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Why I Founded Pawgress

Updated: Jun 30, 2019

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) approximates that 7.6 million companion animals enter the shelter system each year. Of those, 3.9 million are dogs, 1.2 million of which are euthanized.

7.6 million companion animals enter the shelter system each year.

I first learned of these alarming statistics when my mother encouraged me—her then 15-year old son—to take up volunteering at our local humane society as a way to earn scholarship money for college. At the time, I had no idea how this simple suggestion would change the rest of my life.

In general, there are two types of animal shelters in the United States: “limited” and “open admission”.

Limited admission, or private shelters—commonly referred to as “no kill”—solicit donations from individuals and corporations to cover the organization’s operating costs. These shelters reserve the right to turn animals away and are able to govern themselves however they choose, usually opting not to euthanize animals unless they are ill or considered to be “unadoptable” (e.g. a danger to the public).

Open admission or publicly funded shelters—commonly referred to as the “pound”—are, in most cases, legally required to accept any animal that comes in the door. Oftentimes, these shelters provide animal control services to the area in which they reside.

So what happens when an owner wants to surrender their pet to an open admission shelter that is at full capacity? Traditionally, the facility has three options: 1) transfer animals to another shelter or rescue group 2) place them in foster homes 3) euthanize a current resident to make room for the new one.

The humane society nearest to my childhood home was open admission. Unaware of the differences between the types of shelters, I heeded my mother’s advice and began volunteering there.

I was disheartened on my first day to see the shelter operating at full capacity, and it didn’t take long before reality punched me in the gut. Over the course of my first month as a new volunteer, I watched as numerous animals were admitted into the shelter, while all of the nearby rescue groups, fosters and shelters were unable to take in additional animals.

With each new intake, our leadership team was forced to make the tortuous decision about which animal would be taken to the “back room” and euthanized to clear space for the new. On several occasions, this was a dog with whom I had already become attached through my volunteer work.

The shelter’s back room was kept locked at all times, and only a few individuals had keys for entry. This was the only room in the building on restricted access.

It only took a few repetitions before waves of panic and nausea began sweeping over me every time I heard someone pull keys out of their pocket and head toward the back room—similar to how a dog with separation anxiety feels when his human picks up her keys to leave for work.

Now, there are several ways an animal can enter a shelter, the most common of which are being found as a stray, animal control seizures and owner surrenders. That last reason was always the one I had the hardest time processing. I could never understand why an owner would ever relinquish a member of their family.

The ASPCA estimates that "about twice as many animals enter shelters as strays as compared to the number that are relinquished by their owners." When you do the math for dogs, this is roughly 2.6 million strays and 1.3 million owner surrenders. Let that sink in for a moment—1.3 million owner surrenders. That’s roughly the combined populations of Vermont, Wyoming and Guam or the entire city of Dallas, Texas. When you consider there are only ~13,600 shelters in the United States, it's not surprising how so many animals end up euthanized.

So why do so many dogs end up as surrenders? And where do we go from here?

According to the American Humane Association, 39% of owners relinquish their pets for one of two reasons: behavior-related issues or their place of residence does not allow them. In 2015, the ASPCA published a study on re-homing (giving up a pet) in the peer-reviewed Open Journal of Animal Sciences that painted a similar picture.

Researchers conducted phone interviews with individuals who had re-homed a pet within the last five years. They found that nearly half (46%) of all respondents re-homed because of what the study refers to as a pet problem, which comprises issues related to behavior, health, and size of the animal. However, when you examine the individual reasons cited by respondents, behavior-related issues—specifically aggression and destruction—make up nearly two-thirds (64%) of this category. Additionally, the study found that 18% of respondents re-homed due to a housing problem, which includes moving to a home that doesn’t allow pets, problems with a landlord, or difficulty paying pet deposits.

46% of owners who surrender their pet do so because of behavioral issues.

This data is discouraging, but it is also reason for optimism when you look just a bit further. Bad Rap, the nationally acclaimed pit bull advocacy group based in the San Francisco Bay Area, surveyed landlords on the biggest problems they face when renting to pet owners (if they do). Bad Rap concluded that “damage, mess and nuisance noise” were the main obstacles in renting to pet owners. Sound familiar?

At this point, it should come as no surprise that respondents of the ASPCA’s study selected increased access to training programs (34%) and pet-friendly housing (33%) as the two services that would have been most helpful to them when deciding to re-home their pets. And Bad Rap’s survey offers hope that more landlords will open their doors to pet owners if they have reason to believe that behavior-related headaches can be avoided.

It is easy to see that these issues contribute to a vicious cycle in the animal welfare world, which often ends with the unnecessary euthanasia of millions of animals in shelters. The good news is that while these behavior issues are extremely common, they are also entirely avoidable with proper training.

And that is why I founded Pawgress.

"Pawgress aspires to reduce the number of animals in shelters by providing pets and their guardians with the necessary education to live and behave as responsible citizens in their homes and community."

Through targeted and customized training, community partnerships and programs, and public policy initiatives, Pawgress aims to foster a social responsibility between pet and property owners, while simultaneously reducing a burden on our shelters and saving the lives of millions of animals in the process.

Over the course of my high school career, I spent nearly 6,000 hours volunteering at my local humane society. That experience enabled me to go to college (thanks, mom), but more importantly, it left me with a continued feeling of unrelenting responsibility to move the humane education world forward. I hope to accomplish this with Pawgress.

The name of my company has become very near and dear to my heart. Aside from a (witty) pun on the progress that can be achieved through training, Pawgress inspires hope for a future of shared social responsibility, while still recognizing our motivation by paying homage to all of the animals who have, tragically, already been lost.

So here’s to the future. And the peaceful sound of jingling keys.

Rusty Barnes, ABCDT

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