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Trouble with a pet? Ask for help

A couple of weeks ago, a friend who works in a local shelter called me to vent some frustration. She had been “tipped off” that “people were saying” that shelters — and hers, specifically — are adopting out “aggressive” dogs. The informant wanted to know if the shelter has stopped temperament testing before adoption, or there was some other reason for dangerous dogs being placed in homes.

“Of course we’re still temperament testing,” she exclaimed. “But you can’t simulate every conceivable situation in a test you can give in a shelter. That’s why we so strongly encourage people to be cautious until they have had a chance to learn how their new dog will react in their home and with their family — and to call us with concerns. We can help straighten out most problems, but not if we never hear about them.”

Why is it so hard for many of us to admit we’re having trouble and ask for help? Is it that we think, when it comes to training a dog or cat, we should just know what to do? Is it too embarrassing to admit that we are experiencing difficulty housebreaking a puppy, or teaching a new dog or cat the house rules, or getting a dog to stop barking?



I sense that it may be just that. We think, how lame if I can’t even control this dog. But if you stop to think about the lifestyle changes of just the last 20 years, and how those changes inevitably affect pets in our households, it’s hardly surprising that we find ourselves struggling to manage the addition of a new pet to the family.

We’re working more but have less disposable income. We’re commuting longer and farther from home, and kids are away for more of each day. Pets are alone a lot of hours, as even more of our recreation is taken in the form of organized activities and sports that pets can’t join — or even hang out with spectators. There is less scope or tolerance for non-purposeful, natural behavior on the part of dogs, cats — and kids, too. For young families with kids, life is a never-ending juggling act.



One of the reasons pets have risen in status to that of family members may just be that there are limits to the substitutes they can endure for meeting their species-determined needs for exercise and social embeddedness. In other words, they force us to slow down, and it’s good for us when we do.

Shelters, foster caregivers, rescue groups and the trainers they work with, who have acquired their skills and knowledge by working with dogs and cats under these new conditions of life, have thought through these issues and deal with them every day. They know what works, in terms of management strategies and training, to integrate dogs and cats who suffered dislocations and neglect in their past, into the busy lives of loving and well-meaning new families. And they are eager to help, if only new pet parents reach out and ask. Far from judging people as “lame” for what they don’t know, they have great respect for those who ask “dumb” questions.

The biggest mistake most new owners make with dogs is to give them too much freedom too soon. They want to make up for past deprivations, which is a loving impulse. But freedom offers a dog too many opportunities to make terrible mistakes in contexts where there can be little tolerance or forgiveness.

Let’s say a dog at the shelter is “cat-tested” and shows not much interest. Adopted into a home with a cat, he defers appropriately to the cat and the new family assumes the dog likes or is fine with cats. So they let him off leash in the front yard, where he and the neighbor’s cat spy each other and the cat starts to run. A brief chase ends with a grinning dog and a dead cat, a grieving neighbor, an aggressive animal citation and maybe a lawsuit. It may end with the dog returned to the shelter and euthanized.

Had the dog been on a leash, as every shelter adoption counselor strongly recommends for the initial months in the new home, the chase reflex would have been clearly observable, and the new knowledge factored into management and training needs, without tragic consequences.

We are lucky to have so many skilled and compassionate people in shelters, rescue groups and training facilities in our valley. Ask for help. As we say at High Tails, the only stupid questions are those that don’t get asked.

Laurie Raymond owns High Tails Dog & Cat Outfitters in Glenwood Springs. Sextiped Valley appears on the third Saturday of the month.


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