How many times have you thought about all those poor little doggies and kitties out there that lack adequate homes? How many times have you moved past the thoughtful reflection and actually adopted a pet from the pound or rescue group? It can be more daunting than it seems at first thought, but for those who persevere and are ready to accept the challenge, the rewards are plentiful and self-evident.
If a sudden lyrical refrain from singer Fontella Bass’s hit 45 PRM single of 1965 (by the same name) pops into your mind when you read the above, you’re older than you care to admit. If the US Coast Guard jumps to the focus of your attention, you’ve likely been watching too many ‘Police’ and ‘Emergency’ TV shows, while if the reverse is true (nothing at all suddenly emerges in your recollections), you’re likely too young to worry about anything having to do with salvation (I am NOT referring to the religious kind here) and are far too preoccupied with your cell phone texting and twittering to much care. But needful or not, try to stay focused as we examine an equally important alternative sort of ‘rescue’ activity.
The ‘rescue’ in reference here is of the doggie sort, being specifically the humane adoption of some unfortunate little (or big) four-legged canine friend that through one misfortune or another has found its way into one of the many dog rescue groups that have sprung into being over the past 20 years. Most of these dog rescue operations specialize in a particular breed, although some take in all breeds that have been summarily deposited in the local pound.
Due to a combination of things (the irresponsible proliferation of puppy litters, thoroughly unqualified pet owners who should never have gotten a dog to begin with, and the recent severe downturn of the economy, to just name several important factors), there are presently more and more dogs ending up as cast-offs, ‘turn-ins’, and abandonees. The lucky ones are recovered by breed rescue groups, while the majority of what we call ‘poi-dogs’ in Hawaii (mongrels, mixed breeds, or mutts) are not quite as fortunate and end up being euthanized (always a tragic, but predictable end for unwanted pets).
Often the difference between being rescued or not depends on a mix of pure dumb luck, the right timing, and an animal being ‘pretty’ or particularly striking in appearance. Dogs that are in the last category are usually rather quickly picked up and given new homes, since superficial creatures that we humans are, good looks will always take precedence over intelligence, personality, and other important factors in our personal selections (whether of animals or potential mates). The tragedy of this status quo is that ‘Heinz-57’ mixed breed dogs are usually wonderful animals that have benefited substantially from having a far broader gene pool than their carefully in-bred purebred counterparts. As any geneticist (or well educated individual) will affirm, broad gene pools encourage higher quality genes to surface in an animal’s genetic matrix, while also acting to constrain poor or recessive genes (the reverse is, sadly, true also). Thus, that shy, nondescript appearing, and otherwise unremarkable yellow dog of uncertain heritage quite often has the potential to be one of the best companions you ever had (more often than not, the reverse may be true here as well, as regards highly pedigreed, ‘papered’ purebreds).
All of the foregoing thoughts are a digression, however, since my primary purpose here is to offer up some personal experience on something that everyone should consider whenever the thought of saving a dog from a sad end comes up. I refer specifically to what we call ‘rescue dogs’.
In my case, I am a big appreciator of the Siberian Husky breed, having had huskies for more than 25 years as personal companions. Most of my dogs I obtained as pups, an arrangement that presents the optimal opportunity to train this very active and energetic breed properly, from their early life onwards. Over these past two and a half decades I’ve been blessed with some wonderful Siberians, but it has been a constant 25 year learning curve as well, and not an experience to ever be undertaken lightly or frivolously. Throughout that period of time I’ve read voluminously and exhaustively, adding many works on the breed to my canine reference library. As someone who is also fond of wolves and lupine behavioral studies, my appreciation for Siberians is enhanced by their close ancestral relationship with other wolf-derived dogs (specifically the East and West Siberian Laikas, Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, American Eskimo Dogs, and several Spitz variants). [I do not mean to suggest here that I am an advocate of wolf and dog hybrid matings, however, since anyone who is widely read in canine behavioral quickly recognises the risky liabilities and personality uncertainties that such types of wolf/dog cross-breeding may produce. True wolf-dog hybrids are best left to those specialist professional breeders who completely understand the unpredictable potential for aggressive behavior that wolf/dog crossbreeds present. Despite their remarkable physical similarities to wolves, at the best estimate the modern Spitz type dog breeds branched off from their wolfish ancestors some 10,000 years ago to become domesticated companions and working dogs for humans.]
One very special exception to the foregoing rule about ‘hybrid’ dog breeding is the Tamaskan Dog, which is a marvelously successful (and now recognised breed) effort to combine the best personality and behavioral characteristics of the Siberian Husky and German Shepard breeds. The Tamaskan Dog has thus far shown that it’s far more tractable than the Siberian, is loyal, affectionate, more easily trained, highly intelligent, and yet retains all the wolfish visual features that make the Husky such an attractive breed. There are a small but growing number of conscientious, breeders who are producing this new breed, taking great care to select the best Shepard and Husky breeding stocks that will produce the best offspring (i.e. free of genetic defects and inherent breed-specific health problems, such as hip dysplasia, diabetes, etc.). For those who have not yet heard of this breed, a quick GOOGLE of ‘Tamaskan Dog’ is highly recommended.
At any rate, my interactions with the Siberian breed have been close and quite fruitful in the past. A few years ago, the last of my ‘raised as a pup’ Siberians crossed over that rainbow bridge, leaving a very profound and conspicuous void in the lives of my wife and I. After some thought (and a suitable period of mourning), we decided to get a rescued Siberian from a northern California husky rescue group, since there are many of these dogs that end up being rejected by supercilious owners who weren’t completely prepared for the ‘Siberian experience’ they rather naively bought into, without suitable forethought or research on the Siberian temperament and behavioral characteristics.
We were absolutely blessed when we took in our new rescue Siberian, a black & white 9 year old male whom we named ‘Raki’. Raki was such a wonderful guy, it was almost hard to believe. Aside from being astonishingly good looking, he was good natured to a fault, well-behaved, calm, and affectionate in that uniquely ‘noble’ Siberian manner that characterises so many of the breed. We had Raki for 4 greatly fulfilling years before he passed on, owing to his having had late developing, severe ketone acidosis (diabetes). Raki was indeed a rare dog and to this day we still remember him with warm recollections of his many happy days bringing light and warmth into our lives, as a beloved member of our family pack.
When Raki finally succumbed to the effects of his severe metabolic illness, we were again faced with a search for new dogs, since our ‘raised-from-puppyhood’ girl, Laika (at 14 years of age), was so devastated by Raki’s passing that she literally wasted away and passed on herself, within a month of Raki’s death. Again we contemplated getting rescue dogs, since our experience with Raki had been so positive and rewarding. As I sit here tappety-tapping these words on my keyboard, a blurry image of famed American author Sam Clemens materializes before me, signing a virtual copy of his popular novel Innocents Abroad, for little did I know that despite all our substantial Siberian experience, the canine world we felt we were so familiar with was about to take a voyage on the same ship as those naïve American tourists of Clemens’ era! Crikey, it could have been the canine ‘Titanic’ for all that matter, as we were soon to learn!
Searching the local Siberian rescue dog sites, we soon spotted a beautiful taffy and white 2 year old male that was described in glowing terms on the rescue site. Despite my vaunted knowledge about the breed, but being just as superficial about ‘good looks’ as anyone else, I quickly arranged to go down to take a look at the dog in reference. Making the 50 miles or so trip south that this involved, I and my wife arrived to find that this 2 year old Sib youngster was indeed just as beautiful as they described him as being. Upon first contact, he was all wagging tail and endless kisses, giving clear evidence of his having a surfeit of energy and strength that seemed fully consistent with his breed’s profile. After an hour of interacting with him there, we asked how he behaved around other dogs. In response, the foster mom brought out one of her other adoptees, a 4 year old black & white female Siberian, and both of them spent the next 30 minutes or so playing and cavorting amicably with each other as if they had been litter-mates. Aha, we thought! Evidence of proper canine socialization and compatibility!
Interestingly, although we had intended to take only one dog (the tan & white male), they interacted so well together that we took another look at the 4 year old female and decided she was quite a beautiful girl as well. What the heck! We ended up taking them both, since we knew from past experiences that the Siberian breed have an extraordinary need for stimulation, exercise, and companionship. Keeping a single Siberian is often a recipe for behavioral disaster if the human owner is not around them for the greater part of each day. Since my wife and I both work regular 5-day-a-week hours, we decided that they would provide perfect companionship for each other, playing and diverting each other in our spacious back yard while we were at work. Looking back at that decision, I am struck by the fact that our taking the 4 year old female was almost an afterthought at the time: usually not the best method of making a selection.
OK. So we loaded up the two dogs in our truck, after taking care of the paperwork and writing a cheque for the $300 adoption donation required for these two, and headed back up to our home. On arrival, I looked into the back of the covered pickup shell and found that one of them had chewed up an old fabric-covered futon that we keep in the bed of the truck. Hmmmm. Not good, of course, but obviously an anomalous event (I reckoned) with no further significance. WRONG! The worst was yet to come and this event was somewhat like sideswiping an ice cube that obviates an impending full-on collision with an iceberg capable of sinking the Titanic!
The ordeal had begun and boy, was it a doozy! We ended up naming the 2 year old male ‘Stitch’ and the 4 year old female ‘Lilo’, after the two main characters in that delightful animated Walt Disney cartoon film of the same name. Stitch, if you will recall, was an artificial alien life form vaguely resembling a bluish colored small dog, while Lilo was the cute little Hawaiian girl who found him. In the movie, Stitch has been created by an evil scientist to destroy things and ends up on Earth, where he starts to violently dismember everything in his path. The Disney story develops as little Lilo ‘domesticates’ Stitch and demonstrates how love and family are the two most important things in life. How I sorely wish our experience paralleled that heart-warming little fantasy plotline! Not!
In actual reality, our Stitch quickly gave substantial evidence of being a universal world destroyer himself, characterised chiefly by his manic chewing tendencies and his absolutely ballistic behavior on a lead. Lilo, on the other hand, was somewhat more subdued and seemed to be far less wildly energetic (as would befit a slightly more mature dog at the age of 4), but her behavioral quirks would soon prove to be far more subtle, as an older, more ‘experienced’ girl with a sly streak.
The very first full day after the dogs arrived (a Monday), I pedaled off to the office (on my daily 5 mile commute) and innocently anticipated returning home at the end of the day to find the ‘pups’ settling in to their new home without complications. Since we have a large (Siberian sized) doggie door opening from the family room out into the back yard patio, they had the option of remaining inside or outside. This had worked just fine with our previous dogs, of course, so I had no qualms about allowing them that option.
My first shock came just before , when a complete stranger called me at the office to say that she had found my dog on a freeway onramp, clearly on the verge of trotting right out into the fast lane of a major interstate that is near our home. GAAK! In a near panic, I hustled home just as fast as my bike would allow me to (probably setting a new personal speed record of 28 mph) and there in front of our home was this kind ‘good Samaritan’ who had stopped and opened her car door to allow a grinning Stitch to hop in as if it were his own personal transport…thus clearly saving him from a messy end on I-5.
Thanking my Irish patron saints profusely (and this kind person who saved Stitch), I took charge of Stitch and brought him into the house, where a second shock awaited. No Lilo! Looking out into the back yard, it was clear from the gaping hole dug under the back fence that both Lilo and Stitch had made a getaway. Fortunately (and inexplicably), Lilo was out in the street in front of our backyard neighbor’s home and I was able to get her to follow me back into his yard. From there, I went to get her leash and managed to lead her back home.
That wasn’t enough, of course, since I then found that Stitch had chewed up the seat pads on both our expensive leather sofas in the family room. Just for good measure, he had also chewed up (read: destroyed) three of our 8 throw pillows on them as well. Ouch! The only good news was that they couldn’t get into the rest of the house due to our having closed a sliding door that prevented that access.
Over the next month, Stitch’s destructive chewing habits accounted for all 12 of our throw pillows, every piece of furniture in the family room, several books, a full bottle of Zoloft (happy pills for humans), and a number of shoes. Clearly, anything left within reach was in jeopardy of being chewed to pieces, so we tried to keep all chewables beyond the range of an energetic Siberian with prodigious jumping abilities and very sharp teeth. We were barely able to contain the damage with that tactic (plus strict observation) and their being kept out of the house each day until we came home from work (although eventually, Stitch even chewed up the doggie dog flap!)
Further, since our previous pack members Raki & Laika had done well on the lead, we expected our new charges to adopt their harnesses and training collars in a similar manner. In actual fact, we might as well have expected NASA to design an explosion-proof space shuttle or General Motors to develop an economical, fuel-efficient Hummer! Stitch in particular behaved like a manic psychotic on drugs while on a lead and the mere scent of a another dog or cat in the vicinity produced the canine version of a full-blown hyperactive mania display from him, complete with fearful howls and whines so loud that everyone within a radius of a mile knew we were coming down the block well in advance of our actual arrival. It quickly became a major embarrassment for all involved.
One particularly bad afternoon, the wickedly pronged chain link ‘training collar’ we had to use on them actually separated (a link failed) when a neighbor’s small dog darted out from their house to bark at them. Worst case scenario! Lilo, finding that the lead’s constraint was suddenly missing, lunged at the poor little pocket-sized yapper and pursued it to ground on the neighbor’s lawn. Before I was able to intervene, she had bitten it on its stomach, apparently ignoring its clear ‘doggy body language’ signaling that it had yielded (by going passively belly-up). The consequent veterinarian visit to repair the poor little pooch’s injuries cost us about $700 and the former good will of a fellow neighbor. Arrrrgh!
One evening, after analyzing the entire month’s Stitch & Lilo misadventures in exhaustive detail (over some strong French Rhône wine), I belatedly realised several things that I should have focused on before the urge to rescue settled in fully upon me. First, Lilo and Stitch had come to us as adult dogs, complete with all the liabilities of grown-up dogs that have developed some very bad habits; this was further reinforced by what appeared to be an almost total lack of training effort by their previous owners. Second, not only had neither of them had no training whatsoever, they both gave evidence of having been poorly socialised to other animals (especially other dogs) and had the usual Siberian predatory attitude towards cats, squirrels, and small animals in spades! On top of that, both Lilo and Stitch appeared to reflect evidence of having had a formerly solitary life at home, cooped up in a yard with little human affection, such that they were now both actively engaged in an ‘alpha dog’ struggle to see which one would come out on top for our chief affection. What a complex package of severe behavioral challenges these two guys posed, even to people like us who had fancied we had PLENTY of prior experience with the breed! Yow!
In the weeks to come, further escape attempts to dig out under the fence and the rapid redecorating of our back yard into a simulated Apollo lunar landing practice landscape (craters plus!) required a complete retro-engineering fence reinforcement exercise that ended up comparing favorably with the French Maginot Line fortifications (that failed to keep Hitler out, in 1939). Many concrete cinder block placements and wire entanglements later, I was still not fully convinced that the new fortifications would ultimately resist their energetic doggy depredations during the day while we are away.
This was certainly a wake-up call to shake us out of our complacency as self-professed Siberian experts and it should (hopefully) serve as a warning to all the kind souls who, in their weaker moments of canine altruism, wish to help save Siberians that have ended up in rescue status.
One of the steps we subsequently took was to contact several canine behavioral modification specialists in our area, in an effort to get some professional coaching on how to reverse our new pack members’ apparent total lack of control. One such local expert, who advertises himself in the local media as ‘Uncle Maddy’, answered my call by spending a good 10 minutes telling me, using many blunt words, that I was remarkably naïve for not realizing that most rescue dogs end up in rescue due to their having been difficult or impossible for their previous owners to deal with. Although his logic was undeniable, his insinuative tone grated rather hugely (almost as much as his ‘offer’ to provide 6 training sessions at a mere $400 per session to correct our new guys’ extravagances) and I quickly decided that we would have to face this challenge by virtue of our own efforts (through reading and researching) and perhaps also with a prayer for a saintly intercession (miracle type).
It was now two months since we had brought our new guys home and each day brought new challenges and surprises. That having been said, both of them, Lilo and Stitch, were wonderfully sweet dogs and there’s no possible way we could have ever considered giving up on their transitioning to our home, despite the extreme circumstances. Aside from the fact that an animal that has a history of being returned repeatedly has a substantially diminished chance of ever finding that ‘forever home’, keeping any large dog of this intelligent and often willful type requires substantial input, consistent training effort, and a clearly demonstrated example of ‘alpha control’ leadership by the human boss. As a markedly lupine-derived nuanced Spitz type breed, Siberian Huskies are not for just anyone, nor are they recommended for someone who has little or no prior understanding of the breed. Siberians brought up with proper training and ample love, by enlightened but firmly principled adult humans, are some of the finest canine companions one can possibly hope for. For the most part, a whole day’s near-catastrophic lapses of acceptable canine behavior may be instantly compensated by those gentle, quiet, and loving moments settled in together on a cool evening, with them curled around your feet and snoozing noisily. Though the requirements placed upon Siberian owners are sometimes extremely demanding, the rewards in terms of affection, mutual love, and moist, slurpy doggie kisses are well worth the effort and occasionally perplexing challenges.
Above all else, one needs to be mindful that adopting any animal from a shelter or ‘rescue group’ levies a special set of circumstances and considerations on the prospective foster home. In many cases the dog will turn out to be unproblematic, effortless and undemanding in terms of the accommodations required, but one should always be aware of the fact that in an equal number of cases, these dogs may prove to have exceptional needs. The best approach, as far as considering whether to rescue or not is concerned, is to do as much research on the breed as possible beforehand and (hopefully) have some familiarity or prior experience with the breed, as well. Siberians in particular are known for their highly intelligent, energetic behavior, but they are also known diggers and have extraordinarily high exercise requirements. If a prospective owner has not anticipated all these concerns well beforehand, life with a newly rescued Siberian Husky (or huskies) can quickly overwhelm or prove to be calamitous in unexpected ways. None of these ‘special needs’ of Siberian rescue dogs may be obvious at the onset and most often it is only well after the new dogs have been introduced into their foster home that the facts assert themselves and truth dawns (sometimes dismayingly) on their new senior (two-legged) pack members.
This is being added some months after the above was written. You'll recall my comment about installing a back-yard 'Maginot Line' type yard fence and a further observation about it possibly not being any more effective in the long term than the original, famously failed French fortification of the 1930s? Sure enough, they managed to tunnel their way out again, not only effectively displacing and shoving aside several heavy concrete cinder blocks, but chewing their way through a substantial meshed wire barrier constraint, as well!
This time, however, the results of their escape artistry were rather unsettling and potentially quite problematic, as they seem to have attacked and killed two cats, after making their breakout, and also attacked a dog being walked by a gentleman in the neighborhood. (At least this is the story I was given by the local animal control officer, who was called to take them into custody.)
As the result of this particular breakout, Lilo and Stitch were placed in special quarantined isolation at the local animal control agency due to their having apparently killed two cats and ‘attacked’ a dog while out and loose; we soon learned that due to staffing cutbacks and the usual problems of too many animals and too little space, it was extremely difficult to get any information from the animal control agency about just exactly what had happened. When repeated calls to the agency finally resulted in a call from the officer responsible for them, we were told only that a formal investigation was being conducted and that we would ‘learn more when it was completed’.
More than 7 weeks passed after that initial contact without any further word from animal control, despite our concerted efforts to at least learn the actual facts in their case. Exasperated, I finally had to call up our Siberian Husky rescue group to obtain advice on what to do and we were fortunate that one member of the group was an Assistant Attorney General for the state. With her influential intercessions and our persistence, we eventually heard from animal control that their investigation had concluded that our dogs were ‘dangerous’ and a ‘public safety menace’, the penalty for which was mandatory destruction. Of course, we were shocked to say the least!
To shorten a rather lengthy ensuing story, we finally convinced animal control to release our two adoptees to the rescue group we had obtained them from, with the agreed upon understanding that they were to be banished from our local area and physically removed from the county. The blunt resolution we were offered was either ‘surrender’ them back to the rescue group or see them destroyed; clearly we had no choice but to avail the former option, knowing at least that their lives would be spared, with a chance for a ‘new’ home that could more readily deal with their serious behavioral issues.
Thinking over all of the foregoing, I am saddened each time I reflect on these events, but I am at least heartened by the fact that we did the proper thing for them, since it is inconceivable to me that these otherwise wonderful dogs would be dealt with so harshly. Their ‘crime’, after all, was merely digging out from under a fence; after that the well-known predator instincts of huskies towards small animals (cats, etc.) kicked in. It is unfortunate that the cats were killed, but this serves to illustrate and highlight the fact that huskies should never, ever be let out of a yard off-lead (positive control is mandatory for the breed at all times).
A sad story, one would likely agree, but what’s that old saying about a door not closing without a window opening somewhere? Despite our loss of these two guys, we were contacted a short time later by our Siberian rescue group asking us if we were ready to adopt again. Since we were both still in a state of mild shock about everything that had happened, my first inclination was that we needed a bit more time and space to reflect on all that occurred before fostering again. Despite that fact, we learned that the Siberian rescue group had just saved a pair of 7 year old litter-mates from death in the Los Angeles area. Both male pure-bred Siberians, the two ‘brothers’ had been ‘red-tagged’ for destruction (after their owners apparently abandoned them in the LA area) simply because they were ‘middle-aged’ and the shelter was overflowing with too many dogs. The rescue group was desperate to find a new home for them as quickly as possible.
Contrary to my initial instincts, we agreed to take them in as ‘foster dogs’, since the idea of two beautiful, healthy, and wonderful Siberians being condemned so capriciously was absolutely intolerable. We have since adopted ‘Walter’ and ‘Shiloh’ (new names are ‘Laika’ and ‘Sooka’) and consider ourselves blessed to have taken in two such amazingly good guys as replacements for Lilo and Stitch. They are neither problem diggers nor destructive chewers and have none of the bad habits posed by our first pair. Their place with us is now quite secure (it has been a couple of months so far) and I can happily state that they were saved from certain destruction (with only mere hours to spare) to find their forever home with us!
Tragically, this is just one case out of hundreds upon hundreds of a last minute reprieve for dogs that through no fault of their own have been unfairly designated for destruction, due to owner abandonment, animal control facility overcrowding, or other similar issues involving irresponsible human behavior.
I hope that it can be seen from the complexities of this particular story that dog ‘rescue’ is not always free of potential problems. However, our actions as fosterers and rescuers often make the only difference in a world filled with animal cruelty and improper, irresponsible care for pets. My recommendation is therefore to always try to help save dogs and cats via rescue groups, when at all possible. It may be a difficult process at times and it is almost never without some adjustment issues that require working through, but we owe our wonderful 4-footed furry friends this extra effort to help save them from potentially tragic circumstances. As is so frequently the case, we end up being quite unable to even imagine how life could be meaningful and fulfilled without their furry bodies at our feet.
A tragic note concerning "Laika' and 'Sooka': As of mid-November (2009), our rescued Siberian 'Laika' male (8 years old) has been diagnosed with severely advanced (Stage IVb) Lymphosarcoma. Characteristic of this extremely aggressive and opportunistic form of cancer, Laika remained absolutely free of discernible symptoms until just two weeks ago. In the span of those two short weeks, his decline has been heart-wrenchingly abrupt and treatment is not a realistic option; the best guess of survival time remaining is about 4 weeks at the most. An anticipated loss of this kind is sad enough under normal circumstances, but coming at a time of the year marked by celebrations of thanks and gratitude, it seems a particularly harsh tragedy. All we can do is reassure Laika of the intensity of our continued love and care for him to the very last moment. To requote Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) here: "If dogs don't go to Heaven, I want to go where they go when I die..." Endless love for you, Laika...
Aloha mai e, Kalikiano