When my wife and I were looking to adopt our first dog, we had one — and only one — deal breaker: aggression.
At the time, we had little experience with dogs. Aside from acting as the designated doggy sitters for a few of our friends, we had never had long-term responsibility for a dog, and we certainly didn’t have experience handling a dog with severe behavioral problems. We knew this about ourselves.
Plus, we live in Chicago, and there aren’t many dog-friendly apartment buildings, which means if a building does allow dogs, it’s usually packed with furry tenants. On top of that, a few of our neighbors were new parents, which meant there were both dogs and babies in our building.
So, when we had an in-home consultation with one of the local Labrador Retriever rescues, the very first thing we said was, “We don’t mind working with a dog to correct most behavioral problems, but we absolutely cannot adopt an aggressive dog.”
They eventually paired us with a pup named Sadie, a super-sweet, one-year-old Lab. In her description, it said, clear as a bell, “Great with other dogs and kids.”
We were so excited. We’d put faith in the system, and after lots of hard work, our rescue counselor had found a good match for us. Looking back, I know now that we relied too much on the counselor. We did meet Sadie briefly before we picked her up, but we didn’t really do what we should have: get to know her. We didn’t ask to see her interact with other dogs. We didn’t go for a walk. We met her, found her adorable, and left the rest up to our adoption counselor.
We spent the next couple of weeks preparing to give this adorable dog a new life. We bought a bunch of supplies, puppy-proofed our house, and prepared ourselves to be awesome pet parents. Honestly, we were in love Sadie before we even picked her up.
On the way out of the shelter with her, we passed another dog. I didn’t think anything of it, really. I’d been told she was dog-friendly, so I let her approach the other dog. Immediately, Sadie lunged and nearly landed a bite. If it weren’t for the quick reaction of the other handler, his dog probably would have been injured.
This took me totally off guard and shook me up quite a bit. I put Sadie in the car and went back into the shelter to tell them what happened. Our adoption counselor wasn’t worried at all, “She’s just had surgery,” she said. “Lots of dogs exhibit these kinds of behaviors when they’re recovering.”
I was wary, but I trusted the counselor. She knew our situation, and I’d made sure she understood that we weren’t experienced dog owners. I remember saying aloud to myself, “Relax, Perrin. I’m sure it’s fine.” And we went home.
The next two weeks were a roller-coaster. Within the boundaries of our home, Sadie was one of the sweetest dogs I’d ever met. She was affectionate and smart. She listened. She followed me around and knew a few basic commands. But most of all, she was funny. She was a very easy dog to love.
On the other hand, though, she had altercations with every dog she encountered. As she recovered from her surgery and returned to her normal state, the incidents got progressively worse. If Sadie wasn’t lunging at passing dogs, she was barking from across the street like a total maniac.
The worst, though, was when we’d pass a baby in the stairwell. Sadie never lunged at a baby being carried in a portable car seat, but she’d growl. I’m not sure if she was growling at the baby or the car seat; either way, it was enough to terrify me. Our stairwells were tight, and even at 30 pounds, she could physically yank me around. What could (or would) Sadie do at 65 pounds?
So we had a terrible decision to make: We’d fallen head over heels in love with this dog, but we just were not equipped to handle the aggression — and the danger to our neighbors, their dogs, and their children outweighed our affection for Sadie. So we took her back.
It was utterly heartbreaking. We’d only known Sadie for a few weeks, but we’d been talking about and preparing to be dog parents for nearly a year. It was like the opposite of Christmas.
It can be excruciating to relinquish a dog, especially if you have already fallen in love like we did. But sometimes a dog is not right for you and you are not right for a dog. Even within our little Chicago neighborhood, I’ve seen half a dozen dog attacks. Almost all of them resulted from an inexperienced owner handling an aggressive dog.
The weird part is that because adopting a dog is such an emotional experience for everyone involved, it can feel taboo to take a dog back to the shelter. In our case, our adoption counselor was furious, and she let us know in no uncertain terms. Honestly, it makes sense. She devotes her life to rehoming dogs, so I’m sure it’s not easy to take one back in.
In the end, I learned a few hard lessons. First, even well-meaning adoption counselors make mistakes. Second, you should spend as much time as possible with a dog before adopting, taking advantage of trial weekends if possible. And third, it’s okay to tell the counselor that you don’t have the right level of experience or expertise for a particular dog; it doesn’t make you a bad person.
If you read this far, you’ve probably got a burning question: Did you ever get a dog?! Not only did we get an amazing dog (and the love of our lives) named Chewie …
…but I discovered that I have a pretty ridiculous passion for helping other dog owners, so I started my own dog blog.
What if I had to do it all over again? I think I made the best decision I could have at the time, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better dog than I have now!
Have you ever returned a dog after adoption? Did you feel guilty? How did you cope? Tell us your story.
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About the author: Perrin Carrell is a long-time blogger living in Chicago with his wife and dog/gremlin Chewie. He has a rather unhealthy obsession for all things dog, so he channels this energy into his blog, HerePup. If you have a soul and love dogs too, you can find more cool stuff on their Twitter account.