“Adopt Don’t Shop” has become a popular slogan in recent years. We’re encouraged more and more to adopt dogs and not buy puppies from breeders, but rescuing a dog isn’t right for everyone and it can quickly turn sour if adopters aren’t prepared for the reality of bringing a new dog into their home.
Many of these dogs have complicated or unknown histories, they come with emotional baggage and we don’t always know exactly what we’re bringing home. There are so many benefits to adopting a dog, but there are many risks too. The idea can be overly simplified, like you know exactly what you’re getting and the dog will match exactly what you need. This mentality is just as dangerous as thinking that puppies are born as blank slates!
Most rescue organisations work extremely hard to prepare potential adoptees for their new dog and offer unlimited support for adopted dogs, but not all adopters are prepared for the reality and it can come as shock when the dog isn’t quite what they expected. They’d sooner give the dog back than accept the help and work through the problems.
The Reality of Rescued Dogs
The dogs who end up with rescue organisations are really the lucky ones, there is such limited space available, many will be turned away or put on a long waiting list. The sad reality is that dogs with more difficult histories (e.g. a known history of biting) are far less likely to be accepted by rescues. These dogs require a lot of time, effort and money to make them suitable for rehoming, they’re high-risk dogs, and when there are probably hundreds of others waiting for rescue spaces, they become the least appealing option.
When rescues are full, they have no choice but to turn away other dogs in need, these dogs may not be problem dogs at all, but they have turned up at the wrong time and there’s no more space to help them. Many rescues now will operate a ‘no kill’ policy, so they won’t PTS a healthy dog, but that does mean they will be more selective about the dogs they take on. They may have a number of spaces for ‘problem dogs’, but otherwise they’ll understandably take on the more rehomable options. It’s no good for anyone if you have a rescue centre full of dogs needing rehabilitation and no one willing to take them on.
Given how over-worked and under-pressure rescue organisations are, it becomes incredibly frustrating when a dog is rehomed, only to be returned a few days or weeks later. This unfortunately isn’t an uncommon occurrence, people are often unrealistic about the reality of taking on a rescue dog, and even when given all the right information, they may not quite prepare themselves for it all.
Foster to Adopt?
Before you dive straight into adopting a new dog, it can be a better option to foster first. Fostering allows you to experience having a new dog in your home without the pressure of knowing that dog is staying for the rest of its life. Sometimes the reality can hit hard, looking at your new rescue dog and thinking ‘how am I going to live with this for another 10 years?’. It’s a scary thought for anyone.
Rather than committing to the long-term with the first dog you meet, you could consider fostering instead. This can work better if you’re less experienced with dogs or not quite sure what you’re looking for. Even for experienced dog owners, on paper you may think you’re willing to take on a dog with ‘problems’ but when you’re faced with the daily reality, it can be hard to stick it out.
Taking the pressure off can make a big difference. Foster homes are invaluable to many rescue organisations, they can assess the dogs in a real-life home which makes it easier to match them up with the right owners. They can begin basic training or teach the dog house manners, and they can get a truer idea of the dog’s personality. Some dogs will need experienced foster homes, but others may be suitable for less experienced ones who want to help out and get more of an idea of what they’re looking for in a dog.
Fostering isn’t a guilt-free way of giving a dog back after a couple of days because ‘it’s too hard work’. You still need to be committed to helping that dog and prepared to work through challenging behaviours, but it can take the pressure off if the dog isn’t a good fit or needs a different type of home. In the best cases, fostering leads to a forever home, many people are failed fosterers who fall in love with their foster dog and adopt them!
Which Dog is for Me?
Fostering is a good way to work out what you want from a dog and what sort of dog will suit your lifestyle. But if you want to adopt straight away, you need to have a realistic idea of what you need from your dog, what you’re willing to work with and what behaviours you can’t live with. The more honest you are, the more able the rescue organisation will be to find the right match.
There are of course no guarantees. Dogs are dogs and we can’t always predict how they’ll behave or adapt to a new home, so when taking on a rescue dog, you need a certain level of flexibility and willingness to adapt with your dog. Compromise is a big part of any dog ownership, even with puppies we don’t always know what we’re getting and you have to be prepared to adapt for your dog. That doesn’t mean taking on a dog who’s scared of children and bringing them into your family home, but it may mean if your dog begins to show some fearful behaviour around new people, you are willing to work on it rather than send the dog back at the first bark.
If you’re not sure what sort of dog you want, it may be advisable to borrow your friends’ dogs or spend time with other dog owners so you can get an idea of what their daily life looks like. Talk to people who have adopted dogs and find out what their experiences were. The more prepared you can be, the more likely you will be able to work through the tough times and not give up!
Some people will be open to any kind of dog, if you have the space and time for a dog who may need additional help, then make that known to the rescue organisations. Too often people are looking for perfect matches who require no effort, so it’s refreshing when someone comes along and is willing to put more time into a dog and help those who are more complicated.
The Power of Time
There is a temptation to give up when a dog seems too difficult. Sometimes people choose to adopt an adult dog because the idea seems easier than taking on a puppy, or because they think they’re doing the right thing. But it’s harder for everyone, including the dog, if you give up at the first sign of trouble.
Moving to a new home is stressful for any dog, and rescue dogs will have experienced a lot of change in a short space of time, so they’re more likely to feel overwhelmed in a new home. Repeated stress takes its toll on dogs, it can have physical effects like digestion issues or other health problems, and it can also impact behaviour. Stressed dogs are likely to less interested in food, they may struggle to focus and learn, display more challenging behaviours, or be completely shut down. All these things can be difficult to live with at times and it can cloud the dog’s true personality.
This means, the dog you pick up from the rescue may not be the dog they become several months down the line. TIME is key. These dogs need time, support and guidance to help them become themselves again. It can take weeks for stress levels to return to a normal baseline, and until that happens, your dog is unlikely to be showing their true character.
It’s important to set your home and your dog up to succeed:
- Puppy proof your home, even for an adult dog, keep tempting items out of reach and provide a safe space for your dog to retreat to
- Manage their environment by only allowing access to certain rooms to begin with. Allow them time to explore and get to know their surroundings
- Give them space and don’t put pressure on interactions. A new dog may need their own space and they may not be ready for much attention or interaction
- Keep things calm and stress-free. Avoid stressful situations for the first few weeks to allow your dog to fully relax and settle
- Bond with your dog and take things slowly, don’t expect too much too soon
- Don’t panic if they display problem behaviours. Toileting in the house, barking, jumping up, mouthing or chewing furniture can all be very normal adjustment behaviours and things which can be improved with good management and training
- Keep track of behaviours, don’t ignore things until you reach breaking point, seek help from the rescue or an experienced, positive trainer
There will be some cases where the home isn’t suitable for the dog, unfortunately it’s not always a perfect science when matching dogs and people. Communicate with your rescue organisation if you have concerns because these people are very experienced and they can help you work out if it’s a settling in issue or something more complicated. If you have adopted a dog without the support of a rescue, then seek help from a professional who has experience with rescue dogs. Unless it’s a matter of safety, for example, if the dog is putting you or your family at risk, then it’s always worth giving it more time and taking the support offered to help your dog settle in and adapt to your home.
Understanding dog body language is really vital when taking on a new dog, some rescue dogs won’t have clear histories or their previous owners may not have been completely honest, so there will always be an element of risk with an unfamiliar dog, particularly if they have moved straight into a new home or lived in kennels for a while. The current news headlines outline the risks of bringing a new dog into your home, while we can’t know the exact circumstances, and one devastating incident shouldn’t cloud all rescue dogs, but it does remind us how important it is to be able to read body language and manage your home carefully when bringing in a new dog. Don’t rely on what you’ve been told about the dog, you still need to be aware of their behaviour and act accordingly. Dogs may display different behaviour in different homes, especially when it’s a new environment, so it’s essential to recognise signs of stress and keep management in place until you feel confident about the dog who has joined your family.
It’s an incredibly rewarding experience to watch a rescue dog grow and develop in a new home. Looking back years later and thinking ‘look how far we’ve come’ can make all those tricky moments feel so worthwhile! Many people will tell your stories of how much hard work and heartache went into their rescue dog, but they will also tell you how they don’t regret any of it and they’d do it all again in a heartbeat. These dogs are worth a chance, they might test you and drain you, but they give so much back too, it makes it all worth it in the end.