Friday, August 19, 2011

Should You Buy or Adopt?

Jeebers, I've been neglecting this blog. Been almost a month to the day since I posted anything here. Resolved: that I should update much more frequently.


A topic that's come up quite a few times recently is "what's the best way for me to get a dog?" Because I can never remember what I've already said to whom, I live in perpetual fear that I'm repeating myself on this topic, so I'm just gonna post my thoughts on it here and refer people back to this post henceforth.

In my opinion, whether you should buy a dog or adopt one depends on what kind of dog you want.

As strongly as I advocate for shelter dogs (obviously, what with the whole fostering gig and all), I'm well aware that adoption is not the right option for everyone.

If you want a dog who can perform a specialized task at a very high level -- seeing-eye work, search and rescue, retrieving ducks from icy water after sitting in a boat for hours before dawn -- then it makes sense to buy a dog from a responsible breeder who specifically selects for the relevant traits, because you need a certain combination of strong instincts and specialized physical traits that most shelter dogs just won't have.

If you have your heart set on a dog of a very rare breed, then again, it makes sense to buy from a reputable breeder, because while dogs of all breeds do come into rescue (we just had a Carolina Dog/American Dingo pass through the shelter that Nessie came from), rare dogs are, well, rare. (Purebreds in general aren't too common, although you can certainly find plenty of pure or nearly-pure beagles, retrievers, and hounds in Southern shelters. And you can find plenty of pure pits everywhere. The often-cited stat that 25% of shelter dogs are purebreds may well be true, but my guess is that if you took out purebred pit bulls, that number would suddenly get a whole lot lower.) So if you absolutely must have a New Guinea Singing Dog and no other canine in the world will do, then you are probably going to have to contact a breeder about buying one.

But if all you want is a friendly, loyal companion and you don't care too much about getting a specific breed (or you want a common breed such as a golden retriever, husky, or Chihuahua), then I think adopting a dog is the only way to go. Millions of wonderful, sweet-tempered dogs die every year in this country for simple lack of homes. If you have a home to give, and all you really want is love, then in my view the only right thing to do is to adopt a homeless mutt.

So then the question becomes: which mutt? There are plenty of 'em out there.

How to choose the right dog for you is a highly personal decision and one about which books could be (and have been) written. I won't try to get into that too much here. My standard advice, though, is that most casual owners would probably be best served by adopting a well-socialized adult dog and, when possible, adopting one out of foster care.

Puppies are adorable, but young puppies are a LOT of work. They chew things. They have small bladders and limited muscle control, so they make a lot of housebreaking mistakes and they need to go out often (as in, every 30 minutes to an hour). As they get a little older, they go through a destructive and bratty I-can't-hear-you teenage stage, just like people do. It's no coincidence that so many dogs surrendered to shelters are between 6 and 18 months old. They stop being cute and they start being a nuisance, and off to the pound they go.

Adult dogs are past all that. They tend to be calmer and are often better behaved. They're more tolerant of young children's prodding and poking, and are less likely to be hurt by kids than small puppies are. It is absolutely not true that adult dogs don't bond to new people; our fosters, all adult or adolescent dogs, have bonded strongly to us within days. I believe that these dogs really do understand that they've been saved from a bad situation, and that they are grateful to the people who give them good homes.

And, to the extent that "who needs it most" matters, it's no question that adult dogs need homes the most. They're not as cute, they're not as young, and many adopters pass right on by, because the vast majority of people looking for dogs are only interested in puppies.

So, for those reasons, I think that people should at least consider adopting an adult dog.

Additionally, when possible, I advocate adopting out of foster care. A foster home will have much more information than even the best shelters about a dog's personality, likes and dislikes, talents and trouble areas. Dogs in shelters tend to be highly stressed, causing their behavior to be completely different from the way they'll behave at home and making it very difficult to evaluate whether a dog will be a good match for a particular family. A dog coming out of foster care, by contrast, has already spent some time in a home environment and can be more accurately evaluated -- and, importantly!, will already be familiar with concepts like "vacuum cleaners" and "ringing doorbells" and "the cat who lives down the street."

Of course there are never enough foster homes to go around, and the number of dogs in foster care is relatively small, so it may not be possible to find a good match among the mutt monsters available. But I think that's generally the best place to start your search, when you can.

And thus concludes my standard advice for where and how you should get a dog.

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