The Importance of Evaluating Your Rescue Before Placement
Hello Fellow Rescuers,
The following is something I felt compelled to write after having to put yet another Rescue to sleep due to temperament unsoundness. Many of us in Breed Rescue have so few resources to turn to when it comes to finding resources to help guide us through these questionable times on what we should do and the consequences of our actions. So in an effort to hopefully open the door to sharing our experiences, I hope the following will shed a little light on the less desirable task of doing Bullmastiff Rescue – or any large dog breed rescue for that matter. This particular case involved a Great Dane.
After almost a month of evaluation, a fellow Rescuer and I had to put this particular Great Dane to sleep. To make a long story short, he was on his last six (6) days of proving soundness for placeability into a new home. In our final phase, he turned on me - unprovoked. I had great hopes for placing this boy, so I was quite shocked that he failed so tragically. I was lucky and made it out with only one decent puncture, but this got me to thinking about something that I think I should share with my fellow rescuers:
The importance of evaluating your Rescue's soundness before placement.
I know some folks believe that a rescued animal should be viable for placement NO MATTER WHAT. However, I disagree. I do not believe it is my right to endanger another human being or animal by placing a temperamentally unsound Rescue into their household. And since I, personally, cannot keep every single animal I take in as a Rescue - much less risk my own personal safety and my family's, the only alternative is to have the Rescue be put to sleep in a humane manner. It is for the benefit of society, the breed, as well as the benefit of the Rescue themselves. A dog that is deemed aggressive - if they are not put to sleep - will usually end up in someone's fighting pit living a life worse than death; or hitting the headlines after they have mauled or killed someone and end up being put to sleep anyway. Much less, you yourself could be - or rather - would be sued for placing such a Rescue into the household to begin with.
My other pet peeve is Rescues that are placed way too quickly as soon as they arrive and/or are placed by referral without ever being evaluated. I do not believe that anyone can fully evaluate and deem a Rescue sound for placement within a week - unless that Rescue is a newborn. One thing I have learned is that if you get a Rescue from a family - chances are if that animal is coming into Rescue, it is for a "reason" and that family may or may not have disclosed the complete truth of that "reason" to you. Shelter dogs are never properly evaluated for soundness of health or temperament before placement. We are not like Shelters – we are a Rescue Service whose level of placement should be held at a much higher standard.
Now, how do we try to avoid placing temperamentally unsound Rescues? It depends on what you are willing to work with with each Rescue. I am going to share what I do. It is by no means 100% foolproof, but it is something that gives me enough confidence to say I did everything I could to ensure the safe placement of a Rescue into a household.
Each Rescued Bullmastiff must live with me for a minimum of four (4) weeks before I will even "consider" placement for them. This is a general outline of what I do, although each Rescue case will vary pending their current health and emotional condition (in other words, some Rescues may progress faster or slower than written below):
We establish who is Alpha. This includes learning wait, kennel up, off, leave it, sit, down, and stay on command. Housetraining, no mouthing, and crate training is also started immediately. Later in the week, gradually test for food and toy possessiveness - but do not pursue yet. Just walk by the crate while the Rescue is eating or chewing a toy to check initial responses. Leash and collar/choker (use a choker only when you are present, otherwise use a buckle collar in your absence) is on at all times - inside and outside of the crate. Rescue is crated most of the time except during training time, potty time, and exercise time. Interaction with other animals is done strictly when Rescue is confined to a crate or with a fence between the other animals. First temperament test is conducted with a professional behaviorist to identify potential problems, such as touch sensitivity, noise sensitivity, obvious animal aggression, prey drive, etc. Exercises this week is best done with two people present at all times. Take note as to how your own animals react to the Rescue. (This is just an example of how I do things, although I realize most Rescuers do not have access or funding for hiring a professional behaviorist. If you do not have access to a professional behaviorist, please proceed with caution and use your best judgment.)
Continue with Alpha exercises and reinforce obedience training. Incorporate calling on command and heeling. Depending on your personal feel for the Rescue, try walking them out in the neighborhood and monitor how they react to distractions while walking. If you have another dog, integrate walking with other animals (distanced separately) later in this week if all goes well. Let someone else handle the leash and you walk another animal during the walk. Begin testing for owner ability to groom Rescue (ears, nails, and brushing). Begin testing for food and toy possessiveness, but do not press. Continue keeping Rescue separated from household family animals. Still keep leash and collar/choker (use a choker only when you are present, otherwise use a buckle collar in your absence) on at all times.
Now this depends on how your Rescue had been doing the previous two weeks. All dogs must "earn" their freedom in my household. If they do well, they get more perks. If they falter, then we keep working issues and they do not gain those perks quite yet. Typically, this week is crucial to determining the "true nature" of the dog you are working with - although each case is unique and timing will vary. The leash is now on 50% of the time. The Rescue never really knows when I will put on or take off the leash, but they always see it in my hand when I interact with them if it is not on them. If the dog has not shown any apparent animal aggression, I allow them a little bit of freedom in the house with other animals outside of the crate. ALL animals are on leash at this moment and there is a person handling each animal. They are still kept physically separated a few feet apart, but get to spend a lot more time out of the crate. Monitor how the Rescue reacts to this little bit of freedom. We also try bathing for the first time in the bathtub. And we try taking away of food and toys if we have not already in the previous weeks. But, be extremely cautious here and only do it when the Rescue has a leash on, you have had no previous aggressive reactions in the past weeks while evaluating, and you have someone else there to save you just in case. Better yet, do it with a professional trainer there.
The leash comes off 100%. When I interact with the animal, it is off leash. Now, I test how the animal reacts to commands and how much of a challenge I get from them. If I have 100% confidence, I will attempt allowing them some physical interaction with other animals. That's only if I have 100% confidence. If I have ANY doubt, I am not risking the safety of mine or another person's beloved companion. Typically, if an animal is going to turn and fight you for Alpha positioning, you will get it here. It may be subtle or not. Nevertheless, watch your signs diligently. Conduct second temperament test with professional trainer. Readdress any issues with training off leash.
After week four - if everything - EVERYTHING is to my satisfaction, I will release the Rescue for placement. Typically, I already have a home for them waiting and the new family (if local) comes to visit the Rescue during boot camp - they just cannot take them home yet.
If after week four - issues are still not resolved, but there is room for work and the Rescue is just a bit slow, we continue on with working those issues and/or if the family is capable, placing the Rescue and have the family work with the Rescue. This is usually necessary because there are just some problems that may take many, many months/years to resolve and are best resolved by the adopting family (i.e. separation anxiety, animal aggression, etc.). But, make sure that the family is totally prepared to do this. If the family is local and requests it, I will come over once a week to help them with training or help them find a trainer in their area.
Now, the Great Dane turned on me - unprovoked – on the beginning of Week Four - when the leash came off entirely. His actions were subtle at first, and through my own error, I did not quite pick it up in time. Hopefully, I will not screw up like that again in the future. It typically takes a Rescue about two to three weeks to settle into a household enough to revert back to their true nature. This is why I have the one-month plan minimum. Most of the Rescues I have had have not been placed before the six (6) week time period. Also, I go by my gut instinct. If something is just not right, I will not place the Rescue just yet until I figure out what it is that has my red flag up.
Now my above boot camp plan is not fool proof - as I am still learning also as I go. My experience is limited and I rely heavily on the behaviorist I hire to assist me as well as my fellow, more experienced Rescuers’ advice. But, I do try and practice good sense and keep in mind that my responsibility not only lies with the Rescue I now possess, but also with the family that is chosen to adopt this Rescue from me.
By practicing good sense, hopefully, my fellow Rescuers and I will catch those high-risk cases before they hurt someone.
Now some of my fellow rescuers (of all different breeds all over the country) - some of whom have placed many more dogs than I - do not institute any type of evaluation period. Some dogs do not even ever live with anyone - they are boarded the whole time they are in Rescue. Every single one of them, have had several of those same dogs returned after successfully mauling someone - usually children - this year and the years proceeding. And yet, they still will not incorporate any evaluation time period, plan, etc. They typically only have these Rescues for a few days and place them as soon as they can get them neutered/spayed. Or they never see the Rescue and place him or her based on someone’s "referral". Most of the attacks happened within a month of placement in the new home. Most of those attacks might have been avoided if a little bit of time and patience had been given to give a more thorough evaluation of the Rescue from the Rescuer.
There is no excuse for not practicing safety. I am glad that I am the one that he attacked versus the family he might have been placed with in six more days. At least I knew what to do – they would not have.
- Sophie Beedie
PS - If you are a Rescuer and have suggestions to share with us about how you evaluate your Rescue before placement, please share your experience with us.
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