Are Shelter Pets Really More Appreciative?

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by Dr. Nicholas Dodman

Dr NIcholas Dodman

I know my dog Rusty is appreciative of being “sprung” from the shelter – he was on the very first day we got him, and still is. And my other rescued dog, Jasper, now has a spring in his step and a wag of tail that weren’t there when we first acquired him. But he has since grown into his new-found freedom and now enjoys life to the full. So I would say yes to the question and list my reasons below.

Many of the pets in shelters are there for no reason of their own. Maybe they barked too much, damaged furniture, lifted a leg on the dresser once too often, or had “accidents” in the home – all eminently fixable problems – and mostly completely normal behaviors – and then, all of a sudden, they find themselves out in the cold. Shelters, of course, welcome them warmly, but the facilities there can leave a lot to be desired. A shelter is not the Ritz Carlton by any measure — or more specifically is not a home. It doesn’t take too many days in a bare-walled run without any immediate canine companionship or timely attention to make a dog think “What did I do to deserve this?” and “Where are my people?” I anthropomorphize but you get the point. Shelter dogs must at least be truly puzzled by their new predicament. Then – at last — along comes someone, you perhaps, with a spring in your step and a smile on your face as you stand admiringly in front of the cage door. The dog jumps for joy at the attention – the cat purrs and rubs against the bars. It’s almost as if they are saying, “take me — please.” When you do take them out for evaluation, they are thrilled. So many people say “He chose me.” And so he did. They know a kind face when they see one – dogs have recently been shown to recognize the human smile as something positive — and are grateful to have met you. These pets are even more grateful when they wind up in your car, and then your home. Yippee, someone who cares and pets me, they must think. Hey, good food! A couch to curl up on and, for dogs, an outside yard and longer, more regular walks. Who knows, maybe they even find themselves with a pet companion. But most of all, it’s you the owner who receives (and deserves) credit for the new situation.

Some dogs are so appreciative of their new owner and home that they become almost overly attached. It is as if they were formerly adrift on the sea of life like some useless flotsam and jetsam, and then suddenly there is you – a soul mate never to be let out of site for fear of a repeat desertion. I am, of course, referring to the over-attachment syndrome of separation anxiety. But don’t worry, that too can be addressed, too, by an ensuring an entertaining environment when you are away and by training the dog, or cat, to stand on its own four paws. I call this “independence training” or confidence building. It can be done. But think about it, a rescued dog or cat’s profound attachment to you, is really a great compliment. And these highly devoted pets are a joy to be with – but they must also be taught to cope when left alone.

Puppy mill dogs who find their way into peoples’ home via one or more failed relationships and then a shelter often don’t really know what freedom or true affection are. They come into a new home eyes wide shut – so to speak – not knowing much about caring owners or the creature comforts of a loving home. But, with the right treatment from kindly owners, they come around in due course. One thing’s for sure, when they finally realize they have fond their right match, they never want to go back the way they came and their behaviors show it. So do I think they’re appreciative their new life and new owners? You betcha!

Finally there are dogs who have had a really tough life fending for themselves. As the old verse goes, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all.” Dogs may have been semi-feral, wandering in amorphous bands scavenging what they can. Sato dogs, potcake dogs, and dogs abandoned in early life fall into this category. Semi-feral or abandoned cats fall into this category, too. These are the waifs and strays of the canine and feline world. Kind people round them up and transport these often confused animals hundreds of miles to a shelter for adoption. Like the “failed relationship” dogs mentioned above, they join a human family with some trepidation at first. Such dogs may not bark much, don’t seem to know how to play or even climb stairs. Cats of this ilk may hide, not knowing what travesty is going to befall them next. But all of these pets come will around eventually, it just takes time. They eventually build good relationships with benign owners and eventually behave almost exactly like dogs of from traditional backgrounds, except they may retain some fear of people or other dogs who gave them grief in their former life. Given the choice of the former life in the streets and the new one at home with a caring owner, I know what they would chose. I would say they’re grateful.

Of course, there are dogs who have never had to suffer the indignity of being unwanted. These lucky dogs who are adopted from a good breeder at a young age and who were and are cared for and cossetted like a precious nest egg. These dogs were, in manner of speaking, born with a silver bowl in their mouths. Sure they are happy. Sure they love their owners. But they can never be truly thankful for being rescued, because they weren’t. As wonderful as the “silver bowl dogs” are, there is something special about the gratitude a rescue must feel when he remembers where he started out. And I’m sure dogs do remember.


Dr. Nicholas Dodman is a Professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Director of the school’s Animal Behavior Clinic. He is also Chief Scientific Officer for the CENTER FOR CANINE BEHAVIOR STUDIES (centerforcaninebehaviorstudies.org). He has written over 100 scientific articles and several popular press books, including The Dog Who Loved Too Much and The Cat Who Cried for Help.

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