IF dog is man's best friend, maybe dog should think twice. Last year more than 12 million dogs and cats went through animal shelters across America. Less than one-third were returned to their owners or adopted out to new homes. The remaining 8 million were put to death.
According to Barbara Cassidy, director of Animal Sheltering and Control at the Humane Society of the United States, most animals end up in shelters because their owners are irresponsible.
``Irresponsible ownership can take many forms,'' Ms. Cassidy says, describing the greatest offender as one who allows his animal to roam free - without supervision, proper identification, license, or vaccination. These animals can get lost, killed, or become dangerous to families and property.
In the same category of irresponsible owners are ``people who have obtained an animal on a whim - for the wrong reasons - and then decide the animal is not suitable for them,'' Cassidy comments.
In such cases, surrendering the unwanted animal to a shelter ``is the most responsible thing they can do, instead of turning it loose or giving it to someone else who isn't prepared to care for it.''
Steps toward satisfaction
Ian Dunbar, a veterinarian in Oakland, Calif., says that when people are dissatisfied with their pets, it's usually because of behavioral problems - such as house soiling, biting, barking, or overactivity.
With proper training, says Dr. Dunbar, ``these bad habits could have been broken in the early years.''
``People fail to recognize what a commitment pet ownership is,'' remarks Randy Lockwood, the Humane Society's director of higher education programs. A pet stays with a family for an average of four years. Life spans for cats may be 20 years. For dogs, 15 is not unusual.
Endemic to our throwaway society, says Mr. Lockwood, ``people can't make a commitment. ... When things don't work out right, the animal is seen as disposable.''
Feeding, grooming, exercising, and training are vital to a happy pet household. ``Humane education can help people develop realistic expectations,'' as well as learn practical skills, Lockwood comments.
The time is never too late or too early to begin.
It is important to remember, says Joel Warner, executive director of the Colorado Humane Society, that not all families are suited for what they think they want.
First they should go to the community shelter and talk with an ``adoption counselor'' who can help determine what pet would be the best addition to the family.
These counselors also screen and accept or reject potential adoptive families - to be certain that the animals are going to good homes, and won't end up back at the animal shelter.
``We never give animals away for free,'' Mr. Warner explains. Paying the nominal fee - usually $41 including payment for neuter/spay procedure - forces people to think about what they are getting into.
``When you choose a dog or a cat, you're making a commitment of 12 to 15 years,'' says Warner, and about $300 to $600 per year!
Proper care stressed
So if you're ready to make the commitment and find a dog or cat eager to join your family, here's the experts' strategy for success:
``Alter'' - neuter or spay - the animal.
Pet overpopulation is the main cause of shelter overcrowding. Pamela Dalton, director of public affairs at the Oakland (Calif.) Humane Society, says many parents think it's important to allow their children ``to experience the miracle of birth,'' and let their pets reproduce.
``But by allowing your animal to have babies, you are directly responsible for the death of a shelter animal,'' she insists.
Train the animal properly.
Good teaching means good learning and good behavior. To add to the patience and common sense that you've equipped yourself with, pick up a book. Or check out your community animal shelter for inexpensive obedience classes.
Help your children become good pet parents. Children learn hands-on responsibility when they care for a pet, but ``too often parents forget that they play a vital role in modeling that training,'' says Lockwood. Children, as well as pets, learn by example. Adults, too, can learn from little ``pet parents.''
``Humaneness begins at home,'' comments William DeRosa, assistant director of the National Association for the Advancement of Humane Education.
By teaching children to be kind to animals, ``our long-term goal is that this generation grow up to be humane and caring adults.''