I’m writing this post because a lot of people have messaged me one way or another about shelters and dog adoption. The biggest thing that I want you to take away from this is that YES, YOU SHOULD ABSOLUTELY ADOPT A DOG FROM A SHELTER. It is probably one of the best things you will ever do.
The second thing I want you to take away from this is that my experience isn’t universal. Every dog-owner pair will adjust to one another differently, depending on about a million things.
And the third thing I want you to take away from this is everything else.
I decided to adopt a dog when everything else in my life had fallen down around my ears. I mean that very literally. I felt more out of my depth than I’d ever felt before. I was isolated and worried and scared out of my mind.
So it made perfect sense to throw another variable into the mix.
Oliver–or as he was known at the shelter, Spike–had been brought in a month before. He’d been thrown out of a moving car and thankfully picked up by one of the employees. He wasn’t fixed, had a paw injury and an eye infection and had probably never been to see a vet in his life. He was barely two years old.
When I met him at the shelter, he walked into the room, looked at me, and then totally ignored me while he sniffed every inch of the floor. We didn’t immediately recognise something inherent in the other. We didn’t immediately fall in love. But I liked his independence, his huge radar-dish ears and alert foxlike face. The adoption counselor told me that he didn’t warm up to everyone immediately; you’d have to work for it. I liked that, too.
The paperwork went through and Spike, now named Oliver, came home with me the next Tuesday. That day I learned a few other things about him that nobody had told me. He wasn’t housebroken, for one thing. He had no house manners and didn’t know basic commands, nor how to walk nicely on a leash. He was food aggressive and nipped people. He was terrified of his crate. He wouldn’t walk on grass. He’d get hysterical around other dogs. His skin was dry and flaky under the fur. He wouldn’t get so much as a toe wet. It was clear he’d been abused and neglected by whoever had owned him before.
Hell of a list, right? Correct! But every single dog in the world–even purebred puppies from breeders–has a list just like it. If you want a pet that fits right into your life with no issue right from the word go, get a fish. But if it walks on four legs and has fur, there’s going to be an adjustment process. Moreso if said four-legged fuzzbucket has dealt with trauma, because then you’re not just training; you’re rehabilitating.
Training is a process that never ends. This is true no matter where your dog comes from and no matter how old they are when you get them. Your dog has to learn how to get along with you, and YOU HAVE TO LEARN HOW TO GET ALONG WITH YOUR DOG. Compromises in some areas must be made! For example: Oliver eats underwear. I can’t stop him from doing this, so I don’t leave underwear where he can get it. Ta dah!
Here’s another: Oliver is a short guy. When I work at the dining table he can only see my feet, which annoys him, which makes him get all growly and crazy. You know what stops this? Sitting him on his own chair at the table so that he can see me. Then, since he’s no longer anxious that I’ll disappear through the ceiling, he curls up and goes to sleep. Compromise.
But as I’m telling you to compromise, you also have to know when to hold the line. Dogs are creatures of routine and habit. They don’t like uncertainty or novelty; they do like firm limits and simple cause-effect transactions. This is true for any dog no matter where they come from, but it’s especially important for dogs coming from a rescue situation: rules and boundaries and a strong, loving master make them feel safe. Feeling safe and secure is the #1 thing you have to provide, because a secure dog is happy, and a happy dog is one more likely to do what you tell him or her.
This is hard to do sometimes. It was hard for me. I was scared for a while that Oliver would think I was mean because all I was doing was saying NO and STOP like a broken record. But then I realised, dogs don’t look at things the way humans do. He isn’t going to hate me because I won’t let him bark at gardeners, he’s going to learn that it’s a behaviour that I, the boss, do not allow.
When it comes to sorting out behaviour problems, start with the worst, most potentially damaging ones and work your way down to the annoying but minor ones. For me, the number one MUST FIX issue was housetraining, because obviously you don’t want your dog using your entire house as a toilet. I put Oliver on a strict going outside schedule, and he picked it up quickly. Like, within a day quickly. Your mileage may vary.
Walking was much harder because it involved more crazy-triggers. Other dogs, squirrels, trucks, strollers…almost everything made Oliver totally flip out. Plus he’d yank my arm out of the socket and drag me everywhere, wouldn’t respond to commands, would chase things, etc. Some of this was breed-related (high prey drive) but still, it was awful. I started to hate walking him because he was so uncontrollable.
I know I talk a lot about The Gentle Lead, but this thing honestly did save me. The first time I put it on Oliver, he was a different dog. Because he couldn’t pull against it, he wasn’t aggressively posturing at other dogs, which meant they were nicer to him, which meant he was nicer to THEM. Bye bye, scary dog aggression. Also bye bye pulling, dragging and sudden stops. He very quickly–and by that I mean “within two days”–learned how to walk next to me and how to listen to my commands. Things I hadn’t been able to teach him in WEEKS with a collar or harness lead. It felt like a miracle.
It’s been six months since I brought Oliver home, and in that time he’s fallen in love with his vet, learned to love his crate, learned a bunch of basic commands (and some not-so-basic ones like “HIGH FIVE!”), made friends with other dogs, gotten used to being alone for periods of time, cuddles of his own volition, tolerates baths and learned how to swim. When I think about the progress he’s made I want to explode with pride. He’s a happy, healthy, well-adjusted boy and you can see that in every wag of his tail and flick of his giant ears.
I had no idea what I was doing when Oliver came home. I’ve never had a dog before, let alone one that needed so much care. But I figured it out, and you will too. And I know this sounds lame, but he gives me so much love every single day that I feel like my input was nothing compared to what I get back.
Right now he’s sprawled out next to me, head resting on my knee. It makes me so angry to think that somewhere out there there’s a person who threw this little guy away like he was garbage, when all he wanted was someone to be kind to him. If you’re thinking about adopting a dog, know that it’s not always easy. But oh my god, is it ever worth it.