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Is a Rescue Dog Right for You?

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

Having doubts about adopting a rescue dog? Read on!

Have you, or someone you know, thought about adopting a rescue dog before, but then your brain’s risk aversion kicks into gear and says you’re better off getting a dog from a breeder? Maybe it tells you that there are fewer unknowns, fewer chances of behavioural “baggage”, and more overall predictability?

When thinking about adopting, it's natural for worry to set in. A good friend recently adopted a rescue, and hasn’t been able to leave her house in 2 months because the dog suffers from extreme separation anxiety. The neighbour down the road barely gets out hiking anymore because his rescue doesn’t get along with other dogs and hiking trails are prone to off-leash dogs. Then there’s that co-worker whose rescue sometimes growls at their kids, and they don’t know why...

With all these examples flooding our minds, of course our brain tells us not to take the risk with a rescue.

So, what are the odds a rescue will lead to more woe?

While it is true that the situations listed above are not uncommon in rescue dogs, correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Many professional dog trainers will tell you that for every rescue dog with an issue, there are just as many dogs with the same issues acquired directly from a breeder.

To borrow a phrase used to describe the results of a study published in 2016 regarding the predictive accuracy of behavioural assessments performed on dogs in shelters entitled, "No better than flipping a coin: Reconsidering canine behavior evaluations in animal shelters", the anecdotal evidence collected via myself and other professionals in the industry points to the odds of getting a dog who will exhibit behaviour we consider an issue from a shelter or direct from a breeder is probably no better than flipping a coin.

There is absolutely no regulation for dog breeding anywhere in Canada--or the US, for that matter--and behaviour is inherently tied to genetics. The good news is that just because a behaviour may be genetically-driven doesn’t mean it won't be influenced by the experiential learning of the individual and so therefore can likely be modified with the help of a qualified reward-based trainer.

My First Rescue Dog

Ichiro was six months old when he came to us as a foster-to-adopt in July 2013. He had been relinquished during a weekend spay/neuter clinic at Wabasca First Nation held by the Canadian Animal Task Force (previously known as Alberta Spay Neuter Task Force). A foster-to-adopt program is when you agree to foster, intending to adopt if it’s a good match for everyone.

Since we already had our one-and-a-half-year-old cat, Leo, at home, we needed to make sure Ichiro would be a good fit before fully committing. Leo’s comfort was our top priority. Lucky for us, it wasn’t long before we signed the papers to adopt Ichiro officially. We always get asked about his name, so in case you were wondering… The story goes that since he had been with us for a few weeks already, it seemed weird to re-name him and start calling him something else. So, we kept it, but he sure does have a lot of nicknames!

My Second Rescue Dog

Both of my dogs, Ichiro and Meeya, were adopted from a local independent rescue in Calgary. We fostered a handful of other dogs in the years following Ichiro’s adoption, always careful to put Ichiro and Leo’s comfort at the forefront. In 2016, we took in a 5-year-old mixed breed dog named Meeya, who would turn out to be our last foster.

She had been surrendered twice previously, once at two years old and again when we met her. She was split from her housemate, who was also surrendered at the same time. The rescue didn’t believe they were bonded to the point of distress if separated.

We were unsure how she would do in our house as she was “unknown” with cats. Still, the rescue said she was miserable at the shelter facility since she was not kennel trained and had spent most of her time over the week following her surrender in a kennel at the facility.

We could hear Meeya barking when we walked into the front foyer area (we didn’t know it was her at the time), and when we got back to the holding area, she was clearly upset. She was displaying rapid non-stop barking toward the other dogs in kennels, and we noticed she had soiled the blanket in the kennel with her. We brought Meeya into the car, and her barking and apparent anxiety immediately stopped.

This was my first time experiencing firsthand what those in the rescue community call “decompression time.” As time went on, Meeya’s “quarks” started to come out. The barking returned, and reactivity toward dogs on-leash began to increase. I now know that the “calmness” we thought we saw when we brought her home was most likely exhaustion and an overwhelming stress response.

Decompression Time with Rescue Dogs

Shut down dogs can look a lot like calm or relaxed dogs, but you can see the difference if you watch carefully. Shut down dogs don’t do ANYTHING. They refrain from behaving (i.e. having a personality, expressing their feelings, acting independently, etc.) as much as possible until they feel safe letting their freak flag fly. 😊

Some dogs come out of their decompression shell, and they end up ticking every box you were hoping for personality-wise. Unfortunately, it’s the opposite with some dogs, and they’re not at all what you thought you were adopting. Incessant barking, whining, herding, begging for food and reactivity toward other dogs or people are all suppressible behaviours. That is, they remain suppressed in new and uncertain environments. In my experience, these behaviours are not on anyone’s list of desirable traits.

The good news is that when these traits do appear, the dog is also starting to feel safe enough around you and in your home to express their true feelings about things in life. This is when you really start to realize what to focus on to change their lives for the better.

Circling back to the story of Meeya, the short of it is that we ended up adopting her after eight months of fostering. We learned more about her during that time and were better able to ascertain her needs. As a complex dog with several physiological and psychological health troubles, I couldn’t bear the thought of her being adopted out to someone only for them to surrender her again. I honestly don’t know if she would’ve survived it.

The 3 Certainties in Life: Death, Taxes, and a Dog Stealing Your Heart

It’s almost 2022, and here I am with two senior rescue dogs who couldn’t be more opposite.

Ichiro’s the best little buddy. We can take him practically anywhere, and he’s pro-social with people and other dogs. He only barks for obvious reasons for doing so and recovers quickly. He’s still not very comfortable with children, but that’s more my fault. We barely have children around him, so that behaviour gets a pass in my book. On top of him being such a delight personality-wise, he doesn’t have any chronic health issues either (knock on wood). Really, he’s the epitome of a great dog rescue experience, and I wouldn’t change him for anything.

Contrast this with Meeya, and it’s night and day. Meeya has been the TOUGHEST dog compared to Ichiro. She makes it easy to understand how people who aren’t as crazy about dogs as me would put their hands up and say, “this isn’t the dog for me.”

Still, I benefit from my experience with Meeya, both professionally and personally. It makes me happy when I observe through her body language that she’s feeling relaxed or happy--even if the moment is fleeting. Milestones we achieve together feel that much more awesome because she hasn’t been an “easy” dog.

As a professional dog trainer, does it frustrate me that I haven’t been able to play puppet master and “fix” everything to mould her into a shiny example of behavioural perfection? Sometimes, but as my clients have heard me say at some time or another, “it can be hard to shift our focus from what’s going wrong to what’s going right.” Once I started paying more attention to the good changes, the “bad” behaviours didn’t bother me anymore.

Dogs aren’t robots. Whether you’ve brought them home directly from a breeder or a rescue, and regardless if you were their first, third, or sixth home, there are real chances of winding up with a dog who does not and cannot live up to your expectations. But in the end, if you’re like me, faults or no faults, they will steal your heart and make you smile every day.

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