We’ve known many a great dog who’s had that said about him or her. In fact, in the past, we’ve probably even said it ourselves. But is it always true?
Something interesting we’ve discovered through our own program, a program that works specifically with big dogs at-risk due to behavior problems, is that some of our best matches have been with first time adopters. It seems counterintuitive, even to us. But is “experience” really what many of these dogs need?
This post is inspired by some of our recent adoptions where we were approached by folks who wanted one of our dogs because they were first time adopters. Our dogs come with comprehensive post-adoption support and a whole entourage of people to get adopters set up for success. They’ve also already had quite a bit of training and their personalities are well known.
Sure, they joined our program because they were big, naughty dogs. But dogs aren’t static. Even if they are still prone to certain types of naughtiness, they already have the foundation skills that make handling that naughtiness through a successful transition to their new home much easier.
And what of the adopters? What are the qualities that really make a successful match between human & canine? We’d argue that all of us jaded (yes, us too…we know…it’s ruff out here) dog professionals and shelter and rescue workers need to take a step back and think about how and why we ended up with our own dogs. Guiding people to a dog that’s a good fit for their lifestyle is crucial, yes. But what is the single most important thing when you adopt? What is it from which everything else falls into place? Connection. Love. Call us cheesy but what we’re talking about here is a relationship. Relationships that last, that change our lives for the better, are partnerships. They require connection, understanding, commitment, and love.
Many of us became dog professionals because of our first naughty dog. We were first time adopters too. And we wouldn’t give up the relationship we had with our souldog for anything. Were we perfect right off the bat? Heck no! But someone gave us a chance and we stepped up. When other first time adopters want to do that, we need to be willing to give them that chance too…and the support to help them be successful.
Here are some things we’ve learned:
- First time adopters can be great dog handlers. Some people are naturally great with animals and for others, all the experience in the world isn’t going to make that true. It’s not necessarily experience that we need, it’s connection to the dog, a measure of ability, and willingness to learn.
- First time adopters often have the enthusiasm needed to attend those training sessions and work through the tricky transition period.
- First time adopters want to learn from you. They want to do right by their dogs and they’re willing to listen and learn and become experienced dog people.
- We were all first time adopters once too. There’s probably no human/canine relationship quite as amazing as the one you have with your first dog as an adult. We are lucky that we, and our program dogs, get to be part of that experience for so many wonderful people.
- Post-adoption support is crucial. For every dog. And every adopter. Not everyone needs all of the post-adoption support that we offer. But almost everyone needs something, even if it’s just knowing they have a safety net and someone to check-in with when they have a question. “My dog did this and I did this. Is that right?” It often truly is as simple as that. But having that support in place means setting everyone up for success and making sure small issues don’t spiral into returns.
Does all this mean we don’t want dogs going to experienced adopters? Of course not! But those aren’t the people getting turned away, underestimated, or set-up for failure. Experienced dog adopters get that stamp of approval and a grateful smile pretty easily.
What we’re saying is don’t undervalue first time adopters. In fact, some of our most difficult dogs have gone home with first time adopters and they, both dog and human, are doing amazing. They are thriving. And with a great match, some post-adoption support, and lots of love, we have former “problem” dogs serving as shelter ambassadors and a growing number of humans serving as dog advocates.
When it comes to finding the right home for the dogs we care about, it is easy to create an idealized notion of what that home looks like. What we have to do instead is keep an open mind and be on the lookout for someone who is going to love that dog. Dogs should not be defined by their shelter behavior any more than adopters should be defined by how many dogs they’ve owned. What we need is a genuine connection and a commitment to do right by the dog they are already falling in love with. That, not training certificates or shelter behavior evals, is what success looks like.
Thank you to all of the wonderful first time adopters who have chosen a DOL dog and helped keep our hearts and minds open. This post is quite literally about you!