Written by Rachel Hayball; one of our ISCP Tutors.

I recently ran an ISCP approved workshop about how to set rescue dogs up for success. We covered lots across the day from rescue procedures, to training, to assessment, working with rescue dogs and assessing welfare. We also discussed when to put a rescue dog to sleep.

There seems to be a bit of an attitude within the rescue world at the moment which is doing extensive damage. It is causing the misery of some dogs, and long term, damaging chronic stress.

“Every dog can be saved, dogs with behavioural problems should never be put to sleep”.

At the risk of making myself very unpopular – Rubbish.

We cannot and should not save every dog.

Before stoning me please read on.

Stress. It makes us feel tense and sick.  It makes us feel pretty rubbish. Dogs suffer from that too.

I am going to focus on acute and chronic stress.

Acute Stress – short lived; Think of that rabbit running from a fox and bolting down a hole. The heart rate increases, respiration rate increases, adrenaline and noradrenaline is released, energy is used- all part of the fight or flight response. Once safe the body returns to normal pretty quickly.

Chronic Stress – ongoing; Constant stress which you cannot escape from.

Let’s put this in human terms… You have a high-pressured job and are working in poor conditions. Initially you can cope with it, you have waves of acute stress, but things do not improve, so the stress becomes chronic, and prolonged (chronic) stress shifts the acute stress to a pathological condition that can jeopardise health and survival. End result is depression, a compromised immune system and an increased risk of stress, heart attack and much, much more.

So, what does this have to do with rescue dogs?

Every behaviour that we see has a cause. Fear reactivity is caused by fear. Fear reactivity is a stress response.

Jumping up at a kennel door constantly (not just when people come past)- a response to stress.

Self-mutilation- a result of CHRONIC stress due to constant or regular exposure to triggers.

We HAVE to look at the levels of stress that our rescue dogs are under. If we have a stressed dog it is not a happy dog. Some acute stress is unavoidable. Chronic stress should be avoided, and if it can’t be avoided then we need to change things so it is- or we should release that poor dog from its constant trauma.

Assessing stress and the dogs welfare

There are many ways of assessing stress, including assessing the amount of stress hormones in blood, milk and urine, however these tests are expensive and to get true picture they need to be repeated. We can however assess a dogs stress responses and then build a picture of its welfare status. For example;

1) Is the dog constantly stressed? Can the stress be reduced? Assess the dog’s behaviour- what are the dogs triggers? Can exposure to the triggers be stopped?

2) Is the dog highly reactive or aggressive? Is this reducing with time and rehab? Aggression has a cause, reactivity has a cause. Both involve stress.  

3) After time and rehab is the dog safe to be rehomed? We have to consider the safety of the public. If we cannot safely rehome we need to look at other option.

4) Is Sanctuary an option for the dog? Is the space anywhere? Will the dog be any happier in sanctuary? Will the dogs be in kennels or foster? Is that what the dog needs? Or will the dog remain stressed? Will they work with the dog using force free methods? Do they use environmental enrichment to help?

5) Is the dog coping in kennels, are there any signs of self mutilation or OCD type behaviours? – Would the dog be ok in foster? If the dog isn’t coping in kennels and can’t go into foster, then what options are there that are suitable for that dog?

6) Is the dog constantly living on edge- in a state of fear? Is that dog suffering from chronic stress? Can things be changed? If not, then what is the kindest option for that dog?

7) Have you had the dog checked by a vet- including full bloods etc Always rule out health problems

8) Second opinion? If you are not sure, get a professional in to help you. If you feel you are sure but are emotionally involved, then an assessment needs to be done by someone who isn’t emotionally involved.

Rate the dog’s quality of life. 0-10. Below 5? Can things be improved- if not then consider PTS and letting the dog escaping from his pretty rubbish life.

Assess it from the DOG’S point of view, not ours. Love is not enough.

We often talk about the human right to die. We sometimes say that wish that we could help a friend or relative to escape from their life of pain. People also try to end their own lives to escape their agony.

Dogs are trapped with us making decisions for them. They do not sit and think that “it is ok, they love us, and are trying to make things life better for us”. They are trapped in their current condition and cannot escape. Why not let these very unhappy dogs go if they have a poor mental state with no chance, or slim chance of improvement.

I know how hard it is to let a dog go. We are all in rescue to save dogs and never want to make a decision to PTS, but their welfare comes first, and if they are trapped in a world of stress and misery, even one with a comfy bed, good food and cuddles, then it is no life.

Rescues up and down the country are full of dogs that cannot homed, cannot go into foster and are really struggling. Yes, some adapt to kennel life well, but many do not, and we have to do right by those dogs. Otherwise it is a welfare issue.

So. Let’s stop saving dogs for our sake and start doing it for the dog’s sake. Let’s try to remove the human emotion, step back and ask ourselves if we are doing the right thing by that dog by keeping it alive and trapped in a world that it cannot escape from.

We are not angels, we are not heroes, and many of us at some point have failed a dog in our care by not putting it to sleep.

Let’s do right by the dogs.


For more information about Rachel’s work, please visit her website and the Hounds First website.