As an adult, I have had the honor of living with four “perfect” dogs. One only liked 50% of my friends. One dog liked chasing tennis balls, eating doughnuts (long story), biting other dogs and us—in that order. One has a very severe case of anxiety that requires daily medication. And finally, the most recent adoptee is only 75% house-trained, after spending his first few years being bounced around shelters where the bathroom was everywhere.
This is a long-winded way of saying they are perfect to me. I assumed everyone had low-to no-expectations when it came to cats and dogs, aside from them not being dangerous, until three years ago when I joined the board of a non-profit animal rescue in my community. Since then, I’ve learned quite the opposite—many people have completely unrealistic, impossible expectations about cats and dogs, which perpetuate the cycle of pet abandonment, the need for independent rescues and the many-decades long problem of shelters killing healthy cats and dogs. I’ve come to believe that if we are ever going to effectively conquer pet overpopulation, we need to start with our attitudes about what makes a great pet.
WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT ALWAYS WHAT YOU GET
These days, shelters and rescues entice the public to adopt animals by posting super adorable photos on social media with pithy captions of cats and dogs in need of a home. Everyone oohs and ahs over the irresistible photos, but what happens next is cause for alarm. The public— ostensibly dog and cat fanatics like myself—start the predictable line of questioning in the comments section: Do they like other animals? Do they like children? Are they house-broken? Aggressive? The list goes on and on.
In other words, what people are looking for are “perfect” cats and dogs, who will behave exactly as we want them to, always, and won’t ever be an inconvenience. And this sets everyone—pets and humans—up for failure. It’s understandable why someone wants an “easy” pet, but nearly anyone who’s ever lived with a cat or dog knows there are no guarantees.
What an animal acts like in a shelter environment might be completely different than what they act like in your house, around your other pets or even your children. The only thing that’s guaranteed is a pet is going to require time, energy, money, patience and, most importantly, love. In exchange you get a family member that loves you unconditionally and sees past and through your shortcomings, which is extraordinary.
If we’re open-minded, it’s the closest thing we can have to a perfect relationship.
Greg Little, a longtime Friends of Animals member, vegan, accountant, Delaware resident and all-around animal fanatic, tells me that when he adopted his first dog, Yoshi, he was simply looking for “an energetic outdoorsy dog,” but was otherwise not picky.
“I was unprepared,” Little said, adding that he didn’t even know the right questions to ask. Yoshi had been in the shelter system repeatedly, having been returned by previous owners for unknown reasons. But the shelter where Little adopted Yoshi did tell him that Yoshi didn’t always get along with other dogs. As it turned out, Yoshi, a mixedbreed, had quite a few behavioral challenges—some more serious than others. Little says that his challenges were noticeable right away.
“He was very reactive towards men while we were on walks; he would bark at all other dogs; he’d bolt out the door and run far away if he had the chance; he’s very fussy when he doesn’t want to do things—especially at the vet’s office, where he has become very aggressive,” Little explained. “He’s also an extremely picky eater and will sometimes go a few days without eating his food, although he’ll eat garbage off the street.”
From my volunteer work at the animal rescue, I can sadly tell you that many people will return an animal for just one of these challenges. In fact, some of the most common reasons people return animals are pedestrian: age, boredom, money, vacations, birth of a child. No one should be adopting a pet unless they’ve thought it through and are prepared to make a lifetime commitment.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if you are really ready: Are you willing to work through “bad” behavior? Do you have the time to have kids and pets? Are you financially prepared to live with a cat or dog, even with the inevitability that they will get older and more expensive? Can you deal with the unknown challenges? These are serious questions that deserve serious consideration.
EDUCATE YOURSELF AND BE PREPARED TO HIRE PROFESSIONALS
If you adopt a cat or dog from a community shelter or rescue, more than likely they know a lot about the behavior of the animal you’re about to adopt—especially the dogs in their care. That’s because shelters are committed to making good matches between dogs and owners and go to great lengths to evaluate personality and behavior (dogs are much easier to evaluate than cats). The tools they use to evaluate behavior are sophisticated but not foolproof. If you learn that the animal you are interested in has some behavioral challenges, find out if the behavior is manageable and what kind of help is available.
Some shelters provide free training with an animal behaviorist or trainer or give vouchers toward training costs. While every community is different, there are now a lot of resources available for dealing with challenging behaviors—including excellent books, free YouTube videos, one-onone training, etc. Ask what the shelter recommends; veterinarians usually have close relationships with trainers and behaviorists and will provide contact information for their most trusted. Find out what the costs are.
To help Yoshi, Little read The Power of Positive Dog Training, by Pat Miller and, over time, was able to make progress with all of his problematic behaviors—except for his extreme dislike of veterinarians. The approach Little learned and started utilizing was to reward Yoshi’s good behavior, like when he walked calmly or would stay still when someone came to the door; and ignore his bad behavior.
Little added, “It’s so much more enjoyable to have a positive relationship with your dog instead of spending all your time trying to correct things. Ultimately, it teaches the dog that good behavior gets him the things that he wants (attention, toys, treats, etc.).”
Little has also learned the importance of managing expectations and trying to put Yoshi in situations where he can be successful. For example, Little doesn’t take Yoshi to dog parks, because it’s too much stimulation, but makes sure he gets lots of exercise from other activities.
REAPING THE REWARDS OF IMPERFECTION
I could write a dissertation on loving seemingly imperfect animals. Over the past two decades I’ve realized it’s the idiosyncrasies and challenges that have made our bonds deeper and made the reward of loving them even greater.
Little said the same thing of Yoshi: “It’s kind of cheesy but seeing him happy and successful feels a little more special than if he was a ‘perfect’ dog.” Do I like it when my 3-year-old chihuahua, who was adopted and returned to a shelter three times before I adopted him, still pees, occasionally and randomly, in the house? NO! But I am also madly in love with his spunk, loving personality and friendliness with complete strangers. It’s his sense of humor that I choose to focus on. Maybe, just maybe, in the future, he’ll stop peeing on the corner of the bedroom door. But I am not holding my breath.
Development Director Dustin Rhodes is in charge of fundraising at Friends of Animals. He resides in Asheville, North Carolina, a progressive, animal-loving community in the Blue Ridge Mountains.