When a family consults with me about acquiring a dog I always ask them if they have considered adopting one from a local shelter. Too often the reply is a firm “No way!” or “Definitely not!”
Often people will go on to explain that they have already been down this route, with disastrous results. The story is usually the same – The dog misbehaved and was returned to the shelter within a few days of the adoption. No attempt was made to train the dog or modify its behaviour. It was assumed that the problem was a result of the dog being “second-hand” and that if a puppy were acquired from a breeder and raised from scratch it would not develop any behavioural problems. This attitude is not uncommon, but is it accurate?
Some shelter dogs suffer from shyness, nervousness, distrust of people, phobias from previous abuse and an over-attachment to their adoptive owners. In many cases these problem behaviours are fairly mild and will gradually disappear as the dog gains confidence and settles into a safe and loving home. If a dog is severely traumatised a responsible shelter will only allow an experienced owner with knowledge of how to rehabilitate such an animal to adopt the dog.
However, far more common problems attributed to shelter dogs are: excessive barking, jumping-up, house-soiling, destructive chewing, nipping or biting and digging. These are all behaviours that are unpleasant to live with, but what one needs to be aware of is that they are not specifically attributed to rescued dogs. These behavioural difficulties are exactly what owners of pedigreed dogs most often complain about as well.
Despite the fact that most dogs exhibit the same behavioural problems regardless of their origin, countless rescued dogs are returned to shelters within a few days or weeks of adoption, while dogs from breeders are seldom returned to those breeders.
What then is the reason behind this trend?
Acquiring a dog from a breeder implies some forethought and commitment on the part of the owner: The substantial cost of the dog has to be considered as well as the preference for or suitability of a particular breed. Having already spent a considerable sum on simply acquiring the puppy, such owners are often quite happy to spend a bit more on puppy classes and dog training.
What does such an owner do when behavioural problems arise?
Few breeders are interested in taking back the dogs they have sold and even fewer will refund the owners, so this is not really an option. Many people will simply chat to other owners of the same breed and pick up tips on how to cope with the problem. Others may consult a behaviourist. Some may simply learn to live with the problem or try to ignore it, because deep down they acknowledge that since they have raised the dog themselves they have no one else to blame for the situation! It is also unfortunately a sad reality that many pedigreed dogs are euthenased, because of behavioural problems.
On the other hand, obtaining a shelter dog is quick, easy and cheap. While there are many wonderful animal lovers who adopt rescued dogs with the determination to care for those animals for the rest of their lives, there are also too many people who adopt them with no real forethought or commitment. The response of such owners to behavioural problems is indicative of their casual attitude towards the adoption. They will quickly take the easy way out and return the dog to the shelter. In an effort to ensure that dogs are not abandoned after they are adopted, shelters will always take their dogs back and will often refund the adoption fee as well. Many people abuse this system and simply try out one dog after another, believing that eventually they will find the “perfect” dog. Such owners are usually reluctant to spend time and money training their dogs. They seem to lay all responsibility for the dogs’ behaviour at the door of the shelter. They never examine their own behaviour to see whether they are contributing to the problem, because it is far easier to blame the dogs’ history.
The best thing that any owner can do for his dog, regardless of its background, is to take the dog to incentive-based training classes. Puppies that come from breeders and go straight into a loving home desperately need to learn what is expected of them, so that they don’t become little terrorists. Their natural canine behaviours need to be redirected into activities that are acceptable to humans and they need to understand that doing what is asked of them gets them great rewards. Puppies from shelters need to learn exactly the same things.
Training also teaches older and shyer shelter dogs confidence. They usually receive much attention and praise from various people at the training school and start having positive feelings about interacting with humans. When they begin to realise that the right actions can have marvellous consequences, shy dogs start to come out of their shells and will often be more eager to try new things.
Are you taking a risk adopting a dog from a shelter? I don’t believe so, provided that you take care to choose a dog that is most suitable to your family and lifestyle and you have the commitment to train and socialise the dog, as all dogs should be trained and socialised. My rescued dogs have been a pleasure to live with. In fact they have given us such joy that we have decided to always have at least one rescued dog in our home.