Dear Prudence

Help! My Neighbors Are Abusing Their Dogs.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

A graphic of a hand reaching out toward a dog that is barking and being held back.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by GlobalP/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

Our neighbors are abusing their dogs, and I’m not quite sure what to do. We recently moved into a new neighborhood from out-of-state. All the backyards have lower, chain-link fences and almost every household has dogs. The neighbors next door have three dogs, two of whom are very aggressive and one that seems more standoff-ish but not mean. I have witnessed adults kicking the dogs when they are barking or smacking them in the face with their hands (no wonder why they’re mean). They also have a little girl who’s probably around 3-to-4 years old. She is the worst … she pulls tails and ears, kicks, tries to drag them around by their legs and smacks them. I am terrified that those dogs are going to turn around and attack her at some point. When I’m in the backyard with my pup, I will stop her from hurting her dogs, but I can’t police this all the time. I’ve seen the dogs turn around snarling at her several times now, and she just screams back at them and hits them again.

I’m worried about the dogs and the prevention of the (in my eyes, inevitable) attack of this child by the dogs, but I am not sure there would be any physical evidence of abuse if I called the authorities, as the dogs look healthy and don’t have injuries. This is making me sick to my stomach on a daily basis. What should I do?

—Neighbors Abusing Their Dogs

Dear Neighbors,

When I put out the call for help answering your question, the most complete response came from Monica Potts, who happens to be a co-founder of an animal rescue in Arkansas that focuses on providing spay and neuter assistance. I’ll turn it over to her:

I have advice about this! First off: besides being a bad idea for other reasons, calling the police or CPS might not do any good because there might not be anything illegal happening. There are a lot of states where it wouldn’t be illegal to hit or kick your dog… and it’s hard to tell if the child is really in imminent danger. So it’ll probably get no results for the child’s or dogs’ sake, in addition to being bad for the family.

I would say my first advice would be to seek out a local humane society, SPCA, or shelter, if there is one. There may not be! Lots of more rural areas don’t have one. She should try to find time to sit down with the directors, someone on the board, etc., and ask for advice. If she can get that far, they can come up with a plan to approach the owners. She can find out why they have the dogs, whether they want them, whether they could use help with them, and how amenable they might be to working with a rescue for rehoming them. If they’re on board, it’s better for everyone.

It’s always a good idea not to be judgmental in these situations. People have a wide range of ideas on how to treat dogs. The main thing is that she feels the child is in danger, and there might just be an education, outreach, or assistance component that will help resolve that. If there isn’t a shelter or nonprofit, she should find whatever local group of people DO care about dogs there. There’s bound to be some, and there’s probably a Facebook lost and found group. They’ll know the contours, and maybe how to help the family and the dogs.

(Monica also thoughtfully added that she assumed you were a woman and may be incorrect.)

I realize most people don’t love being approached by their neighbors—however respectfully—about what they’re doing wrong, and someone who hits dogs is probably not going to be super patient or mature and might respond even more poorly than the average person. So all I’d add to Monica’s advice is that you may want to develop some sort of a rapport first. Tell them their kid is cute when you see them in the driveway. Offer them some lemons off your tree. Or whatever. Maybe you can even find out how they got the dogs in the first place, and why they keep them.

But after you establish a relationship with the neighbors, I think the key thing is to still go to the experts, as Monica suggested—people who have been thinking about these sorts of treacherous and possibly dangerous pet situations much longer than you or I have, and will have experience dealing with neglectful and abusive owners. Several people suggested discreetly taking video so that the organization you approach can have a clear picture of a behavior you’re describing, and I think that’s a wise idea if you feel you can do it safely and without drawing attention to yourself.

On a hopeful note, when it comes to the child’s safety, @odin_Kelly said, “I want to note that from the description, the dogs are actually being good with her, giving clear warnings and not (yet) biting. They may well get pushed too far and snap, but they have been *good* dogs so far.”

I hope that’s helpful. Good luck, and thanks for looking out for your neighborhood animals and kids.

Classic Prudie

Q. Doggy prenup: I’m getting married next spring to an amazing guy, and I have two cocker spaniels I’ve had since before I met him. He loves them, but they’re my dogs—I pay for everything involving them and I’m the primary caretaker. I love my fiancé and I trust him more than anyone else in the world, but I want to have some sort of agreement in place that if we should ever split, the dogs would stay with me. When I was 13, my parents had a messy divorce and our three family dogs were sent to the shelter when my parents couldn’t reach a settlement. I was devastated, and the idea of that ever possibly happening to my beloved dogs makes me tear up. Would it be absurd of me to bring this up with my fiancé? I don’t see us ever splitting up and I want to spend the rest of my life with him, but worrying over this is actually keeping me up at night.