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Deciding to Adopt a Rescue Dog

A dear client from Holyoke emailed me the following: “Good Morning Elise, A friend of mine had to put her Golden Retriever down a few months ago due to health issues.  She is now considering adopting a rescue dog.  Is it more recommendable to adopt a puppy to try to avoid any behavioral issues due to the life that they have lead up to the point of adoption or is it just as much of a risk that a puppy would have as many issues?  Also any input or recommendations would be greatly appreciated”.

Just a few short weeks ago, I received a text from an Amherst client, “Big news! I’m adopting a big fluffy dog…just found out last night that everything went through…”.

And this is paraphrased from a phone message from a prospective client that came in yesterday, “My daughter just brought home a very young pit bull puppy that was going to be euthanized in 4 hours unless someone took him. She’s now left on tour and we are caring for him. We would love to talk to you to see if we’re doing everything right. He’s behaved very aggressively towards our older, mellow Lab. Also, when we left him alone for a brief time, he destroyed upholstery, curtains and woodwork”.

Let’s go back to the big, fluffy dog text. By the time I met with them, the dog (an adult male) had bitten two people without provocation. Within a month of that, he had shown numerous other aggressive behaviors and was returned to rescue. The first night in his foster home he launched a stalking attack, without retreat, on the foster owner resulting in multiple injuries.

So, when people ask me a simple question like, “is it better to get a rescue puppy or adult?” the answer is not about the age of the dog. It’s about the rescue. And you know what, the same rules apply to breeders. There are no guarantees that you’ll get a well-behaved dog from a breeder. The only way you’ll get a good dog is if you do your homework. What does that mean? Here are a few guidelines to help you in the adoption process (I’m going to focus more on rescue than private breeding):

  • What do you know about the breeder or rescue organization? Are they legit? If it’s a rescue, is it one woman with 20 dogs in her basement or it an established shelter or facility with legal status as a non-profit rescue organization.
  • What does the rescue know about the dog/puppy? Did they just pull it from a high-kill shelter in a panic to avoid euthanasia and nothing is known about its history? Has it received ANY form of behavior evaluation? Has it lived in a home or has it been outside? How many homes has the dog been in already? Why didn’t it work out? *It’s important here to read in between the lines. In the case of the big, fluffy dog he was supposedly returned from one home because the daughter was allergic. Yeah, right.* Has it been in rescue long enough for people to know about its temperament and personality? Has it seen a vet and are there vet records to prove it?
  • What sort of contract do you need to sign, if any? A reputable rescue will want the dog back if you can’t care for it for ANY reason.
  • Were you required to complete an application and have a home visit? The home visit might seem excessive and isn’t always necessary, but you should feel like you just went through the nth degree with the rescue. You want them to feel very invested in this working out versus them practically throwing the dog at you and taking off (I actually had a client that had that happen to them…the rescue transport drove to the house, handed them the dog out the window and took off).
  • Do you know other people who have gotten dogs from this rescue or shelter? Reputation matters. Don’t be shy about asking where people got their dogs. People generally feel proud that someone likes their dog enough to ask about it.
  • Can you meet the dog? See if it gets along with your children, other dogs, cats, etc.? So you can see if the dog is a good match for you and your family/lifestyle?
  • As far as puppy or adult goes, think about the amount of time you have to invest in training. Puppies need a LOT, adults come whatever good (or bad) experiences they’ve had so far. Have you raised a puppy before (in the last 20 years)? It’s a ton of work but also can be a lot of fun.

It is one of my grandest soapboxes – this current trend of ‘saving’ dogs at all cost. I understand the altruism. I own two rescue dogs – I get it. But, if I could somehow express the amount of heartbreak and stress people suffer from adopting dogs from irresponsible rescue groups, oh, you don’t even know. The last text from the owner of the big, fluufy dog: “Well, lesson learned”. That broke my heart. She now has R-PTSD – Rescue Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She will, most likely, never adopt from rescue again. She, like so many of my other clients, are terrified of adopting a dog that will hurt them or their family, hold them hostage with bad behavior, put them in a position of having to give away the very creature they were trying to save…or worse, euthanize the dog because the rescue guilts them or refuses to take the dog back.

So, to this wonderful woman who recently lost her Golden and is looking to rescue a dog. First, my condolences. Losing a dog is always heart-breaking. Second, thank you for being willing to take in a rescue dog who, otherwise, might not have had many options. Lastly, do your homework. Do not join the ranks of folks that regret adopting a rescue dog because of the behavioral fall-out. And feel free to call me or another reputable trainer. Personally, I have coached many clients through the process in order to ensure a solid adoption and smooth transition into the home.