So your Facebook friend is looking to get a dog…

[Dear TU readers: this post started as a comment to an actual Facebook friend of mine, and then I thought, "Man, I write some version of this comment SO OFTEN: wouldn't it be helpful if I just had a post to link to?" So I wrote one! I'm going to guess that a whole bunch of us have had similar experiences on Facebook, right? If so, feel free to link this sucker to your heart's content. You're welcome!]

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Dear Facebook friend,

Hi there! It’s been a while since we’ve talked! Perhaps you’re an old friend from high school; maybe you’re an aunt’s-cousin’s-neighbor; maybe you’re a good friend who lives far enough away that we don’t have a ton of time to talk dogs in person. Whatever it is: hello!

Here’s the deal: you just posted a comment on Facebook about how you were thinking about getting a dog for the first time, you’d like to rescue, and you’re wondering what breed to get. You may also have said some of the things you’re hoping your future dog will have. Maybe you want them to be good with kids. Maybe you want a dog who doesn’t shed. Maybe you think you only want a small dog. I know I don’t normally write big giant comments on your posts, but here’s the thing: I have a LOT of opinions about dogs, and I’d rather write a big long comment on Facebook about dogs than do the dishes right now! So here you go.

The first piece of advice I’m going to give you is this: don’t focus so much on breed.I know, I know: there are so many dogs out there, and thinking about breed helps you focus your search. I get it. But here’s the thing: first off, there’s no breed that’s inherently good with kids (or cats, or whatever). There just isn’t. There are dogs who are bred to be companions, some dogs who are bred to be a little more tolerant of nonsense, etc. However, within those broad breed types, you have a lot of individual dogs with a lot of individual personalities and a lot of individual feelings on kids (or cats, or whatever).  Second, if you’re going through a shelter or non-breed specific rescue, you’re usually going to be dealing with some very fuzzy breed designations that are almost certainly incorrect. This is not because the rescue people are trying to trick you; it’s just that they legitimately don’t know the dog’s background and they’re trying to make a guess based on what the dog looks like. Most rescues hate having to guess breeds for dogs, because they KNOW it’s a guess: the thing is that most shelter software (and Petfinder) requires you to list a breed or breed mix for dogs in the system, so the shelter people have to make a guess whether they want to or not. LOTS of studies have been done about visual breed IDs and those studies find, without exception, visual breed IDs of mixed breed dogs are nearly always inaccurate. If you want more information on this, the National Canine Research Council has a great page here that you can read: here’s one set of pictures from that page that I think really sums it up!

Picture one: a purebred Basenji and a purebred Cocker Spaniel

parents of hybrids

Picture Two: Their Babies

Scott and fuller F1

So, TL;DR–the cute little dog at the shelter or on Petfinder who is listed as a Lab/Pomeranian cross is probably definitely not that (or anything close to it.) If you look at that dog and say, “Ooo, a Lab mix! That means he loves kids, because Labs love kids!”, you are compounding the error.

There’s also no breed of dog that won’t shed–some dogs, like poodles, shed into their undercoat rather than dropping hair, but the flip side of that is that they need to be groomed on a very consistent basis or they’ll turn into a giant mat because the shed hair has nowhere to go. One of the biggest pieces of incorrect information floating around about dogs is the idea that if your dog is a poodle or poodle cross, they won’t shed. First of all, the dog you’re looking at is likely not a poodle cross: see above. Second of all, this!

So really: breed is not the best criteria to use when you’re picking a rescue dog. If you are really really really focused on breed, then go to a breed-specific rescue. However, if what you’re looking for is a nice, fun, family dog, you are unnecessarily limiting your pool by looking only at purebreds. Also, let me say this right now: sure, you can find purebreds in rescue and in shelters, but those purebreds are not the carefully-selected dogs who have been bred thoughtfully with an eye towards temperament and structure that you’re thinking of. The purebred dogs in rescue or in shelters are almost exclusively from crappy breeders, BYBs or mills. This is because good breeders do not let dogs they produce end up in shelters, period. All good breeders will stipulate in their contract that if a dog cannot stay with the family who bought them for whatever reason, they must be returned to the breeder (or the breeder must be involved in the selection of a new home): that is one of the very few iron-clad rules of ‘what makes a good breeder’. Now, are there occasionally examples of carefully bred, purchased dogs who get dumped in shelters in violation of the puppy buyer’s contract? Sure. But usually those dogs are chipped with information leading to the breeder, and usually somewhere there’s a breeder fighting like hell to get that dog back. The breeders whose dogs end up in the shelter and stay there do not, by definition, care where their dogs end up. These are also typically breeders who don’t care about other important stuff, like health testing and temperament. The long and short of it is that if you’re getting a purebred dog from a rescue or shelter, you are not getting a dog who’s any “better” than the mixed breed dogs in the shelter (in the sense that you have any predictability about things like their health or temperament).

So what are you supposed to look for if not breed? Realistically, the best way to find a dog who you’re compatible with is to think about two things: the dog’s personality and the dog’s energy level. You can consider size too, to a certain extent: bigger dogs, can, of course, accidentally knock a child or an older person down (though smaller dogs can trip people!) However, size is usually not as helpful of a metric as the dog’s energy level. My personal go-to dog for families with kids is usually a sweet, lazy old pittie (who are medium to large dogs) because they tend to be very tolerant of kid nonsense and they tend to have low exercise needs. Small dogs are not inherently calm dogs.

So, let’s break those categories down a little bit. First, personality:

-As first time dog people, especially if you have kids, you’re probably going to want a dog who’s tolerant, patient and can handle a lot of novel stimulus (a lot of times, when rescues say ‘no kids under 12′, that is code for, “this dog is not that patient and is going to snap at a kid who’s handling her incorrectly”). Rescues will have a lot of different words to describe this–easy-going, go-with-the-flow, low-key–and will almost certainly be able to point you in the direction of a dog who fits that description. 

-It is nice to have a social dog–who doesn’t want their dog to like hanging out with them?–but be a little careful here. That dog who is totally, 100% focused on you when you meet her? The dog who stares at you the whole time when you take her out on a walk? The dog in the run who makes a beeline over to you and hangs out with you the whole time instead of interacting with her runmates or things happening outside? The dog who prompts people to say, when telling the story of her adoption later, “She picked us!” That may be the perfect dog for you, but that might also be a dog who gets really stressed out when you leave her alone or a dog who has a tough time finding something to do on her own when you’re occupied with something else. My pick for an average, busy, new-to-dogs family is not the super social dog who wants to be with you 100% of the time: it’s the dog who comes over and checks in with you regularly and then wanders off to smell an interesting smell or play with a toy.  You guys are probably busy people, and the dog is going to need to have some capacity to amuse herself; really social dogs tend to suffer a little bit when they’re alone, and they can often have a hard time making their own fun.

Next, energy level:

-For an average busy family, I’d look for a dog with low-to-moderate exercise needs. A high-energy dog is not a dog who’s going to be satisfied with playing chuck-it in the back yard, neighborhood walks and the occasional weekend hike. Lots of dogs have vestiges of our agrarian past, when we needed dogs to help us work 10-12 hours a day, imprinted in their DNA. Herding dogs, little terriers (bred to be independent workers who killed invading critters), and hunting dogs are all on this list, and they often don’t adapt well to being casual family pets. Yes, this includes Labs. I know a lot of people in this comment thread are saying “get a Lab” [TU readers: feel free to amend this if everyone's telling your Facebook friend to get a different breed, but let's be real: it's probably Labs, right? Labs or some kind of doodle-something?]  Sure, there are some lazy Labs out there, but Labs are bred to be high-energy working dogs and often are:  my local shelter and most of the shelters I’ve worked at are lousy with busy, energetic teenage Labs who were too much for the families who got them thinking they’d be sweet, easy pets. 

-You know who are frequently going to have those low-medium energy needs I talked about in the previous point? Older dogs. Yes, I know–you are looking for a dog between 1-2 years old, a dog who can grow up with your kids, etc. etc. That’s the dog everyone thinks they want: past puppy stage, but still young and fun. However, here’s something to consider: in my opinion, that’s one of the most difficult ages for dogs, behavior-wise. Dogs all tend to mature at different rates, but usually, they go through teenagerhood somewhere between 1-3 years old. This, not coincidentally, is a very very very very common age for dogs to be surrendered to shelters; teenage dogs, generally speaking, are usually a combination of lots of energy, a clumsy body that they don’t know how to use appropriately yet, a puppy brain, and a selective memory for things like manners and the cues they learned when they were puppies. They do eventually mature, but, like humans, teenagers are teenager-y. Dogs also frequently start getting choosy about other dogs at around three years old (that’s a rough estimate, but it’s a pretty common timeline). As such, the super fun, play-with-everyone two-year old you adopted can turn into a three-year old who doesn’t want to go to the dog park and is yelling at other dogs on the street. Think about the way you made friends when you were kids (“You have a red bike; I have a red bike: WE ARE BEST FRIENDS!”) and the way you make friends as an adult. You’re choosier, right?  Similarly, dogs often get more selective around other dogs as they age: it’s very common occurrence and certainly modifiable with some training. That said, if you opt for a somewhat older dog, you will likely find a dog with a personality that’s a little bit more stable: the dog knows what he likes and doesn’t, and has developed some coping skills around the things he doesn’t like. If it’s really important that, for example, your dog get along with other dogs, you’ll get better information from a six year old dog than you will from a one year old dog. That’s nice information to have when you’re adopting! And even if you get a six year old dog, you’re still going to have that dog for a good long time, likely the better part of a decade.

So how do you go about finding a dog with a personality and an energy level that works for you? There’s no way around it: you’re going to have to go look at a bunch of dogs. There’s no real online substitute for that. Take an afternoon or three, go to shelters in your area and/or email some local rescues about meeting some of their fostered dogs. Do you want to know how to make a shelter person love you? Go in, and instead of saying “I want this dog I saw on Petfinder because he looks cute” or “I want this dog who looks like a Boxer because I had Boxers when I was a kid and all Boxers are great”,  go in and say, “hey, this is our situation: we’ve got a young kid, we are new dog owners, who do you have that might be a good fit for us?” Shelters and rescues generally loooooooove it when people do this, because they know the dogs really well and can make good solid recommendations for dogs who will fit your lifestyle. There is always some dog at a shelter who all the shelter workers adore, and they say, “It is so crazy he hasn’t been adopted yet!” to each other every time they go by him. Sometimes that dog isn’t the flashiest one in the row, or sometimes he is sweet and mellow and is overlooked, but I guarantee you that dog will still be cute and awesome (because all dogs are cute and awesome.) The people at the shelter are dying to show you that dog, I promise. You also might look to see if your local shelter has any programs in place like the ASPCA’s Meet Your Match program: these programs are designed to match people with compatible pets based on personality, and they have very high success and adopter satisfaction rates.

In addition, some trainers will also help you pick out a dog as one of the services they provide. Look around at the trainers in your area and see if you can find anybody who explicitly offers this. If you don’t find this immediately, call around: track down a local positive reinforcement trainer (the Association of Pet Dog Trainers website has a good database) and ask them if they might be able to help you. There are lots of benefits to this approach. First, you’ve got a second pair of (professional) eyes helping you make the decision, and second, you’ve also made a nice connection with somebody who can help you when your new dog starts displaying issues (which most dogs will do at some point in their lives). Just as you wouldn’t wait until your baby was really sick to start researching pediatricians, it can be helpful to make some contacts with local trainers early: they can often point you towards some good classes to take with your new dog, and if your dog does end up with some quirky behaviors, you already have a nice person in your corner who can help you work on them.

Finally, a quick word on where you should get a dog if you’re looking to adopt. First, if you’re looking to make a real, immediate difference with your adoption, consider starting at a kill shelter. Yes, these can be emotionally draining places to be, and yes, you will look at a lot of dogs and not be able to take all of them home, and yes, you are helping dogs no matter what organization you adopt from, but if you go to a kill shelter, you are literally, immediately saving a life: that’s the reality of it.  There are a zillion awesome dogs at your local pound, I promise. If that’s too emotionally taxing (no judgement!), go to a no-kill shelter. No-kill shelters are very frequently pulling dogs from the local pound, so they help ease the pressure on pounds and decrease the euthanasia rate. The dogs at the no-kill shelter are, generally speaking, safe, so you aren’t faced with the same pressure when you’re choosing one dog over another. Often, no-kill shelters have programs in place for assessing and training the dogs in their care, so you may get a dog who’s had some work put into him!

Next, there’s private rescue. I want to be frank about this: there are awesome private rescues and there are also private rescues that aren’t so great. There are some private rescues who have a dedicated network of tireless volunteers and foster parents who work very hard to match animals with great homes. There are also some private rescues that pull cute fluffy dogs from the pound and then resell the dog for many hundreds of dollars (well beyond the price of the dog’s care). There are some rescues where the dogs are in the best home of their lives; there are some rescues that are indistinguishable from hoarding situations. There’s no independent accreditation for rescues, so do your homework beforehand and make sure you’re not adopting from the rescue equivalent of a puppy mill.  In addition to this, there are some private rescues who are excited to match up people and dogs quickly so they can bring more dogs into their rescue; there are also some private rescues that make you feel like an axe murderer for having the temerity to try to adopt one of their dogs. We’ve talked about this before on TU, and if the comments on that post are any indication, the feeling of being rejected by rescue is pretty common. I don’t want to sound completely snide about that second type of rescue, because I’ve been on both sides of it–I’ve been a foster parent for rescue before, and even though I believe strongly in the concept of open adoption, I found myself immediately clamping down on my foster dog. She MUST go to a home that was interested in pursuing agility or another dog sport, I told myself. They MUST have an active interest in training and be physically active themselves. I turned down so many good adopters because I had The Perfect Home in mind for my foster dog. So really, I can see how rescue people drift into feeling like “most homes are terrible, our dogs are great, we’re going to be super super super picky about where our dogs go”. But what that turns into is all these stifling blanket requirements: you must have an eight foot tall privacy fence, your home must be [x] size, somebody in the home needs to be home with the dog 100% of the time, dogs can only be adopted by a married couple, no adopters under 25, etc etc. Statistically, those kinds of strict requirements do not keep dogs in homes, nor do they increase adoption rates–there are studies! What they do do is make people feel discouraged that they’ll ever be ‘allowed’ to adopt, and then they turn to puppy mills/BYB/Craigslist and other places where they don’t feel judged for being imperfect/human.

So, Facebook Friend/Future Adopter, here’s my last piece of advice: if you run into a rescue who makes you feel terrible the minute you put in your application, don’t waste your time with them. Go to another rescue, go to a shelter; the world is full of awesome dogs, and lots of them are a fit for your family. All you have to do is go out and meet them.


Choosing a Second (or Third! or… More!) Dog

Making the decision to expand into a multi-dog household is no small step. In today’s post, we’ll talk about a few factors that might be helpful to consider in choosing a second dog for your home, particularly if you’ve never lived with multiple dogs before. (Those of you who are old pros at integrating multiple dogs into your home, this one ain’t for you. We’re talking to the first-timers here.)

1. Consider Your Dog

The first thing to consider is how your dog normally behaves around other dogs. Does she go out of her mind with giddy excitement and want to playplayplaaaayy until the other dog’s climbing the walls to escape? Does she get snarly about other dogs showing an interest in favorite toys or chew bones? Does she even have any experience with other dogs showing up inside her home?

If the answer to that last question is “no,” it might be prudent to hold off on adopting a new dog until you can arrange a few visits from friendly dogs to see how your resident pet does with visitors on her home turf. It’s easiest to get started by bringing over dogs that she already knows and likes. Even if your dogs already know each other, it’s often a good idea to re-introduce them as if they were strangers, since the added factor of one dog being on her home turf can add a new level of stress. (TU’s “Let’s Be Friends!” has plenty of great tips on how to introduce dogs in the safest and least pressured way.)

On the other hand, if your dog does have a lot of experience playing canine social butterfly, then he probably has some definite preferences about dogs that he likes better than others, and how he interacts with different types of dogs. It’s useful to think about which of those combinations you’d actually want to live with: the nonstop high-energy playmate might be fun for an hour at the dog park, but do you really want that in your living room the other 23 hours a day?

2. Get Some Practice, and Be Prepared for Two Weeks of Chaos

Do you have any prior experience wrangling two dogs at once? If not, it might be a good idea to borrow a friend’s dog for a couple of days. Ask if you can dogsit (in my experience, friends and neighbors are often happy to have the offer — vacation boarding and dogsitters are expensive!). Or, if you really feel like doing a good deed, consider fostering for a rescue once or twice. You’ll get some experience running a multi-dog household and help out a needy pet at the same time, and since it’s a temporary commitment by design, there’s no need to worry about whether you’ve made a permanent commitment to something you can’t handle.

Many people, having never done it before, are surprised by how intensive the transitional period can be with a new dog. As a rescue volunteer, I’ve seen LOTS of second-dog adoptions fail within the first 48 hours because the new owners just aren’t prepared for how much supervision and management a newly introduced pet needs.

It’s intense, but it’s also temporary. Quite often I suspect that these homes would have been perfectly happy with a second dog if they’d been prepared for that initial bumpy ride and aware that things would likely settle down after a few weeks. But, since they don’t know that, they give up when the situation looks overwhelming. The new dog never really gets a chance to settle in, and the owners feel like failures, and it’s just not a great situation all around. A little practice, and a more realistic idea of what to expect (that bumpy transitional period does calm down!), would go a long way toward avoiding these outcomes. So, if you can, borrow a dog for a sleepover, or foster a homeless dog for a couple of weeks, before committing to adopting a second dog yourself. The experience will definitely come in handy.

3. The Default “Rules”

I’m putting this last because, in matchmaking as so much else, the specific always trumps the general. If you know that your own dog gets along best with bigger, older dogs of the same sex, then disregard the general rules of thumb posted below, because what works for your dog is always more important than what works for some nonexistent hypothetical dog. And if you know that you would lose your mind dealing with giant poofs of Sheltie hair making tumbleweeds across your floor, then it doesn’t matter if your dog likes long-haired fluffy dogs best. The first rule is that you have to make the choice you can live with.

But if you’re not sure what that is, or there’s a wide range of acceptable choices and you want to narrow them down, these are the default recommendations that work for most dogs in most situations with the greatest chance of success:

  • the new dog should be of the opposite gender (especially with female-female pairs in breeds known to be prone to same-sex aggression, and where one or both of the dogs is still a puppy, since dogs that get along when one of them is a baby will not always get along when they’re both grown, regardless of how they were raised);
  • the new dog should be somewhat smaller than the resident dog (25% or so is a good rule of thumb, although that may not be possible if we’re talking about Chihuahuas!);
  • the new dog should be somewhat younger than the resident dog;
  • the new dog should, ideally, have been fostered with dogs who are roughly similar to the resident dog in personality, size, and — if possible — age and gender;
  • the new dog should, if possible, have been evaluated for resource guarding against other dogs in a home environment.

None of those “rules” is set in stone, of course. All of them can and should be adapted to your individual situation. But those are the most common guidelines that are most broadly appropriate for most homes.

Okay! So that is an introductory primer on preparing for, and picking, a second dog. Now, how do you actually live with a multi-dog household? That’s a topic too big for a TU post (yes, even one of my multi-thousand-word monstrosities), but never fear, Patricia McConnell is here! Her booklet “Feeling Outnumbered?” is a wonderful resource on the subject, and like all of her booklets, is concisely written and reasonably priced. I strongly recommend that anyone considering a second dog get it and read it. It’s a tremendous help and well worth the time.

Three Tips for Choosing a Dog from Foster Care

One of the emails that I’m most delighted to receive in my capacity as All-Purpose Rescue Inbox Monkey is the one that goes “hi, we’re newbie adopters and we’re looking for some tips on how to choose a nice dog from a rescue group, can you help?”

This usually induces me to respond with a 3500-word spasm of joyful blatheration, after which those adopters flee in terror from my insanity and go hide in a closet somewhere and I never hear from them again. Alas. So, in the interest of just sending a nice friendly non-threatening link rather than a Giant Wall o’ Text, I am going to post the Giant Wall o’ Text on Team Unruly instead! This is what we call a Clever Scheme right here, kids.

And so I give you: three tips on how to maximize your chances of finding and adopting the perfect dog from a foster-based rescue.

1. Focus on dogs that have been in foster care for at least two weeks.

Probably the biggest temptation for adopters who come to my rescue group is adopting an adorable, newly arrived baby puppy straight off the transport van. I’ll talk about why I think it’s frequently not a great idea to adopt a baby puppy later; for now, I want to focus on the “straight off the van” part of that equation.

Straight off the transport and still in that paper tag? NOT the best time to make a final adoption choice.

The primary advantage of adopting from a foster-based rescue, as opposed to a shelter that houses its dogs in kennels, is that you can get a fuller picture of how the dog behaves in a normal home environment. Depending on the foster home’s level of obsessiveness, you might get a lot of information. (Exhibit A: look at all the crazy nonsense I write about my foster dogs!) But even if the foster isn’t quite that bonkers, you should still be able to get an idea of how the dog behaves in everyday pet life.

However, this information is only available if the dog has been in foster care for a sufficient period of time. It takes most dogs at least a week, and sometimes a couple of months, to decompress from shelter stress and begin exhibiting their actual personalities. Before that, there’s a high probability that the dog will be either shut down and unusually subdued, or frenetic and hyperactive. In neither case can you get an accurate picture of the dog’s normal demeanor or energy level.

Another factor is that if the dog has been in foster care for at least a couple of weeks, you should know whether the dog was incubating any illnesses. It’s (unfortunately) not that uncommon for dogs to harbor illnesses or parasites that they picked up before they landed in the shelter, while they were in the shelter, or before/during transport. The dog might have appeared healthy enough to pass a pre-transport health check, but only because symptoms hadn’t begun showing yet. Thus, every once in a while, adopters bring home dogs directly from transport and then are surprised and heartbroken when their new pet breaks with parvo 48 hours later or starts shedding tapeworms in their poop.

If the dog’s been in foster care for a couple of weeks, however, then any of those obvious diseases should have become apparent (and, hopefully, the rescue will have begun appropriate treatments). This gives adopters a much better chance of adopting a healthy pet.

2. Focus on dogs at least six months old.

Everybody’s drawn to adorable baby puppies, but oftentimes — I’d go so far as to say all of the time, honestly — an older dog is a safer bet. Puppies are always a dice roll, and shelter puppies moreso than most.

With an older dog (not necessarily a lot older, either; most of these things are apparent by about six months), you can get a much clearer picture of:

  • size (a common concern for people who live in apartments or condos that only permit pets up to a specified size, or for people who strongly prefer big or small dogs);
  • coat type (a common concern for people looking for no- or low-shed dogs, or who are worried about allergies; as puppy coats can be very different from adult coats, and allergies may kick in when Tiny Puppy grows into Ginormous Adult and produces more allergy-triggering proteins, I always advise such adopters to consider full-grown dogs);
  • temperament (shelter puppies of unknown background occasionally develop unpredictable fear or anxiety issues that aren’t obvious when they’re young; additionally, dog-dog aggression and predatory behaviors do not always become apparent until the dog reaches social maturity. Genetic factors play a HUGE role in temperament, contrary to the common misperception that “it’s all in how you raise them,” and those factors aren’t fully obvious when the puppy’s just a fluffball);
  • energy level (it’s hard to tell whether an 8-week-old puppy of unknown background is going to mature into a go! go! go! ultra-energetic overachiever or a couch potato. Almost all puppies are playful, unless they’re sick; very few of them stand out one way or the other at that age);
  • structure and conformation (seriously, this is just about impossible to determine at 8 weeks old. Look how often conformation breeders guess wrong about which puppies are going to mature into show champions — and those are breeders who do nothing but conformation and are evaluating purebred puppies from lines that they’ve studied and handled for years. By comparison, trying to guess the adult structure of a mixed-breed shelter puppy? Well, I sure can’t do it, I’ll tell you that much).

For these reasons, my opinion is that an older dog is always a better choice for a family pet in a home with young children. In addition to all the points raised above (again, let me emphasize that one about “temperament”), mature dogs tend to be less fragile and more tolerant of clumsy handling, less jumpy and mouthy (toddlers + sharp puppy needle teeth = bad news), and much easier for the average owner to handle. Most parents with young kids don’t fully appreciate how much work is involved in puppy rearing, and how difficult it can be to devote that much time and effort to the dog while also wrangling a houseful of small children. An eight-week-old puppy needs to go out every two hours for potty training. A healthy three-year-old dog, by contrast, should be able to hold it for eight hours without too much strain. To me, that alone would make the difference.

3. Flexibility about what doesn’t matter enables you to focus on what does.

Whenever we get a litter of yellow-colored fluffy puppies in the rescue, inquiries pour in from all over. There might be a couple of brown or black puppies in the litter too, but those guys never get nearly as much interest as the yellow ones, no matter how fluffy or nice they are.

There’s nothing wrong with having a preference about your dog’s color or appearance. I have pretty strong aesthetic preferences myself, and I’m not about to tell anyone else that they shouldn’t care about how their prospective future dog looks.

But I will suggest that it shouldn’t be the most important thing. The top priority should always be finding a dog whose personality, activity level, and training needs are compatible with your own lifestyle. There’s no use falling in love with a dog who looks like Lassie if she acts like Cujo.

It’s generally wisest to make a list of what traits you want to live with — child friendly? cat friendly? quiet and low-key for apartment life? energetic enough to go jogging daily and big enough to keep people from bothering you as you run? (not a hypothetical: as a petite lady living in a big city, I have had to rely on my dogs to deter unwanted attention more than a few times when we were out late at night) — and then ask the rescue to help you find dogs that meet those criteria, while keeping an open mind as to what those dogs might actually look like.

The suggested matches might not be the breed mixes you were expecting. They might have floppy ears instead of pointy ones, sleek coats instead of wiry hair. But if you can keep an open mind as to the superficial things that don’t matter, you’ve got a better chance of finding a dog with the deeper traits that do.

There are lots of dogs who’d make wonderful pets for any home — but they may not always look exactly like your neighbor’s dog or the ones you’ve seen on TV. An open mind is as important as an open heart.

And that, in a (large) nutshell, are my three main tips for successfully choosing a dog from foster care.

Nothing can guarantee a happy adoption, of course. All dogs require work, and all relationships are two-way streets. No matter which dog you choose, there are going to be some lumps and bumps and roadblocks along the way (and the dog will likely feel the same way about you sometimes, too!). And of course the whole enterprise of dog rescue is run by imperfect people who make mistakes and guess wrong sometimes and don’t always see everything that they should.

But hopefully — hopefully! — with clear eyes and generous hearts and whatever guidance can be gleaned from these tips and others, you’ll have better odds of bringing home the dog or puppy who can learn to live happily and harmoniously with you.

Why Rescues Decline Long-Distance Adoptions

Recently the rescue organization that I volunteer with changed its policy so that long-distance adoptions (which were previously allowed if the adopters were willing to arrange transport on their own) are no longer permitted. Since I have the wonderful and joyous job of fielding general inquiry emails for the organization, this has meant that I’ve had to repeatedly dash the hopes of prospective adopters who fell in love with a pup on the Internet only to discover that they’re outside our newly shrunk adoption range. Quite often, people are disappointed to be told that they can’t have a dog even before they were given any chance to apply, which is totally understandable.

Because it’s a fairly common scenario — my rescue is hardly the only one to restrict its adoptions to a limited area — and because I think it might alleviate the disappointment if people had a clearer picture of how rescue works and why some organizations choose to have these policies (it’s not personal, I promise!), I figured I’d set down a few thoughts on the subject here.

As a preface, I want to note that I don’t have any inherent objection to long-distance adoptions. Quite the opposite, actually. Long-distance adoptions have been some of my most successful placements. I’ve adopted my own personal fosters out to homes all across the country — and will continue to do so when it comes to my own fosters. I’ve sent them out on planes, trains, and automobiles (well, okay, not literally any trains), and every one of them has gotten an awesome, fantastic home. I’d do it again in a heartbeat for every one of those dogs. I couldn’t be happier about where each of them landed.

But I can also understand why rescues might choose to make a different decision for their dogs. Here’s why:

Responsible rescues commit to their dogs.

That’s it. That is the core principle from which everything else flows. Responsible rescues stand behind their dogs. If one of their dogs loses its home for any reason, the rescue steps up and takes the animal back.

Most of the time, adoptions fail because adopters have unrealistic expectations and don’t realize how much work it is to train and socialize a dog. ANY dog is going to need time and energy and sustained attention, and some people aren’t prepared for that. This is the primary reason that long-distance adoptions fail, just like it’s the primary reason all adoptions fail.

The problem that I often run into is that prospective adopters immediately and reflexively want to counter with “well, I would never do that, and it’s not fair for you to judge me before you’ve even looked at my application!” That’s a totally normal response, and most of the time I believe that it’s true. Most adopters do, in fact, provide good and responsible homes for their dogs.

But not all adoptions fail due to irresponsible adopters. What happens if the dog proves to be a bad fit for that home? What if it starts fighting with resident pets, scaring the children, or annoying the neighbors? What if the owner suddenly loses a job or suffers an emotional crisis that renders them financially or mentally unable to care for the animal? What if there’s an unexpected accident or illness that leaves the owner physically unable to care for the dog?

Foster dog Scarlett (shown here at the vet) had to be reclaimed from a failed adoption in Connecticut — an eight-hour drive each way for the volunteer who went to retrieve her. She was severely underweight, had a bacterial skin infection, had atrophied muscles, and was nearly completely untrained when she was returned. She’s happy and healthy in a good home now, but that was a major endeavor.

In those situations — which are unforeseeable, and which are nobody’s fault, and all of which have happened to my rescue group at one time or another — the rescue is morally obligated to step in and take care of the dog. It is much, much harder to honor that responsibility if the home is far away. It costs gas money and volunteer time and a lot of logistical coordination to retrieve a dog from a failed long-distance adoption.

Done right, rescue is a constant money sink. Nobody makes money in a small or mid-sized private rescue. At best the organization breaks even, more often the volunteers end up paying out of own pocket to cover at least some of the costs (or, in my case, all of them). There is no government funding, no animal control contract, no major trust set aside to defray costs for years to come. Every penny comes in through donations or adoption fees, and there’s never enough to cover the costs of rescue even when everything goes smoothly.

There definitely isn’t enough money — or enough volunteer manpower — to send people on daylong trips to retrieve dogs from failed adoptions. Not on top of medical care and boarding costs and the routine cost of feeding and housing the “easy” animals. Although most adopters are indeed responsible, and most adoptions go smoothly, it only takes one or two of these trips per month to seriously strain a rescue’s finances.

And in almost all cases, the rescue does have to send somebody out to get the dog, because the adopter won’t or can’t do it. Most often, by the time the adoption fails, the adopter is just exasperated with the animal and unwilling to make a 6- or 8-hour drive to return it. Other times, however, the adopter is frightened of driving that long with an aggressive or unpredictable dog, or doesn’t have the money to make the trip after falling into dire financial straits, or can’t handle the physical or emotional toll of a long-distance journey anymore. There are reasons beyond simple unwillingness that leave people unable to follow through with commitments that they honestly intended to keep.

So the rescue has to do it, and that creates a burden that some rescues are not in a position to carry.

A secondary factor here is that most of the time, the dogs that are in demand with long-distance adopters are also in demand with local adopters. Very rarely do we get inquiries from long-distance adopters who want rowdy adolescent pit mixes (and if we did, well, that might be a special enough occasion to warrant bending the usual rule). Most of the time, if an adopter is reaching out across several states for a dog, it’s because that particular dog has a combination of highly desirable traits — which means that the dog very likely also has a number of excellent local homes interested in adopting.

It’s not hard to place Golden Retriever puppies. It’s not hard to place healthy, sweet-tempered nonshedding dogs. These dogs always get floods of applications as soon as they’re listed, and therefore it’s not necessary for the rescue to take the greater risk inherent in a long-distance adoption. That dog will find a perfectly nice home in its local area within a week of hitting Petfinder. There’s just no reason to gamble on sending the animal farther away.

When rescues do routinely approve long-distance adoptions, it’s usually because they’re having difficulty placing animals in their local areas. Either the animal is of a type that’s in less demand (again: if you want to adopt a rowdy adolescent pit bull who’s been sitting in foster care for six months, even a “local only” rescue might be willing to make an exception), or the rescue is situated in an area where local adoptions aren’t high enough to offset their intakes. But if neither of those things is true, then it’s quite likely that a small-to-midsize volunteer-run rescue might have a geographical restriction on its adoptions.

It’s absolutely not personal. It is purely a numbers game: even with the best possible screening, some percentage of adoptions will fail, so the rescue can either make a calculation that it’s worth eating the cost of those failed adoptions to get the percentage of successful adoptions, or that the cost of failures is greater than it can absorb. If a rescue has a “local adoptions only” policy, all it means is that the organization ran the numbers and concluded that it was not able to sustain the costs. It’s not a judgment on any individual applicant — quite the opposite! — and it is my hope that this post has helped explain why.

Introducing Ben!

Pepper, my childhood dog

Pepper, my childhood dog

I grew up with dogs…or rather, a dog. One at a time only. My parents did not want the added expense and nor did they really have the time for more than one dog. So we had Pepper. And then we had Teri. And they were content with that.

Ever since I got Dahlia in 2008, I’ve wanted a second dog. I’ve spent ages imagining that two-dog life, looking at dogs, thinking about what I wanted.

And then hesitating.

We weren’t in the right place. We lived in a duplex in the city. We had no yard. Our landlord wouldn’t allow two dogs. He barely allowed one. We had to talk him into it and even then I think he caved because (a) he was too old to care anymore, (b) the place was falling apart around our ears (seriously, our new landlord, who bought the place in 2013, redid the bathroom while we lived there and we found out the toilet, which was sinking into the bathroom floor, was sitting on about half an inch of rotted wood), and (c) he was guaranteed to have people living there for a number of years instead of the constant turn-over of drunk college students (serious about this, Princeton Review named the university the top party school in 2014-2015 — WE’RE #1!!).

So a one-dog family remained for over 7 years.

Until things started to change. This April we bought a house. One major stipulation I had for the house was that the yard had to be fenced in. I really wanted to adopt a second dog and having that fenced in yard would make it easier to do so.

But then I hesitated some more.

There was a lot to set up in the house. Dahlia had been an only dog for so long, how would she react to another dog in the house all the time? Especially a younger, more active one. And then there were the financial concerns. Buying the house actually set us up better than it did before. Besides tax write-offs (yay!), we also are paying significantly less per month in mortgage/taxes than we were in rent and by bundling we dropped our car insurance by about $1000 a year. So we’re in a much better place to afford a second dog.

And so on June 23, I bit the bullet and just did it (with my husband’s permission of course). I sent in an application to Glen Highland Farm. Yes, the same Glen Highland Farm that we have vacationed at for the past three years. I wanted a Border Collie or maybe a Border Collie mix. To be honest, at that moment, I wanted Ben.

Ben's petfinder picture

Ben’s petfinder picture

I had seen Ben on a Petfinder page perhaps a month or so ago. He was cute as a button and just looked like a great dog. He, admittedly, reminded me a little bit of Dahlia. But he was located in New Jersey, just a little further than we really wanted to travel to meet a dog, especially if we had no idea how he’d fit in with our family. So I let that one go, just another one of my “petfinder dream dogs” who I knew would go to another home. And who was, a short while later, listed as adopted.

As it turned out, Ben was adopted. He was adopted out to a family who was supposedly very active recent retirees who had former Border Collie experience and who turned out to be anything but that (late 70s, medical issues that meant the man in the couple had trouble walking, not active at all, and they had never owned a Border Collie). Needless to say, Ben was snapped back up by the people who had been fostering him for the shelter.

At that point, it all gets a little odd, like this was fate. Which is not surprising considering Dahlia’s entrance to our life seemed to be the work of fate as well (two transports I was supposed to be doing got canceled/postponed and I was freed up to do Dahlia’s). Ben’s foster family had adopted dogs from Glen Highland Farm. They ended up calling them up to see if they could somehow list him on the courtesy part of their website. The decision was to list him on the main site with their contact info and a note that he could be brought up to the farm if someone was interested in him.

And then Glen Highland Farm, headed up by the amazing Lillie, and the foster family, decided he would flourish at the farm and were going to bring him up.

Enter: Us. I chatted with a lovely woman from the rescue on June 25 to clarify some things on my application and make sure that they knew what we were looking for. And then I chatted with the ever amazing Lillie on June 26 about potential dogs. One of the ones suggested: Ben. She asked the foster family if they could come up Saturday with him and then asked if we could meet them there at 12:30pm.

We did, and fate just came together. While we did meet one other dog, it was clear from the beginning that Ben was meant to come home with us. Dahlia and he trotted around and sniffed things and peed together. They looked remarkably alike. They didn’t play but they seemed pretty comfortable around each other.

Ben bears a striking resemblance to Dahlia.

Ben bears a striking resemblance to Dahlia.

So he came home with us. And suddenly we were a two-dog home.

Dahlia has gotten used to his presence fairly quickly. There have been a few warnings from her telling him to back off, which he heeds and then spends the next little while ingratiating himself to her. He has not once given her any warnings.



Ben very much takes things as they come, bonding quickly and loving pretty much everything. He is a very positive dog, with no fear (not of walking over grates or thunderstorms or children or other dogs). Everything is “the best thing ever!” to Ben. He loves watching the birds in the trees and squeaking his toys and can entertain himself for long periods of time with those things.

Ben and Dahlia

Dahlia and Ben play a bit of chase

And he loves enticing his big sister to play. That’s right, there have been games of chase that Ben initiates almost every day since he came home, something that brings tears to my eyes. He’s bringing some more fun to Dahlia’s life!

He’s incredibly smart, fairly  driven, and just a joy to be around, even if it means our lives have changed quite dramatically. It’s strange having a young active dog in the house when we’re used to a dog who takes short walks and then relaxes for hours on end. Dahlia sleeps through the night, doesn’t want to bother going out until 8am or 9am, and is so easy that sometimes I simply forget she’s there. Ben does not allow that. He does have an off switch, but he needs the proper exercise and mental outlets to get to that off switch. He is definitely not the dog for everyone, but he fits in with our family like he’s always been there.

Ben on his first night with us.

Ben on his first night with us.

Ben starts agility training soon and I can’t wait to see how this little man does. He has the potential to be a really amazing agility partner and an even best friend. Like we keep telling Dahlia, we aren’t splitting our love for her; we’ve just opened our hearts up to more love. And I think Ben is slipping right in there with great ease.

Welcome home Ben. We look forward to many happy years with you!


Two dog home

Two dog home

Five Criticisms of Transport Rescue (A Rant!)

Today I’d like to continue my ongoing blatherations on the subject of transport-based rescues with a few thoughts on ethics and criticisms of this particular subgenre of dogdom. Specifically, I want to talk about five of the most common charges that people aim at transport rescues — some of them accurately, some of them less so.

1. “Transport rescues are stealing homes from local animals!”

Not generally, no.

Here’s something a lot of people fail to grasp about the animal shelter population in the United States: it’s not uniform across regions. In major East Coast cities, shelter kennels are overwhelmingly crowded with pit bulls and pittie mixes (well over 90%), with a smattering of other dogs who tend to get adopted or pulled by local rescues within days. There aren’t many puppies, there aren’t many small dogs (and most of the ones who are there are from mill stock and have behavioral and/or physical issues), and there isn’t a lot of variation in available breeds. An adopter who doesn’t want a pittie — for whatever reason — may not have an easy time finding an alternative dog in the shelter system.

Meanwhile, in rural Southern areas where spay/neuter cultural norms aren’t as strong and family pets are routinely allowed to breed unchecked, there’s a much wider variety of dogs in the local shelters. It’s not uncommon for entire litters of puppies to be dumped in cardboard boxes on the shelter’s doorstep, or for pregnant mothers to get dumped before they deliver. Labs, beagles, German Shepherds, and their mixes tend to dominate the kennels.

As I write this post today, there are 16 adoptable dogs listed at Robeson County Animal Shelter. 6 of the 16 are puppies under 4 months old, and only 3 of the 16 are pit mixes.

To the extent that an adopter’s preferences cannot be shifted toward locally available dogs — that is, to the extent that a given adopter is determined to have (let’s say) an 8-week-old retriever mix puppy and is not open to considering an older dog or a bully breed — that home isn’t available to most of the local shelter dogs anyway. Therefore a transported dog isn’t “stealing” a home, because that home wasn’t open to the available local dogs regardless.

To the extent that the transport dogs fit the same profile as local dogs, however, then there is a fair argument to be made here. Which brings me to my next point:

2. “Transport rescues cherry-pick the most adoptable dogs!”

Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

My feeling is: If they’re doing their jobs right, they better be cherry-picking the most adoptable dogs.

Long-distance rescue ain’t cheap. Between pull fees, vetting, quarantine boarding, transport, and foster care, it costs several hundred dollars at a minimum to provide quality care for each and every dog that goes through the system. It’s a big investment.

My opinion is that a responsible, ethical rescue should be focusing that investment on the very best dogs it can find. That rescue should also be pulling dogs not available in the local shelter population (to minimize the problem of siphoning available homes away from local dogs) and free of serious behavioral or health problems (because (a) that’s a major resource drain; and (b) it’s unfair to adopters who just want a nice family pet).

Sorry to be so blunt about this, but my view is that there is no good reason to spend several hundred dollars moving a rowdy adolescent pit mix from Georgia to Philly. Not when there are several hundred versions of that exact same dog being euthanized at ACCT monthly. Not when any adopter who wanted that dog could adopt a homeless animal matching that description for free (or at greatly reduced cost) from a local city-supported shelter or foster home, versus spending several hundred dollars to adopt the same animal from a transport rescue that’s still losing money on the adoption. It doesn’t make sense for the adopter, it doesn’t make sense for the rescue, and it doesn’t win a whole lot of friends in the local shelter network.

The one party for whom it does make sense is that individual dog. And so here’s where we get into one of the thorny questions of rescue: whose interests take precedence? Do you pull a “less adoptable” dog purely because that one life holds value and meaning equal to a “more adoptable” dog’s? Do you pull that dog to show that your rescue isn’t just about saving the cute fluffy Golden mixes? Do you do it even when that means you are taking homes from local dogs, and when it means that your foster home is probably going to stay occupied for months rather than weeks while waiting to place that less-in-demand dog?

Different rescues — even different foster homes within the same rescue — are going to have different answers to that question. There’s no one perfect right answer. This issue gets complicated very quickly, and how you come out on it depends what your goals and values are.

3. “Transport rescues take dogs away from local adopters!”

Yeah no. This is a dumb one.

Local adopters pretty much always have first pick of dogs in their local shelters, either because the shelter has a formal policy in place that allows local adopters a certain number of days before the dog becomes available to out-of-state rescues, or because as a practical matter, even if there isn’t any official policy, it takes a couple of days for the rescue to photograph, list, and network the animal.

If the animal doesn’t move within that time, and an out-of-state rescue places a hold on it, and then a local adopter comes along and is interested in the animal that’s already on hold, then in my opinion the situation is no different than any other time somebody comes in and is interested in an animal that already has a hold. It happens. Don’t worry, there’ll be another dog just like it within a few weeks at the most.

4. “Transport rescues are just in it for the money!”

Yeah no. This is an even dumber one.

It actually makes me pretty angry when I see people raise this criticism, because it is so far removed from reality that I always wonder (a) what are you smoking?; and (b) what ulterior motive do you have for thinking that rescues are taking money from your pocket? Were you hoping to sell your own puppies to those adopters? Because if the answer isn’t “bath salts” or “yes I sure was hoping to sell my $3500 doxiepoo puppies to those people!” I can’t figure out where this one comes from.

Sing it with me: Nobody makes money off responsible rescue. The more dogs you pull and place, the more money you lose.

To the extent that these rescues appear to be cherry-picking the dogs most in demand: well, yeah. As discussed above, my view is that they should be doing exactly that. But it’s not to make money. It is to minimize the overlap between transport dogs and locally available dogs, and to maximize the number of animals that get saved and placed in good homes.

To the extent that this criticism is (supposedly) leveled at fake rescues that are puppy mill fronts: well, sure, we all hate puppy mills, and we all hate millers who frame their sales as “adoptions.” But those aren’t rescues. Criticizing legitimate rescues on the basis of what mill fronts do is sort of like criticizing tofu because it doesn’t taste enough like hot dogs: yes, they’re both kind of squishy and meat substitute-y, but… uh… you do realize they’re not remotely the same thing, right? Not to say there aren’t criticisms that can be made here, but let’s try to at least get them in the correct zip code.

5. “Transport rescues spread disease!”

This one is a legitimate criticism. I wish it weren’t, but it is. The mass South-to-North movement of dogs has been strongly implicated in the spread of heartworm, and less clearly to the spread of other diseases in areas that didn’t previously see them.

The problem with heartworm, specifically, is that there’s a long latency period between possible infection and when the most commonly used tests can detect that infection. It’s possible for a dog to be infected, test negative, show no symptoms of infection for months, get adopted out as “heartworm negative,” and actually be carrying worms. It is further possible for that dog to get bitten by mosquitoes and transmit the parasite before treatments are effective — sometimes even before the infection is detected and treatments are begun.

Most other common transmissible diseases — parvo, distemper, kennel cough, intestinal worms, etc. — are easily preventable by observing basic safety procedures. This is not, unfortunately, to say that they are always prevented. Slipshod quarantine procedures and inadequate screening are two of my personal biggest peeves with transport-based rescues. Not only is it unethical to take shortcuts on these issues, but it actively undercuts the long-term goals of any good rescue.

But that one does very much happen, and it is a legitimate complaint, and it is my fervent hope that responsible transport rescues who aren’t already doing everything in their power to reduce the problem will step up their efforts on that front.

So! Those are five common complaints that I hear directed at transport-based rescues, and my semi-ranty responses to each. Any other big ones that I missed? COMMENT AWAY.

Do’s and Don’ts for getting a sport dog from a shelter

It’s no secret that we here at TU are big fans of shelter dogs as both potential sport partners and awesome pets. We’ve written several posts on the subject before: here’s Ten Reasons Why Your Next Sport Dog Should Be a Rescue, and here’s Jen’s post on how rescues and shelters should go about marketing dogs for sport homes.  Michelle has also talked about going in with a plan when you’re going to adopt from a shelter.  However, it occurred to me recently that while we’ve always encouraged shelter adoption, we’ve never actually given any practical advice on how to go into a shelter and come out with an awesome sport dog.  We’re going to correct that right now with a short list of do’s and don’ts for people who are looking to adopt their next sport dog.

Don’t lead by saying you’re looking for a dog to do agility* with.

*or your sport of choice

Here’s the thing: most dog people don’t do dog sports. It’s easy to forget this if your weekends are wrapped up in trials and training and classes, but truly: dog sports are a niche thing. You’d be surprised how many dog owners have never even heard of dog sports. As a shelter worker myself, I will tell you that shelter workers are no exception: even when they are familiar with, say, agility, they may not have enough specialized knowledge to know what makes a good sport partner. When you say “I’m looking for an agility dog”, what your average shelter worker may hear is “I’m looking for a super high-energy dog”. If you’ve spent much time in shelters, you probably know that most shelters are chock-full of super energetic teenage dogs who have a surplus of anxiety and a surfeit of manners: these are the dogs who are surrendered because the owner “just doesn’t have enough time to meet their needs.” If you come in asking for an agility dog, you will often be introduced to a dog who is bouncing off the walls with shelter stress and pent-up energy. Captain Wall Bouncer might be a terrific sport partner; however, it is also possible that he’s just an anxious dog who had a bad start and who is going to need a ton of remedial work before you can even think about, say, developing toy drive or handler focus.

Do go in with specific criteria in mind.

A better approach than saying, “I want a [sport] dog” is to tell the shelter worker who’s helping you that you do dog sports, and you’re looking for a dog who has [x] qualities. This means, by the way, that you should have a sense of what qualities you’re looking for before you go in!  What you’re looking for will depend on several things, most notably what specific sports you play; if you’re looking for a nosework dog, you might go in looking for a dog who likes to work independently and is into find-it games, but if you’re looking for an obedience dog, you might be more interested in a dog with a lot of handler focus.  Your list of criteria will be specific to you, the sports you play, and your lifestyle!  However, there are also some basic qualities you can look for that can help set you and your future dog up for success in sports: when I polled the TU members in preparation for this post, here are some of the criteria we came up with:

  • Confidence: is the dog comfortable in new environments? How do they do when presented with new distractions and challenges?
  • Biddablity/handler focus: is the dog interested in you (in the absence of treats and toys)? If you engage them in basic training or play, are they interested in engaging back?
  • Structure: there are a lot of good books and websites that will help you get a sense of how to evaluate a dog’s physical structure. Here’s a post on Susan Garrett’s blog that will give you some preliminary pointers.  For me, I tend to look a lot at shoulder and rear angulation, gait and topline, but everyone’s got a different list of things that matter to them.
  • Drives (food, play, hunt, toy): you won’t get a perfect picture of this in a shelter setting, but if you’ve got some time to play with the dog you’re interested in, you should be able to get some sense of how they respond to food, toys, find it games, tag and so forth.  The shelter workers can give you good input here: remember, they’ve known the dog for longer than you have, and they can probably tell you if he’s generally into toys, treats, etc.
  • Ability to recover: if the dog is startled or if something happens that she doesn’t expect, does she bounce back quickly or does she stress about it for a while?

Don’t go in looking for dogs of a specific breed

When I’m looking for dogs, I’m personally much more interested in temperament and personality than breed. That said, I know there are a lot of people who like particular breeds and breed mixes and specifically seek them out when they’re looking for dogs: to each their own! However, thinking about breed can actually get in your way if you’re looking for your perfect sport dog at a shelter.  If you’ve spent any time at all in shelters or browsing Petfinder, you probably have figured out that a) most (though certainly not all) shelter dogs are mixes and b) the stated breed on the Petfinder listing or kennel card is usually just somebody’s best guess. Some shelters are better at guessing than others; that said, I have worked at several pretty great shelters, and still, I can tell you that in my experience, breed designation usually goes down something like this:

Scene: Several shelter workers stand around squinting at a random medium-sized brown dog who’s just come in.

Shelter worker #1:  He’s got kind of a …. Labby-looking head, right?

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not?

Shelter worker #3: He’s kinda short, though. Let’s say Lab-dachshund mix.

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not? [*writes it down]

If you go to a shelter, you will usually see a ton of dogs listed as lab mixes, shepherd mixes or pit mixes: the National Canine Research Council did a study that indicated that these are the most commonly designated mixes across shelters in the US.  However, the NCRC also did a bunch of blood-based DNA testing to see how accurate those breed guesses are, and whoops, not so much: it turns out that on average, they are only right about 18-20% of the time.  Here are some interesting posters the NCRC put out after that study was released: they show dogs who were identified as lab, shepherd or pit mixes and what the DNA testing indicated they actually were. [Note: these files are PDFs]

Pit bull

[Side note: my shelter has these posters hanging up all over the place, and we are still like, “Yup, looks like a pit mix to me!” when new dogs come in. Sigh.]

Anyway, the point of all that is this: if you go into a shelter and you say, “I am looking for a border collie or border collie mix” instead of saying “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker is not going to think “OK, this person is looking for an intelligent dog with herding instinct who is handler focused and good at teamwork”.  The shelter worker is, instead, going to start making a list of every black and white dog in the shelter, and you are going to see a bunch of black and white dogs rather than a bunch of dogs who have the characteristics you want.  If you say, “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker may bring you a border collie; they may also, however, bring you some awesome little non-black and white muttsky who has all of the characteristics you’re looking for and who you never would have seen if you’d asked to only see border collies.

Do bring toys and treats along when you’re meeting dogs

Bringing along toys and treats is a great way to test if the dog you’re looking at is biddable and wants to engage with you. If you’re a person who uses tug toys a lot in training, it will be useful to bring a tug along to see if the dog wants to play with you; it’s not a perfect metric, as some dogs are too stressed by the shelter environment to play, but if a dog gets excited about the tug right off the bat, that’s something to put in the plus column. Same thing with treats: lots of times, if you have good, tasty/smelly treats, you can do some basic luring and shaping with the dogs you’re looking at, and that can give you some good information about the way the dog learns and how motivated she is by treats. Note–bring the good stuff along: if you bring some dehydrated liver or some string cheese, you’re probably going to have better luck than if you use the stale Milk Bones that the shelter has sitting around.

Here’s a caveat, though: before you bust out your toys and treats, ask the shelter workers if a) the dog is a resource guarder [some extremely sweet dogs get verrrrrry intense about new toys, and this can really be exacerbated in a shelter environment] and b) if the dog has any food intolerances [nobody will be very pleased with you if you feed a dog a treat and later on they come down with hives]. Better to be safe than sorry!

Do try playing/working with the dog in as many contexts as you can.

Shelters have different policies on how potential adopters are allowed to interact with their dogs, but by all means, try to interact with them in as many different contexts as possible.  Take them into a quiet side room if one is available; take them on a walk; play with them in a fenced yard; interact with them near other dogs; walk them through a people-filled lobby and see how they do.  The shelter I work in right now is very liberal about the things potential adopters can do with our dogs: they can go on car rides, they can go on outings and hikes, they can do sleepovers, etc. Other shelters I’ve worked in have let potential adopters ‘check out’ a dog for a few hours and take them on a hike.  Find out all the things the shelter is willing to let you do, and then try to do all of them! Knowledge is power: the more information you have on how your potential dog acts in new situations, the better you’ll be able to determine if the dog is the right fit for you.

Any other do’s and don’ts you would like to add? Do so in the comments!

Nimbus, Or: Why It Might Not be Totally Crazy To Adopt a Puppy from a Shelter

About three years ago, I started mulling over the idea of getting a puppy. I had a Plan for Futurepuppy, of course: I was going to get a carefully bred baby AmStaff from a breeder that I loved, coming from parents that I also loved.  I have always been a big rescue person, but at that point in my life, my line on puppies was this: “If you’re going to a shelter, get an adult dog. You’ll know what size they are, what their energy level is, the basics of how they’re structured, a lot of things about their temperament, that kind of important stuff. Shelter puppies are a crapshoot! Who knows what’s going on there? If you go to a breeder for a puppy, you’ll have a general idea of the kind of dog they’re going to grow up into!”  Plus, I admit: at the time, Katie had just gotten Bean, and I was totally jealous of the way all of his litters’ puppy buyers had kept in touch through Facebook, sharing pictures of the pups, talking about behavioral and health issues and basically watching all the puppies grow up together. I have shelter dogs with mysterious, crappy backgrounds, and the idea of having a big extended family made up of your dog’s sibs, parents and owners sounded really nice.

Well. Things happen! First, the litter I was hoping for didn’t happen.  Then, Widget happened.  Widget is a full-blown maniac and has some challenging aspects to her character, but I really did get so lucky with her; she is just the kind of sport dog I was hoping for, and she taught me that I really, really like puppyraising.


Widgey, second day home. Those crazy eyes told me what I was signing up for!

Fast forward. Widget is a few weeks from her second birthday and now looks like this:


So grown up!

I now work at a large animal sanctuary and am surrounded by a whole lot of ridiculously great dogs.  I fostered one of them, and even though he was too excited about cats to be my dog, he made me realize that I really wanted/felt equipped to handle another dog and also helped clarify for me that maybe I do not want another super high-drive sport dog right now (I have two! And given the remoteness of where I live, they are both, frankly, being underutilized at the moment.) [PS: by the way, Shine was just adopted! Thanks, internet!]

Then we got a really fabulous mama dog who had just weaned a litter of eight puppies in at work; she was medium-sized and cute and friendly with nice structure and an amazing temperament, and I looooved her. One stressful day, I thought to myself, “Oh, what the heck; I will just go over to the puppy building and say hi to her puppies. I bet they’re cute, and they’ll make me feel better.”

You see where this is going, right?

NimbusWelcome home, kid.

His name is Nimbus right now (his mom and litter were named after clouds and wind patterns).  I think it is cute, but I haven’t totally settled into it yet; I’m going to bat it around for another week or so then make a decision.

I am also realizing, to my delight, that I don’t have to give up a lot of the things I was hoping for when I was planning for that little AmStaff puppy years ago. There are still some drawbacks that come with adopting a shelter puppy (though there are, of course, many benefits that come with rescue): for me, the major one is that I don’t know Nimbus’s extended ancestry, which means I can’t make many predictions about his health and temperament based on that of his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  Puppies of known background DO come into shelters, of course; we have two young dogs at the sanctuary who came from a BYB who kept pretty good records, so we know a fair bit about their relatives, breed makeup, and even a bit about the parents’ health status and temperament. However, I would venture to say that a purpose-bred litter from a GOOD breeder is not going to wind up at a shelter.  Good breeders die and have financial trouble and family issues just like anyone else; however, they also generally have networks of people in the breed who are willing to step in and take dogs in times of crisis.  So if predictability is the primary thing you’re looking for, then yes, a shelter puppy is probably not for you.  However, if you’re willing to bend on that, the experience of getting a shelter puppy can actually be pretty similar to getting a thoughtfully bred puppy, especially if you’re willing to do some legwork.  Here are some surprising things I’m learning through my experience with getting Nimbus.

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An Overview of Long-Distance Dog Rescue

In today’s Interconnected Modern World, the transport of adoptable dogs across the nation is an increasingly common part of the rescue scene. Social media is plastered with plaintive pictures of dogs marked “urgent” all across the country. Out in the real world, adoption events frequently host dozens of homeless puppies who have traveled from Georgia to New Jersey before reaching two months old.

Long-distance dog rescue does a lot of good. Lives are saved that would otherwise be lost. Adopters find sweet, wonderful dogs and get the glow of knowing that they saved those dogs from death. But for all the good things that these networks do, they are not without problems and complications.

Today I’d like to talk a little about where some of those dogs come from, where they wind up, how they get there, and what some of the common risks and benefits are for shelters, rescues, and adopters along the line. In this post, I’m going to concentrate primarily on the South-to-North movement of shelter dogs into foster-based rescues along the I-95 East Coast corridor.

Stage 1: Listing

The whole process starts when a shelter lists its homeless dogs on the Internet. Volunteers or shelter staff take photographs of the dogs and summarize whatever information they have (estimated age, size, gender, spay/neuter status, best guess as to breed mix, and any signs of temperament that can be observed in the kennels), then post that on Petfinder, RescueMe, AdoptaPet, Petango, and — probably the most important for rescue networks — Facebook.

Foster dog Silver’s original shelter picture from RCAS.

If the dog is lucky, she’ll attract the notice of someone who can either sponsor or pull her.

Sponsoring means that the person is not in a position to personally rescue that dog, but is willing to pledge money to help someone else defray the costs of rescue. At best, this can ensure that a dog gets saved when he otherwise wouldn’t, because the rescue would not be able to afford the costs of care without that sponsorship. Used wisely and well, sponsorship saves lives.

At worst, however, it can result in a good-hearted donor being scammed (one reason that most shelters caution sponsors to send their money directly to the vet clinic that will be treating the dog, and not to any private individual), or the dog being sponsored right into the hands of a hoarder or fake “rescue.” Be careful where you send your money, kids.

Pulling means that the person will step up and make a commitment to get that dog out of the shelter and take legal ownership of the animal. Once a dog is pulled, she’s officially out of the shelter system and in the rescue network. The shelter’s involvement ends there — and the rescuer’s begins.

Stage 2: Vetting

Next, the dog goes to a veterinary hospital for a comprehensive physical and health check. Most of the time, until the dog goes to the vet, the rescuer has no idea what exactly they’ve gotten themselves into in terms of medical bills. Many of these shelters are so under-funded that they are not able to provide any medical care whatsoever — sometimes not even rabies, parvo, or distemper vaccinations on intake. (When some of the shelters are able to vaccinate dogs on intake, it’s because some generous private individual donated those vaccines to make that possible. The shelters do not even have enough money to buy their own vaccines. They have to beg for that stuff on Facebook.)

Some problems, like an infected, embedded collar or a gunshot wound (both of which are, depressingly, pretty common in my experience), are obvious before you commit to the dog. Others aren’t.

It’s pretty much a guarantee that any dog pulled out of these shelters is going to have fleas, ticks, and some form of intestinal worms on intake. That’s just a given. The more critical questions — because these are less certain and considerably more expensive to treat — are (1) whether the dog is heartworm positive; and (2) whether the dog is going to break with a serious infectious illness like distemper or parvo after being pulled from the shelter (because remember, these dogs are coming out of an almost completely unvaccinated population, and these diseases are tragically common in those regions).

This is why sponsorship can be so important: because if a rescue gets bad-luck dice rolls a few times in a row, they can go broke very quickly. Unlike big municipal shelters that have city or county animal-control contracts to help cover their bills, small private rescues have no source of funds beyond adoption fees, donations, and whatever their volunteers can contribute out of pocket. When you have to eat the costs of a few heartworm cases or cherry eye operations on top of that, you’d better hope your credit-card max is forgiving.

Stage 3: Boarding

Before a shelter dog can be legally transported across state lines to a receiving rescue, that dog must undergo 10 to 14 days of pre-transport quarantine in order to ensure that he’s not harboring infectious illnesses.

There are two main ways that ethical rescues can comply with this rule (we won’t count the third option of crappy fake “rescues,” which is “pass them off as personal pets and don’t quarantine the dogs at all”): (1) pay for the dog to be boarded at a professional facility; or (2) rely on a volunteer foster home to quarantine the dog for the necessary period.

The advantage of using a professional boarding service is, of course, that it’s professional. The dog receives a certain level of care and the kennel staff is generally diligent about following proper quarantine procedures. The disadvantage is that it’s expensive ($10-25 per night for most facilities), and those costs add up very quickly, especially if the rescue is regularly pulling dogs. Boarding five or ten dogs for two weeks at a time is a financial burden that is far beyond the means of small-scale rescue groups.

Using local foster homes is much more cost-effective, since the rescue usually then only has to pay for food and emergency medical care. However, it requires relying on volunteers who have widely varying levels of dog-handling sophistication. Many are excellent, experienced, and highly competent. Some of them have the best intentions but not the best skills. A few of them are completely inept and/or outright dishonest (in one recent incident, a temporary foster actually stole the dogs).

This shouldn’t scare you off accepting or appreciating the valuable help of volunteer fosters. None of these rescue operations could function without them. But just to reiterate, once again: if you have to rely on the help of a stranger off the Internet, it’s always wise to choose carefully.

Stage 4: Transport

After the quarantine period, the dog has to be examined by a veterinarian for a health certificate verifying that the dog appears to be free from contagious illnesses and parasites, and is healthy enough to make the journey across state lines.

Then the dog has to make that journey. Again, there are several options:

Commercial ground transports run regularly up and down I-95, usually every week or every other week. Transport fees range from $125 to $250 for most dogs, depending on how big they are and how far they’re going. Cats typically cost around $50-100; sometimes they can travel 2-for-1 in a shared crate. These are usually converted vans or buses, occasionally in caravans of multiple vehicles.

The biggest limitation of commercial ground transports is that they don’t go everywhere. They run a regular route (or a couple of different routes, if it’s a big enough transport service), and that’s pretty much it. If either you or the dog is way outside the coverage area, you’ll have to find a different option.

Commercial air transport (i.e., buying your dog a ticket to fly cargo on a commercial airline) is not something that rescues use routinely. It’s just too expensive and troublesome to set up on a regular basis. This is an option generally used only for individual dogs flying to individual adopters, and not within the rescue networks themselves.

Volunteer transports can be either by air (as with Pilots N’ Paws) or ground (either networks of relay drivers or transports where volunteer teams undertake the whole marathon drive in one go).

Once again, the tradeoff is usually cost vs. convenience. Long-haul volunteer transporters tend to be a pretty experienced and reliable group, and relay transports are more flexible than anything short of just buying the dog a plane ticket on Delta, but it still takes some legwork to set everything up, and the transports run on their schedules, not necessarily yours.

Foster dog Leia on the airfield after arriving with Pilots N’ Paws.

Stage 5: Arrival and Fostering

At last! The dog arrives!

…and now is the first time when you, as the receiving rescue or adopter, get to actually see what it is that you’ve got on your hands. Now is when you get to cross your fingers and pray that the shelter assessment was accurate, the pre-transport boarding experience went smoothly, and you-the-recipient are equipped to handle whatever it is you’ve got.

…and the resident pets are ready to handle that, too.

Now’s when you get to start doing your work.

On foster failing, or not

Exactly 10 days ago today, I called my mom after work, and without even saying hello, I said, “Mom, I have to tell you: I have fallen in love.”

There was a pause, and then an audible sigh.

“It’s with a dog, isn’t it?”

Sometimes your mom can know you a little too well.

The object of my affection, and the source of the consternation that lead to this post is this handsome young gentleman:


Hi there!

Meet Shine. He is a cute, twoish-year old little dude who Sarah says looks like a McNab collie and Jen says just looks like a Heinz 57: Herding Flavor. Either way, he showed up in admissions at my shelter, and pretty much the instant I met him, I was all, “GIMME THAT POINTY DOG!” He was doing poorly in admissions–classic ‘dog who is stressed out by a shelter environment and turns into a monster because of it’–and I volunteered to bring him home for a little while, assuming he could work with my group of animals. I knew full well that I kind of secretly totally wanted him and that he would be a dangerous guy to bring home, given that it is not my objective to acquire any more dogs. However, I assumed that he would bomb out at some point in the introduction process and then I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. To my massive surprise, however, he passed his cat test and all of my dogs thought he was swell (Lucy, my old dog who hates basically everyone, play bowed at him and then got the zoomies, and I will have to plead the Fifth on whether or not that made me burst into happy tears.) So, because I had no built-in excuses left, he is now curled up in a ball with Nellie on my couch, and I have spent the last several days Hamlet-ing around about whether or not to keep him.


Duh, you have to keep me. Nellie thinks I’m great!

[Shine, by the way, is not his official name. Pretty much immediately on arrival, I decided his shelter name was non-euphonious and too difficult to call (plus, he didn't know it), so I decided that he seemed like a Shine and that was now his name. Step one in not adopting your foster dog: DO NOT RENAME HIM! Sigh.]

I have fostered a fair bit, and I am proud to say that I have only ‘foster failed’ (adopted a foster dog) once. That foster fail was Nellie, and the difference between her and my other fosters was that a) I was actively looking for a second dog when I agreed to foster her, and b) I mostly wanted to foster instead of adopt because I thought there was a good chance Lucy might want to murder her, and I wanted to have an ‘out’ just in case. I have had a couple of fosters that I was glad to see go, but I have been lucky in that I have mostly had foster dogs that I’ve adored. There were a couple that I desperately wanted to keep and did not; all of those dogs are in terrific homes and are thriving, and I know now that my decision to let them go was the right one. The stakes on both sides are pretty obvious: of course, if you keep your foster, you get an awesome dog and they get an awesome home. However, if you keep your foster, you also give up your ‘foster slot’, either temporarily (as New Dog adjusts) or permanently (because you are now full up on dogs). Keeping a foster dog means, theoretically anyway, that all of the potential foster dogs you could have taken in will now either need alternate placement or will not be rescued at all. So the decision to keep a foster isn’t tiny, and it’s not even necessarily about just you and the dog.

However, if you, like me, have a foster dog that is currently making your heart go pitter-pat, I thought I’d talk through some of the things I’m thinking about as I agonize over whether or not to keep Shine. If you’ve had to make the To Keep Or Not To Keep decision and had other criteria that you considered, please feel free to share those in the comments! Help me, help your fellow dog nerds.

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