A big thanks to Tim and Kari Workman, foster family with Golden Retriever Freedom Rescue, Denver, Colorado, for this comprehensive post on homeless pets needing help. This section of the Rescue Best Practices Manual we’re developing covers
1. Homeless pets needing help
a. Where animals come from
i. Family surrenders
ii. Breeder surrenders
v. Abuse cases
vi. Commercial breeding farms (mills)
We look forward to input and feedback in the comments section.
Homeless pets needing help
Thousands of pets are euthanized every year because there is not space or money in shelters. Rescue groups help offset this lack of space and money by pulling dogs from shelters and finding homes for previously unwanted animals.
Where animals come from
Animals that are placed in rescue come from a variety of places. Some been placed in foster care through animal shelters while others come directly from previous families or owners.
Family Surrenders – Sometimes families are unable to care for their pets for a variety of reasons:
- Job Loss
- Moved to a place that doesn’t allow pets or moving far away and feel unable to take the dog with them
- Illness forces them to give up their pets
- Babies – no longer have time
- Someone develops an allergy
- Sometimes a family will show up at a vet to have their dog put to sleep simply because they no longer want him or her. The vet is able to talk them into surrendering their dog instead and the dog ends up in rescue.
- Other times someone from a rescue or a neighbor will convince a family who keeps their dogs outside or in a garage to give them up to rescue. I’m not sure if this should go here or with the abuse/neglect cases??
- Medical expenses become too costly
- The cute puppy grows and becomes too big for the family.
Typically, it’s a very difficult situation for the family. They have loved their pet for a long time, sometimes many years, and the decision is not made lightly. When we have had to meet dogs who are being surrendered by their families, there are many tears shed, for both the family and the people from the rescue doing the surrender. When picking up a dog from an owner surrender, we try and reassure the family that they are doing what’s best for the dog, whether we agree with why they are giving up their dog or not. We explain how our adoption process works (application, phone interview, home visit, foster home interview) and tell them that we will do our best to find their pet the best place to live. In some cases, once their dog is adopted, and if they’ve requested, we will email them to let them know they’ve been adopted. Sometimes the foster family keeps in touch with the family who had to surrender their dog to let them know how he or she is doing in their new home. This seems to help lessen the tragedy they’ve gone though.
After a family has chosen a rescue group to surrender their dog to, they fill out a form online. Someone from the rescue calls them to find out more information about their pet. Another volunteer will take their own dog to meet the dog being surrendered and to talk to the family to gather any information about the dog. A surrender form is signed and the dog is placed into foster care.
Dogs who are surrendered by families are usually happy, well adjusted pets. They are usually used to living in a home with people who love them. We find that owner surrenders adjust quickly to life in foster care and also to their forever homes. Part of this is due to the fact that we can talk to their former family and learn their histories, likes and dislikes, favorite toys, treats, and foods. One of our family surrenders was in love with chasing a ball. We literally spent two days in our backyard throwing the ball for her. She was in heaven! It made the transition for her much, much easier, because we knew what she loved to do and could continue with that. Other dogs are confused for a while. They don’t understand why they are suddenly in a new place without the people they love. They may pant excessively, wander around the house, or want constant attention.
Breeder Surrenders – Breeder surrenders are dogs that have been used by a person to breed puppies. Usually these dogs have been better cared for than dogs from puppy mills but may have some of the same needs. Some breeders treat their breeding dogs well, letting them live in the house, or at least in a warm outbuilding. Sometimes puppies from breeders are surrendered to rescue because they have reached a certain age and haven’t been sold yet or they have medical problems that deem them “unsellable”. The needs of breeders vary as much as how well they are cared for.
Strays – Typically the strays we get come from shelters so we’ll cover that below.
Shelters – Dogs end up in shelters for different reasons. Sometimes they are found as strays and taken there by the police or the person who found them. Other times their former owners drop them off for various reasons that are similar to why people surrender their animals to a rescue organization.
Either the shelter contacts the rescue and the rescue picks up the dogs or the rescue has someone on the lookout for a specific breed and gets the dog into rescue. Shelter dogs can have a huge range of needs:
- Some have been on the streets for a long time so they are underweight and malnourished.
- Some have been injured or ill and need veterinary assistance.
- Some may be fearful of their new living conditions.
When we foster a dog who has come from the shelter as a stray, we don’t have much of a history on them. The way they act in the shelter can be completely different than how they act in your home. Shy, withdrawn dogs can suddenly become outgoing social butterflies! Sometimes the dogs take a while to adjust to life in a home as they have been living on the streets for a long time.
Abuse cases — We added neglect here too!
Sadly, some animals that come into rescue have been abused or neglected. They may have been chained up to a tree outside, left outside, or stuck in a garage for much of their lives. Some dogs have been physically abused and need someone to rehabilitate them before they learn to trust again.
Some dogs are removed from homes by law enforcement due to abuse or neglect. The needs of these dogs varies greatly depending on how they were treated. They may be fearful of people or extremely excited to be in a loving home! The needs of abused/neglected dogs are similar to puppy mill survivors so we will cover that below.
Commercial breeding farms (mills) – A commercial breeding farm is also known as a puppy mill. A puppy mill is a backyard breeder on steroids. One farm may have hundreds of dogs that are breeding. Their puppies are often times sold to pet stores or sold online. The living conditions of the dogs are appalling. They may be stuck in wire cages without room to stand or move much at all. They are not provided with proper vet care and often have chronic eye, ear, and/or skin problems.
There are many different reasons why a rescue will get a dog from a commercial breeding farm. There are instances that the mill is closed by law enforcement due to poor living conditions, the breeder may decide to relinquish their mill operation before it is shut down, or a mill operator may divest itself of their older dogs because they can not breed anymore. Mill dogs come to the homes of fosters in all medical and emotional conditions. Some mill dogs have major medical needs that need to be taken care of immediately and some may not have any medical issues. Almost all of them need to be spayed or neutered. There will be emotional issues in varying degrees from spending years in the mill. A foster home should plan for varying degrees of medical and emotional support for each dog. A mill dog may be bounce back within a week or so or it may take years for a mill dog to gain the confidence that they need to act like “real” dogs.
Mill dogs are almost always a flight risk. They will be scared in their new environment and need to be watched at all times. We take our mill dogs outside on leash, even with a fenced in yard. We use non-slip collars for them so they cannot back out of their collars and run away. This can be more challenging that it sounds as they have often not had a leash on and may be freaked out by the whole thing. Patience is key. Hook a leash onto their collar and let them drag it around the house. Then hold onto the end of the leash but follow wherever they go. Gradually work up to using the leash to control where they go so they get used to the idea. This can take a long time for some dogs!
Mill dogs will most likely not know what it is like to be touched kindly by a human, will never have been in a house, or understand basic commands. A foster home’s dogs will help the mill dog learn the ropes of being a pet dog in a home. Since these dogs have never lived in a house, they will not know what to do with stairs, changes in floor covering (carpet to stairs, for example), doorways, and many other normal household activities.
Puppy mill survivors have different ways of coping with their new world. Some will become hyper and excited that they are out of that horrible place, while others may retreat to a quiet space in the house to block out the activity around them and seem to wish themselves back to where they came from. All dogs should be provided a safe place to go when they do get overwhelmed, but use caution as you don’t want them to spend all day there. They need to learn how to live in a home with people who love them. Take it slow!
Feeding a mill dog will be a new experience with each mill dog. A mill dog will normally be underweight and need to be encouraged to eat. Each mill dog is a trial and error process and each mill dog is different. When one idea doesn’t work you try something else until you find the match to help make the mill dog feel confident and relaxed in their new environment.
Here are some tips for feeding mill dogs:
- If they won’t eat out of a bowl, try a plate. If that doesn’t work, scatter the food on the floor.
- If the dog won’t eat in your presence, try to turn your back. If that doesn’t work, leave the room. Gradually work up to where the dog lets you be in the same room.
- Mix dry dog food with canned or fresh chicken, tuna, pumpkin, liverwurst, or hamburger.
Mill dogs have not been properly socialized. You must not isolate them but go against their better judgment and take them with you everywhere you can go. We take our mill survivors to pet friendly shops, parks, and to friends’ homes. We instruct people to pet them, even if they cower behind us or try to run away. If the dog is treat motivated (many are not as they have never seen a treat), we sneak a treat to the person trying to pet them and they hand the treat to the dog as they pet them. We also use our puppy mill survivors as educational tools to teach people about puppy mills and the pet stores they supply.
Fostering a puppy mill survivor sounds like a lot of work but it’s really not. In fact, your own dog(s) will do most of the work! Dogs learn so much from each other, and it’s no different for a puppy mill dog. They will be watching how you interact with your own dog and how your own dog tackles things like stairs and dinnertime. Watching a mill dog blossom is one of the most rewarding experiences ever!