See the Dog, Not the Story

Accept and respect who your dog is
By Karen B. London PhD, September 2015, Updated July 2016

Today a client asked me what the best advice is for a friend who is about to adopt a dog from a rescue organization. So often, such general questions give me great pause. I’m often inclined to hedge and say, “It depends” or “There’s no single response to such a question.” Normally, if I do choose to give a specific answer to a sweeping question, I regret my choice and change my mind later. In this case, though, I do have an answer, thanks to a woman with a rescue dog who posted a comment on Patricia McConnell’s blog The Other End of the Leash.

The blog was a query to readers when we were in the early stages of writing Love Has No Age Limit: Welcoming an Adopted Dog Into Your Home. We already had strong ideas about what we wanted to include in the book, and had even written an outline. Still, we wanted input from other people with experience adopting from shelters and rescue groups or adopting dogs with difficult pasts. In the blog, Trisha asked readers what they wanted to know when they adopted an adult dog and what they thought were the most important things for adopters to know. We were thrilled with the responses to the blog.

Among the many wonderful comments, one reply stood out. Judi, herself a guardian of rescue dogs, said something that we loved so much that we knew immediately that we had to include it in our book. Here’s what she said:

“See the dog, not the story.”

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We considered this sentiment so beautiful and profound that we expanded on what it means to us with this paragraph in the book:

See the Dog, Not the Story. This is excellent advice from someone with a rescue dog. What your new dog needs most of all is the same thing a person needs—to be accepted and respected for who they are, to be “heard” and understood, rather than to be labeled. You may have been told a number of stories about your dog’s history, but although it can be valuable to gather information, it’s important not to label your dog for the rest of his life as, for example, “abused” or “neglected.” Your goal, beyond providing your new dog a safe and stable environment, is to honor him by letting him tell you who he is right now, accepting that, and acting accordingly. Just as you are no longer that little girl or boy who got bullied on the playground (or who did the bullying), your dog will grow and change as time goes on. Do all you can to see him for who he is NOW, not who he was years ago or who you think he should be.

photo by Jay Melnick/Flickr

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.