The Dog Sanctuary Myth

As a trainer whose primary focus is on fear and aggression cases, I’m often asked by clients – both private and rescues – about sending dogs off to a “sanctuary*.”  They’re always asking about this because they need to make tough choices and often are avoiding the behavioral euthanasia discussion. 

My answer when asked is always the same – “there is no such magical place – it’s a unicorn.”  Why?  Simple – dogs who would need to be sent away to a sanctuary, for whatever reason, are not safe in the general public or candidates to be rehomed.  So this means the dog will be living in some form of isolation. And for social creatures like dogs, this is inhumane and that becomes a quality of life issue.

Is it a good quality of life if the animal is not not able to do the things that come naturally to it for its species and not able to live a life free from fear and pain?  I’d argue this is not truly enjoying life.

Hear me out.  If the dog is afraid of people, there is no sanctuary that is devoid of people, so this dog will always be struggling and if really aggressive towards people, will eventually be more and more isolated because the dog isn’t safe.  People need to tend to the dog – feeding, scooping poop, administering medication and more.

If the dog is afraid of other dogs, then the dog lives its entire life in isolation except for short periods of time where staff can come hang out and socialize with that one dog and I guarantee, that’s not a lot of the time, especially if the “sanctuary” is run by one person.

Places that market themselves as dog sanctuaries may start out well intentioned but take in too many dogs, don’t have the physical space or financial resources to care for the number of animals in their care and charge, often close to $10K for taking in a dog.  Ultimately, it is taking advantage of desperate people who want to find a place for their beloved dog to live out their natural life.  And many end up being busted for neglect, abuse and poor conditions.

There’s numerous news stories about these types of places and the ones listed here are not isolated incidents – they merely serve as examples of what these places are really like and of ones that have been busted.  There are still many out there in operation, swindling vulnerable people out of thousands of dollars per animal, that just haven’t been busted yet.

The common theme with all of these places is this – too many animals to be sufficiently cared and well intentioned people, who really think their animal will live out a glorious life, perhaps clouded by emotion, are hurt far worse when they find out the place they sent their loved one was busted for abuse or neglect.  I know I’m bursting the bubble of a lot of people right now, but as with so many things, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

If you’re in a situation where you’re considering a sanctuary because your dog is too much for you to handle, first I’d suggest working with a qualified behavior consultant and trainer and also working with a certified Veterinary Behaviorist.  Many, many cases (not all, of course) can be improved with medication and a proper training plan.  Whatever you do, don’t use a trainer who promises to “fix” your dog using a shock or prong collar.  I promise this will not only not make things better but it will very likely make things much worse.

If you need help or guidance, please contact me.


*The term “sanctuary” is being used in this context as a place to send unadoptable dogs – not as a general term that some rescues use as a safe haven for adoptable dogs.

Special thanks to Jenn for helping point me in the right direction for the list of news articles.

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