No, we don’t need the government to save us from unregulated dog adoptions

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If you have adopted a dog from a no-kill shelter or one of those foster-based rescue organizations in recent years, you may know rescue dogs get moved around a lot.

Typically the way this works is that animal-loving volunteers collect dogs from crowded shelters in poorer or more rural areas where they risk being euthanized and transfer them to wealthier and more urban areas where a higher population and better-funded rescue organizations can ensure they are safely placed in a new home.

For example, one of my dogs, Abby, was transferred from a kill shelter somewhere near Richmond, Virginia, up to a rescue shelter in the Washington, D.C., area, whereupon my husband and I jumped through so many hoops and paid so much money for the privilege of having all our clothes and furniture covered in great quantities of fur.

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As a moment’s common sense reveals, this system is good, but not perfect. Sometimes a dog with a history of serious abuse and/or aggression — a dog that, sadly, may need to be euthanized or perhaps only adopted to a very experienced dog trainer — slips through the cracks and is accidentally re-homed with an unsuspecting new owner, with tragic results.

That seems to be what happened in an awful story of a fatal attack by a rescue dog in Virginia Beach earlier this year, a story that has now become the impetus behind a push for federal regulation of dog transfers and adoptions. The Virginia-Pilot reports:

[T]here are no laws in the U.S. about tracking dogs moving across state lines. Rescue groups say they self-police and emphasize transparency, but critics say the lack of regulation may put adopters at risk if they unwittingly take in dogs with behavioral problems. They say details about a dog’s past aggression can be lost in the shuffle or obscured by well-meaning rescuers.

The supporters of this proposal are undoubtedly well-intended, but their plan is unnecessary and comes with plenty of its own risks.

First, as the Virginia-Pilot piece notes, these regulations would be trying to solve a problem that barely exists: “Fatal attacks by rescue animals are rare. Just three of 34 fatal attacks in 2015 were by dogs recently adopted from shelters or rescues, according to, a national dog bite victims group that works to reduce serious dog attacks.” There were about 1.6 million dogs adopted in America in 2015, of which three is a very tiny proportion — and we don’t even know that those three were adopted based on incorrect information, as in the Virginia Beach case.

Second, while it is true that mistakes are occasionally made, rescue volunteers already take precautions. Transport coordinator Heidi Kozubal told the Virginia-Pilot her group, I-81 Transports, makes sure all parties know when dogs with bite histories are moved. “We have people who bring their elderly parents along, we have people who bring kids,” she said. “You’re going to put that dog in somebody’s car.”

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If Washington stepped in, it is difficult to believe it could do a better job. Remember, of 1.6 million adoptions, just 3 committed a fatal attack. Is a federal bureaucracy going to have a superior safety record?

And third, there are real dangers to shifting the responsibility for policing dog adoptions over to the government. It would almost certainly discourage transfers of rescues to areas where they stand a better chance of adoption, which means more dogs will die and would-be dog owners will have more trouble finding a suitable pet.

It also isn’t difficult to imagine a federal regulatory structure being less competent at weeding out dogs that aren’t suited for adoption, operating as it would have via standardized assessment rather than personal evaluation of each animal. Meanwhile, new owners might be inappropriately familiar with or unguarded around a dog they’re just getting to know if they believe it has Washington’s stamp of approval. That could well lead to more dog attacks, not fewer.

It goes without saying that fatal dog attacks are distressing, and that rescue staff and volunteers have an important responsibility to ensure the safety of adopters and adoptees alike. But we don’t need the government to save us from unregulated dog adoptions. We can figure this one out for ourselves.

What do you think?

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