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We took the dog nobody wanted, and I’m glad we did

The animal rescue shelter called to see how we were faring with our new (to us) dog. My answer wasn’t the one they were expecting, I could tell.

“Great!” I enthused. “He’s lying right here in my lap, keeping me from getting any work done!”

“Oh!” came the response on the other end of the call. “Oh! That’s… great?!”

They were asking me as much as they were telling me. And no wonder. My adoption of Sawyer was not his first. Rescued from the woods where he was discovered as a small puppy, his front leg caught in a hunter’s trap, he’d been taken in by the shelter, adopted out and then brought back. My family was third in a line of owners, and from the hesitation on the other end of the line, I could tell they expected me to express a concern.

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Friends did. When I said we’d adopted a dog that had been “brought back” to the shelter, I got questions about whether I worried that our new family pet was violent, whether he’d hurt our 7-year-old.

I wasn’t worried.

Not when I woke him from a sound sleep to move a blanket from beneath his loins and he snapped at me. Not when he stood in our living room, whining for 30 straight minutes our attempts to comfort him ignored. If anything, knowing he’d been adopted by another family, only to be abandoned, only strengthened my resolve to make it work with the floppy-eared chew monster that we’d brought home.

Although there are not national statistics on how often dogs are returned to shelters, it does happen. According to ASPCA estimates, an average of 8 percent of canines are returned to shelters, but Dr. Emily Weiss, vice president of research & development for the ASPCA, says the number is likely higher as it doesn’t reflect those dogs “re-homed” to a friend or family member, which is hard to quantify.

What Weiss does know from ASPCA studies is that more than 1 million households re-home a pet each year. Of those, 37 percent go to a friend or family member and 36 percent to a shelter.

The idea of re-homing or returning a pet may be anathema to pet lovers and scary to someone wary of bringing a dog with “issues” into his or her home, but Weiss says dogs are often returned simply because they were “mismatched” to the adoptive family.

For example, she notes, “If someone adopts a dog who they expect to behave in an active, playful manner but instead the dog is a couch potato, the bond will be less likely to develop.”

When we adopted him, Sawyer was anything but a coach potato. He was, however, a dog that had spent time living out in the wild and one that had spent extensive time caged in a kennel. He needed comfort, and he needed someone to put him in his place. I needed to walk a tightrope with him, teaching him to deal with sudden movements around his body when sleeping while also exerting my dominance as the alpha of the household. It wasn’t something we dealt with in a day or even a week. It took several weeks of me taking things from him and standing firm, not backing down at his snapping, until he mellowed out into the sweet, submissive nature he’s held for the past three years of ownership.

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I often wonder if it’s that habit that sent him back to the shelter before he came to us, if the owners before us weren’t prepared for the hard work of training a shelter dog to become a family pet. I’m just glad I was. In his three years with us, Sawyer has become my constant companion, and when we lost our older dog to cancer this past spring, his goofy antics and sweet cuddles got us all over the hump.

If you’re considering adopting a shelter dog, know this: Not every pet is for you. They may be cute. They may be cuddly. But you need to know the dog is right for your family (I know all too well that it won’t always work out). And you need to be up to the challenge.

Weiss suggests being open and honest with shelter staff about exactly what it is you want in a new pet.

“This information can help shelter staff guide you to dogs that are more likely to meet your expectations,” she notes. “Some shelters offer the opportunity for ‘sleepovers’ where you can take the pet home for a night — and many others waive the return fee if the dog is returned within a certain time frame. Ultimately it is most important that the match is right.”

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