Sheltering: kill, no kill, and “no kill”

Every single day, I check the website of the Hartford, CT, dog pound. I do it with a sense of absolute inevitability – I know I’ll be back there and it won’t be for the last time. As we approach the time when we can be back in our house, I have begun almost unconsciously measuring my weekdays and Saturdays. How much time would it take to get down there and back? How much money do I have in the bank and could it stand a big vet-bill hit? Could I manage with baby gates and fencing if I had to quarantine a dog? Sooner or later the answer to all those questions will be favorable and I’ll go down there and put my name on a dog. My heart is pushing for the senior or middle-aged ones right now, the masses of mats who need a complete makeover.

I don’t try to help with rescue efforts because I need more dogs (wow, no) or even because I am moved by their plight. I do it because it’s a huge high, the whole rebuilding and rehabbing. I love the fact that they become dogs, that the fear goes away, that they start to talk the canine language again, that they stop shying away from the collar and start to fight for a spot in the mob that shows up at the door whenever they hear a leash rattle. I love the black bath water, the nail clipping, the shine coming in on the coat, the teeth that get white. And I love handing them off when they’re ready to go. I don’t have any illusions that I do miracles, but I can make them look and act like they’re cared for, and my pack of dogs can make their brains start working again. It’s an incredibly satisfying work that is “close to the earth,” and keeps me grounded when it comes to the rather elitist (and justifiably so) world of show dogs.

Since I love rescuing dogs and I have some opinions that push me over into some animal-rights topics (the fact that I abhor cropping and, to a lesser but still considerable extent, docking, for example), for the last few years I’ve been very interested in the whole rescue/sheltering movement. I’ve become fascinated by the mission statements that get attached to the different flavors of the efforts to help homeless dogs, the personalities that different efforts take on, the oddities and the prejudices and attitudes and practices that specific rescues are shaped by.

I also live very much in the breeder/show-breeder world, where attitudes about sheltering and rescue can be VERY different than in the rescue movement itself and considerably different from what the general public thinks about homeless dogs.

I am still trying to shape a cohesive opinion or statement about the rather vast world of rescue, so take anything I write for what it’s worth. In the world of published research there’s a in-joke about any books titled “Toward a…” and the punchline is that even the author knows that the statements therein are not particularly well formed. One of my grad-school profs wrote no fewer than four books that begin with “Toward,” and I can personally vouch for the fact that the joke is valid.

So please consider this a “Toward an Understanding of Sheltering Philosophies” entry and expect some wishy-washiness.

What I have seen in rescuing falls into three basic (and very broad) categories, with lots of different flavors within these and some substantial overlap. Most of you will be VERY familiar with the first two, but may not have as much experience with the last one.

Kill shelters: These operate within the general function of “animal control.” Some of them have retained that name, others are called pounds, a whole bunch have the name of the town and “animal shelter” attached. The mission of these shelters is to keep stray animals off the street and to decrease the danger for humans living in the area, and to find homes for the animals. The order of these two goals is not an accident, and one is definitely more important. Shelters of this type are either a part of the town government or are contracted by that town to pick up stray dogs. Many of them, but not all, also accept owner surrenders. Where we lived in West Virginia, the owner surrender problem was so huge that the shelter had three big chain-link kennels set up outside so people would drop their dogs and cats in the kennels instead of tying them to the doorknob. Just about every morning there’d be at least one animal in the kennel and several times a month there would be half a dozen.

Kill shelters live by the rule of space = life. A dog will stay alive as long as there is space to house him or her. When the space runs out – and in many shelters this is pretty much constant – whoever has been there the longest will be put to sleep. Making the problem even more acute is the fact that many animal control officers and shelter heads function with the anticipation that there will be a flood of dogs and cats at any moment. They keep several runs open at all times. This effectively shrinks the number of dogs that will stay alive by a quarter or a third.

Some kill shelters will clean out the shelter in waves; I’ve seen several that do this. They build up numbers until they have, say, twenty-five dogs, and then euthanize them all in a day. Then they build up again.

However it works, the typical kill shelter in this country is a rather heartbreaking place. Many care for the dogs extremely well; most that I’ve been in are clean and humane. But it’s not exactly a hopeful place.

No-kill shelters: These are typically privately funded shelters and accept owner turn-ins and (rarely) cruelty cases. Their mission is to keep homeless animals from being euthanized and to find homes for animals. Again, the order of the goals is quite definitely a sign of which has the higher priority.

If you ask the average pet lover whether a kill shelter or a no-kill shelter is preferable, 99 percent of them will instantly respond that the no-kill shelter is of course better. The kill shelter KILLS DOGS! No-kill shelters are also the feel-good refuge for people needing or wanting to get rid of their dogs. This is of course a generalization and doesn’t apply to everyone, but I’ve noticed in talking to a ton of people if they can find a “no-kill” shelter they have a substantially reduced guilt load for dumping their dog. A very long time ago, I gave up a dog to a no-kill shelter, because I was very young and stupid and overwhelmed and didn’t have any of the tools I do now. That experience is actually what pushed me into learning about dog behavior, and Lord willing I’ll never even consider doing it again, but when I was in that situation the no-kill shelter was what I felt to be the best option. I dropped him off with all his stuff, a ton of money, and a list of every single quirk he had. And my dog was adopted, thankfully, and as far as I know it was successful. But I’m still guilty about it.

In contrast to the general public’s perception, no-kill shelters get a VERY bad rap within the serious dog community. This is because it’s fairly inevitable that these shelters will fill up with dogs who are unadoptable or who become unadoptable due to the length of time they are in the shelter. And when that happens, the shelter can’t accept any more dogs, no matter how adoptable they may be. And so those owners end up at the kill shelter, and their dog has a much lower chance of survival.

The no-kill shelters that continue to accept dogs without stacking them like cordwood in kennels (which, tragically, does happen in more than a few), must grow. Perhaps the best-known no-kill shelter in the US is Best Friends (the subject of the Animal Planet show “Dogtown”), which houses between 2,000 and 4,000 dogs at any one time and cares for them by spending several million dollars each year.

I have a very mixed feeling about Best Friends because of the money spent per dog per year; they will throw thousands of dollars at an ancient and critically ill dog to give him a few more weeks and I’d love to siphon some of that off to help shelters who are underfunded. But I can’t argue with the care of the dogs. Among the enormous numbers, the equally enormous staff spends time on each dog.

Unfortunately, Best Friends is notable in its rarity. Most no-kill shelters, in areas where the surrender rate is above minimal, end up with at least a few dogs who are literally warehoused for years. For an animal who sees itself almost entirely within its social group, this is not just unfortunate. It rejects the dog’s whole world and destroys quality of life.

You can see that there is a tremendous gulf between these forms of shelters. You should also have realized that neither of them has as a top priority getting the animals out the door. One is a control option for the safety of the community, the other is a sanctuary (at its best) or a warehouse (at its worst). They ALSO adopt out dogs, but moving dogs out is the second goal.

Both of these models are also defined by a second concept: That dog homelessness is inevitable in the US as it stands. There is a dog overpopulation, there are too many dogs for homes. They define it as a production problem, too many dogs being born. That’s why one of the major statements in both groups is that no one should ever breed because there are too many animals in the country already. This is yet another reason that rescue and the dog community can be tragically at odds; dog breeders get very tired of being told that their carefully planned and supremely useful dogs should never have been born and most definitely should not ever have a next generation.

Into the breach between kill and no-kill has come a third option, which is unfortunately called by the same name as the second, “No Kill.” I don’t think the architects of this theory know how much harm this naming has done, because they don’t realize what a hot-button phrase it is within the dog community. If I ran the circus, they should have called it by the title of the book that defined it, which is

Redemption, by Nathan Winograd.

Winograd is one of the very few figures that appeals to most if not all sides of the sheltering community; he strongly rejects the idea that there is a pet overpopulation in the US and he recruits the breed-specific rescues that show breeders typically run and support. He pushes for minimal euthanasia, and in the shelters where he has personally worked he’s reduced deaths by an extraordinary amount. The organizations that are critical of Winograd’s practices are, unsurprisingly, the ones who make money from the “fact” that there are too many dogs in the world and profit from those critical of and angry at breeders – PETA and the HSUS.

Redemption-style sheltering, which Winograd calls “No Kill” (with capitals), rather radically rearranges the homeless dog picture by saying that shelters should function first and foremost in order to get dogs out the door. That’s the top priority and everything else feeds into that. The goal is total adoption of all dogs who can possibly be adopted, and by that he means literally ALL DOGS WHO CAN POSSIBLY BE ADOPTED. Many shelters say that they are only euthanizing unadoptable dogs, but they define “unadoptable” as large, older than two, any working breed, any pit or pit-type or pit cross, any black dog (!), any dog who is dog- or food-aggressive, the list goes on and on. Winograd says that the only dogs who are genuinely unadoptable are those that are seriously problematic with people and have a very poor training prognosis or who are terminally ill. If a shelter’s “unadoptable” rate is over about five or ten percent, he calls BS.

Redemption is all about turning shelters from hopeless dead-ends for dogs to the preferred supplier of dogs to every home, and increase shelter turnover to its maximum. He uses basic marketing and demand rules – make the shelter pretty, advertise the dogs, recruit foster homes, give every dog to purebred rescue that you possibly can, keep adoption fees low, recruit and train volunteers, etc. He puts the responsibility for reducing deaths on the heads of the shelters, where it has typically been pushed onto the people who produce (breed) dogs. He also wants shelters to do some very simple things that a shocking number not only neglect but blatantly refuse to do – like trying to find out where a dog belongs and calling the owners. (There’s a strong thread of thought in more than a few shelters that if the owner was stupid enough to let the dog get away, they don’t deserve to get the dog back, and many more say they don’t want to put the time or energy into chasing owners.)

The ten rules for making a Redemption-style No-Kill shelter are here (as a disclaimer, there’s a lot of animal-rights-friendly language throughout Winograd’s site. Please do not be turned off by that; focus on the meat of the message), but rather than repeat them I’m going to highlight what Hartford is doing, because I think it perfectly illustrates how a kill shelter with a very low budget has managed to achieve a 90% adoption rate.

Hartford is a true animal control POUND. There’s absolutely nothing that’s fancy about it. There are about ten or fifteen runs in the bottom of a barn (the main floor of the barn holds a not-terribly-high-end pet business) off a side street. The street sign is barely visible. The whole thing is about as low-rent as it gets. All their dogs come in as strays or neglect/cruelty seizures. All owners that can be found (via collar tags, rabies tags, etc.) are called, but 98% do not reclaim the animal. The dogs are held for ten days; as of the tenth day they can be euthanized (and the pens are always full, so most of the unadopted ones are). So how has the animal control officer in charge achieved such an extraordinary adoption rate?

It reads like a Redemption case study. She and the volunteers who help out at the shelter advertise the dogs everywhere. Petfinder, the pound’s own website, the craigslists of every city for four hours around. They aggressively seek donations of the things the dogs really need – food, comforters in the wintertime, toys. All dogs who are ill are seen by a vet and those costs are not passed on to adopters. Adoption fees are VERY low: $50 for in-state adoptions (which includes a spay/neuter voucher) and $5 for out-of-state adoptions. She pursues rescues and transfers as many purebreds as possible to the breed rescues. She fosters out whatever dogs she can, and she will continue to advertise the fostered dogs on the pound’s website. And a group of volunteers provide follow-up care via low-cost obedience lessons to families who adopt from the shelter.

Since Hartford is also one of the only shelters in New England that routinely has young, small, companion-breed dogs, I do push it very hard as a source of adoptable dogs. I wish every state in the northeast would look to Connecticut’s example and slash adoption fees for any dogs coming in from an animal control function – with the spay voucher it’s basically money in your pocket, and people like me can pull dogs with the goal of rehoming them.

Which I WILL be doing. So watch this space – in a few months there should be a furry face looking for a great future.


10 thoughts on “Sheltering: kill, no kill, and “no kill”

  1. If you live in state $45 of that cost is refundable if the dog is found to be fixed when brought to the vet, too. In the case of a neutered male the in state cost is only $5 – not that fixed dogs show up a lot! Unfortunately I think there are a lot of people that don’t know about pound adoptions in CT.

    What is your opinion on shelters/rescue groups importing dogs from the south? It’s a big hot-button topic in Connecticut among people in the dog community. I’ve adopted from the south and adopted from a pound. I fostered for a very responsible southern rescue (and caught a lot of grief over that among the die-hard in state people).

    • I want all dogs to get adopted, so I’m fine with dogs being brought up from the at-risk shelters. I just think there needs to be complete transparency about the process. Something like “So much progress has been made in reducing homeless dog numbers that we literally have more homes than we have dogs, so we’re using this wonderful opportunity to find homes for dogs born in areas where there is still a major problem.” Presenting those dogs as evidence of “overpopulation” really does hack me off. And I’d love for those rescues to encourage people to look at the local pounds and animal controls first.

      Sue Sternberg, the whackadoo of the sheltering world, has basically written off all the shelters in the Northeast. She basically says that all the dogs need to be euthanized and the entire system should start over with dogs from the south, and she’d prefer none over 35 lb.

      • “Sue Sternberg, the whackadoo of the sheltering world”

        Thank you, thank you, for that.

        I just spent a weekend attending an SS seminar, hauling 5 dogs from my local shelter that were practically set up to be the “bad examples,” and I swear I am going through PTSD. The whole experience was beyond horrible — and not just because she wanted to “off” all the dogs I brought (I *might* agree with her on one of them).

        Really — I don’t want to unleash monsters on the general public, honestly! I don’t want some kid’s face ripped off by a shelter dog! I do believe, however, that there comes a point of diminishing returns when watching too many videos of tiny puppies attacking plastic hands, and brutal dogfights in dogparks or in people’s living rooms. After a certain point, I think it begins to make you jittery, nervous, anticipating every encounter as one that will end in disaster, rather than really learning and internalizing dogs’ methods of communication and attempting to determine what these methods mean and reacting accordingly. What I took away from this was some “disaster” videos, then an assessment of a live dog that she determined to have potential to be aggressive because of its low anxiety threshhold (and we *just* saw what aggression could be!!) then more disaster videos, then another live dog with a low anxiety threshhold. By day three of this event, I began to to perceive that (by assisting in adopting these horrible beasts!) that I roughly akin to the Unabomber (she did, actually compare one of “my” dogs to the Unabomber! After all, he communicated well too!)

        Oh — and God forbid that people be encouraged to actually *train* their dogs! People can’t be expected to do that!

        Truly the only Sternberg-approved dog is one of the ones sold at Toys R’ Us.

  2. I agree with Grace, so much so that I linked to the post on my FB so maybe others will read it too.

    I keep adding to your comments roundup list, I’ll probably be the biggest culprit of your next bout of hiding from it… but I have so many questions so please bear with me. One of them has to do with a quick ‘n easy way to respond to people when they say (stupid) things like “Your dog is so beautiful, I wanted to know if I can breed her.” I’m always SO stunned that someone would say that, I’m at a loss for words and usually only manage to mutter “She’s 5yo and already spayed” before walking away. And obviously, I’m not talking about some fabulous BTC breeder approaching me (not that I think they would because she’s never been shown or registered, and while her parents were both UKC PRs, I now know thanks to you how little that counts for anything), I’m talking about neighbors who would want to breed her to a lab or who knows what…

    Another has to do with Craigslist, do you flag posts from people who appear to be BYBs, selling puppies & kittens?

    • ok, I had to go to work and abbreviated my comment, so I hope it didn’t seem like I was being a cretin when I asked about the CL flagging. But really, can anything be done about these people? It makes me so sad, to see all these puppies that are for the most part the same breeds crowding the local shelter!!!

      Why do some breeders use the word “gyp” instead of “bitch”?

      And I have another question related to the issue of how to tell a good breeder from a puppy mill, when we’re talking about a setting that’s probably immaculate and would probably pass any kind of inspection… yet it seems geared to produce the largest amount of puppies in the shortest period of time and there’s no mention of any type of health testing (tho maybe that’s just due to the type of dogs I’m looking at???) I’m not sure I should post any more specific info on here, since I don’t want to risk getting you in trouble. Maybe we can start talking about pattypaws again 😉

      One last thing: when you start going to dog shows again, will you keep eyes & ears open for me, help me find a reputable breeder of the dogbreed “category” I love?

      • A gyp is a young female dog, like a gilt or a heifer or a filly. But I had no idea that was still in use – that’s a word from the dog books I own that are almost a century old.

        I have no idea what to do about CL. It has beome a place where people sell dogs and I’m not sure it’s solvable. There will always be people who take advantage of any forum like that.

        The clean puppy mill is why I object so strongly to the definition of puppy mill as dirty and filthy. is the post I wrote about it.

        I am working on a series about finding and buying from a reputable breeder. More on that to come.

  3. I never understood the explanation that ‘black dogs are rarely adopted’. Whenever I go camping, to the dogpark, or any other place where there are people out with their dogs, I see TONS of black, lab-like and lab-mix type dogs. Black dogs seem to be everywhere. So apparently people like black dogs a lot!

    Yet they supposedly don’t get adopted… what gives?

    • I think the common nature of the color is exactly why they’re not. Humans like novelty and they feel like they can’t “see” a black dog. Something about the face, I think.

      When I was breeding Danes, everybody wanted the blacks, because they’re so amazing and stallion-like. And obviously it’s not hurting Dobies and a hundred other breeds. But the brand-x labbish thing is so common that people will look past them for the little fluffy white dog.

  4. If anyone knows any rescue groups in the NE that would be interested in working with groups down here, PLEASE send them my way. We get a LOT of smallish puppies at my local shelter- mostly rat terrier and chih mixes, and in the 4-6 month range. (The “DAMMIT WHY ISN’T THIS DOG HOUSEBROKEN YET?” age).

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