Using the 'She's a Rescue Dog' Excuse
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Jessica Pierce, Ph.D., Psychology Today
March 2018

Using the "she's a rescue dog" excuse... Why I'm going to stop. 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.

Bella rescue dog

Bella doesn’t like to be touched by humans she doesn’t know and trust. When I’m out walking with Bella and I encounter other dog-walkers or run into people I know, Bella will stand or sit quietly behind me or by my side. She’s a perfect lady. But if a stranger reaches out to try to pet Bella, she reacts. She’ll pull her ears back and get tense and if they keep moving forward she’ll bark and even give a cautionary nip at their fingers. To avoid having people try to pet Bella, I’ve put a bright orange “Caution” sleeve on her collar, and try to always position myself in between Bella and other people. Still, many people fail to notice or heed these warnings and will try to pet her or will (as advised by many dog behavior books) hold out a hand to let her sniff—a gesture which Bella finds threatening rather than inviting.

As a result, I often find myself in awkward situations where people’s friendly attempts to greet Bella have been rebuffed by me or Bella or both. And for whatever reason, I feel the need to make excuses. The excuse I tend to use is “she’s a rescue dog,” as if this should explain why she doesn’t particularly like or trust people and why she is so cranky. I’ll often go on to tell people that she had a hard first year of life and wasn’t well-socialized. Most likely she was treated poorly and has good reason to mistrust. As I’ve become conscious of my own reliance upon the “she’s a rescue” excuse, I’ve also noticed other dog owners doing the same thing—explaining away certain behaviors with “he’s a rescue” or “she’s from the shelter.”

Now that I’ve noticed, I’ve started to question. Why do I use this excuse? Am I doing Bella and other dogs a disservice?

Why I say it:

1. I believe it is true. Although it is impossible to “prove” that behavioral issues in shelter dogs are related to their experiences with past owners or in the shelter system, it is ridiculous to deny that rescue dogs are often emotionally scarred. And I have no doubt that Bella’s early life was hard. As with many dogs who are adopted from shelters, we don’t know much about her life before she wound up at the local Humane Society. All we know is that she was picked up off the street by animal control, had no collar or microchip or identification, and that she was skinny and scared and had an injured back leg. She was around 9 months old. My suspicion is that she spent her first 9 months confined to a kennel or crate, because she didn’t know how to play or how to interact with other dogs and is still, at age seven, trying to get a handle on dog-dog communication. She had never stuck her paws into a stream or lake and had never played in the snow. The first time we took her on a hike she didn’t know what to do or even how to navigate over a rock in the trail. She is fearful of people, especially men, and flinches if you move quickly around her. Yet underneath her fearful and prickly exterior, she is sweet and funny and fiercely loyal and, now that she understands the point, loves playing Frisbee and chasing balls.

2. I want people to feel sympathetic toward Bella and realize that she isn’t mean, but is a very sweet dog with a feisty exterior. I also want people to know that Bella’s distrust of people is well-founded. In other words, I want people to like Bella. (Why should I care? I’m not sure, but I do.)

3. I use the “she’s a rescue dog” as a kind of apology, to smooth over the awkwardness and make the other person feel better, after they have been socially rejected by my dog.

4. I feel a bit embarrassed by Bella’s unfriendliness, and don’t want people to think her fear of people is my fault or that I am a bad dog owner—that I failed to socialize or train Bella, or that we beat her over the head with a newspaper. (Again, why should I care? Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do.)

5. This one is hard to admit, but there is a bit of self-righteous moralism in pointing out to others that you have rescued a dog rather than purchased from a pet store or breeder.

Why using the “she’s a rescue” excuse might not be such a good idea:

1. Using “she’s a rescue” when cautioning people not to pet Bella reinforces the common assumption that dogs rescued or adopted from shelters have more behavioral problems than dogs bought from pet stores or breeders. Many people choose not to adopt a shelter dog because they believe that rescue dogs are harder work than purebred or bought dogs and that their care should be left to the dedicated dog lovers who want to spend the time and energy “fixing” behavioral problems. This assumption is false on many levels and needs to be continually challenged.

All dogs are hard work and all dogs are behaviorally challenged, in the sense that they must be trained to curtail many of their innate canine behaviors, to adapt to human environments. Rescued dogs are no more or less likely to have behavioral problems than purebred or store-bought dogs. Behavior is shaped by genetics, early environment and socialization, and by a whole range of other factors that would be impossible to quantify. Millions of beautiful, unique dogs are stuck in shelters and they desperately need homes.

2. My excuse also reinforces the idea being amiable and easy going is “normal” good-dog behavior and that not wanting to be touched by strangers is “unfriendly” or undesirable behavior for a dog. Yet each dog is a unique individual and has his or her own likes and dislikes and sense of personal space. We don’t criticize people who don’t like to be touched by strangers. Why should we hold our dogs to a different standard?

3. People need to learn how to behave, too. A good general rule is: never touch a dog who you don’t know. Yet people routinely ignore this simple principle. They also ignore Bella’s signals and often also my warnings. So, it isn’t really Bella who has a problem, but the people who try to touch her without her consent. Bella is actually very good. She gives clear communications about what she is feeling and what she wants and doesn’t want. Her body language says that she does not want to interact. She will stand or sit quietly by my side if I stop and chat with someone, and is perfectly happy if they ignore her. Bella isn’t the problem; the people trying to pet her are the problem.

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.

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