With about 62% of households in the US owning a pet and over $55.53 billion spent every year, clearly Americans have proven their love for animals. Dogs and cats of course hold a very special place in our hearts with respectively 78 and 86 million of them living by our side. Dogs are considered fun, playful and loving additions to the family and surveys have showed that we get them for companionship first, then for exercise, protection and finally for breeding (Jagoe & Serpell, 1996)
Yet, as we acquire increasingly more animals and spend more and more money to feed and pamper them, right under the surface lies a gruesome reality. According to the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP), 5 to 7 million cats and dogs are dropped off, every year, in shelters across the country, and over half of those will be put down (60% of dogs and 70% of cats), mostly for behavior reasons. Many of those behaviors could have been treated or avoided altogether.
So what’s going on? When does the dream of sharing our life with an animal that we love and care for gradually become so difficult that we make the ultimate decision of surrendering it. Some won’t think twice before dragging their pooch to the closest shelter, but for most owners, passing the leash over to the attendant is a gut wrenching experience.
Behavior problems stand out as the primary reason why the relationship breaks down. Most problems have to do with aggression, separation-related behaviors, escapes, house soiling, fear based behaviors, destructiveness, excessive barking, disobedience, digging and chewing.
These statistics show without a doubt that loving dogs is not enough. It certainly doesn’t guaranty that we’ll be able to provide our pet with optimum conditions, manage unwanted behaviors or that we’ll know how to develop a trusting and fulfilling relationship with him. Dogs are complex, intelligent and emotional beings whose behaviors will be influenced by their genetics, their background as well as their living situations. As emotionally driven ourselves, we sometimes make choices based on how the dog will make us feel and what his looks or reputation will say about ourselves, not on whether or not his particular breed or lineage is suited for our lifestyle. We fall in love with the cute husky puppy behind the window store or buy wolf hybrids because owning a wild animal is cool. Border collies are beautiful animals and amazingly smart, yet unless we’re ready to give them a job, they’ll develop neurosis and problematic behaviors from lack of stimulation. We’ll acquire beagles and terriers when we live in an apartment and work 8-10 hours out of the house then wonder why our neighbors complain about the barking.
Let’s face it, us humans often mean well, but just don’t always make the smartest of decisions. In our defense though, when we do try to educate ourselves, the information available can be very confusing. Figuring out which TV personality to follow, which breeder or pet store clerk to believe or which books to read becomes quite challenging, as the advice is often contradictory.
I’m a strong believer in the power of information and proactive measures. I love that shelters exist and we have to give credit to the incredibly dedicated and committed animal lovers who run them. However, it’s on the front end that we’ll really make a difference.
Once the animal is surrendered, suffering has already occurred!
So what can we do? Where should we put most of our efforts to inform the general public and to promote better breeding and training habits? I’d love to hear about your opinions on the subject as well as what you may already do or consider doing to make a difference.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.