All Rescues Are “Problem” Dogs: Fact or Fiction?

What steams my beans, as much as lumping all breeders into the same category (which is much like comparing a child who plays a game...


What steams my beans, as much as lumping all breeders into the same category (which is much like comparing a child who plays a game of “Operation” with a board certified surgeon), is the misconception that all shelter or rescue dogs are there because they are “bad dogs.”

Dogs wind up in shelters for a variety of reasons. Many are strays, picked up off the streets or from a garbage dump. Others are abandoned because the owners have fallen on desperate financial times and can no longer afford to pay for their care, are physically unwell or have gone to the Rainbow Bridge to reunite with past pets. Some are rescued from mass breeding operations, dogs covered in mats, filth, feces, and sores, missing teeth, some nearly crippled from a life cramped in a cage, some blind. And yes, some dogs are turned in to shelters for behavior problems.


I do feel as though there is a distinction between what I call “pet dogs,” and “project dogs.” Pet dogs are like my beautiful Chow mix, Mokie. They are often referred to as “easy dogs,” whereas a “project dog” compels the dog owner to step outside of her comfort zone and develop new handling skills to address sometimes intense behavioral problems which may range from aggression to separation anxiety.

Pet dogs are their own type of fun. Mokie is fun because I can take her anywhere, she is an eager, attentive learner. All my intensive socialization work after bringing her home at eight weeks really paid off. Living with a pet dog is, figuratively and often literally, a walk in the park.

Problem dogs are different. They aren’t bad dogs, they’re good dogs that need great owners. Working with a problem dog requires commitment. It’s not always a walk in the park. It’s a riotous adventure, fraught with emotional ups and downs that can be nearly bipolar in intensity. It is a trip through training mountains and ravines, deserts and lush gardens of success when you make progress together. It’s breathtaking ascents together, and sometimes you hit a mudslide and end up back where you started. These are the dogs that challenge the pet owner to become not only a better dog handler, but a better person.

Mokie, my well socialized pet dog, could do a lot of things that Monte, my project dog, could not do, like go on camping trips surrounded by dozens of strange, generally poorly trained, out of control dogs, and handle it with aplomb and grace. Monte, however, is the dog that made me a trainer and think differently about dogs, how they learn, and what we teach them through our own behavior.

The vast majority of shelter dogs are in the pet dog category. Sure, they might need some brushing up on their training – dogs don’t generalize well so they will have to learn that good behavior pays off in their new home. A manners class or two to get the pet parent off on the right foot and then, hopefully, many years of continued enrichment and bonding through positive training to cement and maintain the relationship.

Buying from an irresponsible breeder is probably much more of a guarantee that you are in for a “problem dog,” than if you adopt from a shelter. Again, early socialization deficits can really come back and bite you in the bum here. I think a shelter dog that grew up in a home with a family is probably a safer bet than a puppy mill dog with many traumatic early experiences.

If you are going to rescue a dog from a shelter or rescue organization, don’t assume that what you see is what you get. A lot of times, a dog that paces, whines incessantly, or chews at the gate of his kennel is simply suffering from an overwhelming amount of stress related to the shelter environment. When these dogs feel safe and settled into a new home, these anxious behaviors often dissipate naturally. If your potential dog is in a foster home for an extended period of time, you may get a better idea as to his true temperament. Make sure you keep the Canine Adjustment Period in mind when bringing any new dog or puppy into your home.

As I contemplate the addition of a new Saint Bernard in our family, I wonder, will I choose a pet dog or a problem dog? Will my life ever be complete without both? Now that I have these skills in helping a reactive dog, do I have an obligation to put them to use by bringing another project dog in my home? Would I miss the thrill of seeing a reactive dog progress through a training protocol? I don’t have answers to these questions yet.

As I mull them over, I must also think to myself, what is best for Mokie? At this point, my obligation is to do what’s right for her. She’s not as young as she once was, and I don’t know that she would tolerate a 130+ lb of snarling, lunging, Saintiness as well as she once did. I have to take her wants, needs, and desires into consideration. Without question, they are every bit as important as my desires and my husband’s as well. By the time we are ready to bring a Saint into the house again, she may very well be “too old to put up with that crap.”

Not all rescue or shelter dogs are problem dogs, and problem dogs are not necessarily to be dismissed out of hand if the owner has the resources, knowledge, and skill to help the dog overcome his fears or anxiety. Anyone wanting to adopt a new dog would be well-advised to check out Petfinder to see if there is a wonderful, homeless, fantastic dog could very well be your new best friend!

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