Brad Pattison specializes in dogs from other countries.
A few decades ago, adopting a dog was a relatively straight forward process. There was little to no paper work and no lengthy application. You would pay a few dollars and you’re done and it was called adopting a dog not rescue a dog. Those days are long gone. Today, we categorize dogs in a far more complex and nuanced fashion, a reflection of the continually evolving societal norms regarding how and why we interact with our canine companions. In this blog, I will address one of the more controversial categories of dogs: rescue dogs.
Do you really have a “rescue dog”? And why does it matter?
The term “rescue dog” is most often a misnomer: when we purchase a dog, we are adopting it, not rescuing it. It’s my belief that “rescue” terminology has been propagated by greedy opportunists to capitalize on people’s good intentions. I have been on the front lines, travelled the streets, planned rescue missions and picked up dogs near death. For a dog to be a “rescue” dog, it needs to be rescued from what is usually an extremely precarious situation, one which often puts its rescuer in danger. Unfortunately, some people have identified a way to profit from the work of legitimate rescuers, and the way they market their “product” can have tragic results for dogs.
Many people claim they “rescued” a dog, but did they really? If you sat at home, clicked through websites to find a dog--looking at cute photos and reading sad stories (often more fiction than fact)--you did not rescue a dog. You adopted a dog. You paid money for a dog which was previously either captured or stolen. This dog has been turned into a commodity which now needs to be handled with specific and intentional care or the transaction will end in tragedy: the dog will eventually be euthanized.
You may be asking why I need to say all this. Keep reading to learn more.
How can believing you rescued a dog be a bad thing?
Take a moment and consider how most people react to being told that someone has “rescued a dog” or “has a rescue dog”. They might gasp and congratulate the new owner, maybe even congratulating him for his courage and philanthropy. In a sense, the owner plays on the pity and sympathy of his audience. He must be a kind of hero. He must be extremely caring, and maybe even more deserving of respect than “normal” dog owners. I would like to challenge this perspective, and even show that it creates harm. If the owner, as in the scenario above, purchased the dog online, the owner did not rescue the dog. He adopted the dog, just like other dog owners.
Negative consequences can arise from claiming you have a rescued dog. For example, reactions of pity perpetuate the lie that the dog is somehow broken. The dog is not broken. It is us who inadvertently create most of the broken bits by underestimating a dog’s ability to cope in a new environment. Furthermore, many new owners who believe they have a “rescue dog” allow the dog to get away with undesirable behaviours, thinking this is for the best as the dog has presumably already been through so much trauma. This “kindness” actually creates a potentially dangerous imbalance for the dog. Dogs have their own society, and it is vastly different from ours. Clashes happen when we don’t understand and respect canine culture. We might think treat-training and surrounding a dog with piles of toys and special beds is showing that we care about the dog and want to co-exist with it. However, what the dog actually needs and wants is far different.
What do dogs really want and need?
Dogs want structure, not routine.
They want discipline, not excuses.
They want rules, not a free for all.
They want mental exercise, not mindless 5km runs or repetitive on-leash walks.
What they really want is a job.
A dog needs a job. It requires purpose and this purpose is not fulfilled by being its human’s bed mate or cuddle bunny. Dogs are an intelligent species and need to be respected and treated as such. They don’t enjoy being the “doggy in the window”. Our dog did not choose us; we chose and paid for it and, unfortunately, we often fall short of becoming a healthy supporting pillar in its life. Humans can be arrogant, self centered, needy, insecure, and weak. It is controversial--but I believe accurate--to observe that our society has placed a burden on many dogs to be used as a kind of puppet or slave to deliver their human’s wants with little regard for what the dog needs. The last thing an adopted dog wants is to be seen as feeble, broken, or otherwise “less than.”
Your dog is adopted, not rescued…and it is important that you view them as such
Almost all dogs are adopted, not rescued, regardless of where they have come from. The self-gratification and self-aggrandizement that accompany the “rescue” word for dog owners does nothing positive for the dog. It victimizes the dog and set it up for multiple kinds of failures. Imagine if we introduced our adopted children in the same manner as we do with our adopted dogs. “Hi, this is a child I rescued” or “Hi, I’d like you to meet my rescue child”. When framed like this, it is clear to see that emphasizing a pity reaction in which the child is seen as a victim is unhealthy and unacceptable.
With some notable exceptions, like honest people who operate small shelters who are placing the care of the dog as priority. The dog industry in the “rescue” category is filled with people who are in it for the money, opportunists who scam the bleeding hearts and well-intentioned who will open up their wallets and spend ridiculous amounts for a dog that cost the “rescuer” next to nothing. Rescue dogs often sell for $1000.00 or even more. Sell 400 dogs on the rescue circuit and make upwards of $400,000. This is not that onerous a task—some move this volume of dogs in a few months through networks and partnerships in the industry. I have personally seen acreages bought and paid for by selling heart-breaking stories attached to hapless dogs who have cost very little or nothing--maybe a few health vaccines and some food and then sent on a plane with an incorrect depressing story attached to bleed your bank account. The trickery behind so many sales of rescue dogs has created a multi-billion dollar industry off the backs of dogs who may have been stolen from other people and sent abroad. Have you ever asked yourself why is this dog house trained, when it came from the streets of another country? Have you asked how is it possible this dog is partially trained for a dog who was a street dog or was bred for the meat market. Dog theft is massive. I see many dogs who have been stolen and flown abroad, attached with a brutal heart-breaking story of being beaten or left to starve. Much of the rescue industry is built on a foundation of lies, half-truths, and greed. Many in this industry do not desire to rescue: they desire to profit.
Why should adopted dogs be professionally assessed?
“What am I to do when I receive my adopted dog?” I get this question frequently. There are few people in the dog training industry who specialize in the field of feral, feral-domesticated and foreign domesticated dogs. One of the first issues you may experience is the language barrier. A dog flown from a South American country may never have heard English, or any other languages you may speak, so it won’t understand any specific sounds you speak to it. What it will understand is tone, facial expression and body posture. Dogs are great problem solvers and can advance through language barriers with surprising adeptness.
In addition to language, here are some things new owners of adopted foreign domesticated dogs will need to understand about their new dog:
Its geography and climate is different
Its dog friends are gone
Its family network or pack is gone
Its food has changed
The human companions it once knew are gone
Its territory is lost
Its freedom often turns into being locked in a North American home
Its social network is new and limited
It is likely restricted to being on a leash when outside
Dogs coming from external countries in the rescue circuit have not been assessed professionally. This is where I come in, or a person with similar experience training and peeling back the layers of who is your dog. Why are we seeing certain behaviours that are dangerous or unwanted? When will we see the behaviour we need to see? How do we meet the dog’s actual wants and needs?
The first 14 days are critical
The first two weeks with your new dog are the most critical. I have observed over and over that during these fragile first 14 days, the dog is collecting, studying, and calculating every move and every routine its humans make. The dog will process this information to draw conclusions about its new family’s strengths and weaknesses, movement, routines, and tones of voice. It will test its humans to seek out their weak points. Its consequent manipulations might come in the form of specific movements, eye stares, pawing, or hiding in corners or under furniture. The dog you have in the first two weeks is not the dog you will have in four weeks.
Establishing informed and intentional rules from the start is critical. These rules lay the groundwork for hierarchy, expectation, rank and, most importantly, our dog’s feeling of safety. Detrimental human-caused problems come when we introduce treats, too many toys, pick up our dog too often and permit the dog on furniture. The tone of voice we use also plays an interesting role in our developing relationship with our dog. When we default to baby talk, we are harming this relationship. Dogs require leadership and guidance, and much of this is achieved when they feel that their human is keeping them safe. By using a calm and “normal” voice, we are letting our dog know that we are its leader and protector. Talking to the dog in high-pitched baby talk can actually lead to dog aggression, as the dog will think such a speaker is weak and needs its protection. This negative behaviour can grow over time, and include such behaviours as threatening and or warning growls, lunging, and, eventually, biting.
Loving your dog to death
As I wrote about in my book Unleashed, new owners of labelled “rescue” dogs frequently, if inadvertently, head on a path toward loving their dog to death. It is a misplaced love which often ends in the tragedy of their dog being euthanized. An “over loved” dog is one whose human does not meet its need for balance, structure, discipline, mental stimulation, and physical exercise of various kinds. Instead, its human emphasizes hugging, baby talk, giving food rewards for basic commands, low expectations, and may even allow the dog to sleep in the human’s bed domain, claim a couch as its property, or bark loudly without physical reprimand. Its human may also embrace gimmick fads and embrace treat-training, thinking this is a kindness. However well-intentioned this owner is, this lack of balance will push the dog from healthy to unhealthy behaviour, which has potentially dire consequences for the dog.
How can I help?
This is where you need a professional with years of study and experience in the classification of dogs. I and a few others can help you and your new dog navigate this space. The education and experience I have from working with feral, feral-domesticated and foreign domesticated dogs has given me a firm understanding of canine needs and wants. My objective is to guide and assist you to achieve a meaningful and truly loving relationship with your new four-legged buddy. My teaching rests on the recognition of how awesome your dog is, not how sad and pitiful it is.
About the author
Brad Pattison has been studying feral, feral-domesticated and foreign domesticated dogs for over 20 years. Brad has led numerous animal missions in Mexico, Canada, United States, Australia, Puerto Rico and Haiti. A few of the animals he has helped while leading rescue missions: dogs, hamsters, birds, kangaroos, wombats, horses, mules, snakes, koalas, turtles and many more friends of the Mother Earth.