagrid’s own safety too. Few vets will have an issue with euthanising a dog who has bitten. Making his environment risk-free (as much as possible) is how we keep him safe.

Let’s be clear. Biting is only an issue in that it may cause injury to other animals or to people. Biting is not an issue for a dog. It’s a natural canine behaviour. They experience the world with their noses and with their mouths much more than we do. There is no need to put a dog to sleep because of it. There is a very great need to secure their environment. There is also a need to stop thinking with our hearts and to be sensible about canine behaviour. Not every dog can or should fit into every home. It makes no sense to me that people would accept huskies need to live in homes where they have space and exercise, but then think that there is something horribly wrong with suggesting herding dogs or terriers may not find living in a home with children to be an environment that is safe for them. Accusations fly in some circles if you so much as suggest a Jack Russell terrier or a collie may not be the perfect dog for young children, that a bull terrier or a Malinois may find it impossible to constantly be on their best behaviour around things that move.

We expect so very much of dogs that we forget how much we are asking them to control their own impulses with those tiny neo-cortexes they possess. When humans lose control on Facebook so easily where animals are concerned, and insults fly fast and free, it amazes me that we write off our own impulse control yet expect so much of dogs.

For this reason, we need to care for dogs by understanding them.

Only in putting their needs first can we ensure that they are in a home that is right for them. We also need to stop romanticising dogs and rescue work. Some dogs, like Hagrid, have complex needs that cannot be easily met. It doesn’t mean we should stop looking, but it doesn’t mean a home at all costs. Cooing over dogs and their plight, or taking risks through lack of assessment and understanding puts dogs’ lives in the balance. Loving dogs means we do need to consider the world from their perspective and accept that there are times that we ask too much of them. Coming to terms with a dog’s limitations and inability to adapt perfectly to human expectations is essential. Only then can we truly say we care for them.

So when I say a dog’s safety should be our number one concern, I’m not referring here to keeping them from chocolate and grapes, or having doors that lock or harnesses in the car. I’m referring to the fact that we must consider our dog’s needs first and ensure the world around them suits them as well as possible. Only by truly understanding dogs and adapting the world in which they live can we truly say they are safe.

The Woof Like To Meet Guide to Successful Marketing of Shelter Animals

The Woof Like To Meet Guide to Successful Marketing of Shelter Animals

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Whether we like it or not, social media is a gift to shelters across the world, and it’s up to us to market our animals in a way that not only gets attention and shares, but is also marketing them in an ethical and honest way. Whilst many shelters are really faced with “euth” lists, ethical and honest ones won’t play on your sympathies to find a dog a home. Not even if they are a kill shelter.

There’s an amazing New York Rescue that I follow on Facebook. I have no doubt at all that they have some real issues to face, but they never, ever use emotional manipulation to get an adoption. Yes, they have dogs on “Kill Lists” and they will say that they are dogs with an expiration date which is why they need a foster home or an adoption, but they never, ever post photos of dogs behind bars or dogs on concrete.

I am so totally with them on that.

Sure, you can be honest and say what the situation is. Just because you are faced with a problem doesn’t mean you can’t admit what is likely to happen and say why a dog is urgent.

But no, you should not take advantage of people’s good natures by playing on that situation alone. The consequence is that many good people are taken advantage of and go on to adopt dogs that are unwell, unhealthy or unsuited to the home in which they are placed. I see these all the time from certain European shelters and it makes my heart hurt.

“This dog WILL BE EATEN by the other dogs at the shelter if YOU don’t save her…”

“This dog will be KILLED in this shelter if you don’t give us money…”

“This dog needs emergency adoption or SHE WILL DIE!!!!!!”

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You know these appeals. They have LOTS OF CAPITALS AND !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! They also have Facebook pages with thousands of followers, who all share their posts religiously. Sadly, these adverts rely on making you feel bad rather than relying on finding the best home for a dog. Any home will do.

The adverts are usually grainy, grey photos with sad looking dogs lying on concrete floors with bars behind them, or broken up wooden kennels. You don’t have to look far to find these photos. This is one of my own, by the way. I don’t take many shots like this and I never, ever stick emotive words on the photos because – well, we have different (and very successful) marketing strategies. It would be completely unethical, and it would be a complete lie.

In fact, when making up this photo, I realised that I have only a handful of photos with bars out of the thirty thousand I have taken in the last two years. Really, it was hot, he was sleeping – he was totally chilled out. I took the photo because it was the end of the day and I was seeing how far I could walk down our main block without setting the dogs off barking. But I can quite easily stick a manipulative message on there and pull on your heart-strings until I’ve got a thousand shares.

Good shelters don’t need to share photos like this, even if they face impossible circumstances.

Despite the vast problems we face, the most successful marketing is ethical through and through. For instance, we too have a number of dogs who have never lived in a home. These are hunt dogs that are hard to place in homes. Some of our dogs are incredibly fearful and need very particular homes. It’s not to say they can’t live in a home, or they wouldn’t like to, but I am not ever going to allow them to go to a foreign country to live with an unknown family in an environment that could be incredibly stressful for the dog. That is not to say I wouldn’t allow them to go to a family with whom I’ve had lots of long and serious conversations, but I won’t just package them up, bundle them over the channel and wipe my hands of the whole thing.

Yes, good shelters want homes for their dogs just as much as those who use less ethical marketing strategies.

No, I’m not ever going to lie or manipulate people via photos and appeals just to do it.

That’s why you will never see me share a photo of a dog behind bars. I’m not going to take photos of dogs in places that look like war zones. In fact, I’ll crop out anything that looks remotely scruffy, sad or heart-breaking and deliberately use background blur to avoid showing you bars or concrete floors.

The fact is that some bits of our shelter were pretty unkempt. They are all tarted up and beautiful now, thanks to a great bit of DIYing. But I was never going to take photos that deliberately captured that and then say “well, it’s important people know what it’s like.”

I’m pretty sure most people can imagine what a shelter is like. And you probably imagine many of them as being worse than they are.

Our shelter, for instance, is just like a very, very big boarding kennel. Less shiny, less well-lit and less warm maybe, but then our “guests” aren’t paying 10€ a night to be here. But it’s not any better or any worse than some private kennels I’ve seen where people happily pay to keep their dogs.

If I wanted, I could easily present dogs in a grubby, cold environment and tug on your heartstrings.

But that does both you and the dog a disservice.

So you will get a lot of this instead:

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Because the day this little lady can’t look at you and melt your heart is really the day I need to show her on concrete behind bars in the rain.

Yes, there are urgent appeals. There are always urgent appeals. There are dogs who can’t cope in shelters and who need an immediate home. But an honest and ethical shelter will save the heart-rending photos for when it’s really needed.

And do you know what? It’s not dogs like the one above who need me to take sad photos. In fact, it’s the dogs who’ve been in for ages who need them. And they are the kind of dogs who, to be honest, even concrete and euthanasia notices aren’t going to help on appeals very much.

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See… Junior is a prime example. He’s just not as cute. No big eyes, despite his happy face, his lovely lolling tongue and doggie smile. He doesn’t look sad or confused. But he looks like a nice dog. A nice, happy dog who is confident and sociable. I really want Junior to find a home, but taking a sad-looking photo of him behind bars isn’t the way to help him find one. In reality, he is just not that kind of a dog. I won’t say that he’s desperate or going to be put to sleep just because he needs a home. He needs the right home, and he depends on our adverts to give him the very best chance of finding one.

So how can you put together an ethical, honest advert that finds homes for your dogs without relying on heart-breaking photographs or emotive text?

The first thing to accept is that there are dogs whose feet aren’t going to touch the floor. You don’t need to market them. They could have the ugliest personalities on the planet but they are going to walk out of the place. If my dog Tilly was at the shelter, she’d be adopted in hours. I don’t need to promote her. To do so would be a waste of my time. Little, cute, blonde, female, pedigree… she’d be gone before the ink was dry on her microchip form. She is a hoardy, guardy, antisocial madam with severe health issues but she needs no help in finding a home. Market if you like, but accept that you will spend hours fending off callers who are pissed off because the dog has already gone.

The second thing to know is that a good photo will definitely draw the eye. But all your photoshop talent is wasted if you don’t have a good write-up. And yes, cute dogs will go first whether they look happy or sad. It’s important to accept that you will have categories of dogs who move more easily than others. That can be based on gender, age, appearance or breed, colour, size or personality. Know where you need to invest your time and don’t worry that the reason you haven’t rehomed a dog is because it doesn’t look cute enough or sad enough.

For us, small, young females under 10kg are going to walk out of the shelter. Our big, middle aged houndy dudes over 25kg are going to be sticking around. If you add in other factors like introverted or nervous natures, a dislike of other males, fixations on cats or rough behaviour around children and you’re talking about factors that will severely hamper a dog’s adoption chances. Not impossible, but harder.

A photo is just a mug-shot, and you can have the best photographers in the world taking pictures of your dog, but if your dog has certain requirements, these are the things you need to be honest about. It is simply no good not to be honest. If you’re honest, you narrow down your target market, but at the same time, you pinpoint the people who tick all the boxes you need them to tick. One happy-looking photo is all you need. People can imagine that happy-looking dog being happy at their house.

The write-up is crucial. Absolutely crucial.

First, you have all the necessaries: male or female, age, size, breed, colour.

For my foster dog Effel, that goes like this: seven-year-old castrated male black-and-tan beauceron. 

Then you have all the big factors to help the dog find the right home: whether it gets on with other dogs, and if not, which dogs it does get on with. A good write-up won’t say “dominant” or “submissive” because good dog people know that hierarchies are flexible. They might say “has rough manners at first” or “can be a bit of a bully”, or “doesn’t like dogs who are over-excited at the beginning”. They’ll also say whether they get on with cats maybe. A good advert will also say if the dog would be happy on its own or needs to go to a family who have dogs. Shelters can see this. This afternoon, one dog spent the whole afternoon crying because she didn’t have a friend. Another dog snapped at every single other dog that went past. It’s not a leap to say that a “home on his own would be preferable” or “needs other doggie friends”.

I can then add to Effel’s profile like this: okay with males and female dogs although he would appreciate the companionship of a similar-sized playful female. Great at greetings but needs a home where owners will ensure he doesn’t get over-excited as he gets to know your other dog(s). Effel would hate to be a lonely dog, so a doggie friend is a must. 

Sure, there’s a bit of spin. I have put a positive light on the fact he is too rough with smaller dogs or older dogs. Nobody wants a rough dog. Lots of people might want a playful dog to go with their existing playful dog. I’m also not going to say that he has mild separation anxiety which is why he needs a companion. That is something I can explain to people if they’re interested, since it is not so horrible as to be unmanageable, but it would frighten some owners off unnecessarily. I don’t need to say “he’s rough, can’t live with other small animals and he’s got hyper-attachment issues”. Firstly, I don’t know if those things are always true, generally true or only true in my circumstance. Secondly, they’re all things most dogs can live with and I’ve hundreds of videos of him with a variety of other dogs where he isn’t rough and he cried as much when his friends left at an event last week as he has ever cried for me. In fact, that’s a cute and sweet thing to know. I can add that. In my opinion, a home for Effel without dog friends would be a miserable one for him, and I want to tick that box for potential adopters.

Effel is so sad when his friends leave that he sometimes has a little cry. Life is miserable for Effel without friends. 

If you’re a potential adopter without other dogs, you’d hopefully skip on by to the next candidate. And if you have other playful dogs, maybe you’re reading on.

I can also add a bit about size, health and other physical and medical details. That’s important too. Honesty counts, especially where medical health is concerned. If it’s not relevant, I leave it out. He has a small scar on his eye from years back. Does it affect him? No. Does it need treatment? No. Will it need treatment? No. Do I need to disclose it? No.

He is a big dog, at 70 cm and 50kg, so if you want a chihuahua to slip in your handbag, you’d better have a giant-sized handbag. Effel likes to stretch out and enjoys space. 

If possible, dogs should be tested around children at the shelter, and a statement made about this. It’s not a crime to say a dog needs a home without small humans, especially if that protects both the humans and the dog. Take my foster. He’s met children and he seems fine with them. But…. but he herds the lawnmower and sometimes he tries to herd me. He’s nipped me three times, and I’m sedate at the best of times. Add a flappy child who runs like a maniac and I can’t guarantee he won’t find that super-stimulating. To be safe, I’m going to say “no small children”. Sure, it’s sad and it maybe rules out potential homes, but if I have small children and I am intent on the dog anyway, at least I know what the issue is and I can consider how to work around it. What I know I can prepare for.

You also need to say things about energy levels. People don’t care much about education, and most will be okay with a dog who doesn’t know ‘sit’, but you do need to say if the dog is energetic or highly agile. They also need to know if the dog will need a lot of education, or if the dog tries to escape.

Effel is a good boy in the house, and he never goes off on his own to find himself a pastime, like dismantling your slippers. But he doesn’t have basic commands. Effel won’t be winning obedience medals any time soon. That said, he walks well on the lead. He will need a secure garden at first because his recall isn’t fantastic off-lead. He’s having far too much fun bounding about. Boy, does this dog like to bound. You thought bounding was something that Tiggers did? Bounding is his favourite thing. He doesn’t bound near people and he never jumps on you, but he loves to stretch his legs and he loves to run. For that reason, a home with a large secure garden would be just perfect.

You can see that you don’t need to be harsh about it, but you do need to say what kind of home would suit him. 

I always like to add if the dog likes to play, if they seem like they would enjoy obedience or agility classes, cani-cross or swimming. We just rehomed a husky named Guapo who just loves the water. Paddling is about his favourite thing to do. Why wouldn’t I share that?

After this, I use basic statements about whether they are an introverted or extroverted dog. That’s easy to do. Do they move towards new things or away? Are they social? Do they come for affection? Are they demanding for affection?

For my super-tough-to-rehome dogs, I will also use the University of Pennsylvania’s C-BARQ questionnaire. That told me very little I couldn’t work out, but for Effel, it allowed me to say that he has mild attachment issues and needs an eye on his behaviour around dogs that he is becoming more familiar with. For my old mate Hagrid at the shelter, it allowed me to say that he probably needs a home on his own away from other dogs. Nothing that 14 months of shelter living won’t tell you.

And I also use the Monash Canine Personality Questionnaire to help me describe the dog’s temperament. It’s always a tough call to describe a dog’s personality, but knowing that dog feelings pass quickly and that what you have from day to day is more likely to be a reliable guide to personality, this can help you. I’m not going to say things I can’t say for sure, so if I think I’m just embellishing, I leave it out. This questionnaire rates the “Big Five” personality types, from extraversion, motivation, training focus, amicability and training focus. With adjectives like friendliness, nervousness, attentiveness, independence, intelligence and fearfulness, it helps draw up a more complete profile of dogs for me to share with their photos. It also helps me make decisions about the kind of home the dog will need. A nervous dog will not fare well in a home with many family members and lots of comings and goings. Similarly, an intelligent and independent dog is going to make her own entertainment if she goes to a home on her own with owners who work eleven hours a day.

Although Effel will need a home where owners are more often present than they are not, he is happy to accompany you wherever you go. Sure, he doesn’t look like your typical pavement café kind of dog, but he wants nothing more than to be by your side. He is attentive, intelligent and alert. To leave a dog like this to his own devices for hours on end will not make him happy, as being with you is what makes him happy. Effel is reserved at first but forms quick bonds with both humans and other dogs. 

And that’s how the MCPQ-R helps me write adoption profiles.

Some people, by the way, are worried about the effect of shelters on personality and canine reactions, whether these descriptions are true. Both the C-BARQ and the MCPQ-R have been tested in different situations and are reliable tools. Early research shows that most dogs adapt quite quickly to shelter life: what you see here isn’t going to be massively different than in the home on the whole. The exception are nervous or shy dogs who may build up confidence. Some shepherd breeds also seem to find kennel living stressful. That is also true of some uncastrated males who may find all the scents to be totally overwhelming. These dogs are the exception though, rather than the rule. You will of course notice differences in energy levels, but it is rare for a high-energy shelter dog to become a low-energy house dog, or the other way around.

So that’s it…. the way to write adoption profiles that are individual, interesting, honest and ethical! You don’t need to rely on WILL BE EUTHANISED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! or BEING ATTACKED BY OTHER DOGS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Neither do you need bleak and depressing photographs. When it comes to adoption, we should be encouraging people to think with their rational side, their heads, not their hearts. This way, there are fewer returns and fewer people who have trouble with the dog that they have.

I truly believe there are homes for every dog. It is this belief that has driven the adoption of many of our “unadoptable” dogs and placed them in homes where they have gone on to be rehomed without comeback calls. In fact, one of our “tough to rehome” guys had gone on adoption and I’d not heard anything for 48 hours. When she called on the Sunday, I was convinced it was going to be a return. No. After five years of shelter life, over three-quarters of his life on concrete, he had settled in without a single hiccup. Sure, he was a great dog, but in any other home, he could have been a real problem.

Finding the right home depends on how accurately shelters market their dogs. Pepper that with a bit of humour, a bit of fun, a lot of the dog’s character and a few photos that show the dog’s nature, and you have a winning combination that takes the pressure of you for lengthy pre-adoption screening and also provides you with a template for the questions you ask at adoption interviews.

And there you have it: the winning formulas for finding your dogs their home for life.

Secret Confessions of Shelter Workers

Secret Confessions of Shelter Workers

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Most of the time, we shelter folk have to exercise a higher level of restraint than the general public. Most of the time, we manage. We manage to grit our teeth and not let the emotions spill out when someone says they’re surrendering their dog because it snapped at their child. Perfectly reasonable. Until you hear the circumstances. The child was pulling the dog’s ears to get the dog out of its bed.

All you can do is nod politely when in your head you are looking at the dog thinking, “You amazing creature. You could have bitten the child and you – you! – showed restraint! I’m so sorry that it ended like this for you, but I promise to do my best to find you a family where nobody will pull your ears and where there are people who understand animals.”

That’s hard for most people to get their head around.

How could life in a cold shelter be better than life in a home?

Until I tell you that many of the animals surrendered to us have lived with mindless, thoughtless, brainless excuses for humans who have some mysterious misunderstanding of the fact that the dog in their home is a domesticated wolf, complete with a domesticated wolf’s set of specialist killing tools… teeth and claws. Yes, even your shi tzu. Respect for that has usually been sadly lacking.

Add to that all the people who really don’t seem to have been expecting a dog to do, you know, dog stuff. Digging, barking, whining, crying, wanting to be with people, killing kittens, wanting to run, licking their arseholes, eating from dustbins, digging up guinea pig corpses… all par for the course for your usual dog.

That aside, other than momentary explosions behind closed doors, we manage to restrain ourselves pretty well.

You might overhear us having conversations that go like this…

“Well, I wanted to tell him that he should tell his kids the facts of life… Daddy was too stupid to keep the guinea pig away from the dog… the dog killed the guinea pig… now Daddy’s taking the dog to the vet to be killed.”

“That couple that surrendered the labrador on Tuesday? Have you got their address? I need to add them to the black list because they’re now looking for a German Shepherd.”

“That dog that just came into the pound? Was it identified? That’s the dog that came from that farm I was at in June to investigate. Under no circumstances give that dog back to the guy without sterilising it… if he bothers to claim it.”

“Please can you add her to the black list? She’s just picked up two dogs from another shelter, including the five she already has and I’m worried about a hoarding situation.”

And that’s just in our shelter hours!

Some of us come home only have to rein in our tongues on Facebook as well.

With the lady advertising the four-year-old poodle of an 87-year-old neighbour…

With the woman who wants a “cheap” miniature pinscher (or a giveaway if possible)…

With the woman giving away a Malinois puppy…

With the people asking for 50€ for unchipped, unvaccinated labrador-mix puppies…

With the woman who wants a cheap or free French bulldog…

With the woman who says she can’t possibly consider a six-year-old dog, because that dog might die…

With the woman giving away free, unidentified, unvaccinated kittens…

With the person looking for a free puppy…

With the person who says they want a cheap or free puppy because they don’t have loads of money…

With the person who’s lost their six-month old unidentified puppy…

With the person who is pissed off that they have to pay to identify their puppy…

With the person who paid 50€ to identify a kitten and then the kitten disappeared, so they think they wasted 50€…

With the woman who always has four or five kittens to give away each year, but “they’re not her cats”…

With the woman asking for 700€ for her French bulldog puppies… who don’t have pedigree papers…

With the people who never go to shelters but happily post ‘Adopt, don’t Shop’ stickers on everything…

You just have no idea what is going on in their tiny, tiny brains.

Our work at the shelter is quadrupled because of people who have not identified their animals. In 2014, 22 cats were returned to their owners out of the hundreds that passed through our doors. Sure, you may very well lose an identified animal. It may be stolen. It might be expensive. Your dog might never go anywhere without  you. But if you don’t identify your cat or dog, be prepared for the fine you’ll get when we pick it up. That’ll be the price of the chip AND vaccines AND a fine for letting the animal stray. And we might also charge you kennel rates too. That’s going to work out a lot more expensive than the amount it cost to identify your animals.

Poverty does limit animal ownership, no doubt about it. If it didn’t, I’d happily keep Effel my foster dog for ever and ever and ever. I’d have kept Mimire and Vanille and Fripouille instead of finding homes for them. I’d have adopted Hagrid and put him in a big pen in the garden that was all to himself. I’d have my full quotient of nine dogs. I’d have whipped Amon and Aster out of the refuge and given them a home. Four is my hard limit, and when Tobby goes, I’ll probably stick to three for a time. Between specialist foods, dental hygiene, bedding, leads, blankets, medicines, vaccinations and regular check-ups, pets are expensive. If you can’t afford a cat or dog, get a gerbil. I had a gerbil. He was great. He was also cheaper to look after. But don’t go on Facebook and ask for a cheap puppy if you don’t have the means to look after it. You certainly won’t have the means to sterilise it. Don’t ask me to get out my violins because you’ve not got the money to own a dog. Most of us would have more animals if we had the means. Yes, being too poor means you shouldn’t own a dog. There, I said it.

Age should also limit animal ownership as well. Who on earth sells a puppy to a senior? Someone actually said that they couldn’t bear it if the animal died before they did the other day. There is something disgustingly selfish about people taking on young animals knowing that they will outlive the animal, that no provision has been made for it after the owner dies and that whoever clears up the estate will become responsible for taking the animal to the shelter. I am always gentle when I say “Do you think this dog is right for you? He’s very young and very strong.” but inside I am furious. What life is it to offer to a young dog? Even poodles need exercise. Really, what I am saying in my head is “selfish selfish selfish selfish selfish” … and that’s just the nice stuff I am saying inside my head. Yes, being too old means you shouldn’t buy a puppy. Glad to get that off my chest.

Your means and lifestyle should also influence your animal ownership too. If you don’t have time, don’t get a dog. Get a cat maybe. Many cats can tolerate a more independent life. Or get a fish. Unless you are dedicated to walking the dog before and after work, and sometimes in lunch-times too, don’t get a dog. Don’t assume that a garden is sufficient exercise for a dog. It’s not. If you want to get a dog and keep it in a room whilst you work, or keep it in a garden pen whilst you go about your daily business, don’t get a dog. Dogs are social creatures and they suffer when we deprive them of companionship. Yes, you are a knob if you expect a husky to be happy with a tiny back yard.

Don’t get me started on the people who feed “feral” cats. First, if they’ll approach you, they’re not feral. They’re people cats. If you feed it, that cat is now your cat. I don’t care if the law makes it your cat after one meal or fifty. Feed it once and you’re encouraging it. Feed it twice and you’re creating a habit. Feed it three times and the cat has certain expectations. If you are feeding it, it’s your job to also ensure its other physical needs are met, including sterilisation. Please don’t give me the “it was starving” line. Unless the cat is too weak to move, it’s not starving. Feed if you like. Trap and take it to the vet if you like. But above all, know that the food you give it has strong implications and that nobody in rescue will pat you on the back and say “Wow! Well done!”. If you feed stray cats and you want gratitude, you’re miaowing to the wrong person. What you are doing, and let’s not mince words about this, is creating and encouraging the baby steps of a giant ownerless kitten community who, given two or three years, will be plagued with diseases and illnesses from interbreeding. Unless you want to end by feeding twenty ill and yucky cats, don’t start feeding one. If you have genuinely found a cat you think is lost, please please call us BEFORE you feed it. Yes, lady, I really do think you wanted to have a pet, not pay for it and wash your hands of any responsibility when the inevitable happens. Don’t tell me you do it for kindness.

And puppies… oh, puppies. First, there’s a law to stop you selling your puppies. No good telling me that the 50€ from each of the puppies will be used to castrate dad. A castration is around 110€ for a big dog. That’s the profit from a couple of puppies. Shelter workers are not stupid. We can do adding up. Or you’ve got another litter due by the end of the year? You’re not a person who has accidents with your dog, you are a feckless breeder who has netted almost 1000€ without paying out. Selling a non-pedigree puppy for 600€? That dog is a mutt. A mutt! Look at the other people selling mutts. They sell for 50€. They shouldn’t, because it’s illegal, but they try. That is the going price for a mutt. A puppy without papers is not an Amstaff or a bulldog, it is a mutt. A mutt who looks like a bulldog or an Amstaff, but a mutt nonetheless. Yes, you are far too money-grubbing to be involved in dog breeding.

And the people who say “Adopt, don’t shop!”. Not every breeder is a back-yard breeder. If nobody took cautions with dogs, there would be more dogs abandoned at the shelter. The simple fact is that indiscriminate breeding leads to Marleys who eat plasterboard, have excessive energy or unmanageable character flaws. Do you think shelter pups are the best option? Sure. I like the idea that pedigrees should be done away with, but the pups that result from accidents, where dad isn’t known… they’re the pups that turn into mastiff crosses rather than boxers, who take “bounce” to the next level. Don’t even get me started on the science of stress for in-utero pups, for inherited fear or aggression, the science behind orphaned puppies and the risk of becoming a reactive, fearful dog as a result. The refuge is not bursting full of pedigree dogs with paperwork who are identified and vaccinated on arrival. That tells you all you need to know about the correlation between breeding and rescue. There isn’t a correlation. The dogs who stay a long time at the refuge are not ones born with papers. They are crazy, unregistered offspring of random dogs, sold for 50€ to people who didn’t bother to get them chipped or vaccinated. If you want to see what orphaned puppies without parents turn out like, I want you to meet my dog Heston. He is super-smart. Just so you know, my whole day is arranged so that he gets the stimulation he needs. The world doesn’t need a thousand Hestons. So what do I really think? I think you should stop being a Facebook warrior and get yourself involved in rescue. Properly. You should understand personality traits that are inherited and how stress affects canine foetuses, the difficulties of raising a dog whose very DNA demands something different. You should understand the uphill battle it can be to adopt a puppy whose parents are not known. Hestons are not for the faint-hearted or the weak of spirit. Be smart. Or be quiet. The last thing we need is to close the dialogue between breeders and rescue.

Rescue dogs are not for everyone. Dogs are not for everyone. Dogs are not really even for most people. You are not entitled to own a dog. It’s not some right you have. If you do own a dog, you owe it to that animal to look after it, to consider life from its perspective, to be respectful of its physical and emotional needs. That’s not to say there aren’t tragic or sad circumstances where people are forced to surrender a dog that they can’t handle through no fault of their own. There will always be dogs who need owners with a skill level that surpasses our own or who need a home which we can’t offer.

That said, if you live in an apartment and you want a husky, if you live in town and you want a pointer, if you work long hours and you want a shepherd, you are buying into a breed who have basic needs that you are never likely to be able to give it. No wonder so many shelter workers end up all…

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and

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Luckily, there are plenty of people to keep us from going completely insane, from the foster families who take on a mum and her puppies to the people who come and adopt an ancient German shepherd even though they’d only lost theirs a few weeks ago, or volunteers who bring a packet of biscuits with them as well as a smile.

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Why punishment isn’t working as a training tool

Why punishment isn’t working as a training tool

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A couple of weeks ago, I was at an adoption drive with a few of my kittens. There were a good number of dogs there from local rescues, who were by and large really well behaved given that some had come straight to the event from the pound or rescue facility.

At one point, a guy and his family came in with a beautiful Australian shepherd. Nothing wrong with that. The first thing I noticed was that the dog was wearing a halti. Nothing wrong with that, either, if you want to control rather than eliminate a behaviour. The second thing I noticed was a prong collar.

Yes, a halti and a prong collar. No prizes for guessing that the guy is finding the dog hard to walk.

No prizes either for guessing that neither the prong nor the halti are working. Definitely not on their own, and probably not in combination.

And it’s not hard to realise why.

The dog is severely stressed because he’s come into a place and guess what… right in front of him there are five dogs, two kittens in a cage, at least ten people, all the usual garden centre weirdnesses and smells. There are birds and hamsters, rabbits and fish. You can imagine it, I’m sure.

An environment like this can be either extremely exciting or extremely frightening for a dog. If I brought my super-reactive Heston in here, every single thing would be setting him off. Dogs first. He’d be yanking on the lead to get to them, pulling and making lunges towards them because he really, really, really wants to say hi. Like really. And if I brought my spaniel in here, she’d be barking her head off about stranger dangers. Amigo would be hiding behind my skirt and Tobby would be trying to lick everything that moved. Dogs, like all animals, are either attracted to novelty, or they’re not. For dogs like Heston and Tobby, they love new stuff. Neophilia means that your dog will be interested and curious about new animals or experiences and want to investigate. For dogs like Tilly and Amigo, they are neophobic, and find new experiences, things, people or animals to be overwhelming. Dogs who aren’t bothered either way… I never saw one of those. Even my mattress-back uber-zen Ralf would pull me on my arse through a field full of cows to go see a dog he’d never seen before.

Some dogs are going to be pulling to get nearer, and some dogs are going to be pulling to get away. Either way, they’re less likely to obey your commands whenever you introduce novelty into their lives.

It’s not rocket science to know that I’m not going to take my dogs into a garden centre like this during an adoption event unless I want to see them at their very worst. If I got there and it was a surprise to me, I’d have backed right off and put the dog in the car if I needed to go into the shop to buy something. Avoiding problems is perfectly okay. Our dogs don’t have to be equipped to go into garden centres and meet five strange dogs and twenty strange people at an adoption event. That’s not a usual, daily event for most dogs.

Don’t get me wrong. I like my dogs to socialise and to become habituated to novelty. I like that very much. I like them to go into populated or new areas. I regularly set up situations where my dogs go into town and see all kinds of strange things. I take Heston to the shelter when I drop the van off specifically because he likes meeting other dogs off lead and the dogs who live free at the heart of the shelter are all great dogs for him to do that with. But those are situations I set up as training events to make sure they are prepared for times when they meet other people and dogs, since we don’t meet other people and dogs often on a walk. We don’t walk in urban areas. I don’t ever plan to either. But I never know if I need to go to town with my dogs, or if I’d need to move house at any point to a more urban area, so it’s my duty to ensure that my dogs are not lacking in the ability to cope with novelty, or environments where there is a lot of novelty.

You can read a lot more about this here on Dr Jen’s Dog Blog about why avoiding a problem can work.

As she says, “you have to pick your battles”.

And this guy with the Australian shepherd had clearly picked a battle that he was losing.

I’ll describe what happened next.

He forced his dog to be restrained in approach, getting nearer and nearer to all the adoption dogs. His level of yanking and correction increased to one every ten seconds over a ten-metre approach. Then he stood with his dog, forbidding it to approach the other dogs, holding the dog’s muzzle and preventing it from growling. Finally, the dog gave in, rolled on its back and just lay there.

I’m sure some people would think that looks cute.

That, though, is a dog who is completely broken and has given up. Not cute if you ask me.

And what has the dog learnt?

That when they see other dogs, you hurt him. The more you see other dogs, the more you hurt him. You cut off his oxygen so he can’t think straight. You add a little pain which also increases adrenaline (just ask anyone who loves a little spanking in the bedroom!). In fact, cutting off oxygen, increasing adrenaline and adding pain are three things that people do with other people to ENHANCE excitement in the bedroom!! Yet they are things we do to dogs when they are excited.

Why do we think that they would work to decrease a dog’s stimulation?

In fact, they’re also what we do to other human beings in another setting too. When we cut off the oxygen of another human being, when we hurt them, when we cause them pain to get them to do what we want… it’s called torture. Sometimes it works. Often, just like our dogs, you can increase the pain and it hardens resolve to do a thing. Then you have to increase it more until you ‘break’ the person who’s resisting.

Of course, most of us don’t increase the pain our dogs are enduring to this point. You might think that low levels of ‘correction’ are okay.

But are they really as efficient as you think?

The fact is that pain works. At first. Correction works. At first. Give someone a speeding ticket, and for a few days, they’ll be careful to follow the law. That’s how we work – human beings – rational thinking beings with our giant neo-cortexes who have the power of language to be able to understand cause and punishment.

Imagine though living in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language. A police officer follows you around everywhere, and every time you think you’re doing something right, he tasers you.

And that’s what was happening to the Australian shepherd. In fact, he was just being a dog. In his eyes, he was doing a normal dog thing: wanting to get closer to other dogs to suss them out. In his eyes, it was something natural. Something normal. Something right. He saw other dogs and he wanted to approach them. He’s a social creature. That’s what dogs do. He wanted to go and see these dogs and sort out friends from foes. And every time he tried to, his owner hurt him, restrained him and punished him.

In the 1960s, Dr Martin Seligman and his colleagues undertook a series of what are, quite frankly, disgusting experiments. They wanted to find out about “learned helplessness”. Post-war Americans want to know why people don’t run away or try to escape. It’s a theme that dominates cognitive and behavioural psychology in the post-war era: human beings and what makes us hurt others, what stops us from escaping. 20 years on from the Holocaust and you too might be wondering why so few people tried moves like “The Great Escape”. Why did people just give up? And even when they could escape, why didn’t they? You can imagine the questions in Seligman’s head about why people – with our rational thinking brains, let me stress – give up. Seligman used dogs to find out. It wasn’t intended to be comparative psychology or even animal psychology. It was intended to teach us about humans. Inadvertently, it taught us about dogs.

 

First, he put them in something called a Pavlovian hammock. That’s a nice way to describe an “inescapable” situation in which a number of dogs were placed. And then he used electric shocks. He taught them that pain was inescapable and unpredictable. He found that these dogs, when later placed in a situation from which they could easily escape, chose not to… even if shocked to the point where their muscles no longer functioned.

His conclusion was that once you have been subject to inescapable punishment, you are so broken that you would choose not to escape even if you could. He called this “learned helplessness”. He thought that this was why people with post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety or other disorders might choose not to end their anguish, even if they could. The escape routes just weren’t visible to them.

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And that is exactly what this Australian shepherd went through, just on a less scientific level. He couldn’t escape the situation and so you can inflict as much pain as you like: he’s just given up.

He’s learned that there is no point resisting. He’s learned something else too.

Like being followed around by a police officer who slaps a fine on you for leaving chopsticks in rice, for blowing your nose, for looking someone in the eye, what you learn is not that you shouldn’t do certain things, but that you are in the company of someone who, to use the words of Nando Brown, is “a bit of a knob”. In other words, you don’t learn that in this foreign country, it’s bad manners to leave chopsticks in rice, to blow your nose in public or to eyeball someone (all things that are well-established cultural patterns in Japan, by the way) what you learn is that the presence of the police officer is a reliable indicator that you might get punished.

The first consequence of using punishment, then, is that you may have to administer increasing ‘doses’ of correction once the dog realises that the punishment is insufficient to make their ‘bad’ behaviour not worth doing. Like if you give me a 1o cent fine every time I swear, the swear box will be filled in no time. In fact, you’re going to have to increase the punishment if what I get from the behaviour is more pleasurable than the punishment is a deterrent. Remember that scene in The Breakfast Club where Paul Gleason is having a showdown with Judd Nelson? The teacher is trying to threaten Judd’s character, student John Bender. In the end, the teacher threatens to put Judd’s character in detention “for the rest of your natural born life if you don’t watch your step”. It doesn’t make much difference and ends up escalating the situation.

That’s what you have to do with punishment and correction: be prepared to escalate it.

In fact though, John Bender is doing resisting for all sorts of reasons. But dogs resist your punishments for one very good one. It’s not resentment. It’s not because they think they’re better than you, they’re dominating you or they’re showing off to their friends. It’s not because they’re social misfits who’ve had a hard life or a sucky home environment. Dogs resist because whatever it is you don’t want them to do is simply more rewarding and reinforcing than you can ever punish them for.

So the dog who wants to run off from the yard and needs a shock collar? The call of the wild is really powerful, or the urge to escape is overwhelming. The dog who barks and needs a shock collar? Barking is obviously really rewarding and reinforcing. You better get a collar that you can turn up, because once your dog realises that the shock isn’t enough to put them off, you’ll need to increase it. And increase it. In fact, you and the collar will probably fail long before the dog’s desire to bark does.

That’s the first consequence of punishment. You’ll need to be prepared to increase it if the dog’s desire to do whatever it was doing is more powerful than the punishment.

The second consequence of punishment is that even if it is predictable, if it works, the dog has not really overcome its behaviour. You’ve just taught the dog that it might as well give in. There is no escape, so give in and you’ll avoid the punishment. That’s not a dog who has mastered its desires or frustrations. It’s a broken dog whose spirit is crushed. That’s “learned helplessness” in action. We see this in concentration camps and in hostage situations, as well as in people suffering from post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.

That, then, is not an obedient dog. It is a dog who has learned there is no point.

A third consequence of using punishment is that the main thing your dog will learn is that your presence is a reliable indicator that he might get punished. YOU are the common denominator. Why do you think companies are offering “remote” punishments, so that you don’t even have to be near the dog when you administer a shock? Because the thing the dog learns is not that its behaviour is not desirable to you, only that you are a bit of a knob. But if you use a choke collar, prong collar, a physical reprimand or a physical punishment that you have to be present to administer, YOU become the reliable indicator of pain, not the behaviour.

Some “dog trainers” will tell you that it’s not just this random and dogs will quickly learn that it’s only in certain conditions that you would punish your dog, this is nonsense too. Back to the mean cop example… Even if this police officer restricts himself to only fining you for chopsticks, and you can kind of work out a pattern, that doesn’t work either. That’s why anyone who tells you that a prong collar will work because the dog will learn that it only hurts if he pulls (i.e. there’s a clear condition attached to the punishment) actually is spinning you a line that is quite anti-experience and anti-science. In other words, they’re telling you a complete fabrication that is not rooted in reality.

The reality is that, like this Aussie shepherd, you just become habituated to the pain and need more and more. Where do you go next when a prong collar AND a halti isn’t working? A zappy collar as well? Punches in the nose? A kick to the backside? At what point have you crossed a line into abuse?

Some countries have already decided that shock collars and prong collars have crossed the line.

A final really, really important reason is that punishment is proven to make dogs more aggressive. One day, that dog might really turn around and bite you. If you’ve used physical correction with a dog, you’ve destroyed all trust between you. If you hurt a dog, don’t be surprised if one day it says that enough is enough. It may never get to a bite. But who wants a dog who growls at them, who snarls or snaps out of anger or fear?

It doesn’t take the law of the land to make me realise that punishment is not working as a training tool. Whether you don’t want to have to escalate the punishment to abusive levels, whether you realise that your dog is not obeying and has just learned to give in, whether you don’t want to destroy the trust between you and your dog and ensure your dog ends up more reactive, not less… there are plenty of reasons not to choose punishment as a tool when training.

I want to finish with the story of a malinois who came in the next day. He was wearing a muzzle, so for one reason or another, this is a dog who has a history. His owners had a really loose lead, and whenever the lead got a little tight or the dog was responding negatively, they backed up a little. They went up different aisles. They took their time, gave the dog space, allowed it distance. The muzzle was a very effective way of telling other people to keep their distance as well. Ironic, really. Ten minutes later, the muzzle was off, and the malinois was happily nose-to-nose with some of the dogs for adoption.

These weren’t expert dog trainers. They were just people who understood and responded in ways that got a wanted behaviour from their dog, rather than failing with haltis and prong collars, perhaps leaving the dog with a residual memory that means “when I see other dogs, my owner hurts me” rather than the response you wanted to instill.

I long for the days when we have more Malis in muzzles than Aussie shepherds in haltis and prong collars.

Travelling between France and the UK with your dog

Travelling between France and the UK with your dog

 

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Many people these days take advantage of EU laws making it easier to transport domestic animals between the UK and France. Gone are the times of long quarantines. Hopefully, DEFRA will continue to honour the EU passport as the UK leaves Europe. Only time will tell.

There are three main ways that pets travel to the UK from the continent. One is with their owners. Another is with a pet transfer service. The final way is as a newly adopted animal into the UK from a shelter or rescue association on the continent. The system for transferring animals from a shelter in France to a home in the UK is different and usually follows a system called TRACES which helps track animals and ensure that their health is regularly checked.

Travel with owners

For the most part, pets who travel with their owners are either travelling on holiday to the UK or on holiday to France.

All major crossings accept dogs.

For details of P&O crossings with pets from Dover to Calais, click here

For details of DFDS crossings with pets from Newhaven to Dieppe, Dover to Calais and Dover to Dunkirk, click here

For details of Brittany Ferries crossings with pets from Portsmouth to Caen, Poole to Cherbourg, Portsmouth to Cherbourg, Portsmouth to Le Havre, Plymouth to Roscoff, Plymouth to St Malo, or Portsmouth to St Malo, click here

Longer ferry crossings usually have kennels in which you can put your dogs, and shorter crossings usually expect your dog to stay in the car. Please be aware that you cannot stay in the vehicle bays with your animals so you will have to leave them for the journey or return to your vehicle only if accompanied by a member of staff. This has implications for dogs who have separation anxiety or who may find the voyage stressful. Foot passengers cannot usually travel with dogs.

You can also travel by Eurotunnel. This is ideal if you wish to stay with your pet and if you want the shortest crossing time.

Several airlines also fly dogs in the hold on short and long-haul flights. Some airlines have a maximum weight for dogs they will accept. Occasionally, airlines will fly dogs of less than certain weights in the cabin. Both Air France and British Airways will fly pets. In some cases if the combined weight of the dog and its crate are more than certain weights, your pet will be required to travel freight. For very long journeys, the advantages of flying a pet may outweigh the disadvantages, especially in comparison to leaving a dog for long periods of time in kennels on a ferry.

All cross-channel services require you to follow the PETS passport scheme.

Travel with a pet transfer service

Several companies exist to take animals back to the UK for you. These can be expensive and spaces are booked well in advance, particularly at peak times (summer holidays and Christmas). If you intend to use a pet transport service, book well in advance and make sure you have all the details of your animal to hand. You will be expected to pay in advance, have photocopies of all relevant passport pages and conform to their standards. Spaces for bigger dogs often go more quickly. Check that vans are suitable for transporting animals, and that regular breaks are scheduled. If you have a nervous or flighty dog, this may not be the most suitable method for them. Expect to pay at least 200€ for transport from France to the UK and to book a good few weeks in advance. Also, it is worth bearing in mind that communication from pet transfer services can be quite poor if they are on the road.

PETS passport system

Whether you are travelling with your pet or not, the PETS travel system is a simplified way to ensure animals are transported without the need for long quarantine periods.

The first requirement is that your dog is microchipped. Please be advised that there have been some issues with animals who have been tattooed. It is worth checking with the carrier. DEFRA specifically requests animals be microchipped.

Once your dog has been microchipped, they can be vaccinated against rabies. Usually this is done on the same day. The vet will complete an EU pet passport for you. All of the animal’s essential details must be included. Please note that changes came into play at the end of 2014, and that passports must have sealed sections so that they cannot be tampered with.

The passport includes:

  • Owner details
  • A description of the animal
  • Markings or colour
  • All relevant rabies stamps, stickers and signatures
  • Details of the vet issuing the passport
  • Details of tapeworm treatments

For dogs travelling from France, they do not need to have a blood test to prove the efficacy of the rabies vaccination. You can only travel twenty-one days after the rabies vaccination has been administered.

A vet must have administered a tapeworm treatment (and recorded it) not less than 24 hours before the crossing and not more than 120 hours (five days) before the time of the crossing. The treatment must include praziquantel or an equivalent. For short trips from the UK, you will need to administer the wormer before you leave and worm 28 days later.

Some transport companies may require you to have a letter from the vet before you leave certifying that the animal is in good health.

You can find clear details about the PETS travel scheme on the DEFRA website.

Travel from a foreign shelter (TRACES)

If you have adopted an animal from a foreign shelter and the dog is being brought to England, you will need to follow additional guidance. This is called the TRACES tracking system.

There are rules in place to ensure animals are not trafficked across borders. These rules are the same for animals from breeders on the continent, who must also adhere to these rules.

The shelter will contact the department vet around 48 hours before the animal is due to travel. A shelter or association must have been approved before this point by the department vet. At Mornac, our team contact the state vet with all the necessary information, including your address. The state vet then issues a certificate (usually duplicate) that needs to travel with the animal and its passport.

The shelter or association is not the only side with obligations: you must notify your nearest animal health office in the UK at least more than twenty-four hours before the animal is due to arrive. They reserve the right to ask you to go to the centre with the animal, to visit the animal or even to ask for the animal to stay in quarantine.

Although you will find a number of unscrupulous “charities” transporting dogs from various shelters in Europe, please be careful. There are daily arrests at Calais of people who are transporting animals without passports or TRACES paperwork. These animals are often transported in articulated lorries without adequate air. Some of them are driven over seventy hours without breaks. Even some very well-known charities in Europe transport large numbers of animals (around 70) on one crossing in one container, running the risk of getting caught against the profit of doing it without paperwork (some charge around 400€ to transport and adopt an animal).

Every single time a rescue in Europe transports animals without the right paperwork, without proper microchips, without rabies vaccinations or wormers, they increase the chance that the UK will return to a quarantine system or that animals will not be allowed to be adopted directly from the continent. These unscrupulous rescues and individuals spoil it for the rest of us, who happily microchip and vaccinate our dogs, who take them for vet visits, get all of their TRACES paperwork in place and vet homes very carefully. With thousands of dogs put to sleep every year in the UK, please consider your choices carefully. Although we are happy to help you adopt breeds that are rare in the UK, we are also mindful of how complicated it can be if things go wrong. A large number of our popular breeds that are less familiar in the UK are dogs who have lived outside, have lived as part of large packs or have been used to working. For that reason, we undertake extensive interviews and expect you to keep in touch at every point of the adoption process.