Wednesday, January 28, 2009


(Picture left: Dutch -- a troubled dog.)

I have written often of the difficulties in animal rescue, particularly those of finding reliable and responsible foster and adoptive homes for animals.

But, by far, the hardest decision an animal rescuer ever has to face is when to euthanize a dog or cat either for medical and especially, behavioral issues. This is especially hard and guilt-inducing for those of us who call ourselves, "no kill."

I am dealing with that situation now and have, in fact, been agonizing over it for some weeks now.

It is especially difficult because the dog in question is very young (only a year-old) and healthy. I can't think of this decision as one to "eurthanize" or not because the dog is not suffering from any terminal disease.

That is, unless we can refer to the separation of infant animals from their Mothers at too early an age a "terminal disease."

But, in many ways, when young kittens or puppies are separated from their Mothers and either sold or adopted out when (in my view) less than eight weeks old, it is a "terminal illness" because the animals are almost always destined to have some kind of "behavioral issues" (usually a lack of security and fear or aggression in unfamiliar circumstances) that will often result in abandonments to streets or pounds and early death.

When using the term, "eight weeks" I am speaking of the acceptable social norm. Most shelters and rescues will adopt kittens and puppies out at 8 weeks and sometimes younger.

My personal view is that infant animals should be kept with their Mothers and siblings for at least twelve weeks and preferably longer.

The early weeks in an animal's (or human's) life are extremely critical. Not only does the Mother provide nutritional sustenance, but even more importantly, she provides a sense of SECURITY to babies, by (in human cases) holding, cuddling and cooing and in animal instances, licking, grooming, protecting, holding and staying close.

The kitten or puppy who is fortunate to stay with his/her Mother and siblings for at least 3 or 4 months, grows up with a strong sense of security, adventurism, curiosity and a general feeling of well being.

When handled gently and lovingly as well by humans at a very early age, the animals delight in human handling and mature with a love and trust for humans. Such animals, whether mixed or purebred make the best companions for humans and usually get along very well with other pets and children.

Unfortunately, almost all "puppy or kitten mill" animals are separated from their Mothers and siblings very early (usually 6-weeks or younger) as well as they receive little (if any at all) early human handling.

Even if physically healthy, these animals almost always suffer later behavioral and fear/insecurity issues.

Recent documentaries have shed light on the serious behavioral troubles suffered by children orphaned in Russia and later adopted out to loving couples in the United States. Because these children received almost no nurturing or motherly attention when babies, they are seemingly scarred for life in terms of serious insecurity, adjustment, depression and aggressive difficulties. Many of the children have later been given up by the couples because the behavioral issues could not be solved despite numerous and dedicated efforts.

Well, the same is sadly true for animals.

It requires almost superhuman efforts in understanding, patience and "rehabilitation" to try and establish trust and a sense of security with animals who have been deprived of early mothering and nurturing, as well as early socialization to humans. Trying to turn around any aggressive behaviors in animals as result of poor early nurturing and socialization, likewise is an extremely daunting challenge.

We face such a challenge now with "Dutch" the adolescent and quite beautiful Shepherd/Retriever mix rescued more than a month ago.

Dutch came into the city shelter as result of a "seizure" when his former owner was evicted from her apartment.

From the beginning, Dutch displayed nervous and unpredictable behavior. When rescued from euthanasia at the shelter and sent to my vet for boarding and neutering, Dutch bit one of the vet techs when she tried placing him back in the cage.

I was called about this incident and requested to "make a decision" about Dutch. I either had to get him out of the veterinary clinic or grant euthanasia.

Such is a very hard question to pose to an animal rescuer. We only like "playing God" in the sense of saving lives, not condemning to death.

I struggled with the decision, but ultimately speculated that perhaps Dutch's "aggressive" behavior was due to the stress of boarding or a distaste for vets (which can be common in many animals.)

Following neutering, I placed Dutch in a state of the art boarding facility where the dogs are not in cages, but rather small rooms. I hoped the less stressful environment and larger space would help calm Dutch.

But, that did not occur.

When noting (and being told about) of Dutch's nervous and unpredictable behavior (attempts to bite) in the boarding facility, I began efforts to try and get more information from his former owner.

A direct call to the shelter Director resulted in me being able to get the number of Dutch's former owner and contact her.

The hope of course, was that Dutch's former owner was in position to then take Dutch back (as she had indicated she wanted her dog returned following the eviction.)

But, "Darlene" informed me that she lost her case in court and was now in a homeless shelter. She could not take back her "baby.".

I asked Darlene numerous questions about Dutch and explained that he was presenting with numerous behavioral issues and that unless solved, Dutch could not be placed in a home. He would have to be euthanized.

Darlene assured me that Dutch was a very good dog with her and her neighbors. But, she also mentioned something about a "nervous condition" Dutch had, as well as the fact that "he hates vets." Darlene also added that Dutch (despite only being a little over a year old) "sired two litters of puppies." (Fabulous news to someone in rescue!)

But, the most telling information Darlene shared with me is that she acquired Dutch as a two-week-old puppy!

Suddenly, many things about Dutch's nervous, insecure and seemingly fearful/distrustful behavior make sense.

He startles (and reacts defensively/aggressively) when encountering joggers, cyclists, skateboarders or even just someone darting out of a building on the streets.

He reacts fearfully and defensively with anyone entering his room.

He is extremely difficult to put back into his room after being taken for a walk.

And though most dogs can be comforted by some petting or stroking and soft words, Dutch does not seem to respond to human displays of affection.

In addition to be separated from Mother and siblings at too early an age, one has to speculate that Dutch wasn't handled and socialized properly (with humans) as a puppy.

Yesterday, I spent almost two hours with Dutch and a respected trainer trying to evaluate the young dog's troubled behavior and how "solvable" it may be.

What are my options with this dog?

They aren't unfortunately, a whole lot.

Ken (the trainer) did not deem Dutch's behavior to be hopeless in terms of remedy. There were a few positive signs while we took Dutch on a walk. Dutch was fairly easy to correct when reacting to joggers and made eye contact with his handler (in this case, Ken). And although difficult to put back in the small room, Ken was able to get Dutch to relax enough to finally accomplish the mission.

But, it wasn't easy.

Ken is returning to the boarding facility today to spend time with Dutch "one on one." It is hoped that with the dog better knowing Ken somewhat, Dutch will relax further. When Ken first removed Dutch from the room yesterday, Dutch attempted to bite him. -- Certainly a rough and ominous beginning.

Depending on what Ken advises me later, my decision will be to either send Dutch to a very experienced trainer and one who is able to do rehabilitation (a very costly venture indeed and one which cannot guarantee 100% behavior modification) or have him put down.

With me, Dutch had been fairly trusting and not difficult to handle (although I had always been very cautious with him, sensing he was a nervous and somewhat unpredictable dog). But, the other night my "luck" ran out when attempting to put Dutch back into his room, following his walk. He backed up, tried to escape his leash and when finally pushed, bit me on the knee.

I fully anticipated the bite and was not at all surprised. My job however was to get Dutch back in the room and with only a short leash to work with, it was almost impossible to prevent the bite.

I now have to decide what to do with a dog who has bitten several people, including myself.

A dog, who from his first days on earth was never treated properly by humans or even allowed to spend suitable time with his Mother and siblings -- as nature intends for all animals, including humans.

How seriously and intensely we damage animals when not allowing them to remain with their families during those first few critical months of life.

The question is, can that damage be reversible? -- PCA

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