Dispelling shelter dog myths: Myth #2

This is the second in a four-part series to run throughout February, which is also Spay & Neuter Awareness Month.

Shelter dog myth #2: “It’s how they were raised.”

I have two dogs and I’ll be the first to acknowledge I have no idea how they were raised. But I can tell you one thing: it really has had little bearing on who they are today. Now you might be confused. The ever-present mantra of Pit Bull owners seems to be, “It’s all in how they were raised.” But really, that isn’t 100-percent true.

Now there is absolutely a lot to be said for the first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life. Many puppy foster parents and responsible breeders take great care in proper socialization of their litters. They expose them to different people, sounds, scents, textures, and walking surfaces, offering everything they can to make those puppies into confident pets or working dogs. Yet, even puppies carefully bred and painstakingly raised for the purpose of assistance dog work can have a 37 percent or higher “drop out” rate, suggesting that even the most well raised dog may not turn out the way that you had planned.

Then there are also people who do exactly the opposite. They leave puppies with their mother in a yard until they appear to be eating on their own before selling them off to the highest bidder. There are the dogs, like the Michael Vick rescues, who were systematically tortured over a period of years. We know how those dogs were raised too, and yet, there are many cases where they turn out to be wonderful, loving, normal pets.

And, we all have “that dog” in the neighborhood, who despite the hard work and endless love from their human family, is still, terribly, horribly naughty.

Undoubtedly, some portion of a mixed-breed dog’s behavior comes from genes, but what percentage of their total behavior is influenced by their parents, and how much did they get from each parent? Honestly, for the average adopter of an average shelter mix, I am here to tell you it doesn’t matter. You can shape and manage an animal’s nature and nurture, but really, there’s no equation that will guarantee you what your All-American mutt puppy is going to be like when it reaches adulthood.

But I want people to find love at an animal shelter. I want adoption kennels to be empty. I want every home with love and capacity and compassion to be able to find their perfect dog. So why am I telling you that it doesn’t matter how your puppy was raised? Because I want you to adopt an adult dog.

In your average public animal shelter in the U.S., between 40 and nearly 100 percent of the dogs up for adoption are over 6 months old. Perhaps those dogs were well socialized as puppies, or maybe they weren’t. Maybe they were raised in a day care center, or maybe they only hung out in a college dorm until the university found out and gave them the boot. But really, that doesn’t always matter. I can say with a fair amount of certainty, that my dog Lill was not raised walking in parades or visiting hospice patients in therapy work. But she is great at both now.

Not all dogs are built to handle all lifestyles, but with an adult dog, you can know with a much greater degree of certainty what their temperament is like than with a puppy. Adult dogs often end up in shelters through no fault of their own. People move. People pass away. People realize they just never wanted a dog. But that doesn’t mean these dogs don’t have incredible capacity to love, learn, and start over.

With an adult dog, you aren’t going to be surprised how big it will get, or how it will act with children or other animals because a responsible shelter or rescue will screen for these temperament challenges and help you find the right match for your household.

Let’s drop the “It’s how they were raised” line, because, really, it isn’t. Dogs in shelters across America want you to look at them and love them for who they are now. And is that so wrong?

Other stories in this series:

Dispelling shelter dog myth #1: “Dogs at the shelter are there because something is wrong with them.”

Dispelling shelter dog myth #3: “You aren’t going to find what you are looking for in a shelter.”

Dispelling shelter dog myth #4: “Animal shelters are too depressing.”