This weekend, we visited a German shepherd breeder to meet her and visit with the parents of our hopefully soon-to-be puppy.
No, I’m not adopting a shelter dog this time around.
I am, too. But I know it’s the right decision for my family. Here’s why.
Many of my friends know the story of how we adopted Shadow, our first German shepherd, from the local county animal shelter. She was a beautiful plush-coated German shepherd about six to nine months old that had somehow wound up on the loose and scooped up by the local animal control. On doggy death row, she stared at us from the wire kennel with hopeful brown eyes. The animal control officer asked us what we wanted in a dog, and we told her: kindness, good with people, a family dog who would enjoy spending time with us.
She led Shadow out on a leash and it was love at first sight. Shadow didn’t know much about walking on a leash, going potty outdoors, or not chasing deer (that lesson she never learned) but she learned quickly. More importantly, she was a wonderful dog — bold and protective when I needed her to be, such as when a huge black bear ambled across our path on a local state park trail, and kind and gentle, too, such as when my friend’s little girls decided to play ‘dress up’ with her and braided the long hairs on her legs.
But sadly, good dogs don’t live forever, and great dogs always die too soon. We had Shadow humanely euthanized when our veterinarian discovered that her lack of energy and appetite wasn’t from the heat but from a large tumor on her spleen that had metastasized to her heart.
Shadow has been gone for two years now, and I miss her every day. I miss having a dog. Yes, I have seven cats, but cats, wonderful as they are, are not dogs.
And so I set out to find my perfect shelter dog.
First, I wanted either a German shepherd, Labrador retriever or Golden retriever cross. They had to be young and good with cats. Any color, any gender welcome.
Talk about a needle in a haystack. I couldn’t find one within any of four animal shelters within an hour’s driving distance.
I broadened my search. Okay, hounds welcome. There are a lot of hunting dogs locally and I’ve seen my friend Karen’s dog, November, interact with cats and people, and the dog is lovely. Perhaps a hound might work.
I had just one negative criterion for my search – absolutely, under no circumstances, a pit bull or pit bull cross. Why? Well, it’s simple.
I don’t trust them.
My neighbor’s pit bull attacked and killed her cat while she was out for an hour. This was a dog who had lived peacefully with the cat for several years. She doesn’t know what happened. All she knows is that she returned home to find what looked like a crime scene in her kitchen and a dead cat mauled by the pit bull.
Pit bulls are tough dogs with a strong prey drive. Although I am sure many people reading this have a wonderful pit bull dog, good with children and other dogs and pet cats, I don’t trust them. And since there should be many dogs needing a home, it stood to reason that I should be able to find one dog that met my criterion – No. Pit. Bulls. Good with cats. Young age. Medium to large size, final breed TBD. Just not a pit bull.
I found the dog online in January. I had what amounted to a crush on this dog. I looked at the dog’s picture every day. I finally asked my husband if we could go and see the dog. One rainy day, we did.
I fell in love.
He was a sweet dog with a black and white coat and an incredibly high energy level. My husband took one look at Max, the dog, and looked at me, brow furrowed.
“He looks a bit like…a pit bull.”
I frowned. “The information online claimed shepherd mix.” Sure enough, the card attached to his crate also listed him as a shepherd mix.
“That doesn’t look like a shepherd.”
He was right. Max the dog didn’t look one bit like a shepherd. “Hound and Labrador retriever?” I asked helpfully.
“More like pit bull and lab,” my husband muttered.
We asked the girl at the desk once more if Max was a pit bull cross. She insisted that Max the dog wasn’t a pit bull or pit cross at all. And although they hadn’t really tested him with his cats, they had exposed him to cats (a difference I was to learn later that was a bigger difference than I thought) and he was curious and playful.
We asked about fostering the dog with an option of adopting him and our request was enthusiastically accepted by the shelter volunteer.
“Has he had his vaccinations?” I asked.
She had Max’s folder open on the desk and found the paper from the veterinarian intake report on him quickly. It was on top.
And there, stamped at the top, was the vet’s assessment of his breed.
“Pit bull mix.”
I should have turned around right then and there and given the dog back to them. But I didn’t. I had fallen in love. He was mine now, right? I took him home.
The first thing he did was try to chase one cat. Then another. Then a third cat leaped onto the mantle and broke a very expensive candelabra and put a dent in the floor. He peed everywhere – not once, but constantly, marking every square inch. He pulled so hard he rubbed blisters in my hands.
I hadn’t even let Max off of his leash yet.
Max, it turned out, had not just high energy, but a high prey drive, too. Cats looked yummy. Cats were fun to chase. What would he do if he caught one? I never wanted to find out.
Basically, everything we didn’t want in a dog, Max had.
I had spelled it all out at the shelter, in a text message, on the phone, and in person with two different people. I had been assured that Max met my criteria.
He didn’t. Not by a long shot.
I returned him to the shelter before any cat was consumed by the crazy young pit bull mix.
I felt cheated. Lied to. I had specifically asked for any dog who WAS NOT a pit bull or pit mix. I had specifically asked for a dog known to be good with cats.
I was given a dog who was assessed by a veterinarian as a pit bull cross AND who hadn’t really been tested with cats.
Yes, adopting a dog is a risk. Yes, it’s “buyer beware.”
But when the shelter advertises a dog as something other than what it has been professionally assessed as, how is that even remotely fair to the public?
My experience isn’t unique. I thought at the time it was just this particular shelter, but now I find out that “relabeling” pit bulls and pit mixes as ‘boxer crosses’ is quite common.
The Collared Scholar, a dog training site, is the first place I’ve seen it openly mentioned as a problem. Yes, pit bulls are difficult to rehome. I understand that. But shelters also need to understand that there is a reason why pit bulls aren’t easy to find a home for – they are large, unpredictable dogs who need an experienced handler. They are not usually good in homes with small children, cats, and other small dogs or pets.
Labeling a pit bull mix a ‘shepherd mix’ and lying to me when the vet report was in the folder for the dog made me angry with and distrustful of the shelter workers.
They knew the veterinarian’s report had indicated the dog was not a shepherd mix. (They probably did not know he wasn’t good with cats. Exposure to cats might have meant anything from strolling by the cat area at the shelter to seeing a cat run across his path while he was out on a walk. I give them a pass at that.)
Touring the shelter and reviewing other shelters’ information online shows the unfortunate truth. Many, if not all, of the dogs at the shelters, are not a good fit for my family. My unscientific estimate puts the pit bull or pit mix population at least 50% at the shelters. Any other large breed dogs appear to be Cane Corso, Mastiff, or similar large guardian breeds not known to be good around cats. Even puppies at shelters tend to be pit bull mixes.
I can’t take the risk.
Instead, I need a known quantity. I know the characteristics of the German shepherd breed, characteristics I want in my dog.
I went to the breeder’s house. I met not just the parents of this litter but the grandsire of the litter. She takes the dogs to the same veterinarian we use and I trust their judgment. The vet tech raves about the calm demeanor of her dogs.
I’ve spoken with three people who have also obtained puppies from her and their dogs are wonderful family pets.
My experience with Max and the shelter has, unfortunately, made me gun-shy about taking another shelter dog especially while I have cats. I could have given Max a chance if we were an “only pet” household. But with seven cats, we had the potential for disaster if the wrong dog comes home with me.
A puppy, from a known breeder, with the genetics of a breed I know and trust, is a different matter. Will he chase the cats? Maybe someday. Shadow kept the cats “in line” and herded them, all part of her genetic heritage as a herding breed.
I do know that I trust the known over the unknown when it comes to my family, my pets. And while I still support animal shelters, I support honesty at shelters. Renaming a pit bull mix, as identified by a veterinarian, to a shepherd mix isn’t just a mistake but a dangerous lie. It does a disservice to pit bulls and to those who love them and it does a disservice to people like me who trust our publicly funded animal shelters to do their jobs properly.
I am a compassionate lifestyle advocate. I am a Daughter of St. Francis de Sales. I believe in compassion, love, and gentleness to all, including God’s creatures. I’m not trying to discourage you from adopting a dog like Max. I am urging caution when adopting dogs from shelters if you have concerns like I do about how they will get along with young children or cats.
If it looks like a pit bull, it probably is, and if that’s not what you want, don’t adopt it.
I am deeply disappointed at the shelter who decided to pull a little white lie to get a dog adopted but who could have caused my family a great deal of hardship if I hadn’t been more cautious about introducing him to the cats.
I have saved 11 animal lives to date by adopting from shelters or taking in strays – two dogs (Shadow and our former dog, Mr. Foxhound, a golden retriever mix) and nine cats, to date, including some who have crossed the rainbow bridge. I love animals and will continue to support animal rights, animal advocacy, and compassionate towards God’s creatures.
But yes, I’m adopting a purebred puppy. He’s got parents I’ve met and a grandsire who is 19 years young and healthy. I’ve been to his house, seen where he will be born and raised for the first eight weeks of life. I’ve spoken with the veterinarian who treats his entire pack and who saw his sonogram; I’ve met with the human caregiver who loves her dogs like her own children.
I trust them all now more than I trust the local animal shelter.
And that makes me sad.
I’m sure there are dogs like Shadow out there…but when you lie to me and tell me a pit bull mix is a shepherd mix, I won’t trust you again to find one for me.