Visiting Vet: Adopting dogs

Use your head and your heart.

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In adopting a dog, you are making a commitment to another living creature. — Courtesy Pexels

Over the years here, I have had friends who became clients and clients who became friends. It’s the nature of Island living, right? So when a friend called seeking my input about getting a dog, I was in a perfect situation to advise her. I knew my friend. I knew her cat, her husband, her child, her house. I also knew the rescue dog they were considering was not the right choice for them.

Choosing a new pet is a big responsibility. You are making a commitment to another living creature. It’s a little bit like getting married. You should be prepared to care for this being, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do you part. Although the impulse to “rescue” an animal in need is laudable, it is also crucial to make sure you have a good fit. Too often tender-hearted people adopt dogs that simply are not suitable for their circumstances,  ultimately leading to stress and heartbreak for all involved.

Let’s look at things to consider. Safety first. The reality is dogs have the potential to hurt people or other animals. Dogs may bite for many reasons — dominance issues, territoriality, predatory behavior, or fear-based aggression. Some shelters will not take aggressive pets if they know about the behavior, but unfortunately animals often arrive with limited history, both medical and behavioral.

Sometimes people with aggressive pets can’t bear to have them euthanized, and surrender them instead to various rescue operations that then rehome the dogs. This just passes the problem (and the liability) on to a new owner.

It’s an emotional dilemma — loving a dog who is wonderful with family but aggressive to other animals or people. During my college days I had a dog, Cameron, who displayed serious predatory aggression toward other animals. He had never been aggressive toward people, so I decided I could manage him, control his behavior, and safely confine him at all times. I was wrong.

One summer day while visiting my parents, I was sitting in the yard with Cameron on a long, sturdy tie-out cord attached to a tree. A boy rode up on his bike to deliver the newspaper. (That tells you how long ago it was . . .  kids still had paper routes.) Cameron took one look at the kid, and charged him full speed. I wasn’t concerned. The tie-out was heavy-duty cable. The boy was far away. But Cameron gained such momentum that when he reached the end of the cord, the connector snapped. The terrified teen ran. This kicked Cameron’s predatory behavior into high gear. I raced after them, screaming “Don’t run!” knowing the boy’s flight was exacerbating the situation. But I couldn’t run fast enough. Cameron got there first, knocking the boy to the ground and sinking his teeth into the boy’s shoulder.

Adopting dogs with any history of aggression is a serious and potentially dangerous undertaking. Many shelters (and individual owners) learn this lesson the hard way. Others continue to rehome dogs with questionable behavior issues. Motives are usually good, outcomes not so much. An older woman adopted a little dog that kept biting her, until he bit her so badly she ended up in the hospital. A gentleman adopted a big aggressive dog, devoting himself generously to its care, until the dog had bitten one too many people. A family adopted a predatory adult dog that promptly killed their cat. The paper boy went to the hospital. He was okay, whatever that means. I imagine he was emotionally traumatized for long after. I know I was.

Aggression isn’t the only red flag. Many rescue dogs have either suffered abuse or are inadequately socialized, leaving them extremely fearful. Some are prone to fear-induced aggression. Others are just so timid they require a very calm environment, and an abundance of TLC and patience. One of my clients has adopted several such dogs. I make house calls for them as they are too anxious to travel. One time our intended patient, despite being a good-sized dog, hid by wedging herself under a low daybed in the guest room. We actually had to dismantle the bed to get her out. This owner knew what she was signing up for, and does a remarkable job helping these shrinking violets work through their fears. But this type of “project” pet is not for everyone. The dog my friend was considering was also a timid rescue adult. But what this family needed was an outgoing, well-adjusted puppy to fit into their busy household. And the rescue dog, she needed a different sort of home too, one with less hubbub, and an owner more experienced with anxious animals.

Other criteria to consider are an animal’s size, training, and exercise needs. I had a client who always had large dogs, 70 or 80-pounders. When one passed on, she would adopt another. She did not have a fenced-in yard and lived near the road, so she leash-walked her dogs daily. As she aged, this got harder. The last big dog she adopted was just too challenging. It pulled hard on the leash, jerking the owner around whenever another dog came into sight, and periodically running away. I once knew an elderly man who owned an excessively exuberant, strong young Labrador retriever. One day, in a burst of excitement, she pulled her owner over, dragging him down several stairs, breaking his hip. I feared something similar might happen to this lovely lady. Happily, she opted to rehome that big dog and adopted a more manageable 20-pound pooch instead.

My friend has found a puppy that’s a better fit. The family will be bringing her home next month. I trust the rescue dog they opted not to adopt will find a more suitable placement. A bad match is bad for the animal as well as for the owners. You have to use your head as well as your heart when choosing a pet. A good match makes for a happy home for everyone.