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I’ve been hearing this statement with increasing regularity from shelter volunteers and staff.

I wish I could tell potential adopters, this is the dog you think you want and you may like for two weeks. But this, this is the dog you need for life.

Now, this doesn’t apply to every family of course. Many families come into shelters and rescues having done the research, having thought long and hard about what kind of family they are, what kind of time commitment they have, what kind of social lives they lead. Some families don’t. And there are a whole slew of people in between.

When we went to adopt Smokey, we were in search of a female German shepherd. Joe had grown up with shepherds all his life. My mom and I lived with a guy for awhile who had one. We were just starting our lives together, we had no other pets, no children. We owned our own home, had a nice backyard and a decent sized house. We worked schedules where the dog would only have to be alone about 6 hours a day, max. In the shelter world, we were pretty much the ideal candidates.

So we went to the Chester County SPCA and looked at the female German shepherd they had. They had a male too, but Joe was dead set on a female. He’d had females all his life. He had little to no interest in adopting a male. We met with the female, but she was broken. We sat in the room with her for a long while, while she cowered in the corner, shaking. She wouldn’t approach us and tried to slink away further into her corner when I got down slowly and approached her. We knew, as much as she pulled on our heartstrings, that she was not the dog for us.

There was a family out there for her, but it wasn’t us. We knew we didn’t have the time to commit to her, that she was going to suffer in a crate while we were at work, that she was going to need serious help to regain confidence and trust. At the time, we knew we were not capable of giving that to her. If you have followed this blog since its inception, you know how this story ends – we adopted Smokey, the male that Joe didn’t want who became the best thing that ever happened to our family.

We were that family somewhere in the middle, the family who knows some but not enough. In some ways, we’re that family still. After our fourth German shepherd, we are still learning about who we are as a family and what we want in a dog. It doesn’t help that I’m a sucker for the hard cases, and Joe knows how important saving them is to me and goes along for the ride.

I’ve written before about making a list of what you can’t handle, but this subject has been coming up a lot in the shelter I volunteer at, especially in relation to pit bulls, so I figured I would address it in a shelter light, instead of a rescue light.

A lot of families come in with breed bias, without even knowing it. For whatever reason, they don’t like the “look” of a particular dog, and when the “look” comes into play, it’s typically a pit bull. Some families come in convinced that a pit bull is not a good family dog, but a German shepherd is. I’ve seen husbands and wives arguing about what would be best for their children, all the while they’re standing three kennels away from a dog that may be perfect for them but they never even looked at.

Let me tell you a secret – the volunteers, the staff, the people who spend hours and hours with these dogs – they typically know a little something about them, and they want to guide you in the right direction. They love these dogs, they want them to end up where they are loved and cherished forever. Does that mean they’re going to be right every single time? No, definitely not, but they’re a good start, so listen up.

Panzer is not a good family dog. He’s a German shepherd, but he isn’t a protector for your children. That’s why he was sent to a home without them. He’s nervous and anxious and slightly unpredictable. He’s high energy and klutzy and has medical needs that boggle my brain sometimes. He’s impatient, impetuous and distrustful of humans. His breed certainly does not define him. I’ve heard people say, “But shepherds are loyal and smart and dedicated to their families.” Absolutely, they can be, but shepherds are just a dog, like any other dog, they are what they’ve been made to be, whether you believe it’s nurture or nature or a combination of the both.

Marlboro would be a great family dog. He would be 1000 times better in a home with children than Panzer. Panzer may be the dog some families come in looking for, but Marlboro is the dog they need. Marlboro is calm and patient and low energy. He’s loving and affectionate and social. He would and has entertained large groups of people, he lets kids tug on him and just sits in laps and smiles. Panzer would fall apart into a puddle and probably end up hurting someone.

Marlboro with kid

Photo courtesy of the Chester County SPCA (and one of the many talented photographers there not myself)

It has nothing to do with breed and everything to do with what you’re looking for, who you are and what the dog has to put on the table. So when you go into a shelter looking for your future family member, go in with a clear and open mind, listen, investigate, and don’t forget, a lot of these dogs look different when they’re out of their pens, so take them out and play!


Marlboro says, “I may not be the dog you came in looking for, but I may be the dog you need!”