5 Things I've Learned From Owning Rescue Dogs

My best bud Sputnik, one of the sweetest creatures I've ever knownEXPAND
My best bud Sputnik, one of the sweetest creatures I've ever known
Photo by Chris Lane

About 18 years ago I got a dog. I'd grown up living in the country, and we'd always had them, but the little guy I brought home in a shoebox was the first I'd had in probably 15 years, and the first dog that I brought home as an adult myself. He was a happy-go-lucky bully mix — the type of dog most people would call a "pit bull," and he was quickly joined by another. I've had constant dog companions ever since, all of them finding their way to me from one rescue or another, most of them some sort of pit bull or Chihuahua. They've all brightened my days and made my life much more fulfilling, and as a result of sharing my home with them, I've learned a few things about myself and the world over time.

All three likely abused in their previous life, and they're the best dogs I've ever had.EXPAND
All three likely abused in their previous life, and they're the best dogs I've ever had.
Photo by Chris Lane

5. "A Dog's Temperament Is Determined By How It's Raised" Isn't Entirely True.

Having spent considerable time with lots of rescued dogs over the past two decades, I've heard lots of people rationalize a dog's demeanor and behavior as being dependent on how the animal was raised. The assumption is that if a dog is brought up in a nurturing environment, it's guaranteed to be gentle, and a dog that is raised to be vicious or is mistreated will end up as a dangerous monster.

On the surface, that almost seems to make sense, because like human beings, dogs are sensitive creatures, and being abused will often leave lasting damage on their psyches. However, it's more complex than that, because dogs have personalities, and they're not entirely a blank slate. If a dog trained to fight were automatically doomed to always be vicious, then any attempt at correcting that behavior would fail every time, and that's just not the case. Many of the Michael Vick fighting dogs have been successfully rehabilitated and adopted, proving that just because a dog is mistreated or trained to be aggressive doesn't mean that its personality is permanently "set" from those experiences. It's more complex than that.

That dynamic works the other way, too. Some dogs that are treated well from birth can still exhibit unpleasant behaviors down the line. Clearly, being treated well will usually result in a better-behaved dog as it matures, but abused dogs can also turn out good once they find their way into nurturing environments.

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4. That's Not the Only Other Untrue Thing People Believe About Dogs.

I'm partial to bully breeds because they're often not treated well or fairly, and I feel they are misunderstood. I've been told by some people that I'm big (true) and scary-looking (a subjective call), and have been judged by that in the past, so I feel like I have something in common with pit bulls. Have I encountered a small number of potentially dangerous dogs over the years? Of course. Have a few of them been bully breeds? Yes, but not most of them. In fact, I've found they're more likely to be affectionate and gentle, as well as smart and loyal.

But people believe dumb stuff, like they have "locking jaws" (which is physically impossible, and completely untrue), or that they're inherently dangerous and can "snap," turning on their human companions in a psychotic fit. I've never found pit bulls to be any more prone to abrupt aggression toward their human companions than other breeds of dogs, and believe many of the negative stories about pit bulls to be either exaggerations or exceptions to the rule. There are way more of them running loose around Houston than there should be, and if pit bulls were the monsters some folks think they are, we'd be hearing about people being killed by them every week. It seems like we have a need to create a mythology about one breed of "vicious" dogs every few years, and currently pit bulls seem to have the unfortunate stigma of being the monster dog du jour. In previous decades, it was other breeds, such as dobermans and German shepherds, that held that dubious honor.

3. I've Developed a Hatred of People Who Abuse Dogs and Cats.

I'm usually a pretty laid-back guy, but if someone really wants to see my bad side, all he has to do is let me see him treating animals badly. That extends beyond dogs, but I basically assume anyone who can mistreat a dog or cat is subhuman garbage. Unfortunately, working with rescues and shelters over the years, I've gotten to see the horrific results of animal neglect and abuse, and would love nothing more than to give the shitheads who hurt them a taste of their own medicine. I don't even believe in the death penalty, but when I read about someone torturing a dog, my first thought is usually "We should take that person out in a field and just set them on fire," or some other equally grim scenario. Fortunately, new laws are toughening the penalties for animal abuse, although most of the time they're still far too lax for my taste. Let's face it, anyone who can torture or mistreat a dog or cat is a danger to society, and should be dealt with severely. It shouldn't be a slap on the wrist.

2. I've Come to Dislike Dog Breeders.

I'm sure this opinion will be met with anger, but I don't care. There are millions of dogs and cats in shelters who need homes, and I don't understand why people continue to buy dogs from breeders. I understand that some folks want a particular type of companion animal, but great dogs can take many forms. While there are good breeders out there, who care about the well-being of the animals they raise, there are also a lot of creeps who view a new litter of puppies as a nifty way to make some extra money, which can lead to all sorts of abuses. The people selling puppies out of pickups on the side of the road? I'm not a fan. People who want a good dog that will be a perfect match for their living situation can probably find their new best friend at a local shelter or rescue, and will have the piece of mind in knowing that they're not enabling some jackass who runs a puppy mill to buy himself celebratory bath salts.

Bitsy in a rare moment of relaxationEXPAND
Bitsy in a rare moment of relaxation
Photo by Chris Lane

1. I Want to Save Them All.

The hardest part about developing close bonds with dogs, particularly ones that were rescued from abusive previous environments, is the knowledge that too many people get away with hurting animals and we can't save them all. But we can do a lot better and try to help as many as possible. Houston has an unfortunate reputation as a city that doesn't score well when it comes to city shelters or the associated problems with an enormous stray animal population, but there are lots of people working to give homeless or abused dogs and cats a better chance at life. Trying to help dogs that need it has been extremely rewarding to me, but it comes with regular doses of heartbreak. It's still worth it to me.

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