I think that there are few things that are nobler than adopting a rescue dog. These are dogs that have been around the block a time or two. They’re not always cute, and they’re not always easy, but just as with any dog, they deserve all the love that a family can offer to them. Some of the very best dogs that I know have been rescues, and regardless of the trouble they may have had earlier in life, they went on to do wonderful things with their families.
If you are looking at adopting a rescue for your family, that’s great! However, as with anything, when you add young children to the mix, you need to be much more mindful and careful as you select a new dog for your family. Here are three things to take into account as you begin the process of finding your family’s new best friend.
One of the first things that I look at when assessing whether a dog will be a good fit for a family with children or not is his age and maturity. There are pros and cons to both older and younger dogs, but in general, I prefer to bring a younger (hopefully less than one year, but less than two years is acceptable too) dog into life with children. The main reason for this is that young dogs are generally more adaptable than older, mature dogs. A younger dog is still learning about the world in general, and is usually more accepting of a new, somewhat chaotic change like joining a family with children. Dogs that are more mature tend to be more set in their ways, and so unless they have come from a home with children before needing adopting, you’re going to be working a lot harder, and needing to be a bit more careful, with your introduction process.
We will talk about this in the next section as well, but another piece of the age component is the amount of life that your dog has already experienced, and the baggage that can come along with that. A younger dog has not been around quite so long, and so has not had as much time to get certain behavioral patterns set in response to life situations, like abuse or neglect.
Another thing that I look at with a potential rescue dog being added to a family with small children is the dog’s background. If a dog has suffered serious abuse, neglect, or has not been socialized to accept rapid change (like all of a sudden having small children racing around the house pretending their toy dinosaurs are kites, for example), this may not be the dog for your family.
Just as humans can suffer from PTSD, dogs can also have baggage that they carry around in life, which can be triggered into an aggressive outburst. For example, a dog that has been physically abused in the past may react aggressively toward a child jumping up and down near him, simply because he does not feel safe, or trust that the child won’t hurt him. A dog who has been neglected and starved may have some issues with guarding his food, which can be dangerous with a small child trying to give him treats, or a baby crawling near his crate while he’s eating.
As an adopter, there are things that you will not know when you adopt your dog, only things that you can guess at based on their behavior. However, the shelter or rescue that you are getting your pup from may be able to tell you that this dog was seized from an abusive home, or that he was picked up on the street, or that he was surrendered when his owner passed away. When you have a young child or children in the home, it is generally best practice to steer clear of abuse or neglect cases, unless you can tell that the dog has an exceptionally resilient temperament.
More important than any of the other factors is temperament. Temperament is your dog’s innate personality. How energetic they are, how resilient, how they respond to stressors or new experiences. All of these relate to a dog’s temperament. Training and management can make up for some issues in temperament, but as a general rule, that is the basis for the dog’s personality. Temperament is why some dogs can be raised in a loving home, never experience any trauma at all, and still be completely neurotic and sometimes aggressive. It is also why some dogs can experience horrors beyond imagination and come out the other side with a huge smile, ready to shower the world in their love.
When you are looking for a rescue dog to bring home to your family, you are looking for a dog that is very resilient. One who is pretty unfazed by sudden or chaotic changes in life. One who has play drive, but not necessarily prey drive. A dog that is happy and enthusiastic, rather than one who is generally fearful. Remember, it is quite easy to temper a dog’s natural enthusiasm and to mould him into a good citizen with training. Much more difficult to convince a naturally reserved or fearful dog to not be worried about the wildness that children bring to life.
Now, as I stated throughout the article, all of these are general rules to consider, but they all have exceptions. A young, happy dog may seem wonderful, but then you learn that he is terrified of loud and sudden noises (something that your toddler excels in). Probably not a good fit for your family. A dog has a fairly unremarkable background and a stable, sweet temperament, but is 11 years old. Could potentially be a wonderful pet for your family. A puppy is young, and has not suffered any abuse or neglect, but has a WHOLE lot of prey drive, enough to knock down and hurt a toddler. Not a good choice.
So, as you start the process of selecting your new pet, keep these general guidelines in mind, but do not feel that you need to stick to them rigidly. The saying “Your rescue dog will choose you” is more often correct than not. When you meet the right dog for your family, you will know it!