How Not to Pick a Rescue Dog

First off, I want to say that I’m all for getting rescue dogs. I have rescue dogs and I probably always will. There are tons of great rescue dogs that need forever homes. In fact, I just flew down to the Seattle area to get Bean from Welfare for Animals Guild, because at the moment I was looking, there were no reputable rescues in my area with puppies available.

Bean waking up from a nap
My new puppy, Bean, waking up from a nap

There are ways to get a dog that avoid the biggest trouble, be it a purebred puppy or a rescue dog. This story is inspired by two friends of mine, who just adopted a dog for a week on a ‘trial basis.’

For one thing, it turns out the 7-day trial is just a fancy name for a return policy. They can return the dog in 7 days and still get their money back. So instead of being able to test the dog for 7 days, and evaluating the adoption in a guilt-free way along the way, they had to pay the $350 adoption fee and can return the dog within the 7 day period. It’s a subtle difference, but a big enough one to get them stuck with a terrible match. Rather than dating before marriage, they’ve already married the dog and have 7 days to admit defeat and get an annulment.

In pretty much all cases, it’s not so much, “Is this a good or bad dog?” but rather, “Is this a good or bad match?” As in, will this dog bring more or less happiness into their lives and vice versa.

The family’s needs & situation as I see it:

  • Both are friendly, social people who like to have frequent parties at their house.
  • They will be having children in the next several years.
  • They are moving across the country soon and don’t have an apartment in their new city yet.
  • One is starting graduate school, which is HARD and TIME-CONSUMING. This is the one who wants the dog most.
  • They have 2 cats.
  • They want a running buddy for marathon distances.
  • They have not had a dog before as adults.

One of the reasons that they’re adopting a dog while they’re still in Seattle, my friends said, was that they’d have me nearby. Oddly, I wasn’t actually asked to come help them pick out this dog, which would be the single biggest contribution I could make. So I invited myself over to the meet-n-greet. Mea culpa.

I should know, by now, that unless people ask for your advice, they won’t be ready to take it – friends and family least of all. So I’m blogging, in the hope that maybe I can at least keep you, dear readers, from making their mistake. These are not dumb people, but rather they are making a mistake that’s all too easy to make. Here’s what I found.

The dog:

  • 11 month old female dog.
  • Skin problems that require medication and weekly bathing (she also smells…seems minor, but to people who want friends over and who have not had dogs before, this can be bad).  Full-body Demodex at this age (no longer a puppy) can also indicate overall poor health.
  • Very avoidant. Social with the foster mom, but only a tiny bit social with us. Shy dogs need stability and owners who are patient about not being able to have friends over, who will take the time to rehabilitate them.
  • Fear Aggressive. She failed a simple test where I walked a little funny, in an impression of a toddler. Not a huge version, just a little stompy. She growled at me and stood her ground, staring. She didn’t snap, but I also didn’t do the full test, since she was off leash. This could be all she does, but my guess is that it’s the tip of the iceberg, as you rarely see a dog’s worst behavior in just one go. It’s just statistics!
  • Poor socialization history, coupled with the stand-offishness / natural tendency toward aggression to people and other dogs in this breed means that this will take a LOT of work to fix, and she may never be a really easy dog. It will severely limit their social lives for quite a while.
  • Says “NO CATS” right on her adoption advertisement on Petfinder, as she and her brother use to chase down and pin cats. Extremely interested in their cats upon meeting, but was *fairly* good. But once she gets more confidence, they could end up with a dead cat. Or two.
  • Has never really been on walks, and so it’s hard to tell whether she’ll be good for jogging, since the dog’s breed can have trouble with overheating.

Remember, this is their first dog as adults, so they’re going to need some help with these fear issues. The $90-$200/hour it takes to meet with a dog trainer about the dog’s fears will be very expensive in their new city.

How your dog’s aggression and fear can change your life.

  • Hard to find places to board the dog, so vacations are more expensive or impossible. Family may not want you to bring the dog with you, either, particularly if she growls at children.
  • Can’t have friends over without hullaballoo. These particular people tend to have friends just dropping by, which is a shy dog’s nightmare.
  • May not be able to go on walks, eventually. The dog is under a year old. When she matures, the aggression will get worse, without extensive treatment.
  • Kids and fear aggressive dogs are a terrible mix. Have to reconsider whether they should have kids. Even if their own kids are good with the dog, what about their friends?
  • Can be hard to find an apartment, if the landlord insists on meeting the dog or has a small weight limit.  Not the dog’s fault, but still, an issue if you don’t have a place to live yet!

There’s clearly a mismatch here. There are other dogs, even of the *same breed,* from that *same rescue*, that would match what they want: good with cats, dogs, and people and enjoy a lot of exercise. Frankly, if I were the foster mom and knew what a mismatch this was, I would not have let my friends adopt this particular dog.

It’s kind of like looking at lot full of used cars, and picking the one that’s been in an accident. Sure, you can repair it after a collision, usually, but it’s expensive and doesn’t always end up handling like a car that hasn’t crashed.

Nobody’s perfect, so I’m not saying that my friends should look for a dog that is 100% perfect in every way. Those dogs are only found in the stuffed dog aisle at children’s stores. But you can’t simply ignore aggression and fear, because you want a dog so badly.

There are a gazillion rescue dogs that aren’t aggressive. Why would they pick this one?

Why they are making this bad decision anyway.

1. Optimism. For one, many people tend to look at the good side of a dog during adoptions, and gloss over the red flags, even the really obvious ones, unless they have already had a dog with those problems. You can see this in dating, too!

I love my dog Peanut, truly, he’s my soulmate dog. He actually volunteered as a therapy dog, after years of work on his shyness. And I love little Bean, even though he has some dog issues. I chose him knowing full well that I had my work cut out for me.

But even though I am experienced and have several tools to work through reactivity, like BAT, I will do everything in my power to have my future dogs be “normal” from the get go. I have enough projects in my life already! When I adopt a dog, it’s for the whole life of the dog, it’s a commitment of up to 15 years of my life.

When you already have a dog that’s showing fear or aggression, that’s one thing. You keep it, you work on it. But to have no background in training and yet optimistically think a new dog that you adopt with aggression will work out fine is crazy.

2. Lack of knowledge. As a professional dog trainer, I can see the body language and flags from a mile away. I know how long it takes to work through these problems, that they aren’t always fixable to the point of complete sociability. Why do you think we work so hard to get owners to socialize early? Later, it’s hard or impossible to change.

But regular people, especially those who haven’t had a dog before, might not see the quick freeze, the pupil dilation, the speed changes (slower when around scary things), the center of gravity (low, faced away from novelty).

3. Social psychology. When you couple the above issues with the social psychology of having already said they’d do a 7-day trial, my friends didn’t stand a chance. Now that the dog is in their home, they’re even less likely to say it’s a bad match, because then they’d have to admit to being wrong or failing or something.

4. Desire to rescue. My friends have a need to rescue this dog, and all the red flags I point out just seem to make them feel more sorry for her. But they need to concentrate on her needs and their needs and whether they match.

This dog has a very lovely foster situation that she’s been in for 8 months. Even if she were to be euthanized upon return (not at ALL the case here), I would recommend that they not adopt this dog.

There are LOTS of dogs that need rescuing, every single day, that do not show aggression.

If they rescue her and then get burned, they are less likely to get a rescue dog next time, so net-net, the dog universe suffers. If they get a rescue and love the dog and don’t have problems with aggression, then they can get another rescue next time. I know it’s cold, but it’s what’s best for the most dogs, in the big picture.

It’s not like she shouldn’t be adopted at all. In the right calm, quiet, experienced household, she may not show aggression. However, such a household will be hard to find.

What can you do to avoid adopting the wrong dog for your family?

First, learn about dog breeds and body language, from books, videos, or classes. Watch training classes or visit the park and see what dogs are not having a good time. Talk to people with different kinds of dogs and look for the hidden messages in their experiences. What does, “Not good with kids” really mean? Biting? Growling? Shy? Jumpy? Learn to read between the lines on adoption advertisements. Don’t go with the idea that you have to take a dog home with you. Maybe even hire a trainer to help you evaluate your top choices. Then take their advice!

Before you decide to meet a dog, write out a description of who you are and what you want. What are your show-stoppers? Use that to screen out the dogs on, Petfinder, the breeder, or the shelter.

Bring the list with you when meeting the dog and be brutally honest when evaluating. For example, if the paperwork says, “Best with kids over 10,” and you have teenagers, don’t get the dog – those teenagers may end up bringing you grandchildren during the dog’s 10-15 years. Or you might want to pick the kids up from school (where there are younger kid) and bring your dog, who is aggressive to younger children.

Expect that any dog you get, whether it’s a puppy from a breeder or a rescue dog, will need training for jumping, pulling, house training, or some other foibles. There are no perfect dogs. But there are perfect matches – dogs with issues you can fix with basic training and/or happily live with.

Good things come to those who do their homework and choose with their heads, not just their hearts. That goes for dogs even more than houses and cars. Skipping over a dog or puppy that’s not a good match for your family means that you’ll be available with the right one comes along.

p.s. Also be sure that the rescue organization is reputable. Some rescues are actually just hoarding situations or worse, fronts for puppy mills. The foster families don’t necessarily even know that they’re lining other people’s pockets. If you are in the US, make sure they have federal (not just state) non-profit status. Check out the criteria from

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