What I’ve Learned from Adopting Shelter Pets

As far back as I can remember, movies and media have portrayed shelter pets as flea infested, disease ridden animals with a vendetta for small children. “You don’t know that dog’s past.” “You should get a puppy or a kitten so you can raise it how you want to.” “That cat will stink up your house.” “Say goodbye to all of your rugs and favorite shoes.” All valid concerns, but here’s my perspective…

Rob and I both grew up in families with dogs, cats and the occasional turtle or fish here and there. And as you may have read in my previous post– Raising Baby Chickens , I grew up with several outdoor animals to admire too! So our love for animals and probably the desire to step into our new life as married adults, led us to search for our first pet. We didn’t have much money at the time, as I was a full time cosmetology student working only part time, and he was a LCPL in the Marine Corps. But somehow we mustered up $200 to purchase a black and tan Miniature Pinscher from a co-worker of mine who had 2 left from a litter that she needed to find a home for. Not knowing anything about the breed, the temperament or the daily requirements that were involved, we bought her because I had always wanted one simply because they’re cute. We named her Roxy.

Roxy was in fact, very cute. She was a whole 20 lbs. of muscle and attitude. But the habits that she developed over time, such as growling and nipping at strangers (kids included), digging holes in the back yard and peeing in her kennel every time we left her, were all a direct result of our poor training. Now, at the time we had no idea that this was a cause and effect situation. We gave her the best life we knew how to give at the time. We allowed her to sleep in our bed every night, we over fed her and spoiled her with treats, we would regularly allow chaotic energies in our household (remember, my husband was in the Marine Corps.. insert weekly parties, USMC style). All of these things, plus the lack of exercise and positive stimulation, created a neurotic ankle biter, who became terribly jealous when we brought little Raygan home from the hospital. The acting out grew old quickly, as I was running on mere minutes of sleep and was calorie deprived from lack of proper lactation counseling. A post on Craigslist became priority on my to do list. Trust that there were several disgruntled animal activists that had nothing else better to do with their time but to send me hate mail about the matter. There was one understanding momma who commented something along the lines of, “it’s always better to choose the baby over the dog.” At least she understood!

After finding a home for Roxy, we decided that we were going to wait until Raygan had grown older and required a little less of my undivided attention before we tried to add another pet. We slipped up once and took in a puppy who required potty training at the same time that Raygan was potty training, and let me just say, it was a crappy situation that didn’t last very long.

Fast forward a few years to right before Raygan turned 4 years old, we were all a little bit older, a little better rested and ready to try our hand at being pet owners once again. One afternoon in April of 2013, we decided to “swing by and look” at the local animal shelter.. like that ever happens! Walking in the doors of the facility, we were greeted by cold brick walls, a chaotic chorus of barking and meowing and the strong odor of urine. I’m not trying to condemn the animal shelter for their lack of interior design, they have to work with what they’ve got and unfortunately their budget isn’t exactly plentiful.

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We walked down what I consider to be “dog row”, a hallway made of cinderblocks and windows for viewing the kennels of dogs that are available for adoption. At the shelter there are two types of dogs, nervous and nervous. One type of nervous is shown by barking and jumping, typically with the dog’s tongue hanging out, drool may or may not be present. The other type of nervous is displayed by sad, shifty eyes, possibly potty on the floor and a dog whose stature is shrunken and most likely pressed into the corner of the wall. (That hurts my feelings to write!) These are the images that can lead wishful pet owners to question their decision of adopting from the animal shelter. “We can’t have a dog that wild in our house.” “That one’s not potty trained.” “It’s always the nervous ones who bite.” Again, not trying to condemn and these are all valid concerns.

Let’s try to shift our perspective for a second, shall we? Imagine as a young child or a teenager or heck, even a grown adult… everything that you have ever known has completely changed in an instant. Imagine being plucked from what you know as home and being separated from those you know and love as family, only to be relocated to a white washed brick room with a cement floor filled with the smell of other people’s waste and anxious energies. Which type of nervous would you display?

After we walked down dog row, we found 2 dogs that we wanted to take out into the play yard and meet. First up, a dog who had so much pent up energy that it spent our time together running circles around us not ever slowing down to even say, hello! Next up, dog number one’s polar opposite- a medium sized hound dog who stood in place while reluctantly accepting pets and trembling all the while. Not feeling much of a connection with either of our top 2 picks, we headed towards the exit, planning on returning in a few days to check out the newer inventory. As we were getting ready to leave, one of the volunteers asked us ‘what type of dog we were looking for?’. We gave our wishlist, which included things like: preferably being potty trained, good with kids, healthy and so on. The lady told us that she had another possible candidate in the back room who had just completed its vetting and was about to be put out on display. We asked her to bring it out, just in case. And there she was, a chocolate girl who so gently followed the lead of the volunteer into the adoring eyes of all of the pet seekers in the waiting room. The lady handed us the leash and said, “This is Haven.”

Our immediate first impression was that she was perfect. She was calm, yet engaged and after glancing around the room at those hoping to be next in line to meet her, we decided that she was coming home with us! The truck ride home went well. We went through a drive through to grab dinner on the way and couldn’t believe how calm and uninterested in our nuggets that she was. The next day we had a wedding to attend and not yet having the time to purchase a kennel, we left Haven (who’s name changed to Hayven, in honor of a new beginning and also to mimic Raygan’s name) loose in the house. When we returned, we were pleasantly surprised that nothing had been chewed, no potty on the floor and she was still curled up on her bed like she was when we had left her.

After a few days of similar behavior, we started noticing that she wasn’t eating much without being hand fed, she didn’t want to play with toys and then the accidents began. We were concerned that she could be sick, as she didn’t do much other than lay around. After a visit to the vet and a clean check up report, we were told Hayven was just very shy and needed to adapt to her new surroundings. Over the next several weeks, we came to realize that this poor pup had a past life of being abused both physically and verbally. The slightest change in voice or raise of one’s hand would cause her to cower in fear and pee on the floor. The mere image of Robert walking down a hallway in her direction would send her into a panic. To reprimand her for pottying in the house only caused matters to be worse. And after forming a bond with our family, she developed severe separation anxiety which caused her to tear things up, including the floor board of her kennel. If you’ve ever owned a wire caged kennel, you know how typically stable the floor boards are. Imagine it ripped into shreds, pee and blood every where, it was a night mare! So much so, that we were almost at our wit’s end and ready to re-home her with someone who was better equipped to help her than we were.

Thankfully, we had a glimmer of hope and didn’t pursue. Instead we decided to read books, ask for advice from others and binge watch every single episode of Cesar Millan’s “The Dog Whisperer”. I highly recommend this series for new dog owners and veterans just alike. After learning that dogs require a calm and confident owner, as they feed off of their environment’s energy, we started changing the way that we handled different situations. When she would have an accident in the house, rather than yelling, “NO!” and running at her trying to herd her out the door… we would take her out every couple of hours and when she would do the deed outdoors, we would reward her. We would praise her with affection and treats and thus began, the smile. Yes, our dog smiles. When she is recognized as a good girl, her whole face lights up with pride and every once in a while if you’re really lucky she’ll flash you her pearly whites!

To address the separation anxiety, we started a “see you later” ritual. Every single time we leave, still to this day, we turn on music, we give her love and tell her “we’ll be back in just a little bit”. After keeping this promise to her for an extended period of time, she started to trust us. The kennel became a thing of the past. Gradually, we began to see a spunk in Hayven that wasn’t present in the beginning of our journey together. She started to enjoy playing with toys, cuddling with Dad and learned a whole line up of tricks. The key ingredient to our success has been consistency.

Sure, there are still many quirks that Hayven possesses to this day that remind us of her ugly past. She’s still terrified of loud noises, doesn’t care for people in hats, and shakes when we have to leave her. But, we are light years away from the dog we once had. Every time we come back home to her (even if we only walked to the mailbox), she greets us at the door with all the wags, all the cries and the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. She is, I’m convinced, the smartest and most loving animal on the face of this earth. She will do whatever it is you ask of her. Her willingness to please is so admirable given the past that she endured. I can only imagine that while being belittled in her previous owner’s home, she still loved them and tried her hardest to make them happy. Her ability to forgive the humans of her past and to give people another try, is something we can all learn from.

Not all shelter pets are the same. You may find animals who have been surrendered by their owners, those who have been removed from their owner’s homes and those who have been collected from the streets who have no known history and are given a number as a name. Every shelter animal’s story is different.

After finding success in our adoption journey with Hayven, several years later, we added another shelter pet to our home. Belle, our mischievous, mostly sweet and some times ornery cat had a different past than Hayven did. She was treated well, from what we know, and after about an hour or two of hiding under our furniture when we brought her home, she came out to eat and has been demanding food precisely at 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day since. (Sometimes earlier, but never later) She is a bump on a log most of the day and a huntress during the night. Any bug, bird or other critter smaller than she, is in danger when she’s around. She is fierce and even with her lack of desire to do as we request, she keeps us laughing! The dynamic between our dog and cat is something along the lines of Oscar the Grouch and Elmo. They are competitive for attention but in secret, they cuddle and hunt squirrels together.

So, if you haven’t picked up on the lessons that I have learned from adopting a shelter pet thus far, let me break it down…

  • Shelter animals aren’t any less lovable or trainable than those you’d purchase from a pet store or breeder. In fact, most of the time, mutts end up being smarter and easier to train than designer dogs… but you didn’t hear that from me!
  • All animals can be hellions. It doesn’t matter the breed or price. It does matter how you choose to spend your time and energy with them. Bad/uneducated owners and environments create bad/uneducated animals, period.
  • Chances are, your local animal shelter is doing the best that they can to provide a decent transition place for the staggering number of animals who are turned in to them every day. Most include the cost of immunizations and spay/neuter in their adoption fees. And a large number of their positions are volunteer based, so lend them a helping hand some time!
  • Shelter animals, once adopted into the right home, will spend the rest of their lifetime in gratitude… doing whatever they can to please their owners and make them proud. They live for the “dog voice”.. you know which voice I’m talking about! Like you’ve swapped your oxygen for helium. Yep, that voice!
  • And lastly, humans suck some times. But if an animal can find it in their heart to forgive and to show love and even smile in the process, then maybe we can find it in ourselves to do the same.

Next time you’re considering adding a new animal member into your family, please consider your local animal shelter or rescue. There are countless amounts of animals who are in need of homes like yours! Adopt, don’t shop!

Have you rescued, or shall I say, been rescued by a shelter animal? Please share your experience in the comments below!

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