This is a true story that has a happy ending because of something that I refused to do. And, even though it happened over 15 years ago, it’s still relevant because some things never change.
I’m choosing to tell it now because it may save the life of a dog somewhere out there in real time; a dog that’s biding its time in an animal shelter waiting or in the arms of a dog rescue organization … also waiting, to be adopted.
By the time this story takes place, I had racked up five years of hard-core dog rescue myself – overseeing the adoption activity for an ex-racing greyhound adoption program. And, I’d learned that the hardest adoptions to handle were those that involved well-meaning families without any dog experience who had children under the age of 14.
The really scary potential adopters were families with a couple of kids under the age of eight. With one of those kids in the baby-to-toddler stage. And, neither parent having dog experience. Or one parent having the wrong kind of dog experience.
I’d been fielding a lot of phone calls from people eager to adopt an ex-racing greyhound. When my phone rang for what seemed like the 50th time in less than two hours, I almost let the answering machine kick in. But, that would have only postponed things. I picked up the receiver.
She said: Is this the number where I can find out about how to adopt a greyhound?
I said: It is. How did you happen to hear about us?
She said: We were at the Adoption event you had last weekend and we fell in love with the dogs. I picked up an application but wanted to talk with someone before I sent it in.
I said: Why don’t you tell me about your family? And, I’ll fill you in on how the adoption process works. Can I ask you first: is your yard fenced?
She said: No. Why do you need to know that?
I said: Having your yard fenced makes your life a lot easier when it comes to getting the dog outside to pee and to run around in a safe area. Especially if you have kids. Do you have kids?
She said: My daughter just turned three and my son is six months old. I’ve never had a dog before but I’m home during the day and the dogs were just so quiet and well-behaved when I saw them that I knew, I just knew I wanted one. We live out in the country and we’re not fenced. My husband doesn’t think that fencing for a dog is necessary. He never had a fence for the dogs he had when he was growing up.
As I listened to this woman happily share her story with me, my heart sank. All the red flags for a dog bite underscored everything she was telling me. How to tell her that her lack of dog experience plus the ages of her kids – these two factors alone completely overshadowed the fence/no fence issue – were putting her children at risk for a dog bite?
That it wouldn’t matter what kind of dog her family adopted. Any dog will bite given the right mix of factors – kind of like the perfect storm scenario in which there are some things you control up to a point before they spiral out of control.
How was I going to explain to her that bringing a dog into her home, at this point in time, would be to set into motion a series of seemingly unrelated elements that would all conspire to one of her kids getting bit? And, that the bite would be her fault, not the dog’s.
Her fault because she wouldn’t understand the dynamics leading up to that perfect storm of singular events building up to what would be a very nasty and frightening dog bite.
Her fault because she would come to this experience without any knowledge of dog behavior.
Her fault because she would unwittingly put her young daughter and her baby boy in harm’s way because she wouldn’t know how not to.
Ultimately, that dog bite would be MY fault. Because even if this kind-hearted woman didn’t know things about dogs and kids, I did.
And, I didn’t want to put any dog coming out of my adoption organization into a home that would ask too much of that dog. Nor did I want to be the catalyst that would start this perfect storm.
I took a deep breath before I asked this woman the one question that I hoped would give her pause.
I said: Let me ask you this: are YOU willing to accept the responsibility for one or both of your children getting bit? Because you need to know that it’s only a matter of time before that happens. And, if it does, it will be YOUR fault … not the dog’s.
There was silence on the other end. I waited, letting it work for me. Finally, when I’d almost decided to speak up, she gave me her answer.
She said: “No. I’m not.”
I was lucky that day.
Lucky because I’d been able to guide this conversation to the conclusion that I wanted. I wanted this woman to make the decision not to go forward with the adoption process.
Because if she hadn’t, I would have said no for her.
A long time ago, someone once told me that in cases of dog bites, my responsibility was to always trust the dogs. It took me a long time to understand what she meant and then it took two really nasty dog bite incidents with two different greyhounds that were in foster homes being evaluated for placement before I understood.
Dogs signal their intentions with their bodies. When you know how to read their bodies, you can pretty much figure out what they’re telling you. Their behavior is their voice.
The dogs that end up in animal shelters and/or adoption organizations rely on their human caretakers to be their voices.
If we ignore that – if we ignore what we know to be true – we fail them. And, we open the door to a world of hurt. And, we lose what I like to call “teachable moments.”
Like the conversation I had with this woman. I didn’t have time to teach her all that I knew about dog behavior – and that’s not why she was calling me, so what would have been the point if I’d tried to do that?
What I could do was slow her down and give her one idea to think about. Without putting the hardest part of my “teachable moment” into words, my message to her was that her inexperience with dogs was the most dangerous part of the kids plus dogs equation that we were talking about.
In the end, it’s not the dogs in and of themselves that are “dangerous.” The danger comes from the human side. It always has.