B: What tips would you offer those who might be interested in a shelter dog?
KK: I think the best way to adopt is through a rescue that uses a network of foster homes. As previously mentioned, you’re far more likely to know what kind of dog you’re getting.
It’s also good to work with rescues that ask you a lot of questions. They should check your references. They should thoroughly interview you and maybe even do a home inspection before approving you. This isn’t about being suspicious but rather, a sign that they are trying to be professional—that they want what is best for the particular dog, instead of just giving you a dog who may or may not be right for your family or your lifestyle.
B: Any ideas on how to improve spay/neuter rates? Groups around the country have promoted low-cost, accessible services but still, many people won’t neuter their pets.
KK: This was the experts’ biggest frustration. In North Carolina, where Blue is from, you can have a dog neutered for $20 at a mobile clinic that comes to your town. In New York City, where I interviewed an ASPCA vice president about their mobile clinics, you can have your dog neutered and spayed for free if you meet the eligibility criteria. And still people don’t do it.
There are a number of reasons why. First and foremost is a lack of education. People don’t realize that they are contributing to a massive national shelter crisis when they allow their dogs to produce unwanted puppies. This can be overcome. Education takes time, but it does work. As the founder of Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, Mass., told me, education has gotten through in the Northeast, where spay/neuter has become as routine as daily tooth-brushing—and where shelters typically have far lower kill rates than in some other parts of the country.
Another reason I’ve heard more than once has to do with religion. I’ve had people tell me that encouraging spay/neuter is akin to “playing God.” They feel that it’s just as immoral to spay or neuter a dog as it is for a human to take birth-control pills or have an abortion, because God and God alone should decide which puppies are born. This is much harder to address, and I don’t know that anything will ever change those opinions. It’s like trying to convince pro-life and pro-choice activists to see eye-to-eye. It’s just not likely to happen.
One thing I think will help going forward is the research being done right now into how spay/neuter rates affect intake levels at shelters. The ASPCA is doing some great work on this in New York City, for example. I hope that sometime soon, researchers will be able to tell shelter directors that if they invest X amount of their budget in local spay/neuter initiatives, it will bring down the number of dogs in their shelter by Y amount. That will make spay/neuter a budgetary and policy priority in places where personal attitudes or lack of education may be getting in the way of solving the problem.
B: Beyond spaying and neutering, what more can be done to control pet population in shelters?
KK: One thing that we see in rescue is people giving their dogs back after a year or two. It’s more common than you might think. Sometimes it’s because people never really wanted a dog in the first place, but instead thought of the animal as a fun accessory who later becomes an inconvenience in their life. They say something like, “I am moving and I don’t want to be limited to apartments that only take dogs, even though my dog is really great and loves my kids a lot.” I have no idea what to do about those people, except maybe to ask their mothers why they never taught them proper respect for dogs who are members of their families.
The other main reason that people give dogs back to rescues or shelters, is that they say the dogs “turned out” bad. This tends to happen when the dogs are two or three years old—and almost always a result of the human failing to train the dog when he was a puppy. If a dog doesn’t know how to sit or where to go to the bathroom after you’ve had him for two or three years, it’s because you failed to teach him. The dog isn’t bad. It’s a lousy dog owner. If more people took advantage of training classes, which are usually just one hour a week, then far fewer people would be complaining they had “bad dogs.”