i’m not getting a rescue dog, okay?

by caitlin meredith

Golden Doodle puppy
I’m about to get a puppy and I’m dancing-around-the-kitchen excited about it. All of the necessary components of my life have finally converged to make this possible: I’m not going to do anymore extended projects in Africa or anywhere else abroad, I’m unemployed (plenty of training and bonding time!) and this summer I got a fence in my back yard. I even finally got the three feral cats living underneath the shed fixed and treated for fleas after putting it off for three years. The dog training books are stacked on my bedside table and I’ve warned all my friends that “dog-friendly” will be my new outing criteria. It’s T minus 28 days and I’m rarin’ to go. There’s only one fly in my liver-flavored canine oral cleansing ointment – my growing fixation on coming up with snappy comebacks to the question I anticipate getting daily on the hike and bike trail.  So let me announce it here: I’m NOT getting a rescue dog, and I REFUSE to feel guilty about it.

OK, so I feel a little guilty about it or I wouldn’t have to protest so much. But only a little! And not because of all the dog nuts that will judge me.

It’s impossible to hear the mention of “dog” these days without a “rescue” chaser somewhere in the next sentence or two. When did this happen? I’ve been based in Austin for the past six years so I can’t tell if this is just a local phenomenon or sweeping the country. I think we can all agree that there’s nothing wrong with people adopting abandoned dogs. But I think we can also agree that nobody likes a sanctimonious prig. Not that allllll (or even most) rescue dog owners are assholes – several GOOD, funny, down to earth, normal friends have taken in rescue dogs and don’t judge those who don’t– but I resent the fact that the “rescue” brand has so thoroughly infiltrated itself in all matters canine.

Going to the pound to get your dog or cat is nothing new. Wanting other people to think you’re a better person because of it, is new. Maybe pound-purchasers are better people, but do the rest of us have to hear about it so much? You’d think that our society didn’t have more pressing problems like…human poverty, child abuse, PTSD and depression among returning veterans…take your pick. I have nothing against champions of the companion pet surplus cause per se – a healthy community should be made up of compassionate people that, for whatever reason, work on different issues. But when the fever pitch for “rescuing” domestic pets rises far above the call to do something for humans in need, I’m calling foul.

The irony is that in the human world, the value system is opposite. Most support planned pregnancies and have little-to-nothing to do with other people’s unplanned pregnancies. When I worked at a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Chicago we used to get protesters from the neighborhood bible school on Saturdays. This was mildly amusing to us because we did abortions six days a week so it seemed strange that our one half day – Saturday – was the target, but we didn’t look a gift protest in the mouth. I’d watch them from the security vestibule window as they marched their little circle, yelling cheerful but brutal slogans to our patients. I wanted to run out there in my pink scrubs and demand to know which of them had adopted an unwanted baby from the South Side of Chicago recently. The protesters would’ve told me that wasn’t the point – their idea of human life trumped practical matters like who would pay for the diapers or provide childcare while mom worked her job at Walgreen’s. It might not be the main point, but it’s a pretty big one if you’re the one trying to figure out that stuff.

At the time we were the only abortion clinic with an on-site adoption agency. On my lunch breaks I’d flip through the photo albums of families who wanted to adopt babies. To a one they were upper middle class white couples who wanted a white baby (maybe Angelina Jolie has changed that?). Then I’d look at the list of women (I say women but most were teenage girls) who wanted to place their babies with adoptive families. They were primarily black. There were few, if any, black couples who wanted to adopt, and there were few pregnant white women who chose adoption. There was supply, and there was demand, but not in the right categories. There’s a project for the bible school protest club.

Anyway, my point is, somehow the rescue dog thing has become a proxy for establishing oneself as an altruist and I think it’s a pretty low bar. The fact that the plight of under-resourced dogs has become so fashionable just highlights to me how unengaged people are with under-resourced people.

How can I say anything that won’t sound like rationalizing my own decision not to go the rescue route? To someone who lives and dies to prevent no-kill kennels, probably nothing. But I did do my research and found out a few things about the risks involved with taking in a pound pooch and decided it wouldn’t be responsible for me to do. If you’re still reading, I’ll tell you about a few. (If not, get ready for a fight on the hike and bike trail.)

When I started thinking about getting a dog I assumed I would go to the pound and take home the first pooch that gave me a sympathetic tail wag. I started looking at the online catalogs for adoptable dogs from the various shelters around town. I was shocked that almost 90% of the dogs pictured were Pitt mixes. This isn’t the shelters’ fault – clearly unfixed Pitt proliferation is a huge problem (see: my neighborhood)  – but one of these “misunderstood” dogs didn’t fit with my first dog ownership fantasy. Fantasy or reality. I won’t enter into the Pitt controversy – let’s just assume with the right person any of these guys could clean up real good and not break into the neighbor’s house to kill her while she sleeps. I’m not that person.

While house sitting this summer I got to spend two months with a Pitt named Chalmers who I fell in love with. It wasn’t like with the other three house mutts – when Chalmers and I looked into each other’s eyes, we communicated. I knew that he had my back (not for dinner, but if anyone like the well-intentioned mailman tried anything on me.) I also knew that his blood lust for squirrels overpowered all of my loudest screams and threats to “Get the fuck back into the house!!” All of the nicey, nicey went out the window if I got in the path of Chalmer’s prey’s scent path. So, I loved the dog 70% of the time; the other 30% I was scared shitless. Again, the right person probably could have worked on a better ratio, but I’m not that person. Ruling out Pitts in this day and age means the pound pickins be real limited. As I continued my research, I realized there was another problem: money.

One of the many things that annoy me about the rescue dog phenomenon is that everyone acts like taking in one of these dogs is free, so you must be a double asshole to actually spend money on a planned-birth puppy. First of all, “rehoming” fees (another ridiculous re-branding term that reeks of sanctimonious hidden profit) can be up to $500. I know this often includes spay/neuter and other supportive stuff, but $500 is $500. It’s not free. And, because, depending on the circumstances, you’re never entirely sure about what you’re getting, that could be just the beginning. Over the past few months I’ve been talking to friends who’ve taken in abandoned dogs about how much the overall experience cost. I was astounded. Maybe my collection of friends and acquaintances is more unlucky than most, but three that I asked paid over $1,500 in the first week of ownership for various undiagnosed medical problems not discovered or disclosed by the rescue organization. One dog was pregnant and needed an abortion and hysterectomy, one had some intestinal infection and another had a necrotizing wound in its shoulder. These are the exceptions, the rescue ralliers will tell me. They might be, but I don’t have $1,500 to bet on that. Another costly item that’s come up for most was training.

Most dog owners invest in some type of training these days – whether unplanned or planned puppies (for exceptions see: my neighborhood). But through this process I’ve learned that there are a few early puppyhood experiences that can increase the likelihood of behavior problems – primarily aggression – later down the line. One revelation was the importance of how long puppies get to stay with their litters.

I found a bargain basement Golden Doodle on Craigslist and had a very brief window to decide if I wanted to “rehome” her. She had an eyelash issue that made her weep that the seller said she would probably grow out of but there was a small chance she’d need surgery. Surgery worried me. Surgery is expensive. My mom suggested I call her breeder, I did, and she spent an hour on the phone with me answering my questions. The eyelash thing was no big deal, the breeder told me, but it sounded like she might have a bit more poodle in her than one would want because it upped her risk of hereditary weirdness, but maybe not…by minute 43 of the 45 minute conversation I had my checkbook in hand and was ready to pounce. Before we hung up I said, “Oh, just one more thing. I’m sure it’s not a big deal but my mom thought it was kind of weird that the puppy had been taken away from her litter when she was only six weeks old…is that a big deal?” “Caitlin,” the breeder told me, “I’m sorry but you can’t get that dog.”

She explained to me that while most people think the crucial issue with taking a dog away from it’s doggie family early is because of bonding with its mommy, the real problem is the rumbling and cuddling it misses out on with the rest of the puppies. Apparently the six to eight week window of puppy-on-puppy play is essential to their socialization. Without it, she has seen dogs become very aggressive towards other dogs right around when they turn two. After having to put a few dogs asleep that she had taken in as puppies (knowing they had been taken from the litter too early) she changed her practice as a breeder to keep puppies until ten weeks to make double sure she doesn’t send home any dogs that might pose a future risk to the families. If you do get a too-early-taken puppy, she said, you have to work incredibly hard to try to recreate the puppy socialization from the moment you get it, often involving professional help.

Armed with this information, I said no to the Craigslist special and started to look at the pound again for non-Pitt puppies who had a full puppyhood. For most, it was impossible to tell. They’d been found somewhere, histories unknown. I decided I just couldn’t take the risk. I hope to have a family in the next few years and fearing that I had a ticking time bomb of aggression in my dog just wouldn’t work.

I felt pretty stuck after all this research. I really wanted a puppy but I don’t have very much money for surprises and will be learning as I go about training. I called the breeder again. We worked out a deal: I’ll write some articles for her website in exchange for a hefty discount on one of her well-cared for family farm-raised Golden Doodles that her several babies and toddlers (her own “litter” is quite vast) have nuzzled and cradled since they hatched. The dog’s health is guaranteed for five years and I’ve met several dogs from her batches and all were gentle, friendly and fit my fantasy of my new best friend.

Next time around I’ll find an exhausted Beagle who’s retired owners couldn’t care for anymore. This time, I need a puppy and I’m getting one and if anyone asks if it’s a rescue dog I won’t argue. “Yes, this dog just rescued me.”

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