Two years ago today, my partner and I welcomed Charlotte into our home. I’ve written about her many times before here on Dogster but for those not familiar with my girl, she’s (according to our best guess) an Australian Cattle Dog/German Shepherd mix. Charlotte is fun and goofy, super smart (she knows well over 50 commands and tricks), and also has a few special needs in her dog-on-dog interactions. It’s hard for me to remember what life was like before our girl. She’s an amazing dog who has filled our home with so much love, playfulness, and very, very loud squeaks and squawks from her toys.
Charlotte had a pretty rough start before we adopted her. The animal control of a small southern town found her living on the streets when she was about 7 months old. She was starving, weighed barely thirty pounds (she’s now a healthy fifty) and had a litter of puppies. Charlotte and the puppies were taken to the local shelter and, as in so many in overcrowded shelters, found herself and her litter of puppies on Death Row. Thankfully, someone was looking out for her: at the last minute she (and the puppies) were rescued from death in the gas chamber and transported north to NYC where she started on her path of rehabilitation. A few months later, at an adoption event, she met us and found her forever home.
Charlotte has grown so much from the nervous late adolescent that we fell in love with through the window of a rescue van two years ago. Most of the credit goes to Charlotte who is a remarkably resilient, smart, funny, and playful dog. We’ve also worked really hard to give Charlotte a fun, enriching, and structured home, but we can’t change the first year of her life, or the behavior issues that grew out of that. What we can do is ensure that the rest of her life looks radically different. When Charlotte came home we immediately put in place routines and structure for her daily life: feeding, walks, interactive play, and training. This not only gave her comfort, but developed her confidence.
We were lucky: Charlotte is in so many ways a dream to live with. She’s never had an accident, she’s kennel-trained, non-destructive, amazing with Mercury (our other dog), quiet, and super well-suited to living in an apartment in the middle of NYC. She is also definitely not the right dog for every home and has her own quirks and special needs. She’s an anxious worrier, reactive when she sees other dogs, and needed to live with people who had experience working with dogs. When we adopted her, we knew exactly what Charlotte’s weaknesses were, and we also knew they were something we had the time/training experience/lifestyle to accommodate and work through. Even if she never progressed, she was still a dog who could fit perfectly into our home and family. I think that kind of analysis is really important when successfully adopting a dog. With the right combo of canine temperament, training and time, it’s likely that you will be able to work through issues that a dog is presenting with. But when you are adopting a rescue, especially one with some known issues, be sure that they are something you have the capacity (time/money/skill/etc.) to work through, and that if improvement doesn’t come that this is still a dog you would want to live with.
Rescue dogs aren’t always perfect. They’ve got baggage and quirks; all dogs, regardless of their background do — some more than others. Sometimes other dog people bristle when they hear me say this, but here’s my logic: I want people to rescue dogs, but I also want rescue dogs to get forever homes — not experience one more rejection. I believe part of that winning combo is transparency about what an individual dog has: their strengths as well as their struggles. Then, the prospective adopting family needs to do thoughtful self-analysis ensure they aren’t just falling in love with a cute face but can and will handle everything about this dog. Don’t judge yourself if the answer is no, this isn’t the right fit for my home/lifestyle/family/wants. It doesn’t make you bad to realize those things; it makes you responsible.
Here’s my advice for adopting a special-needs dog:
1. Get Support
It can be lonely and isolating having a special needs dog if your pup’s quirks get in the way of spending time at dog parks or other places where dog people gather. Don’t hesitate to bring in a professional trainer to help work through behavior issues, and build friendships (online and/or offline) with other dog people who have similar training philosophies.
2. Manage your expectations
“Not every dog is going to be Lassie, not every dog is going to be Lassie.” I’ve found this to be a useful chant when I get overwhelmed by my dogs being… dogs. In all seriousness, create training goals that are realistic. Expecting your fearful dog to enjoy a weekend walk through a loud and busy outdoor market might not be the most realistic goal. Create goals/situations where you and your dog can succeed and aren’t stretched beyond threshold.
3. Don’t compare
Just like people, dogs are unique individuals with their own skills, strengths and abilities. Just because your other dog, or a friend’s dog can handle a situation doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your new dog. Remember that you are a new team with a lot to learn about each other, and a dog with a rough past might not ever be able to handle certain triggering situations.
A great way to make some initial training headway with any new dog, but especially a rescue, is to build a life of structure and routine. Don’t coddle them just because they come from a traumatic past; you may end up reinforcing the fear/anxiety without meaning to. Instead make scary things fun — lots of treats when that scary man comes in the door, and create loving boundaries and routines so that your dog knows what to expect in their new family.
5. Find joy
Never forget to pay attention to the little things. One of my favorite things about rescue dogs with rough pasts is watching their bodies become filled with joy — possibly for the first time when they experience simple things many dogs take for granted. When Charlotte first came in our front door she walked on a rug, sniffed it looking confused, and then dove onto it and began rolling. This began her ongoing love affair with carpets. That was also the day she discovered the magic and fun of toys. Of course now two years later she has a heaping basket of all sorts of toys, which she loves and plays with constantly.
It’s about time for me to go and prepare some wet food birthday cake for Charlotte. What has your experience been like bringing a rescue dog into your home? How do you celebrate adoption/birthdays with your dogs? What advice would you give to future adopters of dogs with some special quirks or issues?
About the author: Sassafras Lowrey is a dog-obsessed author based in Brooklyn. She is the winner of the 2013 Berzon Emerging Writer Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the editor of two anthologies and one novel. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor, and she assists with dog agility classes. She lives with her partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, and two bossy cats. She is always on the lookout for adventures with her canine pack. Learn more at her website.
Read more by Sassafras Lowrey:
- One Woman’s Quest to Provide a Peaceful Retirement for a Rescued Breeding Greyhound
- Confession: I spent most of my Europe Tour Sniffing Out Cool Dog Things
- Would You Call 911 After Seeing a Dog Locked in a Hot Car?
- I Was a Homeless Teen; My Dog, Mercury, Helped Me Through It
- Having A Reactive Dog Makes Me A Better Dog Trainer
- Do You Keep Your Dog on a Leash Even in Off-Leash Areas?