These are a couple of myths about shelter/rescue dogs I hear all the time, and am pretty tired of hearing. Why are these two so prevalent? Maybe it’s because rescuing a dog from a shelter is a cool thing to do right now, and these myths help make it seem even more like an even more exciting and rewarding thing to do. That’s my theory, anyway.
This would all be okay, except that they do more harm than good to the rescued dogs in question.
1. Most shelter dogs have been abused
“My dog is afraid of *fill in the blank*, so I think he was abused.” If only I had a nickel for every time I heard this one. Fill in the blank with: teenagers, men, loud noises, people with hats, people taller than 5’11, people shorter than 5’11… you get the idea. My personal favorite is the “raised hand.” It’s not uncommon to see people “test” their prospective dogs by sharply lifting their arm as if to hit the dog to see if he reacts. When the dog flinches, the adopter nods knowingly. “See that? Someone used to hit him.”
You have to wonder – would that same person would flinch if you tried the same test on them?
Most dogs in shelters have never been abused, but were relinquished because their owner had no time for them, got married, had a baby, had issues with their landlord, etc. And many of today’s shelter dogs are victims of the recession, turned in because their owner could no longer afford to care for them. Animals who have suffered terrible abuse certainly do exist in the shelter system, and they’re the ones who get all the media attention, but they are a small minority among the millions of animals there because their former owner couldn’t take care of them.
If your adopted dog is skittish around certain people or situations, chances are he was simply undersocialized. Lots of shelter/rescued dogs have led pretty deprived lives, and have not dealt with many of the experiences that we take for granted.
Case in point: My dog Jonas. When I adopted him, he was five months old and extremely afraid of children. I seriously doubt that he was physically abused by a six year old, though. Instead, he’d just never really been introduced to one and was not at all sure if these mini-people were a threat or not.
2. You should hold off on training to give the dog some time to recover
This one is often an extension of the first myth. A new owner brings their new dog home from the shelter or rescue, introduces them to the household and then, well, doesn’t do much else.
They don’t teach the dog the rules of the house and don’t do any socialization or obedience training. With mental images of their poor dog being abused or otherwise traumatized in their past life, the well-meaning owner “spoils” the dog, sheltering it from the real world. The idea is to give the dog some time to recuperate before putting it through the stress of learning manners or other basic skills.
While this is perfectly well-intentioned, it is actually the worst thing you can do for your new dog.
A dog who is not taught right away the rules of his new home or how he is expected to behave in public is a very confused dog whose behavior issues will only get worse.
Training should begin the day you bring your rescue pup home. Work on teaching him things like where he will sleep, how to behave when the doorbell rings, and how not to jump on visitors. Soon after he comes home, work on basic obedience and socialization in public. As long as you use positive methods and stay away from the harsher correction-based training, training will help your dog recover, not harm him.
Your job is to help your new dog move on, not to dwell on the past.
Let’s say you beat the odds and came home with a dog who actually has been abused by his previous owner. My question to you is: so what?
This is the start of your dog’s new life. So instead of babying him and excusing his poor behavior by telling everyone how mistreated he’d been, concentrate on giving your dog, through socialization and basic training, the tools he’ll need to be a well-behaved, confident member of your family. It’s quite a cliche, but dogs really do live in the moment. He won’t dwell on his (maybe not-so-) terrible past if you won’t.