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Dog Training and the Toxic Triple Whammy, Part 2

Posted on March 14, 2016 at 11:56 PM Comments comments (4903)

Imagine that you have a condition that is jeopardizing your health, your relationships with those you love, possibly your very life.  There are, thank heavens, treatments available.  Untold thousands, probably millions, of laboratory and research animals, from rats to pigeons to cats to dogs to chimps to college students, have given their tiny alls for decades to discover exactly how these treatments work.  From all this research, two basic treatment options have been developed:  Pill A and Pill B.

Both pills have things in common.  To be truly effective, they have to be administered correctly, at the right time in the right amounts.  If taken in the wrong dosage, taken inconsistently or taken at the wrong times, neither works very well.  They also don’t work very well if other factors—like poor lifestyle choices that contribute to the condition—aren’t addressed: if you continue to gorge on pizza, get drunk and drive into trees, don’t blame the pills for not working.  So neither one is magic or foolproof—it’s not like they’re wondrous cure-alls that allow us to keep eating the same junk while transforming into the young and beautiful with no effort.  Both of the pills require a commitment to follow a plan and keep following it until the results are obtained. 

But there are differences, too.  Pill A actually tastes nice, makes you feel better and has no known harmful side-effects.  This is true even if the plan isn’t executed perfectly--the results won’t be as good, but no damage will be done by the pill itself. 

Pill B, on the other hand, tastes horrible, can leave you feeling anxious or stressed, and has a whole slew of well-documented and potentially nasty side effects.  It can also be less forgiving of error—getting the treatment plan wrong may result in loads of those nasty side effects and none of the benefits.

Effectiveness?  In virtually every objectively conducted side-by-side comparison, Pill A has about a 90% success rate.  Pill B has—about a 90% success rate.  Pill A usually has a very slight edge for effectiveness and speed, but not enough to be significant.  So, they both work about equally well when administered correctly.  Oh, and they cost about the same and take roughly the same amount of time to produce results.

So:  Pill A, tastes nice, makes you feel good, no bad side-effects, 90% success rate.  Pill B, tastes awful, can make you feel lousy, potentially bad side effects, 90% success rate.  The choice should be clear and obvious:  you’re going to want Pill A, hands down.

But it turns out, you may not.  First, Pill A—though as thoroughly tested as B and as old—came to the market later and seems “new.”  Lots of folks don’t trust “new.”  If they grew up on Pill B, have always taken Pill B, they’re family always used Pill B, a good friend uses Pill B—they’re all going to want you to take Pill B.  It’s familiar, and—hey, it works.  If it works, it can’t be all that bad, can it?  (Especially if you escaped the side-effects.)  It works.  It’s familiar.  It’s trusted.  That newfangled Pill A sounds good, but how do we know it really works?

Absented a truly trusted expert, we all tend to take our information from friends, family and familiarity.  Mere science, with the thousands if not millions of research subjects tested in obsessive detail for decades, if rarely good enough for us:  it’s too remote, theoretical.  Better to listen to Aunt Millie, who used Pill B to rousing success.

Familiarity aside, there may be another problem:  it has to do with the condition you have.  It can show up looking like you’re being stubborn, lazy, deliberately disobedient.  You lack discipline and self-control.  Yes, you might need the help of a pill, but what you really need to do is just Buck Up, Grow Up and Learn Your Manners.

If the perception of your condition is that it’s a failing on your part (or your parents, surely they are to blame)—you’ve been too coddled and have no work ethic, respect or moral fiber and you need to shape up—wouldn’t a Tough Love approach make more sense?  Not to mention, your condition makes you behave in annoying and obnoxious ways that even you don’t like about yourself.   Spoil the child, spare the rod; no pain, no gain; drastic problems call for drastic measures.  If you really want to make something of yourself, you need to work hard and sweat for it.  Handing you a pill that tastes like candy, makes you joyous and can’t hurt you—how the heck could you possibly learn to be tough, disciplined and self-controlled from that? 

We’re a diverse culture with a long history that embraces many points of view, but hanging over many of us like a sword of Damocles’ are old puritan-type values, the core of which (in pop sensibilities) seems to be that anything fun must be sinful, and if it’s pleasurable it can’t be good for us.   Real virtues are attained by suppressing our base animal instincts, sacrificing what we want for a higher order of being.   Few children particularly care for “obedience” but we all need to have it drummed into us, for our own good.  That getting what we want and having fun can lead to Virtue--things like discipline, self-control and obedience—may make sense to the Hedonist on our right shoulder, but to the Puritan on our left should, It Doth Not Compute.

From the view of ye olde puritan meme, bad/sinful needs to be corrected—it’s a moral imperative.   So when we perceive ourselves or our behavior as bad (wrong, weak, dominant, your hot button word of choice), or the people around us and their behavior as bad, or the dogs around us and their behavior as bad—what to do about bad?  Traditionally, we punish bad.  We’ve always punished bad.  Bad deserves to be punished.  And if we’re in the control/authority position, we not only feel entitled to punish, we feel obligated to punish.

Surely a child who is being a brat or a dog that’s growling at kids or pigs or whatever needs an attitude adjustment, or to be taught a lesson, not gobs and gobs of yummy candy or chicken delivered in a timely fashion for flashes of nicer behavior.  The fact that the gobs of candy or chicken are likely to achieve nice behavior more quickly—or at least as quickly—with less stress and far less danger of future side effects may be true—if our goal is only to fix the behavior.  But that may not be our only goal.  We may also, openly or covertly, consciously or unconsciously, need it to feel right.  If satisfying our need to be in control, to be authorities, to uphold a morally virtuous order or just uphold a pattern familiar from our own dysfunctional childhoods lurks in our cultural abyss, maximum efficiency with minimal harm to the animal may be less important than getting our own cognitive dissonances resolved.

And so we may continue to vote for Pill B (positive punishment) with all its downsides and dangers instead of Pill A (positive reinforcement.)  Not because punishment works better (we’ll claim it does, but the evidence is against us), not because it’s faster, cheaper, or more efficient (it’s not), but because—it makes us feel virtuous.  Even if or even because it tastes nasty, makes us anxious and could be dangerous.  We have a long tradition of thinking that stuff that hurts us now or makes us uncomfortable now will lead to all kinds of rewards later.  Not to mention all the brownie points we gain with the authority figures who told us that in the first place.

Of course whether we choose the sweetness of Pill A or the bitterness of Pill B is entirely up to us—we’re human, and maybe we really can’t feel cured unless we feel like we’ve paid our dues.  But when it comes to making that choice for another being, opting for bitter over sweet because it makes us feel virtuous seems a little dodgy.  I am not, for example, trying to teach my dog Tinker that if she doesn’t waste her money on shiny objects now, she’ll reap the benefits of a college education later.  Nor—however much we might like the behavior itself—is there any particular moral virtue in being able to hold a long down-stay that’s enhanced by swallowing a bitter pill:  there’s no reason why a down-stay that Tinker enjoys holding is inferior to one that she doesn’t.   I’m teaching motor-muscle movements to a creature designed to hunt squirrels, not lofty philosophical life lessons to youngsters who can grasp ethics.

And—this is the real bugaboo—a down-stay taught with pleasure is in no way less reliable than one taught with pain.  We feel strongly that it should be—after all, what if Tinker “decides” that she doesn’t want to anymore.   Of course this can happen, but ignores two critical facts.

First, if I’ve done an excellent job as a trainer using pleasure, she’s likely to be successful at least 90% of the time, because the brain’s dopamine reward system is an outrageously powerful thing.  We hear “pleasure” as something warm, fuzzy, weak, trivial, instead of the deeply-rooted survival imperative that it is.  Animals will die for pleasure, and kill for pleasure, and fly thousands and thousands of miles to meet a mate for pleasure.  Tinker’s about as likely to ignore it as I am to turn down a slice of pizza anytime soon.  Maybe using a different word would help—not pleasure vs. pain but something like passion vs. pain.  Passion, not fuzzy, weak or trivial, is a brute-force of nature that can move mountains—or motivate down-stays.  Powerful stuff, no fooling, and if you don’t believe me, consider:

A behavior motivated by positive reinforcement won’t be powerful enough to stand up when things get hard…
A behavior motivated by deep, genuine passion won’t be powerful enough to stand up when things get hard…  Hmmm.

Second, if I’ve done an excellent job as a trainer using pain or fear, the dog is likely to be successful… at least 90% of the time.  But not 100%; never 100%.  There’s still a chance the dog will get confused, make a mistake or “decide” an opportunity to chase the squirrel is worth the risk of the pain.  If we’re motivated enough, pain and fear can be overcome.  If we’re passionate enough about something, or more afraid of something else, we will damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead.  We know this; we’ve all done it.

The passion/pain system isn’t designed to make guarantees:  it’s designed to give animals the best odds of survival in an ever-changing world of opportunity and danger.  It’s meant to give critters behavioral adaptations, not robotics.  Promises of 100% should go with a discount bridge for sale in a desert.  If nothing else, dog trainers are human and they make mistakes that can drop a dog out of the behavior 100%.

And now we come to what I’m going to call the Toxic Triple Whammy.  It’s so familiar in other contexts (read the news) that it’s scary, and heart-breaking.

Start with a Logical Fallacy:
I/he/she must have (insert need or desire)
I/he/she will (die, never be loved, insert horrible thing)
Add the Only One Syndrome:  Only I/he/she/it can (give the desired thing to avoid the dire outcome:  Only I can save you, only he loves me, only she understands him, only you can give me X…)  Sprinkle with protestations of love and good intentions.
Top off with a dose of cultural puritanism:  I/you/he/she are doing something bad and deserve to be punished.
Does any of this sound like the basis for a healthy relationship?
The Toxic Triple Whammy is a mindset just loaded with the potential for abuse of all kinds.  You must have me or die, no one else will ever love you and there’s something wrong with you that I’m entitled to fix (for your own good because I love you and only I can save you) is a nightmare scenario worthy of a horror movie.  It’s probably been the plot of more than one creepy thriller.  Of course the danger is, if you believe it, you’ll eat any amount of crummy relationship crap that I care to dish out--and if the deserving of punishment garbage sneaks in, I will dish out with the best of them.  After all, I love you.  I’m the Only One who can save you.  What other choice is there?
If I as a dog trainer lay this trip on your dog and you buy into it, I now have license to abuse with impunity and am above reproach and criticism.  After all, I love dogs. (This is probably true but has zero to do with my training skill.)  I’m the only one who really understands them.  (I myself can name a dozen trainers who are so top-notch at this I would cry to have their skills.)  I’m the only one who can save them.  (Actually, if my method is any good, everyone knows it, it’s repeatable and predictable, and there are dozens if not hundreds of competent practitioners who can do it, too.)  They’ll die without me, and I can justify any degree of crummy training practices.  (Why can’t I save them using best practices?  Don’t I know how?)  It’s for the dog’s own good.  (False dichotomy again; I could use best practices for the dog’s own good.)  Especially if it’s a really, really bad dog—only punishment can save them.  (How about getting a second opinion from one of the top-notch folks above?  They routinely resolve the same cases without punishment.)
It’s hard to think critically from a place of fear and desperation.  People get there with their dogs, and it leaves them vulnerable to nonsense ranging from silly to dangerous to just plain mean. 
Meanwhile, those thousands and possibly millions of lab animals are hopping up and down, waving their tiny lever-pressing paws trying to get our full attention.  They and their legions will tell you:  there’s more than one way to train a rat.  They know.  They deserve to be listened to. 

Science is your dog’s friend.

Dog Training and the Toxic Triple Whammy, Part 1

Posted on March 14, 2016 at 11:46 PM Comments comments (191)
Oh!  My heart is broken, another crushing blow to me and my geek tendencies… :)
The recent hoo-has involving a celebrity TV dog trainer, a pig, a dog and a whole bunch of folks in the dog training community made me think (well, so did what I ate for lunch, but y’know.)  To the incident itself, I have nothing helpful to add to the debate.  But there are some lessons in it that go beyond that I think are worth talking about.

I thought I had an answer:  Critical thinking skills!  You bet, what the world needs now is critical thinking skills!  If I could teach those, I could save the people, the pigs and the little dog, too.  So I hopped online and did a bit of research.  And I found this lovely paper, “Critical Thinking:  Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” by Daniel T. Willingham that broke my little geek heart.

It seems, according to the data looked at in this paper, that critical thinking skills are devilish hard to teach—because they aren’t really “skills.”  Critical thinking isn’t like riding a bicycle, something you learn once and don’t forget.  It’s not about memorizing rules and then following them.  It’s more complicated than that, because being able to think critically About Something—and it’s always About Something--requires at least a bit of a knowledge base, the more accurate and deeper the better.  It would be hard, for example, for me to think critically about fine wine, skiing or physics, subjects I know nothing about.  I would be much better—and more critical—if the topics were grill cheese sandwiches, sword fighting and birdwatching, arenas of knowledge I’ve visited.  Without some amount of information, maybe even some factual facts, I haven’t got enough foundation to critically evaluate much beyond I feel, I like, I believe, or—perilous ground—I like, believe or trust the source.  Absent a fund of knowledge to draw on, I’m left with an emotional response to the “expert” or the all-too human tendency to cherry-pick my sources according to my own biases and self-image.  I might ask around, demand some evidence or fact check—but I might not.  In the broad information ocean, I might not even know how to find who to ask, a good source of proof or facts.

Given this, hopping up and down and exhorting pet owners, etc., to “Think critically!” isn’t going to accomplish much.  Far better minds than I—entire groups of brilliant minds—have designed entire programs to promote critical thinking in youngsters, and it seems that they haven’t worked very well at all.  Unless those lessons are grounded in the About Something part—real, accurate information to give us the means to judge for ourselves—appeals to Think Critically can take on a paranoid gloom.  It ends up sounding like “Trust no one!  Believe nothing!”  Or worse, it ends up sounding like “You’re stupid and you’re wrong.”  Which may or may not be true, but is rarely productive.

I know this, but me being me, I can’t help wanting to offer something to think about.  Two things, actually.

First, I want to talk about love.  I have loved, albeit sometimes quietly and in my own eccentric way, this planet we live on.  I have marveled at the Earth, the creatures that dwell with us, the sunsets over the beaches I grew up on, the stars over desert skies on bitter cold nights, the extraordinary moments found in mangrove swamps and reefs and surf.   With a deep and abiding passion since I was very tiny, I have loved the Earth.  Always and forever.

I still don’t get to say it’s flat and expect huzzahs. 

People who love dogs truly, madly and deeply can be utterly mistaken about the “shape” of dogs. They can say and do truly silly or dumb things, can be irresponsible pet owners, can be—intentionally or unintentionally—mean, scary, hurtful or just plain wrong.  They can be terrible trainers.  They can do great things to help 100 dogs and awful things to “help” another 99.  Being a nice person and really loving something doesn’t = right.  Or factually accurate.  Or well informed.  The world is full of wonderful, decent, well-intended people who are wrong all over the map.  The proof of objective fact is never in the wonderful, decent or well-intended—or lack thereof.  It’s in the fact.

Dog trainers can argue over “methods” until the critters come home.  Logical fallacies are logical fallacies no matter who says them, or how nice a person they are, or how loving and well-intended they have been.  More to the point, the condition of the animal is the condition of the animal:  it is what it is, regardless of what we say about it.

I have, in my nearly 14 years as a shelter professional, seen hundreds of—very often weeping—pet owners needing to surrender their dogs.  The dog they bring me can be filthy, matted, flea-ridden, unvaccinated, untrained, under-socialized, terrified, morbidly obese or otherwise in wretched condition, physically or emotionally.  To a man or woman, these folks will tell me how much they love the dog.   The little old cat hoarder who keeps 40 semi-feral, ill and starving cats in a single-wide mobile will cry passionately “I love them!  I’m saving them!”  The self-proclaimed “rescue” group will passionately set out to “rescue” every dog in sight… and lock them in filthy cages in a garage without food or water for hours at a time in the name of save and rescue.  A trainer will scare the snot out of a dog or use physical pain in the name of “rehabilitation,” pat themselves on the back and say they “saved” the dog from euthanasia, and anyhow they really love dogs, they are “rescuing” dogs and look how many they’ve helped…

It took me years (and lots of work on controlling my temper) to realize that all these folks are telling me the truth:  they really do love dogs.  Madly, deeply.  They are trying to save them.  Their intentions are nothing but good.  They are sincere and honest in how they feel.  The problem isn’t in how they feel.  It’s how they act

When lots of very good, intelligent people—and there are lots of them, and they aren’t mean or stupid, they just aren’t—commit the same mistakes over and over, it suggests a problem that runs deeper than “mean” or “stupid” or “ignorant.”  If we all do it—and we all can do it in our own ways—it suggests a human problem, a core bias, a glitch in the spin of our brains.  In the case of our well-intended “rescuers” or “trainers,” it looks like they’ve fallen heavily into the clutches of a common Logical Fallacy.

It’s called Either/Or and can show up like this:

The dog kills chickens
Either the dog is trained to stop killing chickens
The Dog must be shot dead
There’s a litter of abandoned kittens in a box
Either I take the kittens home and raise them myself (in the trailer with 40 other cats)
They will all die
The obvious trouble here is that the road from premise to conclusion doesn’t allow for multiple solutions, like: don’t have chickens, build a better fence, find the dog a good home without chickens; take the kittens to a shelter, or find someone else willing to help with them.  It’s black-and-white thinking that leaps from A to Z without visiting B,C, D, etc.  Another common way it shows up:
The dog needs to be rescued.
The dog is better off living in a filthy cage without food or water for a while
Being euthanized
The dog has a behavior that is putting her at risk for losing her home.
The dog is better off if I use pain and fear to train the behavior out of her
Losing her home
The obvious snarl here is that the dire dreadfulness of the outcome (euthanasia, loss of home) actually doesn’t make the option presented necessary.  How about keeping the rescued dog in a nice clean kennel, with plenty of food, water and opportunities to play and exercise?  How about using a gentler (but equally effective) way to train the dog?  But, no:  the possibility of dire outcomes is used to justify crummy practices.  Meanwhile, much ado is made about Love and Good Intentions. 
What I think I see in this kind of black-and-white thinking (and oh boy, would I love a real sociologist to have a go at the dog training/animal rescue field) is a curious common thread:  the ONLY ONE syndrome.  I am the Only One who can save the dog, the kittens, the day.  Only I cares, knows, feels, loves enough, has the right magic method, etc.  If I am the Only One willing to take the mission on, the fact that I don’t actually have the resources, knowledge, expertise and so forth to accomplish the “save” without using crummy practices is moot—I am the Only One, so it’s my way or Death.  My crummy practices are beyond criticism since the alternative is so awful.
And that brings me to my second musing in Part 2.

Making Your Voice—and Your Money—Count: Some Tips from an Animal Welfare Professional

Posted on January 19, 2015 at 3:10 AM Comments comments (490)
If you’re like a lot of people—and you’re reading this blog—you love animals.  Or at least, animals of your species of choice, be it dogs, cats, horses or exotics.  You want to do right by your own pets, and also by pets everywhere.  You want to see well-run animal control services that keep communities safe, help stray or abandoned critters and maintain humane, caring facilities.  You want to help rescue homeless, abused or neglected pets.  Maybe you’d like to donate to some worthy cause.  When you do, here are five tips for making an effective difference in the lives of our companion animals.
1.  Lead by example.  Your local animal shelter—whether a government agency, private 501(c)3 animal welfare group or private rescue—is overwhelmed, under-staffed and under-funded.   At the humane society where I work, one third of all dogs brought to us don’t need to be there.  They’re not homeless, neglected or abused; they’re Buddy and Daisy who went for a wander without their collar and tags on.  They’re owned—happily owned—and beloved pets.  They should be home.  But we have to spend a ridiculous amount of time, energy and resources trying to reunite them with an (often frantic) owner because the dogs got out of the yard nekkid.  A functional flat-buckle collar costs a few bucks; an engraved tag a few more.  If your dog is “dressed,” your neighbors and Good Samaritans will call you directly instead of involving the hassle of law enforcement or a trip to the pound.  For less than $20 bucks, your dog has a much higher chance of getting home safe, you don’t have to pay impound fees or fines, and I can spend my day working with the dogs that really, really do need my help:  homeless pets that need new homes.  So be part of the solution instead of part of the problem:  collar and tags, period.
2.  License your dogs.  Not only do the revenues from licensing support vital animal control services, licensing gives pet owners political credibility when they want changes to their animal control system.  A Board of Supervisors or City Council is far more likely to attend to animal issues if they know that they have 1000 licensed dog owners in their community rather than 22.  If everyone in the community blows off licensing, it sends a message:  pet owners don’t care that much about being responsible.  And if they don’t care that much, why should local government make it a priority?  Possibly the best model we have for effective animal control/welfare services comes from Calgary, Alberta CA—the Calgary Model.  Core to their success is an over 90% compliance with licensing.  It works.  It sends the right message.  It’s the responsible thing to do.  So, in keeping with the spirit of #1… license your dogs.  Just do it.
3.  Look before you donate. Anyone—and oh boy have I seen some doozies in the anyone category—can throw together a website or Facebook page, post some Pitiful Animal Pictures, tell you how much they loooove animals and ask for your money.  Anyone can call themselves a “rescue” or a “sanctuary.”  Really.  They don’t need a stamp of approval from some national group, they don’t need accreditation, they don’t need to know one end of a dog from the other and until the Health Department or Animal Control gets called, they can beg money on their sites and “rescue” away.  These individuals can range from the expert and honest to the well-intended and incompetent to outright animal hoarders keeping animals in appalling conditions.  Telling them apart based on Facebook, a website or even meeting them at an Adoption Event is virtually impossible.  They will all say they love animals and you know what—they do!  They really do.  Being around animals makes them all feel warm and fuzzy, releases oxytocin and puts stars in their eyes.  Even the outright hoarders love their animals. 
Alas, love is not a good indicator of proper care, knowledge or expertise If love was all that mattered, I’d be tearing up the Ladies Golf Tour instead of sending golf balls in awful directions.  Seriously—I love golf.  I also suck at it, so before you hit my GoFundMe button for a new set of clubs, you might want to take a closer look at my swing. 
So, how to tell where to put your hard-earned donation?  My best suggestion is—if you want to donate locally, and I hope you do—go look.  If the group has a facility, go visit.  If the rescue keeps their animals at a particular location, ask to come for a visit.  For private rescues and small, entirely volunteer operated groups, you will need to make an appointment—most likely you will be going to someone’s private property and many of them work regular jobs.  And you may have to do a little persuading, because not everyone who loves animals likes people, and they can be keeping excellent care of the critters and still be grouchy about visiting humans.  And, of course, you won’t be welcome if you seem weird or dangerous. 
All that said, you are offering to donate your money to support the care of the animals.  Please go see how the animals are actually being cared for.  If you like what you see, give them your donation.  If you don’t, don’t.  If they won’t let you see, donate elsewhere.
What to look for or ask:
How many animals do you see?  Are there two “rescue dogs” mixed in with ten personal pets and the food you plan to donate will be eaten by which…?  How long have the individual animals been there?   Where are they kept?  How many people work or volunteer there, and are there enough of people to give all of the animals quality attention, including socialization, training, exercise and play opportunities?   What vaccinations and veterinary care do they receive?
Ask if they keep statistics, and what those statistics are.  Any well-run group, regardless of type, should keep accurate records of every single animal that comes into their care:  when it came, from where and where it went or what happened to it.  They should be able to tell you, “We’ve taken in a total 14 dogs so far this year, 9 have been adopted, 2 are in private foster for medical/behavior rehab and we have these 3 up for adoption now…”   
What you should worry about:  “We’ve taken in 35, we’ve adopted 2 and we have to take 10 more next week or they’ll all die die die…!”  A group that is chronically and seriously exceeding their realistic capacity to provide humane care to their current residents and hasn’t demonstrated in cold hard numbers the ability to adopt out the animals they take in is heading into disaster.  That’s a group that’s trying to save all dog everywhere while keeping the ones they already have in substandard, stressful conditions right now
Any well-run animal rescue will be keenly aware of the Five Freedoms of animal welfare and be striving to the limits of their resources to meet them on a daily basis for each and every animal in their care.
The Five Freedoms:
1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst - by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
2. Freedom from Discomfort - by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease - by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior - by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind.
5. Freedom from Fear and Distress - by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
As in any field, there are likeable people who are very passionate about what they do, who have been doing it a very long time--and who aren’t actually that good at it.  Quality care of animals isn’t about being likeable, passionate or wanting to do good—it’s about the quality of care provided to the animals.  So… look at the animals, not the website or the people.  Look before you donate.
4.  Don’t be misled by the label “No-Kill.”  The stereotypical “crazy cat lady” who has 60 cats in her trailer can call herself a “No-Kill” rescue—she wouldn’t dream of euthanizing any of her kitties.  They’re all having kittens or may be dying slowly of awful diseases, but she wouldn’t kill them.  Yikes.
The fact that a group touts themselves as “No-Kill” isn’t any indication of genuine caring or quality; the fact that an open-admission animal control facility has to perform euthanasia doesn’t make them uncaring or wretched.   Some “no-kill” groups obtain their animals from “kill” facilities by taking all the young, cute, highly adoptable dogs and leaving behind the sick, old, difficult and dangerous to their fates.  This is actually a collaboration that can work very well, insuring that all the healthy adoptable pets do get homes by divide-and-conquer with the best use of resources.  But it only works if we’re honest and transparent:  if my Love-A-Dog Rescue takes all your “pound’s” cute sweet dogs and leaves you nothing but Cujos, thinking Love-A-Dog is superior to The Pound is flat garbage. 
Between networking with “No-Kills,” collaborating with rescues and running their own adoptions programs, many “pounds” achieve remarkable save rates.  The fact that they can’t for various practical and technical reasons promote themselves as “No-Kill” doesn’t mean they aren’t doing great work.
To evaluate any group’s true performance, get the numbers:  1) their resources/budget, 2) their statistics—number of animal intakes and what the outcomes were and 3) the total population/service area they’re expected to take care of.  Bottom line is the bottom line—we get what we pay for.  If an animal control agency is given no budget, no staff, and asked to provide services for thousands of animals yearly, they need help and more resources, not criticism.  If the budget and resources are sound, the live release rate should reflect it—if it doesn’t, then yes, management or policies do need to be addressed.   But regardless of the terminology used, a solid live release rate is good no matter what the group is called.  Don’t be misled by the label “No-Kill.” 
5.  Forget love, talk votes. If you have a need or occasion to get political for animals—to speak, for example, to local authorities like your City Council about changes you’d like to see, the Righteous Soapbox of Compassion might be the wrong platform to stand on.  I hate to say it, but not everyone loves dogs like we do.  Not everyone cares like we do.  Your City Council probably really doesn’t want to hear about how much you love dogs or how and why we should be kind to animals.  Because, honestly, everyone has an agenda and they’ve already heard from the people who love trees, love birds, love roses, love books, love… and the reverse, the people who hate the danged trees, pooing birds, thorny roses and controversial books.  Going that route is a sure recipe for debate and somebody will certainly trump your concerns about the dogs with bigger ticket items like crime or kids.  My recommendation is—short, sweet and clear not about how you feel, but what you plan to do.  It goes something like this:
Me:  Hi, City Council, I’m a responsible pet owner, my dog is licensed, spayed and vaccinated.   As a responsible pet owner, I’m concerned about __________.  I’d like to know your position/what you plan to do.  I need to know, first, what I can do to help be part of the solution and second, what your individual position is so I’ll know who to vote for and tell all my dog-loving friends and family to vote for in the next election.
Council Member:  grumble grumble about budget, economy, crime and kids
Me:  Oh golly, I know times are hard and how difficult it is to allocate resources… I just need to know where you stand so I can allocate my voting resources to the thing I care about the most.
Council Member:  grumble grumble about making danged dogs more important than people
Me:  Oh fiddle-dee-dee, it’s not really about dogs, you know?  It’s about me and how I feel and how I vote.  I’ve lived here for ___ years and I believe our fine city should be committed to excellence in all areas—golly, if we can’t manage a pound, how could we possibly manage crime, kids or the rose bushes?  If I can’t rely on you to find a better solution for the city’s puppies and kittens, I’m not sure you’re the right person to vote for to tackle crime and kids.  So you see, it isn’t about dogs, it’s about people and excellence in job performance and city services…
The point is, you may not be able to persuade anyone in government to love dogs like we do—or to see the moral, ethical or other concerns that we see--and trying to bring them around to that is probably a trap.  What you can easily persuade them of is that you are a person with a vote who will vote your convictions if your concerns are not addressed—and your concerns are not just “dogs” but what the issue has to say about their competency and commitment to excellence.  Forget love, talk votes will put your concerns in the political language that matters most to them.