If you know anything about Grouchy Puppy you know that it began (and continues!) thanks to our adopted rescue dog from the San Francisco SPCA. Since her passing, I’ve gotten more involved with helping the sugar faces at Muttville Senior Dog Rescue find their new matches so they can have the best final chapter of their life.
You can imagine then how happy I was to get the chance to review an early copy of a new book filled with stories, life lessons, and advice related to adopted dogs and those who love them.
We are a nation of dog lovers and as someone who fell in love with a shelter dog, I know I am not alone in my appreciation for what these special dogs have to offer us. In the book, Rescued, by author and journalist, Peter Zheutlin, there is story after incredible story showing how the dogs in animal shelters are not always broken, that they can become your new best friend, teacher, exercise buddy or confidante.
Every chapter in this book is a reminder of how bringing dogs into our lives can make us more empathic, compassionate people. Both the stresses and joys we experience together can have a positive influence. I experienced that first hand with my adopted dog, and now I get weekly reminders volunteering with the oldsters at Muttville.
This book has all the heartwarming stories dog people tell each other, but it also has a great collection of pragmatic life lessons, experiences and perspective. The stories you’ll read are valuable to anyone thinking about having a dog.
Shelter dogs are not broken, and most often just need the right person to appreciate who they are and what they have to offer. Much of successful dog adoption involves the art of matchmaking. Dogs, in all their dogginess, have so much to offer us humans if we just pay attention.
Here’s an excerpt from the book, Rescued:
Our Dogs Are Not Our Children: How anthropomorphizing our dogs can lead to unrealistic expectations of their behavior
When people get a dog, one of the first big decisions most face is what to call him or her. They’ll agonize for days even though, unlike with children, a dog will never have to learn to spell her name or be teased by other dogs because of it. Albie came to us as Albie, the name the shelter volunteer who saved him bestowed, a name inspired, I kid you not, by a character on the TV show The Real Housewives of New Jersey. He seemed like an Albie to us and the name was short and cute and rolled easily off the tongue. Besides, he’d been through so many changes already.
It wasn’t what to call him I wrestled with; it was how to refer to ourselves in reference to him that confounded me and continues to confound me to this day. Before we adopted Albie, I cringed whenever I heard people refer to themselves as a dog’s “mommy” or “daddy.” I would think, “Really? Get a grip.” So, when Albie came and I talked to him about Judy I referred to her as, well, Judy, as in “Hey, Albie, Judy’s home!” And I referred to myself as “I,” as in, “I love you, Albie,” never, “Daddy loves you.”
Dogs, in their dependence, are very much like young children in that regard but it seemed to me to anthropomorphize them beyond all reason when people thought of themselves as “mommy” and “daddy.” Yet, as anyone who has deeply loved a dog can tell you, they become an integral part of the fabric of the family, so much so that the grief when they die can be deep and profound and of a type and duration akin to losing a human family member. Occasionally, despite myself, I sometimes found myself referring to Judy as “mommy” when talking to Albie, but never to myself as “daddy.” And I have to confess that over the years I have developed a little banter I use over and over when I am snuggling up with him that humanizes him: “He’s such a good guy. He’s the best guy. He’s such a good person. He’s the best person. I love this guy.”
By thinking of ourselves as a dog’s “parents,” we have to be careful that we don’t slip into unrealistic expectations of what our “canine children” are capable of in terms of their behavior. Dogs are domesticated animals, but we need to remember that despite our constant attempts to humanize them their genetic roots are in the wild. Yes, a dog living in your home needs to learn to live with people and some are model household citizens. But more importantly, if you bring a dog into your home, you need to learn to live with the dog, including his or her wild instincts. You have to let the dog be a dog. One of the main reasons a canine adoption can fail is that the humans have unrealistic expectations for what a dog will be able to do, and often when those expectations aren’t met, there’s an impulse to write the dog off as uncontrollable, incorrigible, or just plain dense.
Can’t get your dog to stop chasing squirrels? He’s not stupid. He’s being a dog, and dogs chase squirrels and other critters! Does he bark at strangers approaching your house? That’s what many dogs do. They’re being protective. Is he hoarding your shoes and piling them on his dog bed? For some dogs that’s a natural way to feel close to you, especially when you’re out of the house. This isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t work with a dog to curb unwanted or disruptive behaviors. The point is, dogs will be dogs, so if you want to change something that he does, do so with the understanding that your dog is doing what comes naturally to him, and if he doesn’t change, it’s because he probably can’t. Your dog isn’t being malicious or rebellious, as we commonly understand those terms. He’s just being a dog.
So, we, the people, have to adapt. Of course, you don’t need to let your dog drag a freshly killed rabbit carcass onto your bed or jump onto the dining room table and to help himself to the Thanksgiving turkey before the family sits down to dinner. But you do have to recognize that some of what you are asking your dog to do may run contrary to what his instincts, handed down over millennia, are urging him to do. It means allowing him (or her) to indulge those instincts where it will be relatively harmless for him to do so, and not treating him like a violent felon when he does. If I’m in a position to stop Albie from destroying a small critter, a baby rabbit or a chipmunk he’s pursuing, I try and do so. But on the rare occasions when he’s succeeded I don’t reprimand him. He’s a dog and chasing critters is as natural to him as marking trees with pee or sniffing the ground to see who else has been wandering by. As a stray Albie had to fend for himself in the Central Louisiana woods where those hunting instincts were essential. To expect them to extinguish themselves after a few weeks or months, or even years living in a house is like expecting the sun to rise in the west.
The point is, whether you see or refer to your dogs as you would your children, or whether, like me, you have a more ambiguous approach to your relationship with them, if you want to have a successful relationship with your dogs (or any pets or animals, for that matter), it’s crucial to remember that they are not human beings and cannot be expected to think, act and behave as human beings, even young ones.
Allowing our dogs to be dogs means reminding ourselves sometimes that as much as we love and adore them, and as much as we want to protect them, they are, for better or worse, not children.
Adapted with permission from RESCUED: What Second-Chance Dogs Teach us About Living with Purpose, Loving with Abandon, and Finding Joy in the Little Things by Peter Zheutlin. © 2017 by Peter Zheutlin. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House.