Shelter Dogs and All Their Baggage

A potential adopter recently asked me a question that I’ve been asked by countless folks over the years who are considering getting a shelter or rescue dog: “Is it risky to adopt a shelter dog since we don’t know his or her background?”

In other words, don’t those dogs have a lot of baggage?

The notion that shelter dogs come with a lot of baggage may originate, in part, from some of the very people who are working so hard to help them. Think about the shelter dogs you see depicted on TV or in a donation letter. Given the pitiful photos of fearful, trembling, sick and abused animals portrayed in fundraising efforts, it might seem like shelter dogs are a mess. I suppose the shelter might be trying to tug at your heartstrings, and maybe that brings in donation dollars (which are much-needed), but does it help present shelter dogs as a good bet for a family dog?

The average person, who wants a stable, healthy, friendly dog, could get the impression that a homeless dog has not been adequately socialized or provided essential veterinary care.

There are other reasons I can think of as to why this stereotype has evolved. But to cut to the chase, my answer to the adopter’s question was this:

Dogs have baggage, just like we all do, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the individual. This goes for puppies from a breeder, a box of puppies found on the side of the road, or a dog who has been given a break by a shelter or rescue group and is hoping to find a home. Puppies are not blank slates; they have personalities and life experiences that might have already made a big impression on them. (Dog people, especially those who have experience with buying and raising puppies, say to each other knowingly, “Puppies are a crapshoot.”)

It is possible to get a really great or a really problematic dog from any source. “Great” or “problematic” are defined by the people with whom the dog lives and on whom he depends. One person’s baggage is another person’s charming quirk.

Homeless dogs are not necessarily emotionally or physically scarred. Maybe they are just between homes.

My advice is not to adopt a dog out of pity, but rather because you and a dog who happens to be homeless are right for each other. That means doing what you can to assess a dog’s personality and behavioral tendencies, check out their physical health, and make sure they meet everyone else in the family first (as you should do before getting any dog). You probably don’t have a crystal ball, so it will be impossible to tell how it turns out. That’s part of the magic! (And true for any dog, from any source.)

Would you consider getting your next dog from a shelter?

Regardless of where you get your dog, do you know how to make a good outcome likelier?

If you volunteer with a rescue group or shelter, what kinds of things are you doing to highlight the benefits of adoption?

What do you think needs to happen to change the perception that shelter dogs have baggage?

I’ve got lots of other topics in mind for October’s National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. Let me know what you’d like to talk about. I am all ears!

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