Once upon a time there was a dog named Bobo. He was born to a Lab mix in a lush Miami back yard and by the time he was six weeks old he had been deemed 'the cutest pup' by a neighbor’s kids and was taken away from his brothers and sisters to live in another home with a lush back yard. What a lucky pup!

But, as with other cautionary tales I tell, this one also has a sad ending.

Bobo was a model puppy. That means he pee-peed and poo-pooed on their nice rugs and chewed up socks and tennis shoes and (heavens! the final straw!) Mommy’s Jimmy Choos! So Bobo was sent to live in the lush back yard with a pool and lots of fancy, plastic designer furniture he liked to chew when no one was around — which was almost always because when the kids occasionally played with him he got too rough. They bopped him on the head whenever he did this but he wouldn’t stop and so they left him alone.

Then one day a friend of the kids came over and played rough and Bobo bit him. Then Dad discovered the expensive furniture habit Bobo had acquired. Next thing he knew, Bobo was in the back of a Range Rover on his way to Animal Control. The kids cried for thirty minutes then were contented by a trip to the mall and one new Nintendo Gameboy apiece.

This is a true story.

So it was that Bobo, almost full-grown but rambunctious, non-housebroken, head-shy and fear-aggressive, especially around children, went to live in a three by four concrete block cell in a noisy concrete block building.

Bobo didn’t even get a chance to catch distemper, parvo, or any of the other diseases he hadn’t been vaccinated against. He was euthanized after he was deemed unadoptable — for his history of biting children as well as for his fractious behavior. That’s how it happens in most shelters around the country.

Bobo's story is the norm in every way with one exception: aggression is not always part of the picture. When it’s not, dogs get a chance to strut their untrained stuff in front of every potential adopter. Housebreaking status, destructive behavior, and fear of simple things like leashes are not always apparent to prospective owners. The overwhelmed staff often wants only to see every dog adopted regardless of suitability to their new homes. Everyone hates to see the dogs euthanized.

Most of these dogs are eventually returned by frustrated owners and ultimately face the death penalty, nonetheless.

For the few of us willing to adopt adults or older puppies, behavior is by far our biggest challenge. Although the dog-educated among us know the warning signs of complete unsuitability, most adopters are oblivious to anything beyond their children’s entreaties.

As a vet, my job is to immediately identify new adopters and to connect these individuals with a network of dog people in a training environment appropriate for their schedule, financial status and personality. I know that if I don’t point out particular behavior issues and tell them exactly what they must do to solve these — down to a phone number, address, prices and class schedules — I’ll never see that dog again.

You may think that’s not my place but if not me then who? 

I see euthanasia as the biggest health risk to these dogs. And if behavior is the cause then it is surely in my purview to prevent that through any method I can. If that means that I must recommend specific trainers, groups, or even drugs (God forbid!), thereby offending some in the training community, then so be it.

Shelter medicine is actually an emerging discipline in vet schools. New programs at UC Davis and U Penn, among others, have been established with the express goal of improving the health and well being of shelter animals. Ultimately, that goal can be translated to mean reducing the total number of euthanasias performed, as shelter facility euthanasia is by far the biggest killer of pets in this country.

More enlightened, [well-managed and more financially able] shelter establishments have increasingly become aware that even simple leash training of dogs is enough to reduce the rates of shelter returns. I worked for a time with an organization that served to train shelter volunteers to train their potential adoptees. The results at the one facility I observed were predictable: the shelter’s return rate dropped, adoptions were up, and the length of each dog’s stay was cut almost in half. Granted, this was a small, no-kill facility in an affluent neighborhood with willing volunteers aplenty. Nonetheless, programs like this demonstrate the fundamental importance of behavior to the adoption of shelter dogs. Even simple socialization is often all these dogs need to build loving ties with their new families.

The Bobos of this world will always be there, but perhaps in some not-too-distant future not all will suffer prompt euthanasia. With the adoption of socialization and training programs, maybe even the Bobos will just be the subjects of cautionary tales we tell to show us how far we’ve come.

Image: Dog shelter by amneziak