by Emily Douglas

All learning complicates our thinking in some way. Which is why learning is a process, not a product. Learning means stopping to consider things we’ve always taken for granted. It means examining the unexamined. It means asking big questions like, How do I know that? and Why am I doing things this way? Questions like, What is Advocacy? Or Welfare? Or Rescue? And what is the relationship among them?

Kelly Shutt Cottrell and Drayton Michaels recently posed such a question when they stopped to consider “Can Animal Advocacy Be Divorced From Animal Behavior?” Which in turn inspired Animal Farm Foundation to ask the question, “Can Animal Trainers and Behaviorists Be Divorced From Animal Advocacy?”

These are questions we should all be wrestling with in the dog welfare community on a regular basis. Because they define what we do. They give our actions purpose and structure. Questions like these help us map the terrain of the world in which we work. And without that map, we usually end up walking around in circles, or sometimes right off the edge of a cliff.

Which brings me to a question of my own: Has “Pit Bull Rescue” become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

A few years back, I was volunteering full-time for a “pit bull” rescue group. I fostered dogs. I walked and handled dogs. I took them to the vet and cleaned their crates and their yards. I took photos of them and wrote adoption profiles. I screened adoption applications and did home visits. Two of my four dogs are foster failures from that rescue group. I have good friends who own dogs adopted from that group.

And yet, when anyone asks my advice on where to go when adopting a new dog, I tell them the following: Forget the rescues. Go to a humane society or shelter. And as discouraging as that may be for some of my rescue colleagues to hear, this is why I say it: Because I believe that Rescue has become the quintessential example of losing the forest for the trees.

Limiting expertise

I fear that many rescue groups, along with their volunteers and supporters, are inappropriately equating Rescue with Welfare and Advocacy. Running a rescue group does not necessarily mean that great Welfare is being provided, nor does it mean that the group is successfully advocating for the dogs in their care, or for dogs writ large.

Engaging in the act of rescue, such as picking up a stray dog, accepting an owner surrender or removing a dog from a negligent situation, is a very specific and finite moment in the life cycle of a “rescue dog.”

Many rescue groups have become exceptional at going into very stressful, often upsetting, situations and removing dogs from that context. They are in fact experts at Rescue. But what about the rest of the life cycle?

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Are they “rescuing” a dog in need, or just failing to provide adequate resources and support to owners and their dogs? Are they thoroughly evaluating dogs in terms of health and behavior, or just making sure they’re vaccinated and in good physical health? Are they providing individual enrichment and socialization, or just warehousing dogs until they find a permanent home? Are they skillfully and consistently training dogs, or doing so haphazardly? Are they effectively promoting dogs for adoption, or just schlepping the same dogs in crates to Petco on the weekends? Are they updating their mission, resources and activities to reflect best practices in the community, or just doing the same thing over and over again because that’s what they’ve always done?

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Language matters

Have rescue groups unintentionally limited their capacity to serve the dog welfare community by labeling themselves rescues? Have they unintentionally limited their capacity to serve the dogs in their care by labeling themselves “pit bull” rescues? Even if most or all of the dogs in your care are, or at least appear to be, pit bull type dogs, why label it as such? Shouldn’t we be broadening the adopter and supporter base, rather than narrowing it?

Have rescue groups become highly skilled at rescue, while falling behind with everything else? Have they accidentally built themselves a box from which they cannot escape? Never growing. Never self-assessing. Never evolving.

Redefining rescue

Should we be looking for ways to help rescue groups redefine themselves while making sure not to bite off more than they can chew? Can we help Rescue reorient itself in the larger dog welfare community? Is it time to reevaluate the efficacy of “pit bull” specific rescue? Can we better inform rescue-specific activities with big ideas like Advocacy, Behavior and Welfare?

Advocacy is not about taking care of an abused or neglected animal, but rather about changing the factors that contributed to that animal being abused or neglected in the first place. Behavior involves knowledge and expertise essential to understanding the root causes of those factors and systematically addressing them. And Welfare is the yardstick by which we measure how effectively we’re applying those concepts.

In Can Animal Advocacy Be Divorced From Animal Behavior?, Cottrell explains:

The most effective advocates for the homeless, for example, go beyond simply getting people off the streets and into warm beds. They work to address the systemic issues surrounding homelessness by understanding the underlying causation, and leveraging this knowledge. What factors put individuals at risk for homelessness? How does the supply of affordable housing factor into the equation? What incentives are available for individuals seeking permanent, supportive housing?

In The Connection Between Dog Training and Dog Advocacy, Michaels writes:

When 6,000 “pit bull” type dogs are euthanized every day in the USA, as a matter of course, and many of those dogs are relinquished due to some sort of perceived “behavior concern”, we need more than a few catch phrases, TV shows and T-shirts to get the job done thoroughly. We need to properly teach people, all people, about behavior, so they can really help save dogs from misunderstanding, which in turn will save them from abuses. Then, the ripple effect of that education leads to safer communities and less stress for dog guardians, more dogs in homes, not in shelters.

Advocacy and Behavior working in harmony help address the dog welfare problem. Rescue divorced from Advocacy and Behavior perpetuates it.

It’s all about learning

I think it may be time for us to start complicating our thinking about Rescue. And time for Rescue to start asking big questions like, Are we rescuing this new dog at the expense of one already in our care? Are we unintentionally creating more behavior problems than we’re solving? What are some of the bigger, more successful organizations doing that we’re not?  And how can we change that?

Major welfare organizations and advocacy groups like Best Friends Animal Society, BAD RAP, Animal Farm Foundation and the ASPCA have made tremendous strides in bringing individual dog owners, communities, shelters, humane societies and even policymakers into the 21st century with resources and support that work for dogs.

Now we need to find a way to help Rescue catch up—or even better, evolve. Because I believe rescue groups haven’t just fallen behind. I think the welfare train has already left the station, and worry that many rescues are still standing on the platform reading last year’s schedule.

For related posts by this author, see Five Foolproof Tips for Better “Pit Bull” Advocacy, Will the Jerry Maguires of Animal Welfare Please Stand Up and Obsession with Breed: As Troublesome as Discrimination Against It.