It’s become a badge of honor to say, “All my pets are rescues,” or “I have a rescue dog/cat,” rather than “I have a dog/cat.” In a lot of ways, of course, that’s a good thing; there are many animals out there in need of homes. It is kind and generous that people open up their hearts and families to these beings in need. I applaud those who rescue animals. I have a few “rescue pets” walking—and flying—around here, myself.
However, I also see problems with this trend that people might not, generally, think about. Many of the behavioral and health issues I help people deal with every day exist, at least in large part, because the pet was a rescue.
It’s a fact that most animals who are in shelters are there for a reason. No, they aren’t always good reasons, and the reasons given to the shelter when an owner turns in their pet aren’t always the truth. When the reasons for surrender are misrepresented, the underlying truths are usually behavioral in nature. Sometimes, the owner doesn’t want to admit that the cat hasn’t used a litter box in six years, or the dog keeps biting the ankles of house guests, out of fear that their pet—or their ex-pet—will be put to sleep. Whether the reason is a good one or bad one, a true one or false, it certainly isn’t the poor animal’s fault. Often, the root of the problem lies in the start the pet got in life, and has been carried forward through that life without proper intervention.
Reputable breeders (as opposed to many “backyard” breeders, puppy mills, etc) can give a puppy or kitten a head start that pets with an unknown background have missed out on. They carefully choose parents, and can trace bloodlines, health, and temperament back for generations. They start training their puppies and kittens to be handled early, and make sure they are in good health before finding them homes. They properly socialize their babies, making sure they are gently introduced to a variety of people and exposed to different situations at a young age. They often begin house-training, too, to give new homes a head start. Then, they stay in touch and mentor their new puppy or kitten families for life, offering a lifeline should bad things happen and the family be unable to keep the animal.
Sadly, many of the animals who are adopted from rescues and shelters have never had that advantage, and there is often no way of knowing what the pet’s background truly is. One great benefit of working with a responsible breeder is that the above questions are answerable, and the new owner has a much better way of knowing what they are in for. As wonderful as it is to rescue an animal in need, we never really know what it is we’re getting into until we’re committed to the animal (hopefully, for life).
Wouldn’t it be great if all shelters and rescue groups could afford positive training programs and truly extensive health screenings before they adopt out an animal? I would love to see a world where all shelters, for instance, are able to adopt a program like the Open Paw Program (started by Kelly and Dr. Ian Dunbar and used in a number of west coast animal shelters) for dogs. The animals are trained with positive reinforcement every day, all day long, by everyone they come in contact with. They learn to trust people, learn basic obedience commands, learn to “shush” on cue and use their mouths gently, are trained to use a potty area, and so much more. However, in many shelters, the overworked humans are hard-pressed just to keep the animals clean and fed!
I hope that most people understand when they adopt a shelter or rescue pet, they are going to have to put (often a great deal of) work into retraining and socializing them. I wish all adopters had positive training classes available. In my opinion, it should be a top priority after having their new pet fully checked out by their veterinarian. I would also love to see owners incorporate something like the program (a modified version of which works for adult dogs, too) outlined in the free e-books linked at the bottom of this article. And cat-owners, you do all watch Jackson Galaxy, don’t you?
At the very least, no new canine family member should be allowed the run of the house. Dogs should be under total supervision or (if no one is home) confined to a safe area (preferably with access to an acceptable toilet area of some sort, but at the very least with someone to walk or let them out to relieve themselves every few hours—every hour for young puppies). They should only earn more freedom a little at a time until they prove themselves reliable. Even a relatively reliable dog needs to learn the new routine in their new home. It’s unfair to assume they are “trained” and get upset when they have accidents. On a similar note, I feel it’s a mistake for shelters or rescues to adopt out dogs whom they guarantee as house-trained. It sets the owner up for disappointment, because even a well-trained dog shouldn’t be expected to know the toilet routine in their new home without considerable guidance.
Then, we have the poor kitties. We humans tend to think that cats are “naturally clean,” and don’t need to be house-trained. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that cat litter box problems are the #1 reason pets are turned in to shelters clearly illustrates the reality.
In a situation where a kitten is kept with its mother and litter mates long enough (at least ten weeks), yes, it seems like they train themselves. In actuality, however, the kitty is being trained by her mother. When a cat is removed from the litter too young, or raised by a mother who never learned proper toilet etiquette herself (like many outdoor and feral-born kittens), someone else has to take on mom-cat’s job. That someone is the human owner. Even trained cats need to be confined at first to a spot where their litter is easily accessible, so they can imprint themselves on that litter box and make it their own. Just as with a dog, if the human can be there to praise and treat the kitty when she goes in the right place, that training can be helped along.
If you have given an animal in need a good home, bless you! Do keep in mind, however, that the fact that your new family member is a rescue probably means they’re going to need a bit of extra help to adjust. If you are having problems with a pet whom you adopted as a rescue, consider the likelihood that those problems are there because they had a bad start. Modern behavioral research has proven that many issues are imprinted on pups and kittens when they are very young. For example, a dog who is not socialized to a variety of humans and experiences before they are 13 weeks of age (9 weeks for a kitten) can exhibit anti-social behavior and fear issues later in life. That pet is, by nature, going to need more training and gentle patience than a pet who began life in an optimal environment.
Of course, we love our imperfect pets, and we don’t give up on them. Adopting an animal, whether from a shelter or a reputable breeder, is a promise for life. That promise includes putting in whatever work and time it takes to help them through their challenges.
If you need help with house-training or other behavioral programs, or help locating a trainer near you, please feel free to get in touch.
2. Before You Get Your Puppy (free PDF e-book; may take a few minutes to open)
3. After You Get Your Puppy (free PDF e-book; may take a few minutes to open)
4. Cat-Daddy Tips (behavior and lifestyle suggestions from Jackson Galaxy)
News and Updates:
The holidays are upon us. They lurk, they stalk, they breathe down our necks with frosty intent! (Can you tell I’m writing this right around Halloween?)
I will be, as always, holding my Holiday 3-Pack Special again this year. The special will begin on Black Friday (the day after US Thanksgiving, or November 24th for the rest of the planet) and run until New Year’s Day. As the date nears, please feel free to email me if you’re interested in purchasing a 3-pack for the holiday price.
As always, please continue to visit my website for updates, changes of schedule, etc. I will always try to keep the Unavailable Times page current, and you can also follow my Twitter announcements in the sidebar.
Blessings and Light,