Rescue Dogs

By Henry S. Parker

Sallie is a champion West Highland terrier, a specimen of the breed who has produced two litters of pups that are on track to become show dogs themselves. Sallie is a rescue dog.

When you think “rescue dog” do you visualize a sad-eyed canine waif in dire need of a solid meal, flea treatment and a good bath? Or do you see a yapping mutt with kennel cough pleading to be released from a crowded animal shelter? Sometimes these images are accurate, but rescue dogs may also come from happy homes.

Broadly defined, a rescue dog may be a stray or abandoned animal available for adoption from a shelter; an unplanned or accidental puppy or a well-loved, mature pet that can no longer be cared for by its owner.

My wife Sue and I have rescued three dogs since 1970. The first was harvested from a neighbor’s fenced garden. Perversely, we named the tiny Beagle puppy “Mastiff” because he was appealing and energetic. He had been planted in the garden with several new-born siblings among rows of tomatoes and cucumbers. No one knew where the litter came from, and our neighbor was thrilled that we were eager to take one off his hands. We loved mastiff, but didn’t have him for long. We were transferred overseas and had to give him to a family member.

When we returned to the states we went upscale in the dog department, purchasing in succession, two AKC-registered golden retriever puppies. No rescue dogs, these. They were beautiful animals, with impeccable pedigrees. But each soon displayed unforeseen, probably inbreeding-related, genetic defects that ultimately caused their untimely deaths.

In despair after our second golden died, we decided to look for a mutt. A mixed-breed, we reasoned, would be healthier and live longer than a pure-bred. Hybrid vigor and all that. In 1995 Sue drove through a blizzard to claim Milou, a shoe-sized, tan-and-white bundle of puppy fur. Milou was our rescue dog number two, a product of an illicit liaison between her corgi mother and a rogue father of indeterminate origin. We adored Milou. When she died of cancer 13 years later, we didn’t think we could replace her. For more than a year we didn’t try.

Any long-time pet owner knows the aching void left when a beloved animal dies. One also finds out that the only way to fill the void is to bring home another pet. Last fall we began to look in earnest. We wanted a Milou reincarnation, another bitch. We also had some tall orders: she would have to be small enough to curl up comfortably on a car’s front seat, cute enough to win over the hardest souls, smart enough to keep us on our toes, athletic enough to hike with us; and great with kids.

In theory, you can design your own dog these days and some breeder will be happy to produce it. But we didn’t want a designer dog—too precious and expensive. And who knows how it would hold up over time or what strange traits it might exhibit? No, we wanted another rescue dog.

Sue made it her mission to find the right replacement for Milou. She scoured the newspapers, spent hours on line, checked with SPCA and animal shelters throughout the Northeast and contacted rescue organizations nationwide. All establishments were responsive and helpful. Sue had to first fill out an adoption application form, a multipage document, specifically tailored to each individual organization. The completed form would allow the organization to determine whether we would provide an appropriate environment and caring home. Because demand for rescue dogs is now “in,” desirable pooches are snapped up quickly so it is important to have an application on file.

Early on we decided to focus on West Highland terriers. Some friends, a veterinarian and his wife, had one. We loved their dog’s disposition, spirit, and appearance. And she was a rescue dog herself. So we registered with Maryland Westie Rescue, Inc. (As the web site says: “Within the heart of every Westie lies the simple desire to be loved.”) Sue filled out another application. And then we waited.

A month later we got a call from a Westie breeder near Richmond, Va. “Sallie,” a five-year-old retired champion show dog, was available for adoption. An older couple from North Carolina had previously taken her in. Their contract had included a clause: If the dog was not well cared for, the breeder could reclaim it. Several months later the breeder paid a visit to the new owners. Sallie had become grossly overweight and out of shape owing to a steady diet of human food with a special emphasis on waffles smothered in Dinty Moore beef stew. The breeder reclaimed Sallie, weaned her off people food, and got her back into shape. Now Sallie was ready for another new owner.

We fell in love with Sallie. She met or surpassed all of Milou’s wonderful qualities and our defined criteria. We signed the adoption contract, including the take-back clause, brought Sallie home and made a voluntary $300 donation to Maryland Westie Rescue. It would be hard to imagine a happier relationship between owners and pet.

If you are in the market for a new dog, a rescue pet may be the way to go. But before proceeding with an adoption, we do have a few suggestions:

  • As closely as possible, know what you are looking for and what fits best for you, your home environment, and your lifestyle. All puppies are adorable. Not all will grow into a canine companion that is suitable for you.
  • Do your homework. There are hundreds of shelters and rescue organizations out there and hundreds of thousands of available pets.
  • Share your quest with friends and acquaintances. Word of mouth might lead you to the perfect pet. But guard against letting yourself be sold on a breed that may be a favorite of others but would a poor fit for you.
  •  Be patient. Sooner or later you will find the dog that is just right.
  • Trust your instincts. If a prospective rescue doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not the dog for you.

Henry S. (“Hank”) Parker has been a U.S. Navy officer, deep sea diver, seaweed farmer, marine biologist, university professor and research director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Now focusing on teaching and writing, he lives in Annapolis with his wife, Sue, and their West Highland terrier, Sallie, and can be contacted at [email protected] 

Want to Know More?

Here are a few websites to get you started: (American Kennel Club rescue dog web site)  (Dog Owner’s Guide magazine article about pure bred rescues) (extensive directory of dog shelters and rescue organizations)  (web site of the National Westie Rescue Committee of the West Highland White Terrier Club of America)  (Maryland Westie Rescue web site)

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