Why People Rescue Dogs

An animal rescue ribbon magnet.They eat standing up in the kitchen so the 25 dogs don’t overwhelm them. Their bed sleeps 7 dogs, including a mastiff, in addition to two humans. And every day sees them giving pills, dropping medicine in ears, and scooping poop. Lots and lots of poop.

Yep, you guessed it. They rescue dogs.

David Rosenfelt gave us an amusing look inside the life of dog rescue in Dogtripping: 25 Rescues, 11 Volunteers, and 3 RVs on Our Canine Cross-Country Adventure (affiliate link). If you’re intrigued, check out my review of Dogtripping at A Traveler’s Library.

But reading this light and entertaining book brought to mind a serious quote I read many years ago. It stuck with me. And I’ve spent hours pondering it.

The paragraph was written by Jon Katz, perhaps the best dog writer in America. Katz always makes me think, whether I agree with him or not. Here’s what he wrote:

If Americans find themselves homeless, laid off, abused, or in need of urgent medical care, no van will pull up in their driveways to whisk them off for treatment, place them in temporary housing, then drive them around the country to find them appropriate new homes and visit them regularly to monitor their progress and make sure they’re OK. With dogs, though, it happens every day.

He wrote this in the story of how he got one of his border collies, Rescuing Fly: A Journey on the Dog Underground Railroad. Forget for a moment, the inappropriateness of comparing compassionate, hard-working people who help dogs to the brave men and women who risked their lives to bring enslaved people to freedom. That’s a post for another day. And another blog.

But here are the questions I imagine Katz is asking in this article: Why do people rescue dogs? And why don’t we rescue people the same way?
Rescue dog is sleepy after travel.
First of all, there are programs that whisk people off to shelters, give them treatment and counseling, find them jobs, and follow-up with them once they become independent.

But I think Katz is asking, why do thousands of volunteers give up hours of free time to transport dogs from bad living situations and high-kill shelters to places where they can get new homes? Why do they give their money to this cause? And the implied question: Shouldn’t all these resources go toward rescuing people?
Rescue dogs are the best.

Why Do People Rescue Dogs?

The answer is simple. Because they can.

When a volunteer rescues a dog by taking him from a shelter, getting a negligent owner to surrender him, or picking him up from the dog track, the dog doesn’t complain.

Dogs don’t say: “Y’know, I hear it’s cold up north. I’d rather just stay here.” They don’t have opposable thumbs that allow them to open a crate, roll down a window, or open a car door.

People rescue dogs because it’s easy. Okay, not easy. But easy compared with rescuing people.

Rescuing People

The most satisfying part of my job as a housing counselor has been seeing people dig themselves out of deep debt and become homeowners after years of hard work. But my job does not involve rescuing anyone.

I can advise people. I encourage them. I point out resources. But they do the work themselves. So their success is not mine to claim. And neither is their failure.

But sometimes I do feel the need to rescue. And it gets pretty personal. That was certainly the case with my husband’s mother.

Mama B brought out people’s desire to rescue her. Her smile included a hint of mischief that many found charming. She had a generous spirit. And she was so petite I could have tucked her in my coat pocket with room to spare.

Since she was a young woman, Mama B struggled with being bipolar. She was hospitalized several times in her life. She found it hard, in her younger days, to come to terms with having to take medicine to keep her from having the manic highs which must have felt amazing in the early stages.

As she aged, many people tried to rescue Mama B. If they could only help her clean her apartment, eat more nutritious food, manage her money, her life would be so much better. Their “help” came with the hurtful message to my husband: “If you could just manage your mother better, she’d have a much higher quality of life. Why aren’t you doing more for her?”

But then, Mama B’s rescuers wised up. They learned that she had food to eat. But she didn’t want to cook it. And she didn’t want you to cook it. She wanted something else to eat.

She had money. But she didn’t want to be told how to spend it.

In reality, she wanted to be left alone to do what she wanted when she wanted to do it. Y’know, like every American ever born.

Mama B didn’t want to be rescued. She wanted to live her life. On her own terms.

I tried the rescuing thing too. I fell into the same trap. And I caused unintended hurt to my husband who had played caregiver to Mama B in some form since he was a teenager.

It’s hard to see someone you think needs rescuing and respect their wishes to live the way they want to.

People are more autonomous than dogs. They have rights under the law that keep them from being subjugated. They have voices that can tell you what they want and don’t want. And they have opposable thumbs that can help them sign restraining orders or just walk out the door.
A rescue dog has found his home.

Should Dog Rescue Efforts Be Redirected To People Rescue?

Katz implies that intensive dog rescue is less worthy than efforts to help people. I don’t think it’s so black and white.

For one, I believe that efforts to help animals ultimately help people as well. Yep, you got me. Katz’s article inspired my personal theme for Blog the Change for Animals – Want to Protect Animals? Care About People.

But I also have an insider’s look at people involved in dog rescue. They’re some of the most compassionate people I know—to people and to dogs.

I know some have already supported aid efforts to victims of typhoon Haiyan. Others share their dogs with people in nursing homes and hospices as well as helping children learn to read. Others support people stricken with cancer. Some are sacrificial caregivers for family members, taking the stress and burden that others can’t manage.

I don’t think people who rescue dogs use up their compassion on dogs so they have nothing left for people. If anything, compassion for one living creature, one that’s “easy” to help, strengthens those empathy muscles so they can spread the compassion around.

So why do people rescue dogs? Because they can. And in a world where so many problems feel insurmountable, Mr. Katz, that’s good enough.
Your Turn: What do you think of Mr. Katz’s comments about the resources put toward animal rescue? Is it a good thing? Or do some people favor animals over humans too much?
photo credits: (Mutts are the Best) freeloosedirt, (Dog Eye) sadiehart, (Rescue Dog in Crate) ilovemytank via photopin cc. Rescue Ribbon is from Flickr.
Disclosure: The book link in this post will take you to Amazon. If you buy anything through this link, I’ll earn a few cents to pay my hosting costs. But your purchase won’t cost you any more. Thanks for your support.

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  1. Margaret T says:

    I taught in an urban public high school for 33 years. Then, when I retired, I began to work with a rescue. I find the progress the fosters make to be much easier to track! I get immediate gratitude from the dogs. I see them fatten up or trim down. I see them learn etiquette, basic commands, maybe even tricks. I know that they go to good homes, and I often get pictures of them with their families (Facebook is a wonderful thing for that). It’s a fairly immediate reward for me. Teens were never as grateful as the dogs and the people who adopt them. =)
    I have to admit that I do run into the teens, now all grown up and responsible, from time to time. The last time I went to the grocery store, I saw a former student who is now a fireman, and he stopped and we chatted. He was nice then, and he’s still nice, but that’s not my doing.

  2. I think that the biggest difference is that dogs don’t really have any rights and they cannot help themselves. Many, but not all humans have options and some choose to use them, some don’t. Humans can help themselves in many cases. Homeless people that don’t want to work, that is a choice, but a dog that was tossed onto the street because the family had a baby does not have a choice or an option. Dogs have to depend on people for help, people can often help themselves or arrange for their own help. We support pet rescue any day!

  3. I think I would argue that helping dogs helps humanity. Those people who, for one reason or another, through choice or through illness (addiction being included as it should) live on the streets or in extreme isolation, greatly benefit from the companionship and emotional support dogs provide. There are countless homeless whose dog is the only reason they haven’t given up completely on life.

    Maybe by rescuing dogs we are actually rescuing humanity? Maybe our ability to have empathy for another creature is exactly what makes us human? And maybe a cornerstone of rescue should be those programs that help those in need keep their pets?

    • Julie Blackwelder says:

      A lot of truth in what you say and the answers to your questions are yes, yes, and yes. I remember one homeless man saying that his dog, a golden retriever mix, is what keeps him from freezing to death in the winter.

  4. We humans created the dependency dogs have on us. And then we turned around and took advantage of it, often in very unfavorable ways. We owe it to dogs to rescue them. Lots of people get this on an innate level and decide to help. It does not diminish our compassion for humans, it is an off-shoot of that compassion.

  5. What an amazing post Pamela. I am so glad you shared it. I think you have put into words something that has always been difficult to explain when people ask why we re spending time on animals when there are so many humans in need. I have always struggled with this mindset. I think we help those we feel most passionate about, but as you said, animals don’t have opposable thumbs. They can’t choose not to be helped. Thus, they re easier help. Human beings are so much more complicated. But I like it best when we can help humans and animals at the same time.
    Wonderfully written post.

  6. I figure most of the animals who need help have problems that have been caused by humans. Whether it’s Orangutans who have nowhere to live because their forests have been cut down to make palm oil or a dog who has been sent to the pound because his/her family have had a baby. Humans usually have a choice somewhere in their lives, animals don’t. I know the humans affected by typhoon Haiyan (and other natural disasters) didn’t have a choice but animals have been affected too and personally I would choose to help the animals. Not because they are more deserving but because less people are likely to be helping them.

  7. I’ve worked in Greyhound rescue, although I am not currently active in that way. It’s a matter of distance at this point. If another group started up near us, I would gladly volunteer and help.

    This post hits home hard for me. My mom is a person a lot of people have tried to help over the years. I suspect she might have a mental health issue, perhaps hoarding, but my younger sister disagrees. I fought for a long time to “save” her myself before I had to make a choice between taking care of my sister and I or staying with her. I thought that what I did, trusting my dad to take us in temporarily and expose what was wrong in our house, would make her change. She chose to live her own way over being with us. That’s a tough thing to take as a teen, or at any age, but it’s a lesson I try to remember when I go through life. The school I teach at is Title 1, which means that 70% of our students are at or below the poverty level. I’ve seen some people who were offered so many opportunities to make their lives better who simply refused it and wanted to go their own way.

    Working with dogs is a safer bet, in my opinion. I’ve never adopted a dog who didn’t seem to be happy here with their life as opposed to what they came from before. I’ve also seen a lot of people who wouldn’t be able to take comfort from other humans who can accept comfort from dogs. Dogs don’t expect words or long explanations, and they don’t judge human decisions. For a lot of the people we visit, they bring back memories of happy times, and I love being a small part of that. I don’t always have the best people skills, but fortunately, my dog does!

  8. It’s such a tough question and there’s just no right or wrong answer. As long as the heartaches of the world are so varied, so will the people be who try to mend the heartaches and how they choose to mend them.

    For me, there’s a lot less red tape governing how I can help the dogs in my community than there is how I can help the people. For example, I worked for a food company for a few years. We ran a full product development department and QA department, which meant at the end of every month there was pound upon pound of product that had been pulled from the production, had one or two pieces removed from the box in our controlled environment, then resealed. Legally, this product could not be sold AND it couldn’t be donated to soup kitchens, food banks or organizations to feed the hungry. Why? It was opened and did not have the appropriate retail labelling on it. (It was food service packaging – ie. no nutritional analysis). Organizations have to serve “balanced meals”, as defined by a nutritional guideline. Just filling empty bellies isn’t enough. Volunteers have to go through FoodSafe (a pricey coarse) in order to cook or serve food.

    This doesn’t happen in the dog world (at least around here). When we switched from kibble to raw, I donated more than 15 kg of opened product to our local group. When my freezer died last year, I was able to bring down all my open packages of (still frozen) raw food and donate them to a rescue that feeds raw. No special training is needed for volunteers…it’s just easier.

    It’s not that I don’t want to help the humans, I just get discouraged and beaten down fast by all the ways I can’t help.

  9. Vlad & Barkly's Dee says:

    I think that when it comes to people, the ACLU has restricted the ability to help many of them. Too many of the homeless have mental health issues, but the ACLU says you can’t give them help if they don’t want it. Throwing more money at the problem has never helped many situations at all. About all anyone can do is give them food, because if you give them money, they turn around and go for alcohol and drugs. You’ve not helped them one bit when they choose to use your help to self-medicate. Even giving them clothing and blankets is iffy because someone else will either steal them from them (and often physically harm them in doing so), or they’ll sell them for money for drugs. But the immediate smell of food usually overrides anything else, and they’ll actually use it for their own body’s needs.

    When it comes to animals though, as long as people make sure their money isn’t given to some place for administration costs, throwing money at abandoned, homeless, abused and neglected animals DOES have a definite and tangible effect. As long as you’re not an evil person that intends the animals harm, there are no restrictions to giving them help–and they appreciate EVERY SINGLE BIT of help that you throw at them.

    It’s just easier to help animals, and there’s much more self-satisfaction when a person knows they HAVE made a difference. After all, whether people want to admit it or not, that feeling of having done something good, that mental, gratification-high that comes with it, IS why people help others.

  10. I think you hit the nail on the head. Rescuing dogs by moving them from state to state or placing them in the “right” home is one thing. To do those same sorts of things to people would be viewed as paternalistic and, for lack of a better word, dehumanizing. Dogs can’t tell us what they want the same way that people can, nor would most people agree that society should impose its will upon a person in the same way that we do with humans. (For example, we encourage people to spay and neuter their pets – but would we be on board with forced sterilization of humans in service of population control or some other goal? No.)

    As for whether resources used to save animals should be directed towards people instead, I hate that it’s often viewed as a zero sum game. There are countless causes and groups in need of help – does it help to pit them against each other? Even among humans, one could argue that we should direct resources to help one group over another, pitting the homeless against veterans against cancer patients. I don’t think that’s productive either. I think that if people are willing to give their time to help make the world a better place, who am I to judge which cause they choose to support? Helping to improve things for any group (animals or humans) helps us all in the long run.

  11. I never understood why the two areas have to be mutually exclusive. By helping animals we are so often helping people as well that this attitude never made sense to me. I am sure I have gone on rants about this before. If not, it is overdue.

    As someone who has worked for both animal welfare organizations and human health organizations, I can tell you precisely how often the two worlds intersect. By following up on concerned phone calls, our animal cruelty investigators were often going into the homes of humans who have also been neglected and abused, perhaps more so than their animals. Human mental health issues were something they encountered every single day. Unfortunately, most of the available government services simply did not apply to these people and they had fallen through the cracks. It was our “animal” investigators who took action to help them.

    All of us commenting here today no doubt have many stories of how animals have helped us or changed our lives for the better. Animal rescue is human rescue. The two cannot be separated.

  12. Personally, I know I favor dogs over humans and I’m okay with that. Children aside, I think humans pretty much suck and I think dogs need a voice and I’m happy to be one of many voices speaking on their behalf.

    But I don’t think I rescue with the exception to the dogs we invite to join our family. I just don’t have the courage and I’m so thankful that there are so many people out there who do have the courage to bring us these amazing dogs and allow us to make up for the crappy things that another human did.

  13. There is an ability difference between a dog and a person. A person from early on can make a choice to help themselves or allow to be helped. A dog can cannot. I taught English in a NYC high school and have first-hand experience of how people can throw away opportunities. Students had the opportunity for a free, good education and they threw it away by not attending, not because they needed to work, but because they chose to hang out elsewhere. Then when these same people can’t find jobs, they blame society and want to be helped. A person who I served on a jury with who was born in theUSA, had an education and his grammar and use of words are worse than some who were not born here. When I mentioned something, he informed me that he was born in “the hood” and he wasn’t going to change.
    A dog doesn’t turn his nose up when people want to help her. I would much rather rescue a dog then a person. FYI, BJ is a rescue.

  14. Sometimes… how one chooses to do good depends on one’s character. You can’t force a dog person to go rescue people, when it’s not their passion. And you can’t argue when a humanitarian who is all about human causes over dogs any day. It takes all sorts to make the world and so long as we contribute to a cause we are passionate in, we are all putting in a little something that, hopefully in the grand scheme of things aggregate and makes a difference for humans and dogs. That’s sort of where my thoughts lie.

  15. I think the main difference is that people can help themselves. I don’t know if I am slightly cold hearted and selfish when I look at people. However when I think of the young, the elderly or the infirm I almost look at them in the same light I would an animal. They need our help to do something they can’t do themselves. But for a healthy 40 year old male, why can’t you go out to work? Why can’t you cook for yourself? I think these people may need guidance, and support but at the end of the day a lot of it they need to want to do for themselves.

  16. I can’t really add much to what’s already been said. I think we all have to decide where time, energy, and money goes. I will give money to people– social service agencies, medical research, disaster relief– because I can’t find the cure or house the homeless myself. But I will take stray animals into my home, and not a homeless person. I will donate time and energy to a rescue. Most importantly, I find a role for myself in educating people who are NOT animal lovers why caring for animals is important, and what it says about us as people when we mistreat animals. Believe it or not, my religion has specific laws about how one must treat animals, and I like to put those laws in people’s faces from time to time. :)

  17. It’s true, people put up the darnedest fights in response to our best efforts to rescue them. Some, like my mom, would sooner die than live their lives any other way than exactly as they have chosen.

    As far as a conflict between rescuing humans and rescuing animals, I don’t think there is one. Some of us are drawn uniquely to helping those of our own species, others of us feel more compelled to assist those species who have no voice. Some of us find time for both. Rescuers of all flavors are following their hearts and doing the jobs they feel they were placed here to do; I don’t think you can fault them for the being to whose rescue they come.

  18. As one who works both with humans and dogs, I see one (at least in my work) that you didn’t mention. Sometimes those human rescuers who try to “save” folks like Mama B get to point where they need to move on but they don’t. That’s when you start hearing them blame Mama B for not being what they think she ought to be. In my job, the abuse doesn’t just come from the people I work with, but also from the people charged to work with those abusers.

    Ironically, that also happens with people who rescue dogs. We just call them hoarders.