Surviving Adoption

small black dog being held by a man at an animal shelterRay Coppinger studies the world’s population of free-ranging dogs. These are the domesticated dog (as opposed to wild dogs) who are not under the reproductive control of humans. There are millions of them and they represent over 80% of the world’s population of dogs. He has looked at how dogs end up living as pets.

The most common thing that happens is that dogs adopt people. Travel in any developing country and you’re likely to see a puppy or young dog trailing behind a person, often a child. The pup survives on the scraps or offerings of the person they choose to be with. If the food or other necessity such as water or shelter is available on a regular basis, and provides an advantage over not sticking around the person, the dog has found a home.

When I was a kid my mother, having traveled to Florida, brought me home a baby alligator. The person who sold her the alligator told her that we should feed it bread. That my mother didn’t have an understanding of the needs of alligators is obvious, that the person selling her the alligator didn’t care is obvious as well. Martin the alligator (named after my brother) didn’t survive for long in his bathtub by the radiator. People also adopt dogs. One of the required conditions for any animal that is adopted by people is that they are able to survive the adoption process. Dogs for the most part, unlike alligators, have been overwhelmingly success at this.

Fearful dogs frequently do not survive the adoption process. Their needs are misunderstood, and even the most compassionate of people may not be able to meet them. The people responsible for finding homes for dogs with fear based behavior challenges need to be able to either give a dog the skills they will need to be successful as pets, or find someone who can.

Is the pet shop owner, knowing that the majority of baby alligators they are selling to tourists to bring home to their kids will not be cared for appropriately, behaving in an ethical way? If the pet shop owner is unaware of the needs of baby alligators should they be in the business of selling them? What is our responsibility for the dogs we either adopt out or bring home to live with us as pets? How can we increase the chances that a dog will not only survive the adoption process but thrive in it?



24 comments so far

  1. E. Foley on

    We were blessed to find a really amazing training center just around the corner from our house. I credit Your Dog’s Friend for helping my dog build her confidence.

    They offer a free monthly workshop for people who are considering adopting or have recently adopted. The trainer who runs it goes over the basics of getting a dog acquainted with its new home, some basic training, and then the majority of the class is Q&A, so you can go over anything you want. There’s no limit on how many times you can attend. 🙂

    They also have a Foster Dog Alliance, which is a super inexpensive basic training class for foster dogs. There are three classes a week that foster parents can drop in on and help build up skills & confidence in their fosters to make them more adoptable.

    Pretty cool stuff. 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing that. There are some fantastic organizations out there coming up with creative programs for helping dogs be successful in their new homes. Foster Dog Alliance, what a great idea!

  2. Catherine McBrien on

    Like most people who sell animals, the pet store owner is only concerned about profit. Any time money and animals mix, animals end up the loser, whether it’s a high-priced race horse sold for slaughter when it’s broken down (thousands of Thoroughbreds meet this fate every year) or dog breeders who just want money.

    Every dog that’s sold means another dog loses it life. If people really want to say they love dogs, they need to stop purchasing them and contributing to this horrific problem. Rescue groups need to educate people on how to manage their new family member so it works out for both dog and human. I’m sure you could come up with a short booklet which provides at least some general guidelines to help the adoption process work.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Pat Miller has written Do Over Dogs, McConnell & London wrote Love Has No Age Limit and Sue Sternberg’s book on Successful Adoptions, all give shelters and adopters sensible guidelines to follow.

  3. Lisa W on

    When we adopted our dog from a lab rescue out of Indiana, we had no idea what we were entering into. The rescue we got her from does those big transports and nothing they told us about her was true (age, breeding, experiences before adoption, etc). I didn’t know then what I know now about all that. After we had her for a few weeks and realized that she had never lived in a house before and was afraid of common things like stairs or the sound of a radio and was considerably older than we were told, I called the rescue to ask a few questions and if they knew how I could find out more about her background. They screamed and yelled at me and threatened me. They adopt out more than 400 dogs a year at a hefty sum, so it’s not just pet stores and breeders, it’s also some dog rescues that are so huge and so unconcerned with the dogs and the adopters. I am frustrated by the lack of accountability in the world of rescue. I couldn’t even find a place to register a complaint, there are no state or federal regulations or even industry boards.

    She came with such a long set of issues and anxiety that I didn’t even know existed. Over the past three years, we’ve all learned a lot and come a long way. She is a smart, funny, stubborn little terrier, and we love her. She is an amazing dog. It has taken lots of reading and lots of new ideas and lots of professional consults. Have we learned a lot and grown together? Yes. Was it a conscious choice to enter into this world of fear and anxiety? No.

    She has certainly survived the adoption, and we all are thriving together, but the experience has definitely left its mark on my outlook in terms of rescue and adopting.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting Lisa. One of the criteria I think should exist to define a successful adoption is that pet owners will consider adoption again in the future. I speak with a number of people who though they support the idea of adopting a dog rather than purchasing one, prefer to buy a puppy (not that there’s neceearily anything wrong with that) rather than risk adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue. There is no guarantee what we’ll get when we buy a puppy either, but having had to deal with the challenges of a dog like yours and mine, challenges that go beyond what one should expect from a rehomed dog, has put them off even considering adoption again.

      • gingerspacedog on

        I can relate to this a lot. We think that because our dog was so shut down, it masked a lot of his issues and the rescue group honestly didn’t know that the match was not as great as it could have been in terms of skill level the dog needed and the skill of the owners. They also had over 15 dogs that were being fostered at one persons house (probably making it hard to know much about a dog that didn’t actively cause trouble). They told us he had been through a lot of trauma but that he seemed to be okay – with time and love he would be okay once he settled in. When we adopted our dog, we told the rescue group that as first time dog owners, we were looking for a pet that didn’t have a lot of complicated behaviors that would need a more confident/ experienced home (my wife grew up with family pets and I had extended family that always included lots of dogs but neither of us had had a dog that was primarily our responsibility).

        I think we aren’t the perfect home for our dog. Someone in a more suburban or rural neighborhood with a confident small resident dog would have been ideal. I think that someone more confident who didn’t need having a dog 101, let alone fearful dog 101 could have helped him a lot faster.We are glad that we have time, energy and ability to take classes with him. We love him to absolute pieces and are very committed to him. We would adopt again and once our dog is more settled we would very much love to foster dogs. Our experience has taught us that rescue dogs are great dogs but it is best to work with an organization that is more established and has more foster homes who get to know the dog well before adoption. We also know what to ask and more about dog behavior.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Sounds like lots of ‘living and learning’ going on for you in regard to dogs, behavior and rescue. Learning is good 🙂

      • gingerspacedog on

        for sure! Not all of it has been fun (like when we were told by the rescue that they would fax us all his records and they never did. After calling and e-mailing for a 3 weeks without a response we just went to the vet and redid all the shots, did a teeth clean, blood work etc).

        I agree with what you say about looking at not just focusing on number of adoptions and dogs rescued but looking at number of good/ long lasting placements that were a fit. While I think a lot of rescues including the one we adopted our dog from need to pay attention to what happens after the dog is adopted and provide support (like returning phone calls and getting someone who knows dogs well to be a behavioral assessment that is accurate as part of the rehoming process). That being said, we’ve just found our dog has brought us so much joy and we are just so glad he is in our lives. Any future dog we get is going to benefit from all we’ve learned about positive training methods, dog body language and building trust.

  4. Lynn on

    Even the best rescues can’t be sure what’s going to occur after the adoption takes place. The shelter that rescued my fearful Tulip made it clear that she was a special case, and although they didn’t drive home how difficult it would likely be, how would they really know? Some dogs come around when they’re free of the stressful environment. When I adopted Jasmine from the same place, the counselor said she was a sweet-tempered, easy-going young dog who she thought would be a good friend for Tulip. Her reactivity (and taste for picking fights) didn’t emerge for months. The change may have occurred because of a combination of Lyme disease and a stray ovary causing hormonal surges (so our vet says), but I’m sure it’s partly because I’m not as good a trainer as I need to be. Not the shelter’s fault, although our neighbors point to both our dogs as “what you get” with a rescue dog.

    There’s always a risk if you choose a dog because of its breed, or its sad or cute face. If I adopt again, I’ll volunteer and get to know the dog better before making such a huge commitment. (Don’t get me wrong; I love my two “problems.” And my neighbors, by the way, once had a non-rescue dog that bit everyone on our lane. So much for that.)

    Your alligator reminded me that I once had a couple of those tiny, red-eared turtles that pet shops used to sell in a plastic saucer with a palm tree. I read up on what they needed, got them a proper tank, and they grew so big, I finally had to give them to an aquarium. Hoping that’s a good sign for my girls.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It is true that there is no way to know with 100% certainty how a dog will behave in his/her new home, but we can have a good idea of what we might expect, based on what we know about the dog and the challenges of modifying behavior. IMO a rescue group/shelter should know how difficult it is likely to be for a pet owner to work with a dog with issues, whatever the issues. It doesn’t necessarily get easier for a dog when they have to adapt to yet another home, however much better it might be from the last.

      I had a few of those turtles too! I read about them not too long ago when there was a salmonella scare.

      I wouldn’t trade my problem dogs either but do look forward to the day when I once again have dogs who can more easily and comfortably adjust to my life and all the things I’d like to be able to do with them.

    • engineer chic on

      With our fearful little dog, the history was there (hoarding situation) but he seemed pretty normal during our meetings before we adopted him. Later I figured out that he was normal when there were other dogs around that he could watch for cues. Without a “support system” of friendly dogs nearby he viewed all strangers as very, very scary people. He approached us only after seeing other dogs approach and be petted. But – a rescue group couldn’t have seen that either unless they isolated him away from other dogs for a couple hours & watched for fearful behavior to emerge.

      I would adopt again in a heartbeat. I guess I would rather try to repair damage that others have done than risk doing my own damage to a puppy. And I can’t bear the thought of knowing that by NOT adopting from a shelter or rescue I’ve increased the chances that a healthy dog will be euthanized.

      • fearfuldogs on

        I hate to think you believe you’d do damage to a puppy! My guess is that you’d do a great job.

        A rescue pulling dogs from mill situations should be looking for very predictable behavioral challenges these dogs are likely to experience, such as needing the social buffering of other dogs in order to feel less anxious.

        If they don’t even know what to be looking for it’s not surprising that they wouldn’t anticipate it occurring. But my contention is that if you’re doing rescue you should know this stuff.

        I also understand that many people involved in rescue are busy dealing with the fundamentals of ‘saving lives’ and do not understand the fundamentals of behavior as much as they should. I think they would do a greater service to the dogs if they did.

  5. Lynn on

    When I said “if I adopt again” I didn’t mean my dogs have put me off adopting, just that if they live as long as my other pets, all of them rescues, I’ll be getting up there in years myself. Assuming I live that long, I’ll adopt seniors, and just try harder to get to know them before bringing them home.

    • fearfuldogs on

      living and learning!

    • EngineerChic on

      This is so good to hear 🙂 Our first dogs were all adopted when they were considered “old” (5 yrs, 7 yrs, and 14 yrs old). I’ve heard that older dogs are more grateful and that was so true for our dogs. Not that our current dog is an insolent brat (far from it) but there is so much to be said for that seasoned dog who’s seen life’s ups and downs. Geez, now I want to go browsing rescue sites for another “old” dog.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Not sure if we’ll ever know if dogs experience ‘gratitude’. But it probably doesn’t matter. If we think they are grateful maybe we’ll be nicer to them 😉 I suppose the only catch is if we flip this around and label other dogs as ungrateful.

  6. Cybele on

    Hence the term, “You ungrateful whelp”.

  7. Lisa W on

    Well, I just read that the “rescue” we got our dog from has been shut down.

    It’s too bad thousands of dogs had to go through this horrible experience. They said they adopted out 1,000 last year and more than 7,000 since they started (at $300 – $450 per dog, you do the math). They are blaming an employee and their website is full of indignant comments.

    I wish I had a place to voice my concerns three years ago.

    Also, I would consider adopting a dog again (this was our third adopted dog over the last 16 years), but I would do a lot more homework and work with a local agency or group and spend a lot more time with the dogs. No more virtual dog adoptions for me. I do take responsibility for my ignorance when we adopted Olive.

    • fearfuldogs on

      In this digital age it’s easy for ‘rescuers’ to create very different realities online than what their animals are actually experiencing. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You wanted to do a good thing, and you did. Olive is lucky for it.

  8. EngineerChic on

    Totally OT …
    Do you remember the video you made showing how you gradually convinced Annie the Cocker Spaniel to accept the foul-tasting dental stuff? I wanted to say I’ve used that as inspiration and by following your steps I can clip our dog’s nails without much squirming or feet-pulling behavior now. Sunday I did it while he was curled up on the couch – he let me extract one paw at a time and I did all 4 feet in sequence.

    4 feet = 18 toenails = 18 tiny treats. A couple times I swear I saw him look at the treat-pile the instant he heard/felt the clipper trim his nail, like he was thinking, “C’mon, I let you do that now give me the treat.”.

    He never actively fought nail clipping (no growling or aggressive pushback) but would flee when he saw the clippers or if you had him lying down he’d keep pulling his feet away every time I tried to clip his nails. I’m paranoid about cutting a vein, so having him as a “reasonably willing” participant makes it MUCH easier to shave a tiny bit of nail a couple times a week. Now that he’ll let me hold a toenail without pulling his foot back, I can do this SO much easier. So, THANK YOU for demonstrating the whole process (beginning, middle, and end).

    • fearfuldogs on

      YAHOOO! So glad that video was helpful. I’m sure Annie would say it was all worth it now 😉

  9. dia on

    I just found this blog, and think I’ll enjoy reading it a lot. I accidentally adopted a very fearful dog with a feral background two years ago, when my sister brought him from Egypt for somebody else. Turned out, “somebody else” didn’t actually want him. When he arrived at my house at 5 months, I was amazed at how mature he seemed; in hindsight, I think he was very shut down from a 24-hour plane ride, and a strange house full of strangers. I knew almost nothing about dogs and for the first few weeks I was practicing “Leader of the Pack” by the Dog Whisperer type of techniques. Luckily for us both, I fairly quickly started looking for other approaches, but it was still several months before I began to get a handle on his issues. Over the two years I’ve had him, I’ve learned a lot and he’s improved, but I wonder how much better he might have done with someone more knowledgeable and skilled from the beginning? Nonetheless, he’s very sweet and gentle with the people he knows/trusts, and I love him dearly even though he’ll be a lifetime of work and management, and I wouldn’t hesitate to adopt another puppy or young dog from the same area, though I’d hesitate with an older dog. This type is very independent, wary and suspicious of strangers, even when raised from puppyhood with people, so I don’t know if a rescued older dog would be able to adjust to being a pet.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Hindsight is usually 20/20 so we can’t fault ourselves for not doing what we don’t know how to do. But it sounds as though you are learning and your dog will continue to do so as well.

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