I've decided to start this blog off with a bang, and wade with caution into the sacred phrase "adopt don't shop". First, I should mention that I have owned 2 rescues in my adult life, LOVE mixed breed pups, and would get a rescue again. My first rescue, Harper, was a severe abuse case and taught me more about life and dogs then could be adequately described. In addition, my Aussie, Rio is a "rehome"- her owner couldn't provide a breed-appropriate life for her (girl needs more hobbies then a high school senior applying for the ivy league). There is absolutely wonderful value in finding good homes for pups in shelters or other programs.
All of that being said- adult rescue dogs are not for everyone. At the very minimum, adult rescue dogs have had their routine pretty abruptly disrupted and are confused as to the new environment(s) and its rules. Many new owners are confused as to how to navigate a dog who is sincerely just lost as to how they got in their current scenario.
In my experience, it takes roughly 3 weeks for a dog's behaviors to fully develop in any given environment with a predictable regularity. So that means, that the wonderful "puppy moon" phase after adoption often accidentally sets up new homes with too lax of rules, and unreasonable expectations of the recently added dog. More often than not, when I get into a behavior assessment with a client, I hear the tell-tale phrases of "she was so quiet at the adoption clinic" or "the foster family had her for a week and never mentioned that she eats shoes". etc. I could never fault a foster family for not catching EVERY potential behavior pattern- there are too many variables! And I also see the value in having adoption clinics- but when we look to these places (which are the right thing to do for many potential dog owners) we have to take into consideration that we are in no way getting a full behavior picture or even fully developed understanding of the personality of the dog. More often though, adoption from rescues is based on aesthetic preferences- and that snowballs into just picking a dog that doesn't necessarily match your home life.
The most prevalent example I have seen recently is a plethora of hound-dog mix pups being shipped up to our upstate NY community from rescues in the south. Hounds are wonderful pups, little scent geniuses, and often very affectionate. But they often tend present challenges in training- specifically around recall, avoiding some snack thievery, and working on not becoming overly vocal. All of these challenges are often addressed readily with a good trainer. BUT often times the new families with these dogs did not anticipate the challenges associated with the type of pup they adopted- and instead focused on impossibly soft and floppy ears. Hound-mixes can also be a bit stubborn, and can require a lot of consistency in practice to build reliable results with commands. They are eager to make you happy- but also pretty independent. None of things are automatically a flaw in any of these dogs, just an observation that both the type and temperament of an individual dog is often not a great match for a busy family with kids. Their new friend is probably friendly as the day is long- but is going to require a substantial investment in time and energy to help them reach their training expectations. And some families are just not prepared for that amount of investment. It would be easy to yell "Don't get a dog if you don't want to do the work!" and I have, privately, in my car, many, many times. There are absolutely circumstances where this is the appropriate assessment. BUT- I think more often than that, it's much more nuanced. For example, a well meaning family could just be following the dominant narrative around rescue culture which is "this dog was abused, I will save it" and that, is unfortunately, not really the whole picture of a dog's backstory- or of the ability of any owner to meet a dog's individual needs. Many times a dog has had a relatively normal life, and then found itself within a shelter or rescue- and its fearful behaviors are actually just being completely confused. If we jump to adopt based on this narrative instead of looking at the individual, or if we treat that dog as if it has severe abuse history- we can accidentally even create behavior problems.
We hear all the time that we should "save a life" in rescues, and this is definitely a worthy cause. But if everyone in the household is going to have their needs met, and we are going to start off on the right foot- we need to be a lot more careful about placing dogs. We also need to help new families prepare for a long adjustment period by starting them off right with clear rules and boundaries, as well as making sure the match is likely to be a good fit based on energy level, any known breed information, and the type of household looking for a new family member. Loving a dog isn't just about cuddling, it's about helping them learn to trust us, and to follow our guidance over their natural instincts in a variety of ways. It's an amazing experience to cross the species line in relationship building, but it's not easily or quickly done!
This preparation for families looking to adopt shouldn't just be on the shoulders of already over-taxed rescues, either. It's up to all of us in the dog professionals world to facilitate a new dialog around rescue and adoption, and provide more thorough tools for those going this route.
So with that in mind- here are a couple of things I have found helpful in counseling those looking for a dog, and in those first few critical weeks.
1. GO SLOW. You've made the decision to get a dog, great! Now, slow down. You don't need to rush down to an adoption clinic today and pick the first dog who kisses your face. Yes, I know there are many dog/human love stories that start this way- but there are also enough horror stories that caution is the better advice. Research types of dogs you think may be a good fit for you. Breed info will be inconsistent or incomplete with your new rescue possibly- but it's good to have an idea of what traits you are looking for, because in the event you do have some more info- it can help make an informed decision. It also can help you sort out what traits you are looking for so that when you meet a dog, you can place those traits even if they aren't breed related! Read A LOT of profiles on petfinder, make lists, and really think about how much time you have to give to a dog's energy needs. Some folks will change for their dog, they will take more walks, etc- but others can't/won't. Be honest with yourself, first!
2. Meet the dog more than once. If you go to an adoption clinic and find a dog you think is a good match, I suggest 2 subsequent visits a few days apart. Ideally, meet with the dog at the shelter or foster home, and then have the dog brought to your home. Seeing how a dog behaves in different environments will give you a lot of information about whether or not this is a good new member of your household. Especially if this is your first dog, emphasize the slowing down!
3. Figure out your house rules ahead of time! I have a lot of house rules I recommend and will gladly share in a later post, but regardless of what you decide- decide it before pup comes home and then stick to it! Is pup allowed on the furniture? Where will pup eat their meals? What will their routine be? What commands are the most important to teach first? Is pup allowed in the whole house? Yard? Map out what the rules are AND STICK TO THEM. Have I mentioned sticking to them? STICK TO THE RULES.
Dogs have a really hard time with "sometimes"- if you are consistent, so are they--with practice!
4. Consider a "foster to adopt" or trial placement. Some rescues I have worked with recently do a three week trial period before the dog is eligible to be adopted. I LOVE THIS. It gives so much more time for a dog to adjust and the household residents to really get a sense of whether the dog's needs match their household, or whether adaptations can be made on either end.
5. Hire a good trainer. There are a myriad of issues that can be avoided with the help and support of a good trainer. The families and individuals I have helped from adoption day through 6 weeks of training are much more likely to be fulfilled with their new family member at a much more rapid pace. Also, having a new dog is wonderful, but it can also be pretty stressful. A good trainer will serve as support in the adjustment period, help you assess what is pretty normal dog behavior, vs something we need to address quickly. And it's also another set of hands to be kind and patient when Fido is still nervous peeing every time a guest arrives. Even if you have had a lifetime of dogs, you can always learn something new, or benefit from a professional perspective. I'm not lobbying this for my own job security- I just have seen SO MANY families go through the pain of re-training when if I had gotten there 2 months earlier, we could have avoided the undesired pattern.
6. Crate Train. Again, I recommend you get a good trainer if you aren't familiar with the process, and will be giving tips for crate training down the line. But the single most important start you can give your new pup is give them a safe, calm place to adjust to their new surroundings. Even an even keeled, well mannered dog will benefit from having a spot to call "theirs". The benefits of crate training include avoiding separation anxiety, or helping to resolve it, helping a dog to have a "settle" command, giving the dog a safe space to observe other pets, children, family members etc, giving the dog an alternative to destructive behaviors... the list goes on and on. Dogs should go willingly when requested, and shouldn't be manhandled into too-small crates. Appropriate sizing and proper positive crate training are essential to using this tool properly- and like all tools- can be used completely wrong. Check out "Crate Games" by Susan Garrett for some excellent ways to help get your dog properly crate trained!
Adopting a dog can be a wonderful way to add a valuable member to your family, but it isn't as easy as picking out a cute pup on the internet. We need to be thoughtful and thorough about matching dogs with potential owners, so that the dog's needs are thoroughly met, and the new home can get to the joyful business of loving our most loyal companions.