NYTimes essay – ‘The Wrong Dog’

I’m not sure if any of you caught the essay “The Wrong Dog” in The New York Times by Erica-Lynn Huberty.

If not, it’s something you should read.

It’s the story of a family adopting a young black Lab mix and the mistakes many of us make as “rescuers,” trainers and adopters.

“The Wrong Dog” is the kind of piece that made me go searching for more work by the writer. It made me question some of my own decisions when it comes to foster dogs and fear aggression. When is a dog adoptable? When is he too dangerous?

Not all dogs can be saved by love, and I promise you that rescue groups, trainers and other “experts” do not always know best.

If you read anything other than my blog today, read this. It takes a good 10 minutes to read and *warning*, it’s sad 🙁

Then, come back and tell me what you think because I’m dying to discuss this with somebody.

From “The Wrong Dog”:

The trainer had seen “these dogs” before, she said — dogs trucked up the East Coast, traumatized by the journey and moved from shelter to shelter. We were told to throw Cesar Millan’s advice out the window: no “calm-assertive” discipline allowed. We had, she said, inadvertently brought out Nina’s aggressiveness. From now on, it would be gentle time-outs, and treats when anyone came to the door.

Even as we followed these instructions, we questioned them. We cringed when we saw pet parents and human parents alike coddling their little monsters despite their bad behavior. Then again, who were we to argue with experts?

My black Lab mix Ace The Wrong Dog

What did you think of The Wrong Dog? Do you have any similar experiences from your own life with dogs?

Related blog posts:

When to euthanize an aggressive dog

Re-homing a pet doesn’t make you a bad pet owner

The story of my foster dog Barkley

Goodnight, sweet Blue (from Love and a Six-Foot Leash)

34 thoughts on “NYTimes essay – ‘The Wrong Dog’”

  1. OMG!!! She’s right. and I read the good night bleu as well. Belle (my first dog and one of our dogs together) we got from the pound at 18 months. We figured we were her third home, the sheet from the previous family said they had gotten her from the pound 6 months before. She was reactive and you couldn’t pet her while eating, she would growl. She would also smell something and run away. CV, my other half, said after the first 6 months that there wasn’t something right and that if it was a dog yard Belle would be put down. And we worked through a lot of her issues. However, after having a horrible end of 2013, getting removed from our house because of bad construction practices, we were finally able to move home this spring. Belle got into a dog fight with another dog. And then she broke out of CVs vehicle (truck canopy screening) to go attach another dog across the street. The first time he was able to call her back. The second time, our other dog followed and he couldn’t call her back. He got her in the truck and pointed his finger at her and said, “No, bad dog.” and she growled and bit him, our other dog growled at him too. He shut the canopy and called me. We cried and talked all afternoon and the vet we saw said we could try meds and change our lives. We had already changed it a lot and couldn’t not drive any where or take her out of the yard. We couldn’t rehome her because if she bit someone who fed her and loved her for 5 years who would she bit next? We want to have kids, there are kids next door. She could have bit any of them without provication. So we put her down. We gave her five wonderful years. Her collar and toy are at work and her ashes ride around with me in my truck. The vet at our office was wonderful and cried with us. We both still cry about it now. But the stress that we were both under with her evaporated that evening. We all cuddled and cried and felt lighter. I loved her, my Tinkerbelle, but she’s in a better place, getting to do all the things she couldn’t with us. Thanks Lindsey for the post. 🙂

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Oh, you brought tears to my eyes. I knew you decided to put Belle down, but I didn’t know many details. It must’ve been so hard, and I’m sure it still is. Like you said, I’m so thankful she got to know love and have a wonderful five years.

      I’ve never been in such a situation, so I can’t imagine what it’s like.

      1. It wasn’t easy, and I was mad at both of us for a long time thinking we had failed her. We still get teary eyed. On the positive note if we had Belle we wouldn’t have Missy or Aeon and the smiles and blessings those two old girls give us every day. Aeon is a little high maitenance due to breed and how she has lived the last 11 years, rough start, first time dog owner (my friend had dogs growing up but this was her first dog) and moving with a military family. Missy amazes us every day, yesterday she let us know that she knew how to jump on the couch. She still wont jump on the bed, which we think is lower but she’s a lover and all three make us smile every day of the week. 🙂

          1. Anna, we agreed that we would be her last home. Actually our local shelter was able to tell us that she was first picked up as a stray, and while having a microchip, they couldn’t get ahold of the owners, so she was put up for adoption and then was too much dog for the people before us. They had her six months and she scratched up their nine year old son and got into the trash. It took her six months to stop sleeping in a ball and stretch out. She taught me a lot, and I miss her dearly but I am so glad that the stress in our house is less even with THREE dogs now! And my two old ladies make me smile and laugh. I cherish each day with them, though truth be told. They don’t act 11! 🙂

  2. I hate to say it but the longer I spend volunteering with dogs, living with dogs, and training dogs, the more I think this story is not some rare tragedy but a common, sad encounter. So I guess my reaction is a bit desensitized. Yes, this is sad. No, it is not surprising.

    In the dog-loving community, the pendulum has definitely swung to overcorrect mistakes of the past and instead cultivated an attitude that there are no bad dogs and training can solve everything, and even if it can’t, it’s the obligation of the people to “manage” the dog that they adopted for the life of the pet, at all costs to the person and the household. Dogs are unpredictable and some dogs will never be safe to add to many family living situations. It’s dangerous to think otherwise, and it causes well-intentioned people do the wrong things out of misplaced guilt and obligation.

    I also appreciate Elizabeth’s comment about the stress. Living with pets is good for your health in general, but not when it’s under the constant stress that comes with a dog who can snap at any moment.

    Beyond all that, I think the desire to “rescue” dogs has motivated a lot of people to adopt dogs that have behavioral issues or challenges that are outside their ability to manage. I am fortunate to live in a region that has been very successful with spay/neuter campaigns and a culture of adopting dogs from no-kill shelters, which is generally a very good thing. The downside of this is that there is actually a SHORTAGE of well-adjusted young to middle age dogs at our local rescues and shelters. People who want to adopt have an “easier” dog have to jump on the decision very quickly – there is no time to foster and find out more about the dog, because the next potential adopter is right behind. So it rushes people into making adoption decisions. And it leaves a whole bunch of dogs who do have behavior issues (lots of dog reactivity or under-socialization/fear/shyness, and so on) left for all these “rescuers” to take on, many of whom aren’t really equipped for what it will be like to live with the dog full time.

    It’s sad but the older I get, the more I think that it’s just not responsible to put a dog that I would never invite into my OWN home into someone else’s, simply because they are less experienced or knowledgeable about dog behavioral issues!

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I appreciated hearing your take on this. I do think our culture overplays the idea of “rescuing” a dog and how loving a dog and training a dog the “right” way can always make everything OK. It’s also very hard to admit when you can’t “fix” a dog.

      I think you make a good point that the desire to “rescue” a dog does motivate some people to adopt dogs that are beyond their ability to safely manage. First-time dog owners probably won’t even notice some of the signs the rest of us would recognize and be worried about.

      I’ve felt guilty at times for wanting to adopt another “easy” dog and knowing I have a pretty good sense of which dogs are easy to manage.

    2. I just now noticed Lindsay’s blog post on my piece. I received literally thousands of comments, emails, and tweets about it, some of them rational, some of them not. Because there have been so many comments, I can’t possibly reply to them all. But Sean, I have to thank you for this excellent post. You have explained, perfectly, what is becoming an overwhelming problem with the overpopulation of unwanted dogs, and what rescuers, shelters, and pet owners face. I also really appreciate Lindsay’s “getting” my piece and starting an informed, intelligent forum on her blog. That is a rare thing, these days. Kind regards to you both.

  3. Dianne Marcinizyn

    I once fostered a Lab with an animal kill history. He arrived elderly and sick with cancer. He was unpredictable and tried to bring harm to my pack for no reason. He was ‘off’ mentally and might possibly have been that way for years. I recommended him for humane euthanasia to our rescue group and they agreed. If he couldn’t make it with us and our pack, I could not, in good faith, adopt him to a family safely.

    I have recently adopted a young dog from the pound with aggression issues. They appeared once she settled in as she was quite sick upon arrival. Am I the right person for the commitment and strength in leadership this dog needs? Yes. Would I have been last year? No. Would I have rehomed her? Very possibly. Did I consider euthanasia? Definitely. I was terrified and that’s the truth. There’s no shame in the truth.

    Knowing your leadership limitations and desires are a good thing! I tell the families at the shelter to not adopt if they have any doubts at all.

  4. I appreciate the article title: “The wrong dog.” Not a “bad” dog, a “wrong” dog. The dog doesn’t sound mean or dangerous, it just had a strong prey drive – Thus, it wasn’t suitable for a home with cats in it. Maybe I’m just a bit insensitive – my last dog killed a lot of things, including about 6 beavers. But she was a terrific family dog!

  5. I have so many thoughts after reading that story. There is such a fine line between putting in time & effort to make it work with a dog vs. doing what’s best for your family, human & animal.

    I do think the rescue group made a mistake here. I’ve always told adopters I would take an animal back for any reason at any time. And this wasn’t just a dog who was chewing blankets. Now that I think about it, they probably knew the family would be out of their depth with this dog but were eager to get him into a home.

    I once fostered a dog with fear issues. A really awesome guy with lots of dog experience wanted to adopt her. He was calm, gentle & soft-spoken but she didn’t trust him. He wanted to adopt her & work it out but I told him it wasn’t a good match.

    I also think the dog in the story probably had a medical issue or chemical imbalance. And Dogs always give warning signs or have triggers for aggression. The trainer should have addressed that as well.

    I’m so sad about their beloved cat. I can’t imagine it and I don’t want to. Once we started letting Zoey around Gina (after 9 months of being separated in the same house), if she would have so much as looked at Gina wrong, I would have separated them again and kept it that way. Maybe I’m too protective but if a dog can snap at a cat, they can easily kill it.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I’m glad you read the essay. Ugh, so sad. I think everyone in the story made some mistakes. I’m so sad about their cat as well. I can’t imagine. One of my friend’s cats was killed by her foster dogs a few years ago. She was fostering a couple of Lab mix pups and they somehow got out of their crate when she was gone, and they went after the cat. Just such a sad thing.

  6. I agree with Rachel: it was a bad match. I also don’t believe that strong prey drive is a reason to kill a dog. Outdoor cats kill all the time (and poop in neighbors’ yards). We had a case in Santa Barbara about two dogs getting out of their yard and killing someone’s outdoor cat. The dogs were deemed dangerous because of that and were to be put to down. I think the rescue community is still trying to appeal the verdict, promising to train and rehome the dogs.
    I feel very sad about the poor family cat from the article. The family didn’t manage the Lab well (no crate?), but ultimately the shelter should have taken the dog back, not tried to force a mismatch.
    We also have lots of stories about people adopting pit bull puppies and returning them after a year because the dog is out of control. The rescues are angry, blaming the owners for not raising the puppies right and not following the free training advice. Who is right?

  7. I’m also sorry for Elizabeth’s loss: don’t even want to imagine how hard it must have been for her. But you have to protect your family and your community.

  8. That was sad. I feel so bad for those people. The rescue should have taken the dog back instead of guilting them into keeping him, and if not the trainer should have realized the extent of the dog’s problems instead of assuming they were “ruining” the dog by watching the Dog Whisperer. I had some very serious and legitimate fears that Hiccup would turn out like this dog when I first found him. He was very food possessive and he bit my friend when she picked him up and my mother when she tried to scratch his back. I tried seeking advice on dog forums but was simply met with this huge backlash of people telling me it must be all my fault, that I shouldn’t have scolded him or taken away his chew stick when he snapped at me for getting near. In their minds, he was this poor, innocent abused dog and I needed to tip-toe around all of his triggers and treat him with kid gloves. In some respects, they were right. In the end, it was time and the help of a professional trainer (who, yes, used *gasp* dominance training) that convinced me Hiccup was making progress and could one day be safe around people. I spent my first year with Hiccup wondering if this would all end in a lawsuit and a one-way trip to the vet. Today, I am so happy to say Hiccup will let just about anyone touch him, and the first time he actually sought out a stranger at dog park for a friendly pat I almost cried for joy. It could have easily gone the way the dog in that article did, and I am lucky.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Oh, wow, I didn’t realize you had been through all that with Hiccup. I’m so glad you’ve been able to help him and work through a lot of his problems.

  9. Just yesterday, a trainer I follow on facebook posted.this encouraging message:


    The lady with the Lab had a choice of hiring a different trainer if she didn’t trust the advice of the rescue trainer, even if it was free. From the article it doesn’t seem the Lab lady followed even Cesar Millan’s advice: exercise, discipline, affection.
    People want to have it easy and like to blame others. “I felt enraged at the rescue woman, foster mother and trainer.”

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Yes, good points! I am not familiar with that trainer, but he sounds like he knows his stuff, and I just watched the video you linked to.

      I felt bad for the essay’s writer. I could relate to her, but of course we only hear her side and she makes a lot of mistakes.

      1. I asked my shelter for help with our first foster dog and the trainer introduced us to prong collar. It was magic, a sanity saver and an enormous stress relief. I could finally walk my dog without anxiety. While reading on the prong collar, I found Jeff Gellman’s blog and loved his common sense.
        I think you should seek help and follow the trainer’s advice OR admit that you cannot do it, it’s NOT a shame. Even Cesar tells people to choose a dog wisely, with a matching energy level. (I’m mentioning Cesar Millan’s because the Lab lady is his fan.) The worst thing you can do is do nothing. Not seek help, not follow advice, not return the dog. The Lab was allowed to jump on owners’ bed and growl at them, was allowed to shred the house, was allowed to terrorise the family cat with NO consequences. What about a crate? What about exercise? What about obedience training? What about admitting you are way over your head?
        I foster dogs and many of them I would not adopt myself because it wasn’t a good match. I also know that adopters don’t always follow your advice, and tell me I’m running a tight ship, ha ha. 🙂

        1. Lindsay Stordahl

          I had a trainer come to my townhome to help me with a foster dog a few years ago. The rescue paid for that and group classes. It was really helpful to have a professional come over since the dog was very aggressive and I wanted to make sure I was responding appropriately to his outbursts. He was only about 15 pounds but still scary.

        2. Totally agree. If a dog is displaying any aggression there is no way it should have the run of the house and be able to claim domain. Keep the dog out of the beds, off the furniture and crated unless supervised. Incredible that the dog had gone after the cat and nipped the owner but somehow was trusted to stay alone with the cats. Very sad outcome.

  10. I felt crazy emotions after adopting Bruce. IMO, he should never have been pulled, never been adopted out. I should have swallowed my pride and returned him to rescue. Lesson learned, as I now love the big jerk, but must always be careful.

  11. I greatly appreciate Lindsay’s mentioning this article on her Facebook page. I have read the linked “The Wrong Dog” article by Erica-Lyunn Huberty. I guess that everyone might have heard one or two of others’ sad stories. I personally feel that it might be a special case: The dog might need a mental evaluation, but I will be carefully optimistic on most dogs. If looking for the murder news closely, one could find the news of people killing people everyday; we don’t know how dogs will defend their killing behaviors, but people often can defend themselves in the court.

      1. I think that I would take no position in attributing faults. I only feel sad that a dog is killed because it had killed a cat and bitten people. Simply bad lucks of those who were involvoed?

        1. I apologize that I need to correct myself that there is no mentioning about the fate of Nina, the dog that had killed the cat named Addie. I had mistakenly written “… I only feel sad that a dog is killed because it had killed a cat and bitten people.”

  12. Yes, it happened… and was almost eerily similar for us. A different breed of dog, true, but so many things in this story are similar.. even the age of the dog when we got her. Our dog, thankfully, didn’t go on to kill anything but my chickens.. but she was becoming progressively more dangerous despite my very best efforts. My husband knew something was wrong after two weeks.. but I stubbornly hung on, convinced she would be a great dog if I just kept trying. I finally drew the line when she began growling at my children with absolutely no provocation whatsoever (trust me, I wanted there to be one.. some excuse I could have understood). Like the author of the story, I chose to find another situation for her with full disclosure, rather than to put her down.. and to this day, I don’t know if I made the right choice. The hardest part, for me, was accepting that it wasn’t my fault.. I’m still not sure if I’ve entirely accepted that, and dog bite stats, better understanding of her breed, even reading other horror stories has never quite absolved me of my guilt over the failure. We are blessed to have purchased a border collie about six months after the last incident .. and he’s had to teach me to trust dogs – and myself – all over again.

  13. I’m actually waiting for a rescue to take back my adopted pet now – I have to wait until they can take her and I definitely wouldn’t want to re-home her myself as I don’t want to be responsible for someone else taking her on. She meets as friendly, but in our home she started to target my Dad who is 87 years old and has Parkinsons – he talks funny (and won’t be able to give instructions or commands clearly and convincingly to her), walks funny, shakes, and freezes – when she lays into him he can’t ward her off or remove himself from the situation. At first we just thought it was a pity she picks on him so much, maybe we could train her. Meanwhile we have to intervene to get her to stop mauling him, at first she would come away and calm down and be angelic again, but after a few more days she lashes out at me and my family when we instruct her or remove her. Then she started to show signs of conflict aggression. She may well settle down completely when removed from living with my Dad, or she may turn out to have issues wherever she goes – but I do know that I can’t handle this and neither should my Dad or my family have to continue to be exposed to this physical fighting simply to see if she can be trained. I won’t trust her alone with him now even if she showed promise in training. Reading the Wrong Dog made me sad, but also makes me feel that I should listen to my instincts to protect my family, and relieve the stress we all feel, and give the dog a chance to get away from what might be stressful for her too. I just hope that they can take her soon as it really is such an intense situation that is really fraught.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      So sorry to hear you’re dealing with all this. I hope they’re able to take the dog back very soon.

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