Trish McMillan, CPDT, CDBC, ACCBC: Where Do Good Dogs Come From?
Jessica Hekman: Welcome to the Functional Breeding Podcast. I’m Jessica Hekman, and I’m here interviewing folks about how to breed dogs for function and for health: behavioral and physical. This podcast is brought to you by the Functional Dog Collaborative, an organization founded to support the ethical breeding of healthy, behaviorally sound dogs. FDC’s goals include providing educational, social, and technical resources to breeders of both purebred and mixed breed dogs. You can find out more at www.functionalbreeding.org, or at the Functional Breeding Facebook Group, which is a friendly and inclusive community. I hope you have fun and learn something.
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Jessica Hekman: Hi friends. Many of you may already know today’s guest, Trish McMillan. Trish is an internationally known speaker and behavior consultant with deep roots in the shelter world. She’s a founding board member of the Functional Dog Collaborative, and joined me to talk about behavior issues in pet dogs and where pet dogs come from.
JH: Trish, thanks so much for coming on. (laughter) I really appreciate it.
Trish McMillan: Hi, thanks for having me. I’m very excited to be part of your brand new podcast.
JH: Yes. And part of the Functional Dog Collaborative itself. Trish has been helping get that set up. And we are so happy to have her. So that’s fabulous. Yeah, so we didn’t really make such a plan for exactly where to start with this conversation, but why don’t you tell us sort of how you got into dogs and where your career has taken you over the past however many years?
TM: Yeah, I’m kind of an interesting creature, identifying mostly with the shelter world over the years. But my first experience with a shelter was when I was just finishing University, first time around, and I went to the local shelter. And I didn’t even get there. I just called them up and said, I’d like to adopt a dog. And they asked me a couple questions. I let out that I was a student and they basically hung up on me. They just said, “We don’t adopt to students. [click]”
I will note also that this shelter was later busted for hoarding a thousand animals in this basement for 400. (laughter) But thank goodness they saved that shelter dog from me. Because although I was a student at the time, I had permission to have a dog where I was. I had a job waiting for me on a horse farm that summer where I could have a dog.
And that was my first experience with sheltering. And I thought, “Well, I’m not qualified to have a shelter dog.” This was in the 80s. I moved to the other side of the country. And when it came time to get a dog the next time around, the next time I had the nerve worked up to get a dog, I went straight to a breeder. I looked at all the books. I decided I wanted a Dalmatian. I’m the only person who ever got a Dalmatian for the right reason, because I wanted a dog to run beside my horse for as far as the horse could run. (laughter)
Yeah, so I did my research. I got on the waiting list with a very well known Dalmatian breeder in that area. And I was at a craft show and somebody wandered by and we started talking dogs, and she said, “Oh, I know somebody who’s got a litter of Dalmatians.” Because the first litter didn’t take and I’d been waiting for months, and I had serious “puppy-itis.” And I just lucked into an amazing breeder who kind of does all the stuff that you and I talk about. Really concentrating on health and on temperament, and for Dalmatians, to find a breeder who concentrates on temperament was amazing. So I stopped at her farm on the way back from the craft show. And all the adult Dalmatians met me at the gate, “Hi, welcome to the Dalmatian farm.” She was a very small scale hobby breeder, but she was really serious. And these Dalmatians were so friendly. And I went in, and I was just going to look at the litter of puppies.
JH: Yeah, that always works.
TM: Yeah, just to look. So I’m on the list for another one, and I went and all these puppies came tumbling across the lawn and jumped on my lap. And the first one on my lap, the friendliest one, happened to be one of the ones that was still available. So before I know it, I’m laying down a deposit on this Dalmatian. And I spent the next 13 years apologising for having the best Dalmatian in the world. I took her to classes. She was amazing. She did obedience. She did agility. She actually did therapy dog work, which isn’t typical for Dals. And she loved children. And this was right around the time those movies came out. I got her just before the real rush on Dalmatians happened. So for 13 years I had to tell small children, you know, they’re not all like this, and I do run her two hours a day. But I think about that, and I think about if that shelter person had bothered to have a conversation with me that went beyond “Are you a student?” that could have been a shelter dog who had that life. Who could have lived 13 years, lived in two countries with me, and died in my arms of old age, like…
JH: Rode around on a horse farm who gets to do that? Right?
TM: I know, I know, she had a wonderful life. She taught me a lot. I was very lucky to have such a great experience with a dog from a breeder that when my fellow shelter people start trashing breeders, I think about Rose Webber who bred Indy, and I think about all of my breeder friends. I have friends in the dog world who really do it right, who really concentrate on health and temperament. And I will not join forces with the shelter people and just say “snip everything” because I am glad I had a great experience with her. I’m scared to get another Dalmatian because she was so wonderful. I don’t I don’t know that lightning could strike twice.
But actually, she’s the reason I went back into sheltering. I had her for about three years, and I started feeling guilty about having this beautifu,l purebred dog. And what got me was when I took her to the vet for shots once he said, “You know, they just euthanized six Dalmatians at the shelter.” I just, my heart was in my throat. It’s like, they’re euthanizing this dog that I paid all this money for who’s just wonderful. So I decided I was going to start volunteering at the shelter. And I went to the shelter and got on a waiting list to be a volunteer. So I got on the waiting list in April. A beautiful summer went by. And then in October, when the crappy weather rolled in, I got to do my orientation, which involved marching around a parking lot with my shelter dog on a choke chain and yanking him appropriately. Which I was quite good at because that’s how I trained the Dalmatian. That’s all there was back then.
JH: And when was this?
TM: This was in the 90s. I was turned down for the shelter dog in the 80s and then it was in the early 90s I got Indy. And yeah, I ended up being pretty good at yanking shelter dogs around. They didn’t give me the choke chain again, they gave me a little nylon slip lead. Funny thing, if you get a dog to walk nicely on a loose leash on a nylon slip lead, it comes off over their head and they run away. So ask me how I know that. (Laughter)
JH: I assumed this happened! (laughter)
TM: Yeah, so I walked dogs at that shelter for a while and then I found out there was another shelter in town. That was the SPCA. They had lots of money. They had a six month waiting list to volunteer there. And I found out that there was an animal control in town that nobody knew about. A friend I met at the SPCA also volunteered there. So I started volunteering. Well, it wasn’t really volunteering because you weren’t allowed to give them cookies. You weren’t allowed to take them out of kennels. But I would go to the shelter and I could look at the dogs in the eyeballs and I would say ”Which one is going to be euthanized next?” Because they’d just keep them until they ran out of space. And if you wanted to adopt a dog, you could look at them in the eyeballs and pay 50 bucks and take the dog home. And so basically I just went there and took whoever was next on the euthanasia list and just took them home. I fostered 24 dogs in 24 months. And the second one was such an idiot. He was this mouthy, crazy Labrador with just energy through the roof and I ended up meeting the local trainers. And I ended up apprenticing with them for two years and fostering all of these shelter dogs. Boy oh boy, you learn a lot. It was just…
JH: So you found them homes on your own?
TM: Um, I worked through the rescue group that my friend… so I used their paperwork, but I would just basically take whoever’s in need and bring them home and look them in the eyeballs and go, “Well, it’s you and me. Are we gonna be able to work this out?” (laughter) And yeah, a lot of them were wonderful dogs, just wonderful dogs.
JH: But you had a crazy Lab.
TM: The crazy Lab, whew. I was bruised up and down from that Lab, who just bit out of happy. It’s just like chomp, chomp, chomp up the arm. (Laughter) Yeah, yeah, he ended up going to my sister in Calgary. She ended up doing agility with him and he was really good at it. He was not an easy dog but…
And some of the dogs that I took home were not adoptable. There was actually one Dalmatian that I took in for Dalmatian rescue that ended up being quite bitey. The rescue was not comfortable placing her. And one of the puppies from the starved mom that I took in ended up being extremely aggressive. And I worked with him for 18 months, and got scars up and down my arms from that dog, and ended up euthanizing him for behavior. So I didn’t just take the easy ones, but most of them were fine. Most of them I found homes for and I learned so much.
And I got very sucked into the shelter world, working with that shelter. Partway through my volunteer service there, the pound master retired, and they brought in an accountant to sort things out. And she didn’t know anything about dogs. So I just kept wandering up to her and saying, you know, “What we need is if we have a volunteer program, we can get these dogs out for walks.” And she’d be like, “I don’t know how to do a volunteer program.”
I thought, well, I’ll come down with Indy every Saturday, and you put an ad in the newspaper, since that’s how it was done in the 90s. And I’ll train up to 10 people a week, and I’m not making them wait six months. If they want to volunteer, they will be walking dogs that day. So we ended up you know, in a year, we had hundreds of volunteers. The volunteers fundraised for a play yard. We started playing with the dogs. We started doing offsite adoptions. We started doing foster care. We just had a whole army of people helping these dogs and really turned that shelter around. So it was very reinforcing for me as a young trainer to have this start as a crazy shelter volunteer.
JH: Yeah, it sounds like a great experience to actually get to affect things and be in charge at that age, and you know, that level of experience.
TM: Yeah, it was awesome. And I had a number of shelters offer me jobs over the years and I was always like, “Nope, I want to volunteer. I like being on the outside criticizing. I don’t want to be the one inside getting criticized.” So my first paying job with a shelter was Director of Animal Behavior at the ASPCA shelter in Manhattan after I went back to school and got a master’s degree in animal behavior. But I had a decade of sheltering experience at that point. I moved to San Francisco. I got to work with the San Francisco SPCA. I met Ian Dunbar.I helped out with the beginnings of Open Paw at the Berkeley Humane Society. So I really got to work with some of the best in the business and download a lot of information over those years. And then I did my research on out-of-kennel enrichment in shelter dogs, and got offered the job right out of grad school. So that was…
JH: Yeah, why don’t you tell us what you mean by “out-of-kennel enrichment?”
TM: Well, I didn’t get significant results so it was not published. But my question was, if you have about 20 minutes… Like all these years of volunteering at shelters, I figure I’ve got about 20 minutes to spend with each dog. What is the best thing to do if I’m going to take them out of the kennel? So I had the control visit, which was whatever they got from other volunteers. I had quiet time where I’d take them into a room and do the Sue Sternberg quiet, just teaching the dog to chill. I had training. I thought you know if they know stuff, surely that’s what all of us shelters trainers think they need. And then I had a playgroup. And, yeah, no, no significant results. I probably needed to do it for a few more years to really get to significance.
JH: Probably, or possibly just getting out of the kennel was so helpful for them.
TM: Well, the control group was not significantly different either. So I don’t know. But I did my research at the Richmond SPCA and I was not going to forbid anybody to take dogs out of the kennel. So the control group got whatever they got. So everybody got out of the kennel every day. So I think getting dogs out of the kennel is in general a good thing. I would love to run that again, because I have some pretty firm ideas now.
JH: Yeah, I certainly have my guesses about what would be the best for a dog for its limited 20 minutes.
All right, so where does that take us? So you were learning to train. You had basically taken over a shelter (laughter) as a nosy volunteer. Yeah, so then at some point, you ended up doing this masters. Am I skipping ahead? Is there anything super important between the shelter takeover and the Masters?
TM: Well, there was the whole four years in San Francisco where I got to meet amazing trainers and be involved with some amazing shelters.
JH: Still as a volunteer, huh?
TM: Yeah, as a volunteer. I got offered jobs periodically. But I just, well, I couldn’t work in the States at that time because I was a Canadian, and I still am a Canadian. So I had my “job, job” with the visa, and it was hard to get a shelter job as a fine arts graduate. So yeah, so I got really into the science nerd side of things when I was in San Francisco, and I thought, “You know, if I had a master’s degree, I could work wherever I wanted to. And I have questions I want answered.” I had this idea that going to grad school would give me all the answers. I could say, “Well, is it better to crate train a dog or not? Surely there’s a study on that.”
JH: Oh my god, I thought that too. I thought I was gonna learn how brains worked. (Laughter)
TM: I know!
JH: (Laughs) You find out we don’t know anything.
TM: I had a friend who was working on his Ph.D. and he said that his professor said, “You’re going to be sitting in front of the great banquet of knowledge, and you are going to be given a bowl of peas, and you’re going to know everything there is to know about this bowl of peas by the time you’re done.”
JH: That’s a great description of it. (Laughs)
TM: I know. So I only have a master’s degree. But yeah, at least I got to choose the bowl of peas, and I chose to look at shelter dogs, and I got to do actual research in a shelter. So that was, and it was research that I thought of myself and designed myself. And although there were not significant differences, it was a really cool experience. I’m really grateful to the Richmond SPCA for letting me in on that. So then I spent the next almost eight years working for the ASPCA and went from the shelter to the field team doing dog fighting busts and hoarding cases and all kinds of interesting stuff.
JH: Sounds emotionally challenging.
TM: Yeah, I’m pretty tough. And then I worked for the research department, “Shelter R&D.” And that was very cool to meet all of the shelter data nerds. And then I have been running my own business since 2012.
JH: Cool. And so what does your business do?
TM: I do animal behavior consulting. So I consult with people on dog, cat, and horse behavior problems as well as running a shelter dog behavior mentorship and doing shelter consulting. I used to do it in person, now I’m just doing it virtually.
JH: Cool. Would you take a chicken behavior case if you got one?
TM: I have only had chickens for a year and a half and I don’t feel qualified.
JH: Yeah. Your chicken is so nice, though.
TM: Yeah, I’ve got seven chickens. And two of them are very nice. And five of them are a little flighty.
JH: So tell us about what kinds of stuff you see going on with dogs in your job. What do people bring dogs to you for?
TM: You know, a lot of what I work with is on-leash reactivity. That’s probably half of my caseload. Living in society is pretty hard for dogs, living on leashes is pretty hard for dogs, and approaching other dogs on leash head-on is a great setup for reactivity, as well as just living in a shelter. If I wanted to produce a reactivity machine, I would put a dog in a kennel with probably a plexiglass front that they can ricochet off. And I would just walk dogs and people past them all day. And every time they bark, I would continue walking, and they would develop delusions of grandeur. And I really think that the way most shelters are set up really sets dogs up to become more reactive, and it sucks. And the best thing we can do is get them out quickly before we make them even worse.
But yeah, things have changed a ton in the shelter world. Like I said, at that first shelter, the dogs were held until there was no more space and then whoever had been there longest was euthanized. And I don’t know what the live release rate was at that shelter but I am guessing it wasn’t that great. And now the “no kill” movement has come in and they have set 90% as the baseline for “no kill,” which, I don’t love these artificial numbers. Like if I have a small shelter, I take in 500 dogs a year, and we accidentally do a dog fighting case and we have 100 extra dogs, 60% of whom are really dog aggressive, and that we should not ethically adopt out. That’s going to skew my numbers. So do I keep them longer and adopt them out next year? Do I cross my fingers and send them to rescue? Do I euthanize the animals who are actually dangerous and…
JH: Take the hit.
TM: And take the hit and then people say, “Well, you’re a kill shelter now so we can’t donate to you.” So shelters are very worried about their donor bases. So they really try to hit these numbers. And you know, if 90 is good, then 95 is better, then 99 is best and 100% if you could just send all of the dogs out that you get in. But the other thing that I’m seeing is the temperaments of dogs have changed over the 30 years or so that I’ve been involved. And they’re not as easy. Like, I grew up in Manitoba in the 70s, and we had a dog. And we did not have a fence and nobody had a fence. And they would shoo all the dogs and the kids out on a Saturday morning and we would run around and play and the dogs would mate with whoever.
But the dogs producing family pets at that time were dogs who had already succeeded as family pets. And I think what’s happened recently… and I certainly did not think of this idea. I first heard it from Sue Sternberg a lot of years ago and it kind of made my head explode. But if you think about the people producing dogs now, they’re not coming from family pets. If you’ve got a good family pet, you will spay or neuter that pet or you will be chastised by everybody around. So who’s creating the dogs that we’re seeing? It’s not that none of them come from family pets. But I was rummaging through some statistics earlier today and something in the range of 85+% family dogs are now spayed or neutered. So who’s making more dogs? Well, let me tell you the dog fighters are pretty good at it. (laughter) I have a dog from a dog fighting bust. There were close to 500 dogs in the shelter I got him from from that case.
JH: We got a bunch coming from puppy mills, right? So you and I were talking about some stats earlier. And it looks like we have more than 2 million puppies coming out of puppy mills every year. So that’s a lot.
TM: Yeah, and are they being bred for temperament? I’ve met some lovely dogs who come from puppy mills, but it’s kind of random you know? “I’ve got a Yorkie. You’ve got a Yorkie. II’m gonna buy your Yorkie and we’re going to make more of them because how do you get a Yorkie?” Like especially the smaller breeds, it’s really hard to find them. If you want to buy from a breeder you’re going to be on a waiting list for a long time.
But we had this at our shelter at the Manhattan ASPCA. I would be there on a Saturday trying to market some used dogs (laughter) and people would come in and say, “What do you got in the small, non-shedding puppy basket?” And I’d be like, “Puppies? We have Pit Bull/Mastiff crosses. We have a bunch of hounds over here.” But yeah, the small, non-shedding. So they would leave and they would stop at Pets on Lex on the way home and spend $2,000 on the Yorkie that they wanted who probably came from a puppy mill. And I used to joke because whenever we got a really nice, small, non-shedding dog in that was scheduled for a spay the next day, I would joke about like, “I’m just going to take her in the basement. And we’re going to make one litter, just one litter of small, non-shedding puppies.” Like if we had a really nice, friendly dog it actually pained me to have to spay them. And, you know, I had to do it in a joking manner. I would not have kept my job if I was breeding puppies in the basement. But it was hard to watch people go to the puppy mill dogs because we didn’t have what they wanted.
JH: Yeah, and as you know, I’m sure there’s also the argument that if there’s some population of the dogs that people really want at a shelter, that brings people in to see them, and they may then adopt some other dogs that they didn’t initially know that they wanted. Right?
TM: Exactly. And I definitely encouraged the bosses to start bringing different dogs in from the South. Because I would go to animal control… We also got canine influenza about that time. When I first started, I could go to animal control every week, bring in 10 dogs, put them in our ISO and then… Actually, when I first started they didn’t have to go to ISO. I would just put them right up on the floor if they weren’t sneezing. And sometimes they’d be on hold that day and spayed/neutered within a couple days and out of there. But then they got influenza, so we had to hold them in ISO for two weeks. But even so, trying to fill ISO, which had 10 cages, I started having a harder and harder time just picking nice dogs. Because we got plenty of large breed, blocky-headed, short-haired dogs through our cruelty department, which was a third of the intake. A third of the intake was “over-the-counter,” so owner-surrenders, and we’d probably get something with a little more variety. But if I went to animal control, I was going to try to find some of these small foofies. And there just weren’t enough.
So I was always smuggling in really the nicest pitbulls I could find, and getting hell for it. Because you know, if your shelter has 60 kennels, and 50 of them have the same type of dog and you live in an apartment where it’s a 20 pound weight limit, or you believe some of the myths about short-haired, blocky-headed dogs, it gets pretty hard. And they come in and they’re like, “Yeah, I went to the ASPCA. It was all Pitbulls so I got my Yorkie from Pets on Lex.”
JH: I’ve heard that story again and again.
TM: Yeah, yeah, so we’re filling the gap right now with transports. A lot of the shelters in the Northeast have fewer and fewer really easy dogs, and fewer smaller-breed dogs. Because of the pressure from the no-kill movement they are keeping really pretty dangerous dogs for longer and longer. I’ve seen dogs in shelters for many years who have killed other dogs, who have bitten people. And they’re looking for, you know, a dog trainer with no pets, with no husband, no kids, no visitors, no friends, no family.
JH: Double fence.
TM: Yeah, and a dog trainer who wants a project. Like, who is going to take these dogs? And I sometimes tell the shelters, like, “ I’m your person. I’m the one that you want to take your dog. I live alone on a farm in North Carolina, and I’m not taking your child biter. I have friends with children. I have siblings with children. I’m not taking your dog killer. I have four dogs. I’m not even taking a chicken killer. I love my chickens. They free range with my dogs. I have a very cute little cat that I love very much.” So although I know how to live with difficult dogs, and I’ve done it in the past, I choose not to do that anymore. I want my pets to be a fun part of my life. And they have all come to me secondhand. I’ve kept my rescue cred, but I have chosen really, really sweet animals. I’ve been held hostage by pets of mine. And I won’t do that again.
JH: Yep, I have not yet been held hostage by a pet. But I have lived with a roommate who had a dog aggressive dog. And I’ve seen what that’s like, and it’s exhausting. And it’s not something that anyone would really want to choose to do. You might want to take one of these dogs in if you really feel that you can fix them, but so much of the time there’s not a great chance of that.
TM: Yeah, yeah. Like a lot of people will blame the adopter and say, “Well, they should have managed them. They should have had two fences. They should have kept the dog on a leash inside the fence. They should have…” Like, it’s very easy to victim blame. And certainly I see that all the time in the grief support group that I run with Sue Alexander for people who have had to euthanize dogs, or any animal, for behavior. But that’s not what adopting a shelter dog should be like.
So I kind of had an epiphany in the early 2000s. It was about four years after I had really sent out a lot of very iffy dogs in the name of “No-kill. We’re gonna save them all.” And I really thought back then there was a lid for every pot. I was at my training peak, two years into this experience, I knew everything (laughter). It’s been this long, slow downward slide of realizing how much I still don’t know ever since (laughter). Every year I realize more things I know nothing about but two years in, boy oh boy, I was pretty sure I could fix any… And I had rehabilitated, I had trained quite a few dogs.
JH: But we should have just cloned you is what we should have done.
TM: Well, you know, I wasn’t as good as I thought I was, is what I found out, because I had long term follow up. This is something most of us don’t have in the shelter world. We send out our sort of tricky dogs and cross our fingers. But I was in my 20s. I had friends who were in their 20s, early 30s with no kids, with no pets, and I sent some of my tricky dogs to my friends and I got long term follow up.
And I’ve written about one of them in my article, “The Perils of Placing Marginal Dogs,” which is, I think, why I was hired by the ASPCA. Because that was about one dog that I sent to a friend with no other pets. And he and his wife kept her for four years. And during those four years she was very dog aggressive. She had to be walked on a muzzle. She also killed three of the neighbor’s cats, two of them in full view of the neighbors. Not great PR for shelter dogs. And on the last day of her life, the dog walker had her out without her muzzle and she grabbed a cocker spaniel who stuck his head under the fence to bark at her. And she grabbed and pulled him out under the fence, pulled the gate off the hinges, shook him and almost killed him. And my friend, John, took her to the vet and had her euthanized. And that was the last straw of many, many, many straws. And he ended up getting his next dog from a breeder. And his next dog was perfect.
JH: Oh, thank God.
TM: And got to go to the beach, and got to help them raise their child that they were able to have once they were no longer held hostage by Rosie. And the thing that really got me was they both worked in the film industry. And over those four years, I thought about how many people had heard Rosie stories. And it wasn’t just John and Mindy who decided not to ever adopt from a shelter again, but I probably deterred dozens of people from ever getting a shelter dog because they saw what I put these folks through. And that was a dog that should have been euthanized. She was returned for aggression. I thought well, we’ll just find her a different home. And I traumatized some very good friends of mine. I cost them thousands, because I promptly left town, so they had to pay thousands of dollars to other trainers to help them manage this really difficult dog, and ultimately they will never go to a shelter again. So I always look at that side, and honestly every time I made a euthanasia call at my shelter I thought about Rosie. I thought about how I’m preventing somebody else from having this experience.
JH: Yeah, that’s a powerful story. And it’s, it’s hard. And I can hear you blaming yourself to some to some extent. But of course, you have to remember, the same thing is true of you as is true of the owners, where you say, “Oh, you know, it’s silly to say that the owners could always be better,” right? It’s also silly to say that the trainer could always be better and could be prescient. You learned from that.
TM: Yeah, that’s kind of where I file it away, is when you know better, you do better.
TM: I’ve had many of those moments over the years. And that is certainly something that I wish shelters were able to consider, is every time you send out a dog who goes on to bite people and kill animals and injure animals, that is doing a disservice for all of the supersweet shelter dogs, like the one sitting beside me right now.
TM: And outsourcing euthanasia to the public makes your numbers look good. But we need to be tough. We need to be the tough ones and we need to make those hard decisions and not pawn it off on our adopters, because that is not good for shelter dogs in general.
JH: Yeah, it’s hard. So it’s social change. It’s not just the shelters, right? It’s the rescue groups as well. And so generally shelters are more structured. And then you have rescue groups, which can be very loose confederations of people, you know, who don’t always have a plan for what they’re doing.
TM: Well, and the irony around that is that the shelters send them their most difficult dog, right? (laughter) It’ll say, “Rescue only.” And I think to myself, like, I’ve known a lot of rescue groups, I’m sure some of them have trainers who work with them. But a lot of them just love dogs, and they’ve got a basement full of dogs in crates. And we’re seeing more and more of this rescue hoarding, like people who get busted with 100 dogs in crates in their basement, who are just like living in their own urine and feces. And you know, they’re alive, yay, we saved them. But I really, in my years with the ASPCA, I saw things that were worse than death. And rescue hoarding can definitely fall into that category. Can you imagine?
JH: Yeah, I’ve seen some of that too. And that belief that some of them have that the perfect home is out there. And it’s ironic how as the number of dogs add up, it almost seems like the criteria for the perfect home get more and more and more strict. So now just when you think they’d be getting less strict, they get more strict.
TM: Yeah, I mean, if the only home your dog can go to is that mythical dog trainer on the farm with no dogs, you really need to think that through carefully. So I’ve definitely seen, like at the first shelter I worked at, if the dog came in and was trying to eat everybody, they would euthanize them, before I even got to see that dog. The volunteers would never meet the truly dangerous ones. And now we’re being pressured to keep all of them. And part of it, I think, is TV trainers who can fix everything in 30 minutes minus commercial breaks. You never see their failures. (laughter)
TM: And I can tell you as a trainer that nobody has a zero failure rate. If you train long enough you will meet the dog that is not trainable by you. The brain that is too miswired to be safe for society. And something that I think about is, like, dogs are made out of the same thing as we are. You’re a veterinarian, you can speak to this better than I can.
JH: Squishy stuff. Yeah.
TM: Well, they’re prone to a lot of the same brain anomalies, whether it’s brain chemistry or whether it’s brain tumors or whether it’s a physiological structure that’s just not quite right. We’ve talked, you and I, about prenatal malnutrition. That dog that I had that was very dangerous was starved. His mom was starved for the first month of her pregnancy, really badly starved, while his brain was doing all that wiring. So yeah, and if I think about Chinook, and I think if he was a human and going around stabbing people with a knife instead of biting with his teeth, and he did the amount of damage that he did to me and my boyfriend and my dogs—and luckily he never got anyone outside of the family because we managed him very tightly for those 18 months. If he was doing that kind of damage he would be in jail or he would be in a mental institution. If he was a human, he would not be sleeping beside me, beside my bed.
And, like, if he was a roommate, if he was a spouse, if he was a child, there would be, there are safe places to put people who have brains that cause that. I don’t think he wanted to bite me. But I think sometimes, I called it “The Voices.” (laighter) You’d just see his eyes change, and you were in danger when that happened. And I had never met a dog that dangerous before. And that’s kind of what helped me make the final step to euthanize him was there are no… We talk about sanctuaries. Let me tell you some of the worst animal cruelty and neglect I’ve seen has been in no-kill sanctuaries gone bad. So there really isn’t a place for these dangerous dogs.
JH: Yeah, I mean, arguably, the places that we put humans are not so great either. But they are somewhat better than the places that we put the dogs. And yeah, I wonder actually, as we were talking about how many more animals we’re saving in shelters now than we were 20 or 30 years ago, if it’s become hard for us to see that there is a limit to how far that can go.
TM: Well, here’s something that made my head explode. I was presenting in Australia a few years ago with an amazing veterinarian from Davis, who’s part of the shelter medicine program there, Dr. Carsten. And she said something that made my head explode. She said, “In an ideal world when we get to a perfectly humane society where everybody gets an animal, keeps it for life, and if you don’t have money for vet care, we will subsidize that and if you pass away we have, you know, succession, you will you’ve already figured out where that animal is going to go. What percentage of the dogs coming into the shelter will be euthanized in that perfect world?”
JH: That’s a great question. Did she have an answer?
JH: Oh, because the only ones that come in will be the ones that really can’t live anywhere else.
TM: Yeah, so you would be only getting the very sick. You would only be getting the very behaviorally-damaged. As we get better at saving animals and keeping them in their homes and supporting their owners, the euthanasia rate should go up in a shelter.
JH: The percentage not the number.
TM: It shouldn’t be a high number. But yeah, so that kind of made my head explode. That was, like, 2016 and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
JH: That’s crazy. No, they do crazy things with numbers, the shelter behavior experts. I did a shelter medicine internship and some of the stuff they’d explain things and give you some stats. You’d be like, “Wait, what?” Crazy stuff. But amazing, amazing work.
TM: Yeah, so the question becomes, where are the dogs going to come from? As we get better at sheltering… What I’m seeing in sheltering is a lot more of it’s moving into the community. Dogs are going into foster homes rather than being kept in solitary confinement slowly going crazy.
JH: Which is great.
TM: Yes, absolutely. Kristin Auerbach has done some wonderful things with foster programs. There’s a lot more support going into the community, and to keeping animals in their homes, and to spaying and neutering the ones that they want to have spayed and neutered. And the question comes, when we get to this perfect society, where are the dogs going to come from? Like we could spay/neuter our way to zero.
JH: We’d like there to still be some dogs around though.
TM: I really like dogs.
JH: I like dogs, too. I don’t know how I’d keep warm at night without dogs, honestly. I guess I’d have to cuddle with my husband or something. But…
TM: You could always get a cat. They’re pretty warm.
JH: They’re small. Get a bunch of those. (Laughs)
TM: That’s how we’re all gonna end up. Yeah, so the question becomes, was my thought really that wrong back 10-15 years ago with that cute, little, fluffy, non-shedding female dog in the basement of my shelter?
JH: Like the little ideal prospect. You should have named her Ideal Prospect.
TM: Yeah, yeah. Never there was more than one there. Every time we got a really nice small dog I would think, “Boy oh boy. It really sucks to be taking these genes out of the gene pool.”
JH: You have one in your house right now. Right?
TM: I do.
JH: You stole her.
TM: Yeah, she was… This is the thing, if you volunteer at a shelter, you can get the dogs before they hit the floor. So she was in playgroups half an hour before she went up for adoption, and I took her straight from playgroups to the front desk and signed the adoption paperwork. So yeah, I tell people if you want to get really great dogs from the shelter, volunteer there because you can meet them when they first come in.
But I have gone from being just rabidly, “Let’s spay/neuter everything,” to when I have a client now with a really nice dog, not only are a lot more medical people advising folks to keep their dogs intact a little longer just for medical reasons, but behaviorally, (laughter) when I’ve got a client with a really nice dog… I’ve got two of my best friends here who have an amazing standard poodle. He’s just the sweetest guy. And they asked me when they got him, “When should I neuter him?” And years ago, I would have said, “Four to six months.” Like, “Get those balls off him.” And he’s delightful. They’re very responsible. They have a big fence. They have trained him within an inch of his life. And I can’t think of a good reason to neuter this dog. And plus if he does escape and make dogs he’s made Doodles. You can make a lot of money.
JH: I hear people like those.
TM: Yeah, I’m kidding about that.
JH: So I’ve done another interview for this podcast already and we mentioned Doodles there also in a humorous vein, and I’m suspecting that there is going to be a Doodle joke… Maybe I should make sure that there’s a Doodle joke in every single episode. That would be the way… It could be my easter egg. (laughter)
TM: Well, this is what people are moving to because they’re told, “Don’t go to a breeder. You can’t get a purebred dog. That’s terrible. They’re unhealthy.” They go to the shelter, and they get lunged and barked at by a row of really frustrated dogs who’ve been there for weeks, months or years. And a lot of folks are going like, well, “I want a mixed breed dog, I like that scruffy, mutt look.” And they’re going to Doodles then. You know, maybe we should be supporting people who are making good Doodles. This is one thing that you and I have gone back and forth about in the past as well is if Belyaev could take feral foxes and create tame ones in not that many generations, why can’t we do the same thing with Chihuahuas and Dachshunds? (laughter) And I wish that the people making these animals would think about health and think about temperament. And that’s kind of where the (Functional Dog) Collaborative was born.
JH: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I’ve always had rescues. And when I wanted to get a puppy, because I was studying dog personality and behavior, and I wanted to go from the beginning all the way up to adulthood. So I wanted to get a puppy and I, being recently out of my shelter medicine internship, looked at shelters to get puppies. And I thought, you know, I knew how bad a place that was for a puppy to grow up. And so I had this idea that I would find some foster mom, who was a nice mom who had been in a foster. You know, pregnant dog who’d been in a foster home, who had had her puppies with a responsible person who would have raised them and it’s, it’s really hard to find. So it’s a Catch-22, where if you want the crossbred dog, you can go to a shelter, and there’s plenty of them there. But if you want one that’s really been responsibly raised, that’s not the place to go.
TM: Well, and you don’t, you don’t know who dad was. You don’t know about prenatal care.
JH: That too.
TM: Yeah, I raised Chinook and his eight siblings as best I could, as a baby trainer. We did tons of enrichment and training. And, you know, he met my neighbors cat, we had kids over. And of the nine puppies one of them was kind of normal. The rest of them had all kinds of issues, and I… It was probably a sibling breeding.
JH: Interesting. And you don’t know how the mom was cared for. Yeah.
TM: We know that mom was emaciated almost to the point of death when we seized her one month pregnant. And she was very heavily parasitized. She had no hair from the shoulders back from fleas.
JH: Which, for those who don’t know the dog’s gestation length, by the way, that’s half the pregnancy. And then she spent the other half, I’m sure, trying to put weight back on.
TM: Well, she spent the other half super stressed out in the shelter, and she actually had 10 puppies, and one got stuck in the drain the first night. I was like, “Nope, you’re coming home with me.” But yeah. Really, really, really stressful pregnancy, sibling breeding. And so that was a litter that grew up in a foster home with the best of care.
TM: And still, all of those prenatal effects. There’s important stuff happening in the brain in that first month. I’m sure you could speak to that better than I could.
JH: Absolutely. And I know that you don’t believe that it’s all in how you raise them. I think I’ve heard you say that.
TM: Yes, that is one of many phrases in the dog world I would like to see die. That and “there’s no bad dogs, only bad owners.” Because if you met Chinook, and he was trying to eat you at the front door, and you saw the bruises and scars up and down my arms and my boyfriend’s arms from just trying to live with him, you would assume that I had beaten this dog within an inch of his life. And I can tell you the worst thing that happened to that dog in the 18 months that I had him was maybe his dinner was late once or twice. And if that made him hear voices and want to hurt us that badly, then yeah, it was my fault.
But it pains me to see people blamed for having difficult dogs. It can happen to anybody, I’m here to tell you. And yeah, the “no bad dogs only bad owners” plays into that. And the flip side of “it’s all in how they’re raised” is if that was true, nobody would ever get a dog from a cruelty case. And I have worked with thousands of victims of cruelty and many of them can overcome a bad beginning. I’m sure you’ve met people like this, too, who’ve had a terrible start in life and who managed to rise above it. Who have the genetic resilience. Who have the personality to put all that behind them. And you know, one of my dogs is from a dog fighting bust. He grew up chained to a barrel.
JH: I was gonna say, you should tell us about Theodore.
TM: Yeah, he was chained to a barrel for the first eight months of his life. He is seven years old now and his old owner is still in prison for the unbelievable cruelty he did to over 100 dogs who were seized from his property. And after that first eight months, he was then tossed into a shelter where he got enrichment, but it was loud and it was stressful and he was in a five foot by five foot pen.
And seven months into his eight month stay we discovered that he’s amazing with dogs and started using him for playgroup rehab. And he can just match any play style. He can work with the shy dogs. He can shut down aggression. If the dog wants to party, he’ll party. And I just looked at this dog and thought, “You need to belong to a trainer, buddy.” And I’ve had him for six years and he’s amazing. He’s a walking poster child for fight-bust dogs. Again, I’m kind of in the same position I was with Indy, where I have to say, “Not all fight-bust dogs are like that.” They’re like, “Well, you’re just such a good trainer and you have rehabilitated him.” I’m like, No!” (laughter)
JH: Other way around. You found him.
TM: Yeah, yeah, I have taught him. I’ve layered a bit of obedience on top of that. The emphasis being on a bit. But he is who he is. And that’s why I chose him. And he’s an anomaly for a fight-bust dog for sure. There are others out there. But a lot of the dogs from that, from those genetics, were not suitable to be sent into pet homes.
JH: Yeah, it makes me crazy wanting to know what’s going on in those dogs’ brains, and how I could figure that out. If only there was so much more money and I had all the samples.
TM: Yeah, I mean, just seeing the genetics, like, I’ve had to use my break stick on 10 week old puppies who were latched on to one another who came from his old owner. Some of that crops up so, so early. And people think, “Well, if we get it as a puppy and we raise it right.” Like, I’ve personally, I have had three puppies. One was Indy who was perfect and she was from a great breeder, and I met her mom, and I met her uncle, and I met her grandma. And then I’ve had two shelter puppies. And both of the shelter puppies had significant behavior issues. So I’m a little gun shy on shelter puppies. I know lots of them turn out just fine, but I have adopted adult dogs ever since. The last shelter puppy I got was in 2001.
JH: Yes. And Trish and I are not saying that no one should ever adopt shelter puppies, for sure. I’ve met good ones as well. But well, so why don’t I let you say? So what are you saying?
TM: Well, for me personally, what you see is what you get with an adult dog. You’re more likely to have the same dog a year from now. Whereas social maturity, you know, most of my clients are somewhere between nine months and three years of age. Most of the dogs that I get for behavior issues, it pops out at social maturity. So I would like to have somebody else go through all the puppy stuff and then… And it’s the adult dogs who need homes more urgently anyways, so I feel okay about doing that.
JH: Yeah, so we’re trying to figure out where puppies should come from then.
TM: Yeah, yeah. So, you know, I think maybe we need to just loosen up a little bit on if people have a dog who’s already successful as a family dog, maybe we need to stop lecturing them about not ever breeding, because the dogs have to come from somewhere. And I live in the South. There’s lots of dogs in the South. We don’t have a shortage here. But in some areas of the country, my friends in Canada, they’re having to import dogs from the States. And transport will work for a time. It can be tricky if they’re transporting up the dogs that they can’t place because they have issues. Then we’re just exporting our problems elsewhere.
But I think we’re gonna, I don’t know that shelters will be breeding “foofy” dogs in their basement anytime soon, but I think I would personally like to see more dogs who have succeeded as family pets being the producers of future family pets. Because even if you go to a wonderful show breeder, you think about what wins in the show ring, they might be a little hotter than what the average family pet person needs.
So, yeah, I would love to see breeders, like my friend’s Poodle. I think they could pay an extra few bucks to have breeding rights with him. He’s not a show dog. His tail is too curly to be a show dog. But other than that he’s lovely, he’s healthy, he’s got a wonderful temperament.
JH: It’d be interesting to know if they went back to his breeder and said they were interested in breeding him. It’d be interesting to know what the breeder said about that.
TM: Yeah, yeah. And there are breeders who would not want him being bred to something that was not a purebred poodle even though that’s what the market seems to be wanting, is Poodle crosses. Not that there’s anything wrong with Poodles. I’ve had a Poodle too, and he was amazing.
Yeah, I think I think this is a discussion we need to have. And it’s strange going from sheltering where I was, “100% spay/neuter them all until there are none.” And now I’m really thinking this through now that I’ve been out of the shelter world for a little while. And just seeing the changes in the temperaments of dogs in general. I think we need to move the discussion forward. So I’m excited to be part of your group and…
JH: Cool. Yeah, I think living in a world where you know the answer to all the questions is really enticing. And we would all love to live in a world where it’s black and white, and this is just what you do in every situation. And you know, the shelter volunteer or shelter staff who hung up on you because you were a student. It’s easier to answer, to just have a solid list of, “student: no,” rather than having to make decisions, and your decision could be wrong. But I think we have to get there, right, where we have to just start thinking through the gray areas and trying to figure out what’s best for individual cases.
TM: Yeah, humans are really good at black and white thinking. And we really struggle with the many shades of gray. But so much in our world of animal behavior, it really does fall into those gray areas. And definitely, there are a lot of issues in sheltering where it’s absolutely not black and white. But you know, we do our best.
JH: All right, well, we should wrap up.Thank you, again, so much, for having this conversation with me. It’s certainly a brave conversation to have coming from the shelter world. So I appreciate it.
TM: Yeah, I think, you know, Emily Weiss, wrote an article years ago. She wrote a blog, “Where Will the Puppies Come From?” And there was a lot of backlash on that, too. But we are going to run out of dogs, and where do we want them to come from?
JH: Yeah, people are starting to ask. So can you tell us if people wanted to know more about you where they would find you?
TM: I have a business page, which is www.trishmcmillan.com. My business is McMillan Animal Behavior. I have a farm page, if you would like to see all of my hilarious farm animals, that is called Pibble Hill. My fight-bust dog has a Facebook page called Pibbling with Theodore. His very own verb is pibbling.
JH: And he is super handsome.
TM: He’s super handsome, and he’s hilarious. He is always up to something funny. I think my business page has like 3000 friends and Theodore’s page has like 21,000 friends, and I think people just like seeing the naughty dog who belongs to a dog trainer.
JH: Oh, he’s super famous.
TM: He’s famous. And he’s super naughty. He’s humbling to me as a trainer. (laughter)
JH: Yeah, but more important that he doesn’t bite people, or dogs.
TM: He loves people and he loves dogs. And, you know, he makes a little art from time to time, and doesn’t come when called quite as fast as the other dogs. Well, yeah, that’s just who he is. And I appreciate him for who he is.
JH: Fabulous. Well, thanks again. And I will be talking to you soon, I’m sure.
TM: All right. Thanks for having me.
Thanks so much for listening. The Functional Breeding Podcast is a product of the Functional Dog Collaborative and was produced by Sarah Espinosa Socal. Come join us at the Functional Breeding Facebook group to talk about this episode or about responsible breeding practices in general. To learn more about the Functional Dog Collaborative, check out www.functionalbreeding.org. Enjoy your dogs.
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