Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Reader asks which should come home first? New baby or new dog?
Dear Gail: We regularly read your column in the Sunday News, and we do not recall your addressing this type of question: We are expecting a new baby (our first) in just a few short months. We also have wanted to adopt a dog (preferably a mid-sized dog a couple of years old), since our shepherd/husky mutt passed away from old age a while ago. Which should we introduce to the household first? Thanks for your thoughts on this!
- A Reader
This short email includes many issues for the prospective parents to think about. The most important issue has less to do with the impending birth and more with selecting the right dog for the family. Although it isn't specified, given that they're interested in a young dog, not a puppy, the reader and her husband are likely considering "rescuing" a dog.
While the idea of "rescuing" a dog appeals to many owners, it's important to consider whether that is best for the family, versus considering a puppy from a reputable breeder or a mixed-breed pup. Even as I write, we're applying for a puppy from a breeder we've found who has a line of dogs that we like. On the other hand, I've had some wonderful rescued dogs. My first "own dog" was a sweet little mixed-breed from Bideawee in New York City. Hobbes, my Springer Spaniel who arguably taught me as much as any dog I've ever owned, would have been euthanized if I hadn't taken him on. And then there's Kochi, my Okinawa "street dog."
Hobbes was on his way to the death chamber for aggressive biting when I adopted him with full knowledge of his behavior, making a commitment to his rehabilitation and life. I knew what I was taking on, and Hobbes' rehabilitation was a tremendous learning experience. But few owners are prepared to deal with behaviors they were unaware of, or are unable or unwilling to tolerate.
This is my dilemma with recommending adopting a rescue: You might get the most wonderful dog you've ever had, but you don't always know what you're getting, and it can be a roll of the dice. When a family adopts a dog that has a couple of years of history - usually unknown and unknowable - it's impossible to accurately predict if the dog is appropriate for the home and family life. It isn't enough to meet the dog or even to "try it" for a few days or a week. It often takes time before the dog's true personality emerges.
A dog's transition into a new home often includes a "honeymoon period" lasting anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months or even longer. This period of adjustment is stressful for the dog, and individuals handle stress differently. A newly adopted rescued dog generally behaves in one of three ways.
Some adjust seamlessly, settling into the new routine without issues. Those are the easy adoptions. Then there are dogs that handle stress by acting out, and those that become extremely reserved.
The active stressor might exhibit unruly, stress-relieving behavior such as house soiling and destructive chewing. Clients with newly adopted dogs might call us for a behavioral consultation, dismayed because they were told the dog was housetrained, and he's not. Once the dog has settled into his new home and adjusted to changes in his time schedule and routine, he will once again be housetrained.
More puzzling for new owners is the less-confident dog that proceeds with caution - seemingly a calm, well-behaved dog. As this dog becomes more relaxed, his "normal" personality emerges, which might include undesirable behaviors such as resource guarding, growling, snapping or reactivity when disturbed or approached. Clients who suddenly see these changed behaviors invariably say, "But he was perfect when we first adopted him! He's never done this before!" Now that the honeymoon is over, they are likely seeing the behaviors that led the previous owner to put the dog up for adoption, failing to mention these issues to the rescue service.
More on the reader's question next week.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a column topic, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. Past columns on her website.