Should Shelters and Breeders Require Literacy in Behavior?

Choosing to bring a companion animal home is a huge decision.

Posted Jul 08, 2018

"Oh my, what did I get myself into when I adopted Roscoe?

"I've tried to do the best I could, but I'm afraid I've failed and should have done my homework before bringing Jamie home."

"I knew it would be a great change in life, so I did my homework before I rescued Sharon."

“I love Mervin, but I’m not sure I can give him what he wants and needs, although I’m his total slave from the time we get up until the time we go to sleep. Do you think pet keeping will end?”

In the few days since I published an interview with bioethicist Dr. Jessica Pierce called "Companion Animals: Ethology, Ethics & End-of-Life Decisions," I've had a number of emails and personal discussions with people about one of the main topics that was discussed, namely, the importance of becoming literate in "dog"—learning about the basic behavior patterns and needs of the nonhuman animal one chooses to bring home—and the ethics of making this incredibly important decision that can be a life-changer for all of the individuals involved. It's often the case that right-minded and well-intentioned people realize too late that they've taken on more than they can handle. Here, I use dogs as an example of a companion animal, however, one can substitute any species, individuals of which become household companions.

The issues and questions that were raised in these written and oral exchanges are worth sharing because they raise many different topics that need to be considered when bringing another living being into one's life. 

100080861 © Sergei Rovnianskyi | Dreamstime
Source: 100080861 © Sergei Rovnianskyi | Dreamstime

Should people have to become semifluent in dog, cat, guinea pig, hamster, rat, bird, fish, reptile, amphibian, insect, octopus, or invertebrate?

The list of animals in the heading above isn't exclusive, but it raises an important question that requires an informed answer, or answers, because for many people there isn't one definitive answer. Here are some questions and snippets of what came my way after people read my interview with Dr. Pierce.

  • Is an "OK" life better than no life at all?
  • If people think it takes too much time to learn about behavior and ethics, specifically their responsibility to the animal they take home, they'll either put the time in when they get the animal or they'll do it later and pay for being slackers. And, it may cost them plenty of money. Pay now or pay later.
  • I bet that fewer animals will be returned if people take the time to carefully assess what they are doing and learn about breed-specific or breed-appropriate behavior.
  • Shelters and breeders should have lending libraries with relevant literature.
  • There shouldn't be formal tests, but there must be serious discussions about what people are getting themselves into. Someone wrote, "Perhaps some sort of 'easy' standardized test on basic behavior and ethics would work." At least something to make people realize the implications of what they've decided to do. 
  • It's essential that all the people who will play a part in its life learn about their potential pet's behavior and meet the animal personally. Be sure everyone is on board with the decision. 

There are risks and rewards for all involved 

“I decided to give Patricia up and let her have the opportunity for a better life. I just can’t do what I need to do and what she needs to do, and it breaks my heart.”

I fully realize there are different views on the matters at hand, but ignoring them won't make them go away. The question, Is an 'OK' life better than no life at all? proved to be the most difficult, and in some ways, the most divisive. There was a pretty even split among those who emailed and the people with whom I spoke. Some said with much sadness that dogs and other animals who go to "crappy" homes or to homes "where people don't know much if anything about them" will have crappy lives and may be better off dead. Others said that they had faith that the people who had taken on too much or didn't know enough about the animals who now shared their home would go out and learn about them and do what had to be done for them to have a good life. I can only hope so. 

Coincidentally, last week I was thrilled when one of the students in my Roots & Shoots class at the Boulder County Jail (see this and this) told me he was planning to rescue a dog when he was released and that he had just read Puppy's First Steps: A Proven Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy, Well-Behaved Companion by veterinarian and clinician Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a book he a book he had found in the jail's library. He said, "My dog will be my companion, and I need to know as much as I can about him." We had this conversation before I talked with the class about whether or not shelters and breeders should require that their clients be fluent in "dog" (or other animal) and ethics. I'd been planning to do so, and John simply told me what he'd been doing during the previous week.

John also mentioned something that others brought up, namely, Is an 'OK' life better than no life at all? When I asked him to elaborate, he said,  "Look, there are risks and rewards for everyone involved, the animal and its potential/future human." He then elaborated on this thought, noting that if too much was required for people who want to rescue a sheltered animal, they might decide not to take it home and the animal might be euthanized.

This thought came up in some emails and other discussions. Some people thought that raising the ante for rescuing a sheltered animal would result in fewer adoptions and that there had to be some slack, whereas others said that asking for some minimal knowledge would be just fine. A number of people distinguished between sheltered dogs and those coming from breeders. Concerning breeders, all but one person said they should be required to educate their potential clients on "what they were getting themselves into" and should ask them or "force them" to read material about dogs of the particular breed they were selling and also "have them read about their long-term responsibility and the nature of the commitment they're making." One person wrote, "These dogs are basically made to make money, and there is no reason why breeders shouldn't have to educate people about the breed and the owners' cradle-to-grave commitment." 

Know the individual animal well

"It’s essential that when people decide to offer a home—and, one hopes, their hearts—to another animal, they realize the enormity of their responsibility." 

“How many dogs should a person be allowed to adopt and return? I know someone who’s done it eight times. Thank goodness, when she tried again, she was told no.”

Not only is it important to become dog (or other animal) literate, but it also is essential to reflect on the life changes that are to follow, some or many of which will force some people out of their comfort zone. It's not difficult to learn some basics about breed-specific or species-specific behavior, or to become a "citizen scientist" or amateur ethologist, focusing on the individual whom you choose to bring into your life (see "How Well Do You Know What Dogs Do, Think, and Feel?"). Indeed, knowing about dog behavior can be useful in assessing if your pet is in pain (see "New Study Shows Importance of Understanding Dog Behavior"), and there's no reason to think that basic knowledge of behavior wouldn't also be useful or diagnostic for other animals. 

Pay now or pay later

The bottom line is easy to summarize: If you are planning to share your home and heart with a companion animal, take the time to learn about them and to think through just what you're getting yourself into. Shelters and breeders should, and many do, help people learn about the individual who is to become their housemate and encourage them to think deeply about life changes that surely will follow when they make an addition to the home. I can't find any formal data on this topic, however, so I'm not sure anyone really knows with any accuracy the percentage of shelters or breeders that actually educate humans who come to them to find a companion animal. It is irresponsible for them to do otherwise, despite the short-term inconvenience it might cause some humans who want to adopt a pet. 

It people don't do their homework, the nonhuman's situation can become a mess and result in a highly compromised life or in their being surrendered to a shelter or returned to a breeder and possibly being killed. While most people with whom I'm familiar would suffer the pain of loss if an animal had to be returned to a shelter or to a breeder, the fate of their one-time animal companion is likely to be far worse than their own.

When people take the time to gain some competency in behavior and ethics, it's good for everyone involved, and it's not asking too much for them to do so. I'm heartened because the majority of people with whom I had contact feel that most humans who were asked to do their homework would do so. They either pay now, or they pay later, but the nonhumans usually pay far more for their humans' failures to learn about them or to deeply think about what they're doing when bringing them into their homes.  

We need to do all we can to give our companions the very best lives possible because, while it may surprise many people, a large number of companion animals don't get what they want and need from their humans—not only near the end of their lives, but also throughout their cohabitation with humans. We are the lifelines for other animals, and they, each and every individual, totally depend on us for our goodwill and concern for their well-being for as long as we are responsible for them. When they're doing well it's also good for us, and it's a win-win for all. However, even if we have to leave our comfort zone to give them the respect and dignity they deserve as living beings, we are obliged to do so from the moment we become their caregiver. If you don't want to do the work that begins even before an animal becomes your roommate, it's best not to bring them home. 

Should shelters and breeders require some literacy in behavior and ethics? Yes. Is it asking too much for them to do so? No.

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