If you’ve skipped to this section, consider going back and first learning about rescue organizations and other aspects to consider in picking the right dog. Too often, I hear people care about two primary things in their future dogs – color and temperament.
“I want a black and tan German shepherd who is loyal, obedient, a good family dog and protector.” Okay, I think, so you want Hollywood’s Rin Tin Tin. Little known fact, the original, off-stage Rin Tin Tin was highly aggressive and was rumored to have bitten one of the Warner brothers. Actors working on the set with him loathed and feared him with equal measure. I’m not saying a black and tan GSD can’t be like Hollywood’s depiction of Rin Tin Tin, I’m just saying your GSD isn’t going to be like him just because he’s a male, black and tan GSD. A mixed breed or a basset hound or any other dog has just as good of a chance at being your own personal hero. Also, in my opinion, reciting the AKC’s description of the breed does not constitute “temperament” anyway. So if you rushed to the temperament section of this series so you could find out what to look for when adopting Rin Tin Tin or Lassie, please go back and read the first two sections of this series first then read about how you don’t “find” Rin Tin Tin, you make him.
That being said, finding a dog with the right temperament potential and the right personality to fit your family is very important when deciding on the rescue for you. It’s so important that before I decided to give advice on the subject, I did a lot of reading, and I also talked with Panzer’s foster family, who has rescued and adopted 30+ dogs over the years.
My hesitation in providing a solid answer came from the fact that both of my rescues have had some type or form of aggression/reactivity. Smokey was dog aggressive, Panzer is aggressive toward people. My experience with rescue is slanted, because there are tons of fabulous dogs without behavioral issues awaiting adoption, and I was afraid that by expressing my limited experience with rescues I would turn people away from rescuing at all, which is by no means my intent. I also felt like I didn’t want to fluff up the rescue experience by saying that all rescues are great and will adjust and transition with no problem and you’ll have the perfect pet by sundown of adoption day, because that has simply not been my experience.
What I learned was this. An animal’s past, as Martha puts it, is a poor predictor of its future. I agree whole heartedly. Smokey came from a situation where he was neglected, starved, overbred, under exercised and possibly abused. His left ear was missing and we to do this day have no idea what happened to it. Based on the condition we got him, it’s amazing that he had any trust for human beings at all. In all rights, he had no reason to, and yet, he was a love. He loved every human being he laid eyes on and wanted nothing more than to settle his head in his/her lap and get lavished. Kids could pull on his tail, stick their fingers in his bad ear, try to ride him and even put flower headdresses on him, and he would just stand there happily, tail wagging. The thing I miss most about Smokey was his absolute adoration of human beings. Dogs, well, that was a different story. But over the years, with the help of trainers and a lot of work, he developed a love of dogs almost as deep as his love of humans. Except male German shepherds, he could never quite get over his hatred of them.
Panzer, on the other hand, is a mystery. We think it’s likely he came from a fighting operation. Whether he was being used as a bait dog or a fighter is unknown, though judging by his personality, I think he would have made a pretty poor fighting dog. He has no problem with other dogs, as long as they are down for a good wrestle. He has poor playing skills, which we are slowly developing, and he gets a little too enthusiastic and aroused sometimes, but he doesn’t seem to hate dogs the way Smokey initially did. He is terrified of people though and reacts accordingly, which is to say, he’s aggressive.
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum is Anna, a pit bull who was used as a bait dog and then abandoned in a dumpster in the back of a bar to die. Joe’s friend John saved her, and she has never been the least bit aggressive toward anything (except maybe moles and rabbits). She loves everyone. She doesn’t know how to lie down or shake or speak, but she is the perfect companion.
The other thing Martha told me that really stuck with me is that you need to know who you are, as well as know who your current dogs are (if you have any). At first I found that a little bizarre, but after adopting Panzer, I feel like she’s right on the money.
When we decided to rescue another dog after Smokey passed away, we spent a lot of time talking about what temperament we thought would fit with Shelby. We knew the dog couldn’t be dog aggressive, for starters. We also knew that Shelby is naturally very loyal to other dogs. She and Smokey were attached at the hip, so we knew we wanted a dog that would bond with her, because we knew she would bond with the dog regardless, which meant we wanted a dog that wasn’t too independent. We wanted a dog around her age that could keep up with her or maybe a little older, but we didn’t particularly want a younger dog, because we didn’t want Shelby to transfer herself onto another dog, especially because of her reactivity and fear toward people.
What we didn’t stop to consider fully was who we are and what we wanted and needed. We talked about it. When we looked at a dog, we made sure that it matched our overall requirements for age, sex, breed, health, etc., but we didn’t spend much time talking about what we couldn’t handle. I knew generally that I wanted a dog with toy drive, who enjoyed learning. Joe knew that he wanted a dog that would play tug and wrestle but also want to sleep on the bed at night. I knew we could handle a dog that had behavioral problems, but we didn’t think – what can’t we handle?
What you can’t handle, in my opinion, is vastly more important to consider than what you can. What you can’t handle is going to be what gets the dog rehomed, or sent back, or possibly euthanized. Next time we decide to rescue a dog, I’m going to have us sit down and write out a list about what we can’t handle.
As of right now, my list would look something like this:
1. I can’t handle a dog that continues to go to the bathroom in the house.
2. I can’t handle a dog that is aggressive or reactive toward people.
3. I can’t handle a dog that is aggressive or reactive toward dogs.
4. I can’t handle a dog that is aggressive or reactive toward cats.
This list looks a lot different now than it would have before we rescued Panzer. Part of the reason these things are on this list is because I’m simply tired of rehabilitating them and would enjoy a break. When we rescued Panzer, I wasn’t tired of rehabilitating them. Now that I’m working through it with Panzer, I’m feeling like after this one, I’m done for a little while. For instance, I have desensitized four dogs to my cat Apollo in the last two years. I’m sick of it, the next dog we get, I want him to like cats (if Apollo is around, if he’s not, then it won’t be a problem, see how this list can change based on where you are in your life and what your needs are?). I have rehabilitated three of my last four dogs on some kind of reactivity. Simply put, I don’t want to do it anymore.
Am I ashamed, as an avid trainer, to say that I simply don’t want to rehab an aggressive dog? No, I’m not. You know why? Because I know it would be a disservice to the dog to do it half-assed just because I didn’t “feel” like it. There’s nothing wrong with owning up to who you are and what you want and need to find the right dog. There are a lot of really great dogs in shelters that won’t have the problems that are on your “can’t” list that will fit just fine. For example, not listed on my “can’t” list is separation anxiety. I feel completely ready and able to handle a case of separation anxiety at this point because I haven’t dealt with it since we rescued Smokey, which was three years ago. Other people may not have “housebreaking” on their “can’t” list, and they could get a wonderful dog that just needs some time and patience with housebreaking but is completely perfect for that family in every other way. It’s just not something I enjoy doing. Own up to who you are when you’re looking for the dog with the right temperament.
Talk to your foster family, ask questions of the shelter, tell them your own “can’t” list. I’m sure they’ll still have a match, and if they don’t, keep waiting, you’ll find your forever dog eventually.
As to temperament and personality and potential, Martha gave great advice for this as well. She said that you need to assess the fundamentals of who a dog is. The example she gave me was that one of their dogs was petrified when they first met her, but her husband noticed the dog had extraordinary eye contact and was extremely alert. Behind the fear, he saw that she would one day be a great dog. I know it’s hard to do, especially for first time rescuers, and it’s very hard not to be swayed by those great big, broken puppy eyes, and I hate to sound hokey, but this is one of those things, you should just try and feel out as much as you can.
When we adopted Smokey, we were there to see another dog, a five year old female from the same puppy mill that Smokey had come from. She was gorgeous and completely broken. We sat in a room with her for five minutes before I knew she was not the one for us. She wouldn’t come near us, she just cuddled in a corner and huddled. She wouldn’t look at me, even when I crawled toward her. She just kept trying to get further and further away. I laid on my belly and tried to look up at her, but she just stared at anything but me with big whale eyes. Could she have been rehabbed? I’m sure, but I saw no potential in her, not for our family at least. Was it hard to shake our heads and say no we’re sorry and send her back to a cage in a kill shelter? Definitely. Some would say that it would have been better to have saved her, at least she would have had another chance, but I think it’s important to remember that if you’re adopting a dog, you’re doing it for you as well, not just him/her. This dog would not have fulfilled our needs.
I knew Panzer was the dog for us when we first met him and he came charging in the house with his foster brother and sisters and walked right up to me and leaned into my knees, which he still does to this day. It’s a light, fragile lean, but his weight against my knees says so much. As I pet his head, he looked up at me and closed his eyes and leaned closer. So as much as I want to say don’t be swayed by a gut reaction, ask the hard questions, find out if you can handle this dog, there’s also this weird balance where you have to go with your heart a little bit too. Now, if Panzer had leaned that way and his foster family said, “Oh, by the way, he’s bitten 19 people and killed a dog,” we would have had to say, well, he’s nice, but no thanks. There’s a balance.
Sitting here finishing this post, I feel like I’m dancing around the issue some, that some of you are probably reading this and saying, “But what do I do?” I think the best advice I can give you is this – there’s no guarantee, there’s no sure fire way to make sure you’re going to get your ideal dog, but if you think about it long and hard and evaluate the dog with a good part of your head and a good part of your heart and you think about your interest as well as the dog’s and you understand that you are going to need to commit to training, you’ll come out all right and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll get the Hollywood Rin Tin Tin that doesn’t bite people, but if you don’t, that’s okay too.
For a great read on Rin Tin Tin: Read this by Susan Orlean
For a good article on dog aggression and selecting the right rescue try: The Dog Star Daily’s
For a good run down/checklist on what you should look for in a rescue dog read: This node from clickertraining.com