Friday, December 30, 2011

Playing Pigmalion

There is a lot to learn about the stray and feral dogs in Detroit like Shawn, the 6-8 month old female shepherd mix rescued from a junkyard this week. The animal rescue community has a want to shelter and protect these dogs. The dogs have a need to be understood as a species. These wants and needs rarely get met without conflict and compromise.

What is significant from a behavioral perspective is that these dogs do not 'need' rescuing. They are doing what dogs do -- surviving. They have found a source of food and have ample shelter in abandoned lots and buildings. It is our human need to keep them away from cars and unscrupulous people that pushes us to "rescue". It's important to view from the dog's perspective that we are taking them from a world they know and are successful at navigating and putting them in a world they know very little about with a set of seemingly unnecessary rules.

In some cases, exposing a stray who has spent years on the street to the daily life of a socialized companion is a comedy of errors. It can be a series of misadventures and comedy like Dr. Henry Higgins teaching Eliza Doolittle proper manners and speaking skills in the musical My Fair Lady.

In other cases, it is a long and difficult journey full of frustration and fear. And sadly, in some cases, the dog is incapable of adapting to our world. In our effort to "rescue", we have created a terrorized creature who is unable to interact with its environment. The decision must then be made: is it more humane to let an animal live in abject fear or opt for euthanasia?

Shawn's Journey is a Facebook page that Shawn's foster created to chronicle Shawn's transition from "junkyard dog" to wherever this journey takes her. Occasionally, you will see my behavior and training notes in the comments on this page to help others understand the science and methodology behind Shawn's training plan.

This is the real story behind rehabilitating dogs like Shawn, the repetition, patience, tedious progression, and series of little victories that signal a breakthrough.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Detroit's Dog Problem

Earlier this Fall, an owner of a junkyard asked for help in removing a group of feral dogs from his property. He was reluctant to ask Detroit Animal Control due to their policies. After weeks of planning and acquiring necessary equipment and supplies, volunteers from four suburban Detroit rescues came together today to begin this rescue. The first dog rescued from this situation is Shawn, a 6-8 month old female shepherd mix.

Detroit has a significant stray and feral dog population. Conservative estimates put 15,000 of these dogs within city limits, however estimates have ranged as high as 100,000.

Current laws and ordinances in Detroit make it difficult for Metro-Detroit dog rescues to act effectively as a group to tackle this issue. Dogs and other companion animals are considered property by law. Stray animals are to be treated like any lost item of value: turned over to law enforcement so the owner can locate and collect them. Unlike a lost wallet or watch that should be held for six months before considered abandoned, the maintenance of these animals require daily care and financial resources. Animals are held for a mandatory four business day "stray hold". If the animal's owner comes to retrieve it, the owner must pay an impound fee to release an unlicensed animal. The fate of uncollected animals is determined by space constraints, available resources, and a seemingly arbitrary set of policies determined by the shelter manager on duty.

These laws were enacted to protect owned dogs from being stolen and to hold owners of unlicensed animals responsible for letting an animal run at large. The assumptions behind these laws are that most animals are owned and their owners have an interest in finding them.

As the years pass and the stray problem in Detroit gets worse, this approach becomes complicated. A significant percentage of dogs are not (and have never been) owned animals. Some feral packs have become a public nuisance by raiding garbages and dumpsters, roaming the streets, becoming territorial of the abandoned houses they use as shelter. Some dogs end up acting on their predatory instincts for acquiring food and hunt small animals, including cats and small dogs. A few of these individual dogs are truly dangerous to humans and anti-social. These dogs have learned that humans are unpredictable, hurtful, unsafe creatures. When met with stress, they conclude their best option is to fight.

With each news story about the incompetency and policies of the Detroit Animal Control, Detroit citizens become more aware of the lack of resources they have for humane solutions. Metro Detroit animal rescues can only act when requested by the property owner and few have the resources to safely trap, secure, assess, and potentially rehabilitate a stray or feral dog. Rescuers themselves are unsure of their jurisdiction, rights, and limits under the law in their abilities to respond when requested.

The animal welfare community is seeking people who live within Detroit city limits to become active in addressing this issue with City Council. Interested parties can contact Save Ace: Advocates for Change and Education