Beware Using the “Rescue” Label to Explain Unwanted Behavior

Decades before my wife and I became pet parents, I was hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains when I surprised a couple and their shepherd-mix on the trail.

As I passed the trio, the dog spun around to confront me with a barrage of intruder-alert barks and slobbering snarls. I was startled in the moment, but took none of these antics personally.

Amidst the dog’s ferocious display, his sheepish human parents piped in: “Please don’t mind Timber, he’s a rescue.”

“That’s okay,” I smiled, scooting on my merry way. I’d heard that phrase before to explain away a dog’s raucous reaction to people or other animals. It reminded me what an old girlfriend once told me about her short fuse: “Forgive me, I’m Irish.”

Falling back on stereotypes to account for human behavior is, to say the least, inappropriate.  Repeated use of the phrase, “He’s a rescue,” to explain unwanted behavior in a pet seeds a stereotype that can prove devastating to unadopted animals everywhere.

God knows how many people have been dissuaded from animal adoption because they were conditioned by our words to believe that rescued animals are just plain crazy.  Even after my wife and I had largely desensitized our Lilly, the Boston terrier, to approaching dogs, we continued to play the rescue card to account for her occasional reactivity. Unwittingly, we were walking advertisements against animal rescue.

Rescued animals should never be painted with a broad, harsh brush. Certainly, many shelter environments take their toll on the animals housed there. No one is immune from the effects of cramped quarters, cold, cement floors, and the mournful cries of one’s neighbors who were abandoned or surrendered as they were.

But this does not mean that every animal emerging from shelter walls is a behavioral mess beyond healing. As with people, some animals weather psychological storms better than others. All rescued animals need our attention, intervention and repeated assurance that they have indeed found their forever homes. What they don’t need is damaging explanations on their behalf.

When quirky Aunt Betty “slips a gear” during a public outing, we wouldn't feel compelled to say that she was once institutionalized for trying to pick flowers off the wallpaper. Similarly, we shouldn’t feel the need to share fur-family business with passers-by on the street.

If we want to say something when Brutus or Daphne act out, try “He gets startled sometimes,” or “She’s anxious with other dogs.” Better yet, if we see trouble approaching, we should guide our furry pal off the path or sidewalk and distract him or her with a treat or favorite toy. Before things really escalate, just pick him or her up (if you can) until all is clear.

With persistence and compassion, we can help our pet become a happy, well-adjusted family member and good citizen at large.

Then passers-by can see that he’s a true rescue: Wanted. Welcomed. Loved.

Those are the rescue labels that should stick.