Larry and Harry Are Rescued Dogs and No Quirkier Than Yours
Rescued dogs are wonderful beings and offer life lessons in devotion and love.
Posted March 1, 2018
Dr. Jessica Pierce's essay "Using the 'She’s a Rescue Dog' Excuse," with the subtitle "Why I'm going to stop," got me thinking about all sorts of "things dog." I've met her rescued dog, Bella, about whom she writes, and I find Bella to reek of dog-ness, and she isn't any quirkier than other dogs I've known who didn't have abusive early lives. Dr. Pierce concludes her essay by writing, "I'm going to stop making excuses for Bella and simply say it like it is: Bella doesn't like to be touched by strangers and there is nothing wrong with this. She's perfect just the way she is and we are lucky to have her as part of our family." I agree.
For many of the essays I write for Psychology Today and for my forthcoming book, I've spent a good deal of time at dog parks watching dog-dog, dog-human, and human-human interactions, and also observing dogs and their humans on hiking trails and on tethered walks. When I'm just hanging out and watching these encounters, and also listening to people talk about their own and other dogs, I've learned a lot about how they view the dogs and humans who are and aren't there at the moment. In all honestly, I was shocked by some of what I heard and about how people freely talked about their friends and others based on how these people interacted with their own and other dogs, but that's another story about which I write in Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do.
George, Larry, and Harry: Who's a "normal" dog?
As I read "Using the 'She’s a Rescue Dog' Excuse," I thought about an awesome human, whom I'll call George, and the two young dogs he rescued from an incredibly abusive situation: litter-mates Larry and Harry. Larry and Harry couldn't have been more different in personality and demeanor. They also didn't look alike, other than having a tail, two ears and two eyes, one nose, four legs, and some white splotches on their mottled coat. Indeed, some people were shocked to learn they were siblings.
Because I knew George and was there one of the first days that he appeared at one of the local Boulder dog parks with his new "kids," as he called them, I focused on how the dogs behaved, how people responded to these newcomers, and how George handled queries and insults that were tossed his way. Among the comments I heard were: "What a wonderful thing George did," "Larry and Harry are so lucky," and "I wish them all good luck." All well and good? Not so fast.
While many people lauded George and tried to befriend the ever-cautious Larry and outgoing Harry, others were downright and unabashedly insulting, saying things like, "They're accidents waiting to happen," "Why are you bringing those ill-behaved dogs here?" "Why the f___ did you rescue them, they're losers," "They're idiots and will ruin the generally friendly interactions here," and "My goodness, they're losers, and you're ruining the park." These critics didn't take the time to learn that Harry was doing just fine, whereas Larry did suffer greatly from being beaten and starved as a youngster. They just lumped them together as pariahs invading their and their dogs' space.
George was awesome in handling praises and insults. Of course, the praise was easy to deal with, but he also dealt with the insults with marked clarity and poise. He was unflappable, and this proved hard to handle for some of his critics. George and I talked a lot about his new family members, and when people asked me why I was so supportive of what he was doing, I simply said that Larry deserved to be given the chance to become socialized and to unlearn what he'd learned when being horrifically abused. While Larry was cautious, scared out of his mind with novel situations and dogs and people, and enjoyed being on his own or with George, Harry behaved like a "normal" dog, as one person put it: He was outgoing and behaved like many of the non-rescues at the dog park. Indeed, on many occasions, he was far better behaved than many of the non-rescued dogs.
The use of the word "normal" generated a good deal of discussion, and I asked some of the people who used the phrase "normal dog" what they meant. Many of them stumbled around, and their basic answer went something like, "Oh, you know, they're friendly, not spooked easily, and behave well in different situations."
I thought a lot about how some people like to "normalize dogs," but anyone who's lived with more than one dog or who's watched dogs in different situations, knows there isn't any individual who can be called "the normal dog." This is simply because dogs show incredible variation in behavior, and I used the example of Larry and Harry being very different, although they'd been raised in the same uterus and under the same post-natal conditions before George took them in (please also see "How In Tune Are We With the Needs of Our Canine Companions?").
I also deeply appreciated how George made no excuses for Larry or Harry. One reason that Dr. Pierce didn't mention is how some people use the "rescued dog excuse" to excuse not only their dog's behavior, but also their own. They don't do all they can to socialize the dog, because they expect rescued dogs to have problems, or they're just plain lazy and should never have freed the dog(s) from their abusive environments in the first place. In all of my encounters with rescued dogs and their humans at different dog parks, only two people used this excuse. Thankfully, a number of people asked the obvious question, "Why did you rescue them if you weren't ready to do what had to be done to socialize them?" This query also led to many interesting discussions and debates.
Pet shop dogs can also be viewed as "rescued" individuals who suffer from various maladies.
People also asked me if I knew of any studies that compared rescued dogs to non-rescued dogs in terms of their quirkiness. I don't, but my own observations and those of others don't point to there being substantial differences that would warrant calling rescued dogs idiots or losers. In all of my hours spent watching tethered and free-running dogs I didn't know, I couldn't really tell who was rescued and who wasn't. I also point out that there are ample data showing that many dogs who are bought from pet shops can suffer from a wide range of behavioral and physical maladies. In this sense, they, too, are rescued dogs, but I haven't met anyone who calls their pet shop dog "rescued." For more discussion on this topic, please see "Scientiﬁc Studies of Dogs and Puppies From Commercial Dog Breeding Establishments."1,2
Writing off "rescued" dogs as losers reminds me of the saying, "The pot calling the kettle black."
I also have to say that some of the people who were most critical of George, Larry, and Harry, people whose dogs weren't rescued from abusive situations, didn't necessarily have dogs who were more well behaved or less quirky. When people confronted George, he always said, "Harry and Larry are rescued dogs and no quirkier than yours." Most of the time, he was right on the mark. I frequently was reminded of the sayings, "The pot calling the kettle black," and "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." However, I held my tongue and just listened to what was going on, taking a lot of mental notes along the way.
I'm glad that Dr. Pierce wrote her essay and told her story about her relationship with Bella. Some dogs are higher maintenance than others, and my own experiences with a large number of rescued and non-rescued dogs don't lead me to any general conclusions about differences that can't be overcome with careful attention to who the individual dog is — what they want and need — and with a good deal of love.
All's well that ends well.
I'm pleased to say there was a very happy ending to George, Larry, and Harry's journey. Larry became a very well-behaved and outgoing dog who was accepted by other canines and humans, Harry remained his good old confident self, and George became a role model for many other people with whom he interacted. He never wavered, and on a number of occasions his strength and conviction startled me. And, in the end, it worked well.
I often wondered if his staunch support for Larry and Harry had an effect on them, as well as on some of the humans at the dog park. And it was very heartening that some of their fiercest critics came to accept them all for who they were. I also know that some of the humans learned some very valuable lessons, not only about dogs, but also about themselves. In the end, it was a win-win for all.
1In this report the researchers write, "The chances of a dog developing serious behavior problems is much higher for dogs purchased as puppies from pet stores, as compared to dogs obtained from small, noncommercial breeders."
2In an essay titled "Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders" researchers Dr. Franklin McMillan and his colleagues write, "...dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores had significantly greater aggression toward human family members, unfamiliar people, and other dogs; greater fear of other dogs and nonsocial stimuli; and greater separation-related problems and house soiling." They also conclude, "Obtaining dogs from pet stores versus noncommercial breeders represented a significant risk factor for the development of a wide range of undesirable behavioral characteristics. Until the causes of the unfavorable differences detected in this group of dogs can be specifically identified and remedied, the authors cannot recommend that puppies be obtained from pet stores."
Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.
McMillan FD, Serpell JA, Duffy DL, Masaoud E, Dohoo IR. Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders. Journal of the American Veterinary Association, 242, 1359-1363, 2013.