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Disclosure in Dog Adoptions

I was recently reading a dog-related magazine (I know, imagine that!) where a particular breed was being described. One aspect of the temperament was listed as “tends not to be indiscriminately friendly with strangers.” I love that! Although as a trainer my mind goes directly to potential issues with reactivity on walks or at home, the portrayal is accurate without being off-putting to those who might want to investigate the breed further.

In the thirty-odd years I’ve spent working with dogs who were up for adoption in city and county shelters as well as privately owned rescues and sanctuaries, I’ve seen the full spectrum of canine temperaments, how much is actually known about the dogs, and how they are described to potential adopters. Some organizations are wonderful. Villalobos Rescue Center, for example, dog-tests each dog they take in and lets adopters know what to expect. This is especially important since the majority of the dogs are pit bulls; if an altercation occurs, even if the pit bull is in no way at fault, it does not go well for them in the end. If someone has a cat at home, the dog will be cat tested. And of course, how the dog behaves around people is assessed as well. All of these things are relayed to potential adopters without any sugar-coating. In short, the rescue behaves responsibly and ethically, and is up front with adopters so they know what they’re getting into. It helps too that most of the dogs are fostered by a volunteer for a few weeks prior to adoption in order to further assess temperament. Of course, not all rescues (and certainly not all city or county shelters) have the ability to do these things, whether due to a lack of volunteers, lack of dogs to test other dogs with, legal regulations, or other issues, but an attempt should always be made to discover as much about a dog’s temperament as possible before putting him up for adoption.

On the flip side, I know of public shelters where dogs who were known biters were put up for adoption, sometimes more than once after being returned for—you guessed it—biting. In some cases, the bites were disclosed; in others, they were either not mentioned or were soft-pedalled to the point that it sounded as though the dog might be “a bit nippy”. Then there’s the breed-specific rescue in my area where, if I get a call from one of their adopters, I know chances are high that the dog will have an aggression issue. Why are they constantly adopting out aggressive dogs? Money comes to mind. It’s unfortunate that some rescues seem to flip dogs like houses, pulling them from shelters and adopting them out almost immediately without even bothering to assess temperament.

Whether some dogs should be adopted out at all is a whole other discussion. But if a dog is being put up for adoption, kind-hearted people who simply want to save a dog should at least be given the choice of whether they’re willing to take on months of behavioral rehabilitation, possibly with the assistance of (and cost of) a professional trainer. I once worked for a privately run organization where I was the one writing the adoption listing descriptions, so I know what a fine line it can be to let prospective owners know what they’re getting into without damaging the dog’s chances of finding a forever home. Still, it needs to be done. I mean, if you were adopting a child, you’d want to know whether he had a proclivity to run around the house brandishing a butcher knife, right? A dog who should be the only dog in the home can be described as “Would love to be your one and only.” A dog who has fear issues can be described as one who is “shy and will take love and patience to come out of his shell” or something similar. Of course, all of the wonderful things about the dog should be listed too. But again, if there are temperament issues, whether aggression, fear, separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or anything else, they must be mentioned, albeit in the least off-putting way possible. The goal is not to cover anything up, but to get people interested enough to make contact. At that point, the issues should be discussed in depth, hopefully along with advice as to how to best help the dog going forward.

While it’s true that there’s not a line of people waiting to adopt dogs with behavior issues, there are many people still willing to take on a dog with problems and work with them. The truth is that like us, any dog who has reached a certain age has some baggage. It’s just a matter of degree. Letting adopters know everything up front will result in fewer people being surprised and therefore giving up on the dog more easily, and more dogs staying in their homes. ____________________________________________________________

© Nicole Wilde

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