This National Mutt Day, Don’t Be Afraid to Adopt a Shelter Dog

Shelter dogs are worth the effort it takes to integrate them into your family and home.

A dog’s shyness isn’t always the result of past abuse. By: Dallas Floer Photography

Petful reminded me that July 31 is National Mutt Day, so let’s hear it for mutts and shelters!

As a proud adopter of many mutts, I implore you to please consider a trip to your local shelter and adopt a mutt. It is so worth it.

Speaking of shelters and mutts, a recent social media firestorm lit by Lena Dunham created some unfortunate press for shelters — and I’d like weigh in.

Dunham’s Experience

Dunham recently gave up on her rescue pup, Lamby, a mutt she adopted from a Brooklyn shelter, BARC. She had plastered Lamby all over social media — even creating his own Instagram account — and magazines for the last 4 years without categorizing him as a massive behavior problem.

Recently, Lamby suddenly dropped offline — only to be replaced by 2 poodle puppies. According to Dunham, Lamby had become aggressive, urinated all over, destroyed her couch and attacked her boyfriend. Dunham claimed that, thanks to Lamby’s alleged previous abuse, his behavior problems had become unmanageable, and she had to rehome him in Los Angeles.

Bad Press for Shelters

This post isn’t really about what happened with Lena Dunham and Lamby.

But as an animal lover and supporter of many mutts, I think that Dunham’s story has kicked up serious issues that were not helpful to BARC, shelters everywhere or anyone who may be considering adopting a dog from a shelter. Dunham’s claim that her dog was terribly abused before his adoption and the idea that the shelter withheld this information from her could dissuade potential adopters.

To quell those fears, BARC refuted Dunham’s claims of the dog’s previous abuse, stating that Lamby had shown no aggressive or destructive tendencies during his month in the shelter and had no history of abuse. But Dunham’s allegations and others like them could do permanent damage to the animals who most need our help.

Shelter Policy

So do you need to worry that you’ll be lied to when adopting a mutt from a shelter? In short, no.

Shelters don’t want “returns,” and so they give full disclosure about their knowledge of the pet’s previous life. After performing personality and temperament tests, they often keep a pet for a while to see if they have any behavioral quirks or problems.

Of course, it’s impossible to know an animal’s entire backstory or what may happen in their future homes. But shelters don’t want to be liable for placing a pet who bites someone, and they don’t want the pet returned to the shelter due to poor placement.

Shelters try to fully disclose a pet’s history to benefit everyone involved. By: AAS Pups

Shyness Isn’t Always Related to Abuse

This “previously abused” backstory is something that adopters love to bandy about when they get a dog from a shelter. It is not, however, a frequent excuse for returning the dog.

For years, clients have shown off their new shelter pup to me, whispering “I think he was abused” if the dog exhibits shyness in new environments or cowers at a loud noise. But this doesn’t do anything except maybe make the adopters feel good about themselves, which — hopefully — gets little Pogo a few more snuggles every day.

However, Lamby’s story shows the harm that unsubstantiated claims of abuse can create, namely that a so-called abused animal could be deemed by adopters to be too damaged to be rehabilitated. But most shelter dogs do not suffer terrible abuse. They may have suffered the abuse of neglect, poor training or abandonment, or they lacked supervision and ran away.

But beaten, starved, kicked, maimed? These animal abuse stories occur, but, if known, they’re revealed by shelters to potential adopters. And truly abused dogs? They require time and training to trust you, but once they do, they usually make great and grateful pets.

My Shelter Dogs

I have adopted “problem” shelter dogs after learning their origin stories. My ZeeZee, the puppy-mill Cocker picked up on a lonesome road, was a biter. The shelter actually learned his entire origin story and told me: He was abused by 6 children and parents who didn’t understand how to handle and train an 8-week-old puppy. After 6 months of TLC and training, ZeeZee never bit anyone again.

My new little mutt is a pee-head who was not properly house-trained at age 1 — full disclosure, again, by the previous adoptive family. Now she’s 3, and we are 95% trained.

Go Forth and Adopt

This Mutt Day, think about adopting a mutt from a shelter. Here’s your checklist:

It’s a big decision to adopt a shelter pet, but it’s also a wonderful, life-changing one.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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