What I’ve Learned About Adopting a Dog…the Hard Way

One week. That’s how long our latest adopted rescue dog lasted in our home. One. Stinkin’. Week.

The problem? Essentially the same problem we had with our last rescue dog—an anxious, possessive personality that was putting the children in our lives at risk of being bitten. Despite spending several hours a day doing various training exercises, it became clear to us that Cooper is, like our last dog Eddie, a fundamentally good and sweet dog who belongs in a home without younger children. Cooper also sees our cat as prey; she is clearly not safe with him in our family.

So off he is going this morning to a new foster home. And once again, we are devastated. Not to mention dog-less.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting a different result. Are we insane? Stupid? Spectacularly ill-qualified to own dogs? Lazy? Unwilling to do the work that’s necessary? Do we just have really bad kids who bring out the worst in dogs?

No. I know that’s not the case (though I feel mighty guilty anyway). I think we’ve had two cases of really bad luck, coupled with our inexperience with dogs in general and rescue dogs in particular, which led us to choose less-than-ideal dogs.

We may try again, this time with a puppy who can become acclimated to our family and its routines early on. We need to recover a bit first. In the meantime, I have a coffee date planned with a friend who wants to pick my brain about rescue dogs. For her and anyone else who is interested, here are the big lessons I’ve learned now that my inexperience has been transformed via the most difficult sort of experience.

Adopting an adult dog is not easier than adopting a puppy.

By adopting an adult dog, you likely avoid the trinity of troublesome puppy behaviors: accidents during housebreaking, nipping, and chewing. An adult dog may (emphasis on may) already understand that the yard is their potty and that they can chew their squeaky toys but not the throw pillows. But adult dogs come with a history, and often not a great one. Their history has shaped them. While you can use positive training techniques to teach them appropriate behaviors, you will also need to accommodate personality traits that may be there to stay. Our dog Eddie was terribly afraid of loud noises, which could leave him a shaking pile of misery for hours. Cooper is a one-person dog, prone to guarding his #1 person from other people. In our case, I was his #1 person, and he saw my six-year-old as his #1 competition. It became clear  this weekend that Cooper would bite his competition if he felt it necessary. Within just a few days, Cooper became extremely responsive to many of the positive training techniques we did with him. But his aggression toward Ben did not appear to be something we could change, only manage. And a mother can’t insist that her six-year-old son keep his distance when the dog is in the room.

So while a puppy may need more intensive one-on-one attention at first (such as midnight forays into the yard for potty breaks), adopting an older dog can come with its own significant challenges. My biggest mistake is that I thought adopting an adult dog would be easier than a puppy. I was wrong.

People who foster, own, and place rescue dogs are often not representative of the average dog owner.

During our two rescue dog ordeals, I’ve noticed some ways that rescue dog owners and foster families tend to be different than the average dog owner. For example, many successful adopters/fosters own several dogs. When you have more than one dog, you manage the dogs differently than when you have a single family dog who is the focus of everyone’s attention. You send all of the dogs out to the yard at certain times of day, for example. They have each other for company, so you might have fewer issues with dogs being naughty when they are lonely and bored. There is often a more natural separation between human family members and canine family members. In a multiple-dog home, for example, the dogs may have much less potentially problematic contact with children than in a household like mine, where there is only one dog and three kids (at least three, since we often have neighbor children here as well).

Also, successful adopters often manage their households in a way that accommodates their dogs’ quirks and personalities (which is not the same as allowing the dogs to misbehave and rule the roost). I’ve talked to several owners who are successfully living with reactive, anxious dogs like Eddie and Cooper. They have no children in the house, and they put a lot of daily effort into working with their dogs to avoid and/or practice learned responses to anxiety-producing situations. Owners whose dogs chase cats have separate, designated areas for the felines and canines in their household, and never the twain shall meet. One of our trainers installed an electric fence for her first dog, who did fine with it. But her next dog didn’t. So she installed a regular fence, essentially paying twice for the same thing to make life with her second dog manageable.

Of course, this is a generalization. Many owners don’t go to such lengths, and don’t have to because their adopted dogs adjust well to their new environment. But the dog owners who volunteer for rescue organizations tend to be the most passionate of dog owners, and therefore more likely to adopt problematic dogs and have in-depth understanding of what those dogs require.

When you are going through the adoption process, therefore, you’ll be working with volunteers who may either 1) overestimate your understanding of dog behavior and which dog will work best in your home (because to them, this understanding is second nature) or 2) fail to identify potentially problematic behaviors in the dog you wish to adopt, because their dog-centric household is managed differently than your household, so the dogs don’t exhibit those behaviors.

My household routines are designed to accommodate our children, which is appropriate for this point in our lives. For example, we live in a neighborhood where children come and go from each others’ homes and yards with little fanfare. Neither Eddie nor Cooper could be trusted around children without adult supervision. Keeping either of them would require us to significantly change our routines. Neighborhood children would have to call first before coming over. I would need to either go outside and supervise the dog with the kids (just when my kids are finally all old enough to play outside alone), or put the dog in his crate for the duration of any friend visits. These accommodations would change our household dynamic in ways I can’t accept.

So it is extremely important to 1) figure out your expectations for a dog and how much you’re willing to change your family routines/environment to accommodate the new pet, and 2) work with a rescue organization that fully evaluates both the animals and the adoptive families to ensure a match. A good organization can help you determine what potential problems could be overcome with reasonable changes to routines/environment and training, and which problems would require a great deal of time, money, or major changes that you are unwilling or unable to make. Ask that you have the chance to introduce all family members (human and animal) to the dog before agreeing to the adoption, in your home if possible. Although I never used one, I made inquiries with rescue organizations that place dogs with families after only arranging for a phone interview between the adopters and the foster families. That isn’t enough. With Cooper, we should have brought him into our home to meet our cat before agreeing to adopt him, because he simply didn’t have enough cat experience for the rescue group to know how he would react.

Bringing a rescue dog home is not unlike bringing a new baby home.

When you bring a new baby home, you expect a transition time in which normal routines are on hold as the family gets to know the baby, and the baby gets to know the family. The basics continue: Children go off to school, one parent might go off to work, dinner is still served (even if it’s cooked by someone else). But no one expects life to just continue as it did, unchanged.

I underestimated how much our household would be affected by bringing in a new dog. It’s very much like bringing home a baby. Just as parents work to teach a baby certain routines (that nighttime is for sleep, for example), new dog owners work to teach the dog where and when to pee and poop, where and when to sleep, where and when to eat, what behaviors are allowed and not, etc. Just as families learn to recognize a new baby’s cues to figure out what he or she needs, dog owners learn to read the dog’s body language to figure our what he or she needs. While this learning is happening, it can be hard to do much more than basic household stuff. The family needs to slow down a bit for several weeks, to not invite friends over until you know how the dog will react to them, and avoid long day trips that require you to leave the dog crated for hours. Experts on re-homing adult dogs suggest that during the first few weeks, families hold back from showering the dog with affection and engage in specific types of behaviors to establish their leadership over the dog. (This organization’s Adoption Guide offers the most comprehensive information I’ve found on how to approach the initial days and weeks with your newly adopted dog.) The initial weeks are a key time for establishing healthy behaviors, and the necessary work can’t happen in a family that is running at its usual warp speed.

There are resources available to help dog owners and their dogs create a happy home environment.

My best resource with both of our rescue dogs was a local group called Our Companions. I highly recommend them to anyone in central Connecticut who is interested in adopting a rescue dog. They have wonderful support services for training dogs and helping families foster a healthy relationship with their pets. Positive behavioral training really works. In just a week with Cooper, during which we worked for an hour or two every day on positive training (to get him to give us his attention, sit, lie down, “leave it,” etc.), his skills increased noticeably. I thought I knew a lot about dogs, having grown up with them. But it turns out I knew very little, and needed experts to help.

And sometimes, even with the best resources, adoptions will fail.

The trainers we worked with are absolutely committed to successful placements of dogs into adoptive homes. They provide interventions to help families deal with dogs who exhibit problem behavior, so that the families can ultimately keep the dogs.

But with both of our dogs, the trainers suggested we surrender the dog rather than continuing to work with him. While devastating, this was also a great comfort. It helped us to feel less like spectacular failures and more like people who were unfortunate to adopt two dogs who were poorly matched to our family. The poor matches aren’t really anyone’s fault. Everyone made the best decisions we and they could based on the information we had. Cooper never displayed any aggression toward the children in his foster family. But the foster family didn’t have a six-year-old boy who loves being with his mom the way Ben loves being with me. We had no way to anticipate that Cooper would lash out at Ben so readily.

As we’ve gone through these two ordeals, I’ve heard from so many people—more than a dozen—about their own failed dog adoptions. It is not uncommon. I wish we had known some of what we know now before we started the dog adoption process. Then again, perhaps going through the process is the only way to really learn such lessons. I hope what I’ve shared here helps some other family be better prepared to go through the rigorous, but ultimately rewarding experience of adopting a dog. Yes, we still have hope, and I just received an e-mail from one of our trainers about a litter of puppies they will have available for adoption. I think that’s the direction we’ll go in, and hope that the third time’s the charm.

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About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.


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