Giving cast-offs another chance.
Hunters have long had strong relationships with their dogs. Speaking from experience, I can attest that one of life's great simple pleasures is a warm dog sitting next to you on a frigid morning in a duck or goose blind. Watching a good dog hunt waterfowl or upland birds is frequently pure magic.
But sadly, for a number of sporting breeds (as well as many others), somewhere en route to this utopia something goes sour. The dog may not be winning enough or it becomes too old to hunt or is no longer capable of producing or siring pups, or it has a fatal flaw such as being gunshy, or it can't tolerate heavy-handed training techniques. In a society with a "disposable" mindset, these dogs become just so much trash to be tossed out with yesterday's newspaper.
In some cases the split between dog and dog owner is the result of economic difficulties--the owner lost his or her job and can no longer afford to keep the dog. Sometimes the owner develops physical infirmities that make dog ownership difficult or impossible.
But by far the most common reason for "divorce" in a dog/human relationship is that the human in the equation failed to know or understand the needs of the breed they were buying. They simply did not take the time to do the necessary research that would have told them that these breeds need lots of exercise and some sort of job to do.
Many of these unwanted dogs wind up in overcrowded shelters where they are euthanized. The lucky ones are found and taken in by the various breed rescue organizations. Almost all of the dogs fortunate enough to be found by a rescue program go on to become someone's beloved companion and, considering their unfortunate background, a surprising number become successful hunting dogs.
Every sporting breed now has some sort of rescue organization, whether it is part of the national parent club, supported by regional clubs for the breed, or a separate entity. Most of these breed club rescue organizations provide foster care including shelter, food and training for these unwanted dogs.
"In the last five years, the English Springer Rescue Association has assisted more than 6,300 springers," said President Caryn Pola. "Volunteers sit on the board of the organization, open their homes as foster parents, transport springers to safety or new homes and raise funds when needed.
"This is part of our effort to find loving permanent homes," Pola added. "We assist all springers regardless of age or health. The only springers we won't take are dogs that have a known history of biting."
Jules, the pointer rescued by Illinois Birddog Rescue, simply needed her Lyme disease cured to become the fine bird dog she was always meant to be.
The American Chesapeake Club also has a national rescue program with three regional coordinators. Camille Druge, the western rescue coordinator for the ACC, said that while the rescue coordinators do their best to provide alternatives for owners to keep their dogs, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
"When it doesn't work, we assist the owner with placement. If they can't keep their Chesapeake until we find a new home for the dog, we will place the dog in foster care until we do," Druge said. "Dogs that are on 'death row' in shelters or have an owner who can no longer keep their dog at home are placed in foster care right away.
"We have found that the most common reasons for giving up or abandoning a dog are marriage, divorce or owners who failed to research the breed before they bought a Chesapeake and then discovered that the breed requires more socialization, attention and training than some other retriever breeds," Druge added.
"Dogs stay in foster care for a minimum of six weeks to two months. This allows us to evaluate the dog's behavior, temperament, social behavior with people and other pets before they are placed. But there are advantages to not being a popular breed. Only 10 to 20 Chesapeakes require rescue every year."
The English Cocker Spaniel Club of America also has a national rescue program. Marsha Wallace, the chair of the program, said, "The problem of unwanted dogs is greater than we would like to see. More and more we see nicely bred dogs ending up in shelters with no idea of their origin. Typically we take 30 to 40 dogs every year into foster care.
Arthur, the golden retriever rescued from a puppy mill, is on his way to his junior hunter title.
"We also help place dogs for private ownership, acting as 'matchmakers' and helping with screening. In 2008, private placements accounted for as many dogs as came into foster care. Many dogs we see have been bred overseas. The most common reasons we hear for giving up a dog is that people move and either can't find or don't bother to look for housing which can accommodate their dogs.
"We also have many other dogs that are shown the door because they can't or aren't given time to adjust to a new child. Others have behavior problems that were allowed to fester until the owner was overwhelmed. We also hear 'the dog grew up to be bigger than we thought' or is 'no longer suited the family's lifestyle.' Now, of course, we're seeing more dogs given up for financial reasons."
The Golden Retriever Club of America does things a bit differently. While there is coordination and networking at the national level, direct rescue activities for golden retrievers are done by 92 independent, locally formed, locally managed rescue programs which make their own policies. But there are several minimum standards expected of these organizations.
"They have to accept legal ownership of the dog, the dogs have to be spayed or neutered before they are adopted, basic and routine veterinary care has to be provided, potential adopters have to be screened and the dog has to receive quality care while the dog is in the program," said Carol J. Allen, the national rescue chair.
"We rescue about 12,000 golden retrievers nationally every year and we consider this to be a very serious problem. The majority of these dogs are surrendered di
rectly to the rescue program and the most common reason, for many years, was 'lack of time.'
However, the last couple of years it has been 'lack of money to care for the dog.'
"As a result, goldens coming into our programs are considerably more neglected in terms of veterinary care now than was previously the case," Allen stated. "Interestingly, it has become increasingly rare for a golden to come into a rescue program with an AKC registration. Fifteen years ago, close to half were registered with AKC."
American Brittany Rescue takes in about a thousand dogs every year. "Since we aren't really a popular breed, I find this a shocking number," said Rhonda Carlson, the national coordinator for ABR. "Most owners who surrender their dogs got one without knowing the breed and just aren't Brittany people. They didn't understand that Brittanys are active, intelligent and really need attention.
"We have a lot of volunteers who take unwanted Brittanys and we provide support for these volunteers from a large network of people including trainers and behaviorists. We are also lucky that Brittanys are pretty stable mentally and it's hard to really 'ruin' one. Many of our rescued dogs hunt with their new owners."
There are also some private rescue organizations that are dedicated to saving certain breeds. One of these organizations is Illinois Birddog Rescue, which rescues field-bred pointers and English setters. "We take in an average of 80 to 100 pointers, setters and a few mutts every year as funds allow and depending upon foster car openings," said Lisa Spakowski, the president and founder of IBR.
"Our focus is on adopting working hunters into homes where they will be treated as family pets while still getting the opportunity to hunt. Most of the dogs and puppies in our foster care program were strays or owner surrenders that we've rescued from overcrowded shelters and humane societies all over the United States.
"Currently more than 80 percent of the dogs we rescue suffer from tick borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, anaplasma, ehrlichia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Most dogs that are infected with any of these terrible diseases have no focus or energy and in many cases their scenting abilities are dramatically affected as these diseases attack the central nervous system and can cause brain damage besides chronic pain and suffering.
Maggie, an English springer adopted by a family in Illinois, is now starting her career as a hunting dog.
"We are certain that these unfortunate dogs have been dumped by their owners and deemed useless because of their undiagnosed illnesses but our success rate in re-homing these dogs after antibiotic treatment, especially into working/hunting pet homes, has been quite good."
Can these rescued dogs be successful as hunting dogs? The answer to that is "yes" and there are a number of success stories.
"Many Chesapeakes have been adopted by waterfowl and upland hunters and others have been used for participation in AKC hunt tests," said Camille Druge. "I had one that came from Montana as a field-trial washout. He eventually became a conformation champion and earned both his junior and senior hunter titles. Just a few months ago, a rescue went to Alaska and his new owner plans to run him in hunt tests starting this year."
Sara Kuzenko adopted a golden retriever rescued from a puppy mill. "I originally intended for him to be my pet but I was interested in therapy work so decided to get him certified. Part of the certification is that the dog has to pass the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test and then I discovered the AKC's new program called Purebred Alternative Listing for non-registered purebred dogs, which allows the dog to compete in just about every program the AKC offers except conformation shows.
"That got me started in things like obedience and rally. Then I discovered hunt tests and started training Arthur to do the work he'd been bred to do and now he is working on his junior hunter title. Now, of all the things I do with my dogs, field work is my favorite. There's nothing better than having your best friend at your side with a bird in his mouth."
Jules came to IBR after she was rescued from an overcrowded shelter in Kentucky. "She had Lyme disease and needed lengthy treatment with antibiotics," said Lisa Spakowski.
"She also had the number '17' tattooed in her left ear, which meant she had been part of an assembly line of pointer pups that didn't cut it in the field, probably because of her illness.
"Finally, after several months of antibiotics, she started to show improvement in her temperament and personality. She started to lock on point on every tweetie bird and squirrel in the backyard. We began off-leash training with her and she showed she was a true field trial prodigy.
"She ran huge independent casts with great energy and enthusiasm. She also was 100 percent reliable on her recall. In April of 2009, she had progressed to the point where we registered her with AKC and ran her in a licensed field trial. She was adopted by a hunting family in Chicago and will be hunting for them in both Illinois and Missouri."
For more information on adopting a rescue, check with your favorite breed organization.
Most of them list their rescue operation on their websites. All of the national breed clubs are listed on the AKC's website under "Breeds" and the subhead "National Breed Clubs."