I said “No.” to taking in and training a rescue dog yesterday. 

Young black and white puppy on leash.

It was a terrified 10 month old puppy who has so much potential. 

The thing about her is, she’s unadoptable right now. She can’t even walk on a leash, and is so afraid of people, she completely shuts down…unless she’s in a familiar environment. And then, there’s a chance she might snap.

Listen…

I KNEW I could help this dog. During my evaluation, she made big time progress, FAST. And she’s at an age where (the right) training will be able to solve these problems entirely.

And I knew if I just made a little space, and a little time, I could impact her life in a major way, and potentially save it.

And I’ll be honest. 

I sat with this decision for a LONG time. 

Because saying “NO” was like shoving a giant knife into my heart…and then pouring a gallon of lemon juice into the wound, and topping it off with a pinch of salt. 

Yeah, it was that bad. 

I kept thinking to myself…

Will she overcome her fear? 

Will she get the help she needs?

Will she ever find a family of her own? 

Will she stay in the system forever? 

And the truth is, there is a good shot she won’t ever get the training she needs to overcome her issues and find a family of her own. 

Without trainer intervention, there’s a good shot she’s going to be a “lifer” or worse, lose her life if she lashes out at a shelter worker. 

I weighed all of that, and still turned my back on her. 

What kind of dog professional am I? 

But here’s the truth of it…

When I said NO to her, I said “yes” to training the rescue dog that I already have in my care, who is highly placeable with a little bit more work. 

Dutch Shepherd "Tej" lounges on the couch

I said “yes” to my dog Tej, who suffers from a liver shunt and as a result, is overly sensitive to changes in his environment. When new dogs come, his behavior always declines, and he will be just a little more jumpy, and little uncomfortable in his own home.

I said “yes” to myself. To my own health, and well being. Which is important to invest in, since I can’t save ANY dogs if I’m sick, and since I’m pretty ineffective if I’m overwhelmed. 

I said “yes” to making sure MY dogs have the life I promised them. Full of hikes, and outside time, rather than getting their exercise in on the treadmill while I multi task. 

And I said “yes” to having money in the bank to pay for my dogs to have the best possible care should something come up.

Listen…

Past life Meagan would have snatched this little pup up in a heartbeat. 

She would have taken her in, and forced all of her dogs to take a backseat so she could save a life. 

But past life Meagan learned an important lesson after regularly burning out, quitting and then jumping back in only to make the same mistakes over and over again. 

The lesson was “you can’t give more than you have and attempting to do so is giving selfishly.”

Wow. Talk about an ouch moment. 

But truth is truth…

Making a commitment to this dog would push me over my limits…

I would be giving away more time and resources than I have available. 

And check this out…

All of my dogs suffer if I’m overwhelmed…

Rescue dog Lucy stands next to her trainer
PC: Richard Probst, Dog Light Photography

The dog I have in training would suffer, not getting the time she needs to develop the skills required to find a forever home…

Future dogs would suffer if I got overwhelmed and burned out, and put training and rescue on hiatus…something I’ve done many times before…

My relationship with my family would suffer…as I’d have less time to spend with them. 

My bank account would suffer, as I’d inevitably invest in food, bedding, toys and treats for the new dog, which would negatively impact MY dogs who would not get nice things…

My students and current clients would suffer, as I’d have less time to spend helping them, and if I did get overwhelmed, I’d be a less effective teacher for them.

Choosing to help this dog now, because it’s too hard to look her in the eyes and say no, would impact so many lives…and not for the better. 

So I did the selfless thing. 

I took the pain…welcomed the knife into my heart…and I said no to this little rescue dog who so desperately needs help.

Because the truth is, sometimes saying NO is the most selfless decision you can make. 


Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    30 replies to "Rescue Responsibly: When Saving Lives Becomes Selfish"

    • liz

      It is like they tell you on a plane, if the oxygen masks come down put your own on before you help your children, but that won’t stop the pangs of guilt. I’m sure you were right.

      • Ginny B

        That sounds like the best correlation I’ve ever heard.

    • Claudia Carter

      Great reminder for us all, thanks Meagan!

    • Ralf

      An important lesson. We all (well, the good ones anyway) want to help dogs in need, but you have to be mindful of your own health, sanity, and well-being of your own dogs first. Wrecking your life in the process of helping others is just plain stupid. You help when you can, but you also recognize your limits. You made the right decision.

    • Kelly

      This is incredible! What a refective, introspective and profound look inside. I applaud you! Having been in rescue (cat, horse, dog) much of my life, I really, really relate to this. I wish everyone I knew in rescue could reflect like this instead of simply reacting from a “savior complex”. I know wonderful women and men in rescue that just want to save at all cost with little reflection on the cost to themselves, the dogs and their community. I have seen tragic results from saving animals “at all cost”. You have written a sonnet to those of us who LOVE animals, but also long to set clear, healthy boundaries and save those animals that will have high quality enriched lives and will contribute joy and comfort to their human companions.

      A wise woman once said to me, “Every NO I say is a “YES” to myself. When you are honest with “YES” and “NO” it is easy to live a clear, kind life free of pretending. I am giving my greatest gift which is my truth”.

      Thank you for this great blog post. It is beautiful!

      • Meagan Karnes

        Thanks for these words Kelly. Means so much to me. Love you guys and all you do.

    • Michele

      *balling*
      I get it. I often get myself overwhelmed (at work, rescue volunteer). So I understand. Semi related I just stopped volunteering for a white shep rescue b/c I found out they put down any dog that bites and I had no idea. I am still torn. I’ve adopted a severely aggressive abuse case (no idea what I was doing, but he let me handle him so I trusted him to trust me-dumb I know, thankfully it worked out). The particular dog put down by the rescue was given to a first time foster who had no dog experience and they knew he had issues accepting commands. In my eyes they failed him. And I quit because of it. They tried everything but my soft spot for these guys is too big. I say all that to say this-thank you for what you do. We just need more you’s 🙂

      • Meagan Karnes

        Hang in there and stay strong. Take care of yourself and keep an eye on that overwhelm – been there more times than I can count. Sending so much love your way.

      • Lisa S

        I’m actually glad to hear of a rescue that does the responsible thing and euthanizes dogs with bite histories. It’s gotten so bad that I wouldn’t touch a rescue dog with a ten foot pole anymore; too many dogs with serious behaviour problems being adopted out to unwitting buyers. Rescues and shelters SHOULD euthanize dogs with bite histories and behaviour problems. The amount of resources poured into dogs that are a menace is just insane.

        As a malinois person I’m frequently contacted by local “rescues” begging me to take Mals from them; they import them from all over north america and then discover they can’t handle them. Most of them have bite histories; I always say no even if they don’t. You can’t take on other people’s mistakes and problems; you never get anywhere in your own life. My own dogs come first and yes, I either get them from responsible breeders or breed my own anymore.

        • Michele

          Thank you for your comment. I could not POSSIBLY disagree with you more. Are dogs with behavioral issues for everyone? No. But I knew about my guys bite history before adopting him. Did he growl at me when i misstepped? Yep. But it’s up to me to figure out where i went wrong. And thanks to Meagan i burst into tears of pride every time he hits another milestone. He is worth everything. Where I got him from was nuts (not the place that puts them down-they actually housed him with a trainer because of his aggression)…but I would have never left him behind after I met him and he was ok with my resident dogs. I’ve learned a lot from him (as any rescue I’ve had) and I will ALWAYS put these dogs first when looking to add to my family. Am i the same blind optimist adopter I am now compared to when I rescued my first 2 WGSD? No. Nor am I the same person I was when I was 15. It is up to ADOPTERS to know what problems a rescue can come with…even if the rescue doesn’t tell you. I take any description from a rescue with a grain of salt and actively look for dogs with health or behavioral issues. Dogs are rarely given up because they are perfect. But I like to show them lessons that even i still work on…that people, cars, loud noises, being alone, etc aren’t so scary and the world is a beautiful place if you know who to trust. Best wishes and happy, healthy life <3

    • Krista S Stewart

      Meagan, I applaud in you taking both the long time to consider training the new dog, but also the time you took to evaluate everything, including how to best move forward in your life, for you, family, animals and business.
      I find that it is in taking the time, to sit quietly, to think and evaluate, that we can come up with clarity. It sounds like you found that.
      Unfortunately we can’t save all the rescues. Love in our hearts doesn’t understand the complexities and realities that saying “yes” might mean.
      Good for you for staying true to what will hopefully be a fuller outcome. Maybe the rescue dog will get lucky and someone else will work with her/him.
      Tend to your delicate and wounded heart, but relish in the love you send to the rescue dog and to your own life.
      Sincerely
      Krista Stewart, RIdgway, CO

      • Meagan Karnes

        Thank you Krista. I so agree – I learned a while back to sit with my decisions and it’s made such a big impact on my ability to see the big picture. Thank you for your kind words.

    • Debby

      I love your honesty so much, Meagan.

      It’s why you are the only dog trainer I will ever turn to again.

      Thank you.
      Debby

    • Elaine

      Hard choice, but the right choice. Too often a beloved personal dog takes a back seat to a “project” dog. And while our dogs always make the best of every day, there comes a time when you realize your partner’s best years have slipped away and you can never get that time back.

    • SUSAN SANDERS

      Saying no to one thing allows you to say yes to the things that matter. And it works across the board–with finance, relationships, work, hobbies, food. Knowing and staying true to your values sometimes means saying no even when it hurts. But everyone benefits with the right “no”. In the past, it’s helped me to have someone else in my network to pass the “no” on to. It’s a win-win for all.

    • Linda

      Thank you for this. I’ve lived this post. I fostered more dogs than I can remember. Through a local rescue, I developed, implemented, and for nearly a decade, volunteered to run a CGC program for pit bulls. Then one day I realized I wasn’t well. It was the day I felt the crushing weight of total burn out. I turned my program over to someone else, closed my front door to long term fosters and focused on me and my own dogs. That was at least five years ago. I’m happier, I help neighbors and friends with dog questions, and I take in short term fosters, mostly bull terriers. Because they’re a hoot. I dive into The Collared Scholar tool boxes and challenges. My dogs and family are my priority. I’ve put my health, my loved ones well-being first. It’s what I need to do to survive.

      • Meagan Karnes

        This is amazing Linda. Love you and all you do. Thank you for sharing.

    • Cathy

      You did the right thing. Taking responsibility for you and your current dogs should always be first. If you don’t put your dogs and yourself first no one will benefit. You’ll burn out, your funds will run out, your dogs will be unhappy and frustrated with lack of attention. If the rehab of other dogs was a 9-5 job where you left home, went to work and came home then perhaps.
      Sadly you can not make up for everyone else’s mistakes. Taking one on while you do not have the time/space/etc will hurt future dogs that need your help when you do have the time/space/etc.
      You did the right thing, not the easy thing.

    • Debi McKee

      Meagan, thanks for sharing your story. I have been involved in the rescue world for about 6 years. We have fostered and helped save many dogs in that time. But in the past couple years we have been on a break, not because I don’t want to save all the dogs I can. But because like you, I realized if we didn’t take a break, our current dog that suffers from anxiety and resource agression would suffer big time. My family time, finances and mental health would all suffer too. So instead of fostering, I have found other ways to help, one of those is writing and helping others adopting a rescue.

      You did the right thing. As individuals, we can’t save them all, as much as we would love to.

    • Diana Hoyem

      I would rephrase that title to ‘I did something beautiful today’. Self care is extremely difficult and it is a beautiful example to all of us to see you make that difficult but absolutely correct choice. I am happy for you and your dogs and I am visualizing a wonderful life for the little rescue.

    • Tyler

      There’s absolutely no reason to feel guilty and actually no reason to feel pressure to take a dog like this. The whole rescue thing has gotten completely off the rails and if a dog is not readily able to be adopted and be safe for a family or an individual that isn’t a professional, we should say goodbye to that dog. And yes I will die on that Hill. Far too many people and pets have been injured and killed by unstable rescue dogs that are better off sent to the Rainbow Bridge.

    • Sharon

      I once listened to a talk that Paul Farmer (featured in the book “Mountains beyond Mountains” gave to college students. As you learn in the book, Paul Farmer made incredible sacrifices in his personal life to help destitute people in Haiti, Peru, and other places suffering from tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. One of the college students in the audience asked a question along the lines of “I admire you a great deal and I care about the same issues but what do you say to people who can’t (or don’t want to) make the same kinds of sacrifices you have?” His answer has always stuck with me. “People aren’t lining up to do this work, so whatever you do has value.”

    • Suzanne

      Congratulations, Meagan. some of the best decisions we make are the hardest. Hopefully your share will help others who are still entrapped by the “rescue” disease. I commend you your courage to act in a healthy, mature way and to tell your story so others may benefit.

    • Barbara

      why do we as dog trainer, reacue workers, foster homes or whatever your position is, have to justify why we are doing what we are doing?! There are so many people out ther abusing their pets, but we are expected ro take all of the ones on that need help. It’s really impossible to help all, no matter how much we want to. I totally support your decission to take care of your current pack and family and especially yourself! I don’t judge and totally understand your decission. People who have not been there, might not understand. But the endless calls to rescue a dog EVERY DAY, the videos, pictures you see, that breaks your heart and the total heart ache that you just don’t have the capacity. financial means, or even more time to take them all They all deserve a good home and they all deserve love, but there comes a time when you just can not do more. After all, we all have 24 hrs in a day and taking in another dog is more than just putting a scoop of food in a bowl and opening a back door!

      • Meagan Karnes

        I think, if we, as dog trainers, rescue workers, or foster homes feel the need to justify our choices, that’s personal and self inflicted and typically driven by guilt. I learned early on that the only person I need to justify my choices to is myself. It’s also been my experience that those expectations – the ones that leave us feeling like we have to save them all – are also self imposed. You’re right, it’s impossible to save them all. And that’s a tough pill to swallow for those of us involved in rescue and welfare efforts.

    • Janet Trout

      I relate to above as a non trainer, more wanting to do the right thing, I get myself into trouble. A puppy found her way into my yard, couldn’t find owner and then so excited to have a puppy. She was too much for me and for her good I had to give her up. To you, last year on October 26th. I named her Lucy. And I swear the dog you are holding is Lucy or her double. I think of Lucy often and just hope the new home she received has worked out for her. I was so happy to meet you and John your co-worker and know she would get the right training and love. If possible could you give me a brief update on Lucy. I broke my wrist day before I turned her over to you…wrist healed, leg healed, my heart, never. Thank you for all you do. Kathy here in Modesto put me on to you.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Hi Janet! Yes, that’s a picture of Lucy at our recent training retreat! She’s an amazing dog who has come so far. She’s here with me at my house, and LOVES all of the other dogs, and absolutely adores her training. Currently, she has the job of teaching all of our interns all sorts of new training skills. She’s happy, and fulfilled and she sends her love. I know it was challenging but you made a great call sending her here. She’s doing so very well!

    • Kate

      Thank you for posting this. We rescued a four-month old dog five years ago that was described to us as a ‘potentially perfect all round family dog’, a cross between an Amstaff and an Australian Cattle Dog. We were truthful about our house and yard size and the fact we wanted to have children soon. The rescue association assured us we would be fantastic dog ‘parents’.
      Fred became increasingly dog-aggressive around age 1.5. Up until then we did everything you described with Koby – 2 x daily playing at the dog park, positive training methods, socialisation ++++. It was what was recommended to us by the rescue association, puppy preschool, our initial vet and all of our friends with dogs. I read widely on dog behaviour, had him assessed by two vets and started him on medication. We worked opposite shifts so he was rarely alone.
      We changed our whole life, avoiding having anyone over that didn’t understand his reactivity, taking him out at quiet times and rewarding lots of really good behaviour. He got a lot better in so many ways but still required constant management and vigilance. Then fast forward three years: We had a baby, and while initially fine it soon became quite obvious that he developed significant prey drive towards her. We had him re-assessed by his known behaviourist and two behavioural vets. The behaviourist thought it would be fine, the vets (both parents) said that he wasn’t safe to be living in a house with small children.
      Ultimately we couldn’t trust ourselves to maintain the recommended management (2 doors between dog and baby) 100% of the time to prevent possible injury or fatality to our child, and so we chose behavioural euthanasia. The rescue we got him from had multiple dogs on their books of a similar age described as “not great with kids”. We didn’t want to hand that responsibility over to another person, and we couldn’t bear the thought of him in a small dog run for the rest of his life.
      Love wasn’t enough. Thousands of dollars and thousands of hours worth of training weren’t enough.
      I still second-guess this decision every day, even though I think it was the only one we could have made. I will never forgive myself. The common humanising of dogs using terms like ‘fur baby’ does a great disservice to both dogs, who deserve to be understood and communicated with in a more nuanced and complex way, and to the people who subconsciously feel as though they are letting down actual children if anything goes wrong.
      I’m still looking for answers and to see what I should have done better (eg finding this page and commenting almost a year later). Thank you for bringing this up in a compassionate and considered way.

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