Kristi Noem blamed shooting her dog on the realities of rural life. Experts say that doesn’t add up.

For most of my life, I've owned an endless parade of dogs and cats. At various times, I've had aquariums full of fish, two rabbits, a guinea pig, and at least a dozen hamsters. For about a decade, my family had a rescue cockatiel named Alfred. I grew up in rural Arkansas, and between extended family, friends and neighbors, I encountered many more critters: horses, cows, pigs, pet goats, chickens kept for eggs, a donkey who brayed too long into the night and two ostriches who regularly escaped their corral.

Because it's part of life, I'm also no stranger to sad stories about animals. We outlive our family pets, and I've buried many. The livestock dotting the landscape I grew up in were destined for the slaughterhouse, and that sometimes included even the beloved cows and pigs that the Future Farmers of America students raised for the county fair. Almost as often, a dog or cat would escape and wander too far from home only to meet its end on a busy country highway. The animal shelter in my town euthanized animals to make space until it was taken over by a nonprofit. More rarely, I'd hear of people threatening to shoot, or actually shooting, stray dogs, which later contributed to the many conflicts posted about regularly in local Facebook groups.

So when South Dakota Gov. and potential Trump VP pick Kristi Noem shared a story in her new book about shooting her 14-month-old dog named Cricket, and later defended it as one of the tough decisions she'd had to make as a rancher — a regrettable but necessary part of country life — did that sound normal to me?

While Noem is right that country life can be different from city life for dogs (and goats), I still didn't find her story typical. And the information I've found and the reporting I've done shows I'm not alone. More than that, how Americans view and take care of companion animals has changed a great deal in the 20 years since Cricket's brief life unfolded, which might explain why the backlash to Noem's story has been so widespread.

Dogs in rural areas are regarded differently, but not that differently

After spending the first 18 years of my life in the small town of Clinton, Arkansas and then 20 years as an adult in various cities on the East Coast, I moved back to Clinton at the very end of 2017 and stayed for five years. Through all of my experiences as an animal lover, I can say that there are some differences in life for rural dogs compared to the cities. (Full disclosure: I helped start a small nonprofit that raises money to assist people who can't afford veterinary care spay and neuter their companion pets.)

People in rural areas love their pet dogs, but they also own dogs they might not exactly classify as "pets." Some dogs are working dogs. They're meant to hunt, like Cricket was, or work as livestock guardians, like many of the large, fluffy, Great Pyrennees I'd see sharing fields with herds of cattle. They have jobs they're tasked with doing first and foremost, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're not loved and cared for. I also knew people who made a distinction between "inside" and "outside" dogs. The former were often small dogs from breeds bred for companionship, like pugs and toy poodles, while the latter tended to be larger and have more energy, and were more prone, therefore, to causing a ruckus in the house. When I lived in Arkansas as an adult I often saw public service announcements reminding people that their outside dogs needed shelter to keep warm in the winter or shade to stay cool in the summer, and urging families to bring them inside during the cruelest months of any season. But again, that doesn't mean those dogs weren't loved and cared for.

Harold Herzog, a professor emeritus of psychology at Western Carolina University who studies human-animal interactions and the author of "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals," said his experiences in North Carolina were similar. "Sometimes people would have, you know, half a dozen Coonhounds basically tied to an 8-foot chain that lived outside, that would [only] get to run — but run free — during coon season or during practice trials," he said. "But then there's a small dog that would sort of have run in the house, and he might feed from the table and be viewed as a more traditional pet."

That said, a Pew Research Center study from last year found that the vast majority of American pet owners, 97 percent, consider pets to be part of their families, and that includes rural pet owners. Sixty-one percent of urban pet owners said their pets were as much a part of their family as human members, while 50 percent of rural and 47 percent of suburban pet owners did, which is a significant but not astounding difference. Rural Americans were also the most likely to own at least one pet (71 percent) and more likely to own multiple pets (47 percent). Dogs are also the most common pet: Almost half of all pet owners say they have only dogs.

Animal welfare doesn't necessarily equate with attitudes about animals

What may be more different between urban and rural areas is the state and enforcement of animal welfare laws, as well as the resources to take care of stray, neglected or abused animals. Every year, the Animal Legal Defense Fund ranks states according to the strength of their animal welfare laws for pets, farm animals and wildlife. This ranking takes into account the kinds of cruelty explicitly banned by state law, the required standards of care for human-owned animals and the provisions made for animals in the court system, among other considerations. In the 2023 report, Noem's South Dakota ranked 40th; her neighboring state, North Dakota, was dead last.

That doesn't mean Noem broke the law when she shot Cricket and the family goat, however. By common law and many state statutes, it's usually considered legal for livestock owners to shoot a dog that poses a danger to their animals: After all, they have a duty of care to the animals that they are raising. Most state laws also carve out exceptions to spell out the ways that dangerous or nuisance dogs can and should be treated. What makes a dog dangerous? Like most situations, that's a matter for interpretation.

Herzog shared a story about how that issue had once affected him and his pet Labrador, Molly. "Molly came home one day, and she was limping," he said. When his wife mentioned it to his neighbor after running into her at the store, the neighbor told Herzog's wife that Molly had gotten into their chickens again and her husband had shot the dog. "She said, 'He just peppered her.' Molly turned out to be okay — we took her to the vet. I didn't blame him. My dog was invading his property and getting after his chickens … That was my fault."

Therein lies a big difference with Noem's story and my own experience. It is true that dogs are sometimes dangerous to other animals and, more rarely, people. That's why many cities and municipalities have ordinances that require dogs to be contained or on leashes. In the book, Noem says she'd gotten Cricket from a family who "struggled with her aggressive personality." She describes Cricket ruining a pheasant hunt with her exuberance and lack of training, and then taking Cricket home loose in the back of the truck because she didn't have enough kennels. It was during a stop on the way home that Cricket chased after and killed another family's chickens. It raises a question, then, why a dog that was untrained, had a reputation for being aggressive and who'd already failed to obey commands was allowed to ride loose?

"Cricket was bred and raised for pheasant hunting. Cricket was a bird dog. Cricket was punished by death for exhibiting natural behavior that's cultivated through breeding and through socialization for bird dogs," says Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund. She said she also grew up in rural Minnesota and Wisconsin, which has influenced her thinking about the event as it has mine. It's the human's job, she said, to know when and how to manage dogs, especially those of certain breeds or with a high prey drive, around other animals.

Training dogs is a long, involved process that requires significant human commitment, and some methods are better than others. Most experts now agree that positive reinforcement training is best, and aversive methods, like the electric collar Noem described using on Cricket in her book, have negative side effects and are not effective. Hunting dog and breed experts who weighed in said Cricket's breed is often physically immature and not fully trained to hunt for up to five years; Cricket was just 14 months old.

Still, dogs can be dangerous to other animals and humans, and behavioral euthanasia is a fact of life. American Pets Alive!, a shelter program and advocacy group that urges the end of unnecessary euthanasia of shelter animals, says about 1 to 2 percent of even its total dog intake is euthanized for behavioral reasons. A study from Australia, which has one of the highest dog ownership rates in the world, found that nearly 30 percent of dogs that died under the age of three were euthanized for behavioral reasons, most commonly aggression. American Pets Alive! provides a behavioral euthanasia protocol that is similar to the advice experts give pet owners: Consider the circumstances, consider alternatives, consult veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists and choose humane euthanasia.

None of these recommendations involve shooting a dog in the head in a gravel pit on the way home from a hunting trip. "Even growing up in a rural area, there are veterinarians within a 20-mile distance or 45-mile distance … One would think that the humane thing to do would be to be able to provide veterinary euthanasia for Cricket," Amundson said.

It's also not clear exactly how aggressive Cricket was. In the book, Noem describes the dog snapping at her when she grabbed her collar, but also said she hated Cricket, who was "untrainable" and wouldn't hunt. "There's a phrase, 'That dog don't hunt,'" Herzog said. "Now, the guys I know would never have shot one of their dogs, and I asked about that. And they said they would trade them or they would give them to someone that wanted a pet."

The difference between twenty years ago and today

I have six dogs and five cats in total. One is an 80-pound, black hound mix named Argo. I was volunteering for local rescues in Arkansas when I saw someone post on Facebook asking for help because Argo's owners were threatening to shoot him for chewing the furniture. The real story was a bit more complicated than that, but the family who owned him was overwhelmed and couldn't keep him any more. They were devastated and desperate and sobbing, and at a loss about what to do. At the time, 2018, he was 8 months old. He was and still is high-energy, active and terribly anxious: He bays and cries when one of us leaves the house. All of these characteristics meant that he wasn't a good candidate for being shipped out of Arkansas to a northern state with more adoptions — a common practice for dogs needing a new home — and would have been hard to handle in a big-city apartment. But Argo is still an adorable, loving dog. He licks the air around the stove when something I am cooking smells tempting. He harrumphs dramatically when he curls into an impossible tiny ball to cuddle, and loves it when I scratch right above his tail. He, and all my dogs, are a handful. I love them.

Argo isn't the only dog I'd seen someone threaten to shoot, and I've seen dogs that had been shot. I've also seen stray dogs with no chance of finding a home, dogs left abandoned when families move and dogs and cats running loose and living wild. Some of those were hunting dogs lost or abandoned after a hunt. Two of my dogs just showed up at my house one day, and there wasn't an operating shelter in my county to take them to. Three of my cats were strays that landed in my world in one way or another. But all of these circumstances evolved from a lack of resources in my small community and not necessarily callousness toward animals, although there is some of that, too. It's true that these things occasionally happen, but I didn't know anyone who would have written about shooting their own puppy as an example of their good leadership skills.

Practices and attitudes about animal welfare vary by state, but they have changed dramatically in my lifetime. In 1973, six years before I was born, the Humane Society of the United States estimated that 13.5 million dogs and cats were euthanized in shelters around the country, about 20 percent of the pet population at the time. Today, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that number at less than a million. In those decades, animal rights organizations promoted laws and ordinances encouraging responsible pet ownership, introduced low-cost spay and neuter programs, encouraged licensing laws, and promoted pet adoption. Today, more stray pets are returned to their owners or adopted.

There's also been an increase in the number of Americans who care about animal welfare. In 2003, a quarter of Americans told Gallup they thought animals should have the same rights as people to be protected from harm and exploitation; in 2015, that number had risen to nearly a third.

One thing Noem didn't say in her defense was that her encounter with Cricket happened 20 years ago and that she might do things differently today. The response condemning her has come from dog trainers, right-wing commentators and politicians alike. A YouGov poll from April 30 to May 2, conducted just after the story broke, found that a majority of Americans had heard a little or a lot about Noem shooting Cricket, and 68 percent found it unacceptable compared with 15 percent who said it was acceptable. Eighty percent said they didn't know anyone who had shot a healthy dog. The numbers were similar in a YouGov poll from May 5-7.

According to Amundson, there has been an increase in animal care and respect laws among all jurisdictions across the country. "There isn't a bill that we support on the federal level that isn't bipartisan from the outset," she added. "So if you look at that … It becomes even more befuddling that someone would think that this is an attractive way to position oneself politically."

Kristi Noem blamed shooting her dog on the realities of rural life. Experts say that doesn’t add up. originally appeared on