When I was younger, my parents insisted that our dogs be purebred and purchased as just-weaned puppies from breeders. They were beautiful, to type, babied when young and, I assume, any developmental tangles we had were the sole result of my diligence or folly.
As I got older and noticed the stray dogs in the neighborhood, I decided it was time to quit encouraging the addition of new dogs through my buying dollars, and to do something to help resolve the over abundance of abandoned animals at our local no-kill shelter. Since we had just purchased a rather large farm, and I was comfortable raising larger dogs, instead of lap-mice, when I walked in and saw that there were over 200 animals on the adoption availability boards, I decided to offer my services in adopting one of the larger breeds.
You would have thought I had just offered the shelter a million dollar donation! Four separate shelter supervisors descended and dragged me back to walk row after row – pointing out first one then the other. Apparently, smaller dogs are far easier to get rid of than larger ones, especially if they have remained on-site for more than a few weeks. The bigger the puppy becomes (and the more obvious it becomes that those over-sized feet will one day match that cute little body), the harder it becomes to find a willing recipient. The shelters will use every trick in the book to try and get you to accommodate their need to place these animals.
The first dog I adopted was a beautiful fawn-colored Mastiff-mix. We were told that it was full grown at around 60 pounds – that its light weight was solely due to it being severely malnourished while lost in the woods for several months. Since you could see the bones in its tail and hind quarters, the explanation made sense. Sam, as he came to be called, showed little personality, except that he paid close attention to every food bowl going back and forth, and would perk up a bit when a man came into the shelter. The personnel literally begged me to take him, waiving half of the adoption fee. Should I have been wary? Maybe.
As it turns out, Samuel Adams (so named because his coat matched exactly the color of one of their better ales), was not full grown. Over the next several months, and long after we had fallen in love with him, he not only put on the other 30 pounds I thought he have should been carrying, but he grew another 12” and added another 60 pounds more! He is now a barrel-chested combination of Mastiff and Red Coonhound, weighing in at over 110 pounds. Although the shelter swore he was at least 18 months old when we adopted him, I now feel fairly confident that he was only about 7-9 months old.
When we first got him home, he whined constantly. Not just occasionally, but when we were in the room and when we were not. When he was in his kennel and when he was out. He could not be let out without a leash – even though we had 9 acres, because he would immediately bolt. He couldn’t be taken on a car ride, because if we opened the window even a few inches down, he tried to get away. As we drove him around once or twice, it became clear he was looking for home – that he had a place to go. Only since he was by now over 50 miles from the shelter from which he had been adopted, and over 150 miles from where he had been found – home could no longer be where he expected it to be.
He wolfed food in huge gulps, and spent every unsupervised moment trying to get into any available food left foolishly either sitting out or in lower cabinets. Cereal boxes, refrigerators – anywhere. He is a smart dog, but his experience being left to scavenge had taught him that finding food was his primary mandate in life.
That and going somewhere – anywhere – I don’t know where. His every effort when out the front door was to get away and go. Who knows what he thought he might find. On several occasions my now ex-husband became the butt of jokes at the surrounding farms when seen running down the road, or chasing after him in the ATV. Sam could do a good 3 miles without even becoming winded.
One of the things we noted as the fall wore one was the he naturally stalked the ducks, rabbits and coons that populate our property. Without our showing him anything – he would follow and then take a point. Gunfire didn’t bother him at all, but rather served as enticement to go wherever the shots were heard. It became clear that he had been someone’s beginning hunter trainee.
In fact, unraveling what had happened to him in his past became one of our great pastimes, and is one of the biggest differences between raising your own puppy and adopting a shelter dog. If you choose an animal that has any age at all, they will have already gone through something, possibly something horrible or traumatic, before you get them. Instead of being able to affect their impressionable puppy heart, they will have their very own, sometimes difficult idiosyncrasies you have to learn to live with.
Ultimately another hunter living nearby confirmed he had learned some of the beginning signals, but had apparently been lost before the training was complete and the command to return firmly fixed. That, coupled with the fact that he apparently didn’t have a great sense of direction, had probably resulted in his being lost in the woods. Knowing this didn’t lessen our family’s frustration with Sam continually trying to run off. After all, you would think that as good as we have been to him, he would want to stay near. But no, Sam had been taught to track and apparently felt he had failed in not getting what he was supposed to find for his first owner. For the first six months we had him, I am convinced that every open door represented an opportunity to Sam to redeem himself.
After a late February snow, my ex-husband slipped on ice, releasing his leash. Off Sam ran into the nearby woods. We spent several hours looking for him, but he had disappeared into the still-dense underbrush and was nowhere to be found. We waited and waited; called and called; and then resigned ourselves to the fact that he was lost again. Since he had a chip in him, we hoped someone might call to say they had found him. No such luck. As the temperature plummeted to below 0, our entire family became more and more depressed.
Two days later, at 6:00 in the morning, when the door was opened to go to work, there sat Sam on the front stoop. We didn’t know it at the time, but a neighbor had heard him scratching on his foreman’s mobile-home door at 4:00 in the morning, recognized him and brought him back. How he survived till then no one will ever know. Even after that experience, Sam continued to try to pull, run and chase until we gave him an incentive to stay closer to home. That’s the nature of a shelter dog – no matter how much training and discipline they are given, they also have a long memory regarding another life, and you simply have to learn to meet somewhere in the middle.
How did we get Sam to stay home? Aha – we next adopted Missy, a black Bull Mastiff / Lab mix. Her name originally was Angel – but she was no angel. One of five litter mates left locked in an abandoned house that was up for sale, she had somehow survived for as much as 5 weeks – exactly how or how long no one knew. What we did know was that she was starving; losing her hair; completely afraid of any human being; and would often try to eat her own defecation. Doing so probably kept her alive during those horrible weeks.
It took us several months to get her enough nutrition that she began to put on weight. However, the damage to her system was done, and to this day, nearly ten years later, she still has nutritional and allergic issues to wheat and corn. Initially she had to be treated for demodetic mange numerous times before her hair quit falling out.
It took us months to get her to quit urinating and defecating in the house. Apparently being free to do so for so long as a puppy ingrained in her that habit, so the standard methods of puppy pads and newspapers simply didn’t work. Patience, and frankly, withholding water until certain times of each day, finally did.
As the largest pup in her litter, she had become the bully to survive. So this 50 pound terror began to terrorize all of Sam’s 90 pounds! At first he thought it was cute, and having his own pack to run slowed him down a bit. Once she grew as large as he was, she began laying or walking on top of him, stealing his bones; eating his food and pushing in front of him when treats were being doled out. That stubborn pushiness and determination – which helped her to stay alive as an abandoned puppy – had become real challenges in dealing with a 120 pound nearly-adult dog. She’s not a biter. In fact, she’s very lovable, but she’s just determined to have the first and most of everything and anything.
Some six months later, Missy (short for Miss Mischief) was suffering nightmares several times each evening – howling, whining or growling even though she’s was still asleep. And heaven help you if you want to take away her bone, her blanket or her anything. She’ll run, hide, crouch under impossibly low tables and chairs, and just about do anything to prevent it. Makes sense – what was hers was so little when young that just like an abused child – she holds very dear what she gets now.
Have we given up? No, but when adopting a shelter dog, unless it is only a few days old – you need to be aware that their survival of whatever ordeal they went through will most likely result in a fairly stubborn, and poorly started and highly idiosyncratic animal. There will probably be health issues, behavioral problems; training lapses and, the older the animal, just plain areas where you will no longer be able to have as much of an impact as you would like.
On the other hand, once I had Sam for over a year, he became one of the most loyal and attentive animals you could hope for. Missy eventually got there too, although she retains a strong stubborn streak when deciding she wants to stay out for just a few minutes longer. When she wags her tail – her whole body wags – happy to see you and lay in your lap for hours just being stroked.
So, if you can live with the quirks, the extra efforts, the unknowns that will inevitably crop up, shelter rescue can bring with it joys you never thought you could have, and the satisfaction of knowing that you have truly made a difference in an otherwise hopeless situation.