As I walked out of the animal shelter with my dream dog — a white German Shepherd Dog mix — at the end of a makeshift leash, I smugly shrugged off the volunteer’s parting words:
“If he doesn’t work out, you can return him for another dog within two weeks.”
But within hours of getting Owen home, I not only remembered the volunteer’s words, I nearly took her up on them. Owen, 6 months of age, was not housetrained very well. He hated his crate and loved eating my clothes. He acted like a savage wolf whenever our older dog Annie, a 5-year-old German Shepherd Dog mix, got within 10 feet of his food bowl. Owen howled in terror every time he encountered a hat-wearing man. I panicked — what did I get myself into?
I shouldn’t have been surprised at this turn of events, and neither should you if you plan to adopt. All dogs need structure, and many require time to adapt to a new home and family, plus training and love — and that takes time and effort.
It’s a familiar story to the experts who deal with a variety of adoption issues every day.
“There is no such thing as a push-button perfect dog,” says Maria Dales, executive director of the German Shepherd Rescue of Orange County, Calif.
Not every new adopter realizes the investment that may be needed to reap the rewards of owning a great dog. Sadly, upwards of 20 percent of all adopted dogs are returned to shelters or rescues, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Why? The checklist for failed matches includes obedience problems, “buyer’s remorse” from getting the wrong type of dog for a family’s lifestyle, house training accidents, personality clashes, lack of new owner effort — they all contribute.
By assessing your readiness to adopt and taking steps at the start of your adoption journey, you can pave the path to a fabulous, forever partnership and an adoption for life. No returns necessary.
First, Ask Why
Why are you thinking about getting a dog? Why do you want one?
The answer, according to Tamar Geller, renowned life coach for dogs and best-selling author of The Loved Dog, (Simon & Schuster, 2007), should be that you have lots of love and time to give to a canine friend.
Geller, who has coached owners from Oprah Winfrey to Ellen DeGeneres, says that prospective adopters should not just think about what the dog will do for them or how he will make them look.
“I equate adopting a dog to dating,” she says. “If you just want to receive, it’s not going to work.”
Do Your Homework
Different breeds were created to fill different niches, says Susie Wormser, director of Scout’s Honor Rescue in Houston. Research your favorites and learn the traits that might make for the best match, whether you plan to adopt a purebred or mix. Do you want a lap dog to keep you company on the sofa, or a partner to share five-mile runs?
“If you don’t like to exercise, then please don’t get a dog whose job was herding livestock for hours on end,” she says. “Both you and the dog will be completely frustrated.”
Knowing what to expect from a breed helps you understand the dog’s behavior. What might at first be seen as “naughty,” such as nipping at the heels of running children, may just be the dog displaying his natural instincts for herding.
This research helps you identify which breeds or mixes are best for your situation, and enables you to ask the right questions of shelter staff when you begin your search. That’s what Anne Peebles of Houston did before she met Joelle, a “black puffball.” Peebles realized she needed a dog good with young children, cats, and all the comings and goings of a busy house. Joelle, a 5-year-old Golden Retriever-Chow Chow mix, fit the bill.
“She has been a great addition to our family,” Peebles says. “She and our cat Sylvia love to play chase and wrestle. Joelle has been wonderful with our kids, sleeping next to them as babies to protect them.”
Be Honest and Know Your Limitations
Evaluate your lifestyle. Do you work 24/7? Travel frequently? Rarely leave the house? Have room for a dog in your condo or apartment? Never exercise? Plan to marry a non-dog lover? Have obsessions when it comes to cleanliness? Be honest, not judgmental, about your life and limits, and discuss them with the rescue worker.
Taking a personal inventory helps you find the best canine match and avoid mistakes … like sharing your studio apartment and couch-potato life with a flamboyant Border Collie.
And don’t ignore older dogs. Often they are already housetrained and pose much less of a challenge in adapting than an untrained puppy.
Many rescues use ratings systems and questionnaires, such as the ASPCA’s Meet Your Match program, to help adopters connect with just the right dog for their interests and activity levels.
Don’t Fall for a Face
“Choosing a dog because it’s beautiful or because it looks exactly like a past dog are recipes for disaster,” Dales says.
Another trap is to fall for a breed or mix that is suddenly popular.
“People fall in love with a cute face all the time,” says Melissa Hannon, director of Peace and Paws Dog Rescue in Hillsborough, N.H.
“Researching the breed of dog you are interested in and comparing that to your lifestyle is imperative.”
- Just like with human relationships, it’s the insides that count, not the outsides. Get to know the dog before you commit to him.
Play with him outside the kennel.
- Speak to shelter volunteers about his personality.
- Offer to foster him. This is an opportunity to take a dog home and see how he does in your family setting.
A good rescue group or shelter worker will help you find a personality that clicks with you.
“Strange as this may sound, it’s that ‘look of love’ that I seek when I introduce adopters to their potential new family members,” says Valerie Macys, president and founder of the Cocker Spaniel Adoption Center Inc. in Westminster, Md.
Commit to Training
Despite screening by rescue groups, adoptions can be impulse decisions.
“Are you truly in it for the long haul, come what may?” Macys asks.
Once you adopt, you are saying that yes, you are committed to a relationship that may last five, 10, or 15 years. Will you still be able and willing to care for this dog then?
Because many adoptions fail due to behavior issues, it’s vital that you are committed to training the dog every day, now and years from now.
“If you do not teach a dog to behave as you see fit, then how is he or she supposed to know what is acceptable?” Wormser asks.
Set up good rules and communicate them effectively. You need to let him know what is expected of him every day from the start.
“Most dogs are returned due to obedience issues that are owner-created,” Hannon says. “Training makes all the difference in the majority of cases. … People need to start taking responsibility for the behaviors they are ultimately responsible for creating.”
For example, if you bring the dog home and let him have full run of the house unsupervised, of course problems will occur. Especially at first, keep an eye on him constantly, restricting his access, until he learns the rules.
And it is not just the dog that needs training. If there are children in your house, they must learn the rules of interaction before they can be safe and trusted together. Letting a new dog play unsupervised with children is dangerous and sets the dog up to fail. You can avert conflicts between children and canines by always being present to teach them both the right ways of play from the start.
“When a dog gets to a new home environment, he needs a little time to adjust,” says Steven Latham, creator and co-founder of ShelterMe.com and producer/director of the Shelter Me series on PBS. “There may be some whining or barking, separation anxiety, or pacing. This is very normal and will subside as the dog gets more comfortable.”
In this fast-paced society, we want it all right now. We are not accustomed to waiting. If the dog we just adopted is not behaving as we expect, we overreact and feel the game is lost even before it starts.
“It may take time and work for everyone to get to know what is needed and expected,” Wormser says.
I worked with Owen to solve his behavior quirks and obedience issues, and we spent the next 11 years together. He turned out to be one of the best dogs I’ve ever had. Even though the changes were quick in most cases, they still required patience and commitment on my part.
The time and effort paid off with years of loving companionship. I succeeded, and so can you.