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To rescue or not to rescue: that is the question

By Sue Lefevre

As a behaviourist, I love working with all kinds of dogs, large dogs or small dogs, pure breeds or cross breeds. The dogs that I really love working with are rescue dogs and I have a real soft spot for stray dogs that have been brought in, as we have no knowledge to prejudge; everything we learn is from observation and working with the dog. I have owned 5 dogs, 4 of which have been rescue dogs and one that I have had from a puppy, which was my first dog and the most challenging. I hadn’t started my journey as a behaviourist back when I got Jake my German Shepherd Puppy and all of a sudden I had this extremely cute ‘land-shark’ and I had no idea what to do, this is where my journey to becoming a behaviourist started, but that’s another story for another day.

I’m sure everyone, ok maybe not everyone, but a lot of people who have thought about getting a dog or have already decided to get a dog have been told by someone ‘Adopt don’t shop’, and in these days of social media some opinions can come across as quite aggressive. However as much I love rescue dogs, I know that adopting a dog from a rescue centre isn’t right for everyone and in my humble opinion you should never have to justify yourself whether you get a rescue dog or a dog from a breeder, all I ask is that you treat your dog with kindness and compassion and above all give it lots of love.

Over the years I have heard many reasons why people shy away from adopting a rescue dog, I am by no means saying that everybody that wants a dog should adopt a rescue, but there does seem to be some myths about the type of dog that you get when you adopt from a rescue. Hopefully I can dispel some of the myths for you.


Myth – All rescue dogs have behaviour problems, why else would they be in a rescue centre?

While it is true that some rescue dogs do have behavioural problems, not all of them do, some dogs end up in rescue centres through no fault of their own. Some are there because their owner has died, or there is illness in the family and they can no longer keep the dog, or their circumstances have changed and they can no longer give the dog the life it deserves. Some dogs are signed over just because they are no longer wanted – sad but true. Another point to remember is that behavioural problems do not just happen in rescue dogs, they can happen in any dog.

Myth – I can’t get a rescue dog because I have children.

Every dog is an individual and while some rescue centres put a blanket ban on re homing to families with young children, some rescue centres look at the dog, where the dog has come from and they will consult a fully qualified behaviourist to carry out an assessment. A dog may have come from a home with children and due to circumstances, that have nothing to do with the behaviour of the dog, it may end up in a rescue centre. The rescue centre will look to see if the family is suitable for the dog – surely that’s the wrong way round I hear you say – but no, it is the rescue’s job to advocate for the dog. The last thing the dog needs is to be placed in an unsuitable home and then returned to the rescue, just imagine how unsettling, scary and potentially damaging that would be for the dog.

Myth – You can't teach rescue dogs as they are too old or damaged.

The saying that you cant teach an old dog new tricks is a complete myth, learning theory does not discriminate against age or species, it does not care if the dog is 6 months, 6 weeks or 6 years. Behaviour follows motivation, if the motivation is right for that dog the behaviour will follow. You may have to adapt the way you train an older dog, but find the right motivation and you will be ok.

So, I can now hear you all running to your computers to look up where your local rescue centre is, but on a more serious note, if you are thinking about adopting a rescue dog there are definitely things to consider.

One of the most important aspects to consider is whether the rescue centre will give you help, advice and support after you have adopted the dog, in the world of rescue this is called rescue back up. Should any problems arise, the rescue should be able to either offer advice, if they have a qualified trainer or behaviourist there, or be able to put you in touch with a qualified professional to help you. Also you need to see if they will take the dog back if, god forbid, anything happens to you. If they don’t offer this support then walk away, I know it sounds awful, but honestly it is better all round.

Another aspect is always keep an open mind. We, as humans, see a cute picture on a website of a dog that needs adopting and we go ‘ah that one is so cute, I want it’, and if we don’t get what we want, then god help all those around us. The cute dog in the picture might not be the right dog for you and your family, but your perfect dog may be in the kennel next door and you haven’t even given it a second thought. Trust that the rescue knows their dogs. I love German Shepherds, I mean I really love them and my two rescue dogs are a Welsh Collie and a Collie cross, they were the right dogs for me and my husband and we adore them.

I would also suggest that you do some research on the breed that you are thinking of getting, this is good advice whether you are adopting a dog or getting one from a breeder. Have a look at your lifestyle and see if the breed you are thinking of getting will fit in well with it because the chances of you changing your lifestyle to fit in with the dog could be pretty slim, if you don’t like a lot of walking and providing a lot of mental stimulation then I would steer clear of working dogs such as Collies or Working Cocker Spaniel.

Another thing to consider is what activities does the rescue offer to the dogs in their care. Mental stimulation and enrichment is so important for the wellbeing of all pets, but especially important to animals in rescue centres.

Last, but by no means least is try not to prejudge the dog by breed. A lot of people are drawn to a certain breed of dog and some are drawn away from certain breeds, this can be for many reasons, it was a breed they had when they were young or they had a certain breed and the dog was amazing so all dogs of that breed must be amazing or they have heard horror stories about certain breeds so all the dogs of that breed must be bad. Remember every single dog is an individual, including every dog within a breed. There are certain traits within a breed, but no two dogs are the same, thank goodness or wouldn’t it be boring.

Having a dog (or dogs) to share your life, whether it is a rescue dog or not, is an absolute honour and that should always be remembered.

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