Pet adoptions: Go beyond the first impression, you may find a gentle giant

There are a lot of reasons I love working in the field of animal welfare, specifically animal shelters. The No. 1 reason, obviously, is that I get to come to work every day and interact with animals, which is pretty much a dream come true for a guy like me.

Another big reason though is that I get to be surrounded by my people. And by “my people,” I mean folks who have a love and admiration for our animal friends that is palpable. With my coworkers and volunteers, I get to “geek out” about the field of animal welfare and the lifesaving work we do in the community.

And no one looks at me strangely for caring about this mission as much as I do. Because they all do. They love centering conversations around our wacky, neurotic pets and the hilarious antics with which they entertain us.

We just seem to have a lot in common, and it feels wonderful to know that I’ve found “my tribe.”

Pretty much everyone in this pet-loving tribe has pets who fall into the “special needs” category. So I never have to feel embarrassed or judged when Maddie barks her head off at people when they come into my office, or that she’ll try and bite their ankles as soon as they get up to leave the room (her version of a parting gift, I suppose?), or any of the other ways she showcases her diva-neurotic personality.

I think one of the reasons that my tribe is drawn to the types of pets who need a little more patience is because through this work, we’ve seen just how much animals with a troubled past, or who may have not been given the best chance at developing good habits early can thrive under the right circumstances and with a little patience.

We’re also the kind of people who are willing to see beyond a first impression with animals, which is a pretty special quality for humans. When an animal comes into the shelter for the first time, it can be pretty traumatic for them. They may have had some sort of trauma before coming here too, which only adds to the stress of being introduced to such an environment.

So often, in the first few days, we may not really be able to interact with a dog who is so scared that they are pulling out all the tricks in their toolbox (hiding in the back of the kennel, barking, lunging, growling, etc.) to keep themselves safe and away from scary strangers.

When a dog comes to us stressed out and shows it with a number of problematic behaviors, our first impression might be, “Wow, this dog is crazy!” or, “This dog is dangerous!”

But people in my tribe don’t allow that kind of first impression to deter them from seeing beyond the fear to the dog underneath, which, under better circumstances, would probably be a big pile of love and tail-wags.

Sure enough, after a few days and some patience, we slowly start to see a willingness to trust us. A cat who had been curled up in a ball in the back of the kennel might poke her head out and wink at you. A dog who had been growling and lunging at you from the other side of the kennel might pause for a moment and think, “Maybe I want to sniff you and see if you’re OK.”

They are subtle cues but powerful ones. It’s in these moments where the magic starts to happen.

In this environment, trust is a tricky thing to build over time. Sometimes we see great progress with a fearful animal for a couple of weeks, only to have a moment of regression or set back. It happens. But again, the people in my tribe are never deterred because they know that we all act poorly or out of character when we’re stressed or scared.

We forgive these moments because we remember that it isn’t representative of the whole truth of an animal; rather it’s an opportunity to identify triggers and creatively problem solve to mitigate those triggers so that we can see the many other facets of their complex personalities.

Sadly, large dogs are very often overlooked by potential adopters in a shelter setting because what you see on the other side of the kennel might seem intimidating at first glance for a few reasons. A large dog barking at you feels a lot different than a small dog barking at you, for example.

Breed types can also be intimidating in a first impression. Big blocky-headed dogs often have that “resting guard dog face” that makes them look dangerous or mean, when in reality they might be a big pussy cat underneath all the intimidating bluster.

All of these surface factors play into someone’s first impressions in ways they probably aren’t even aware of when they seek to adopt a new family member. The unintended consequence of trusting your first impression is that large dogs end up staying in shelters much longer than they should.

Take Yoshi, for example, a beautiful 3-year-old Akita mix which came to us as a stray at the beginning of April. He’s a perfect example of the kind of dog I was just talking about; he just needed a little time to come out of his shell and build trust with our staff and volunteers.

When he first arrived, he was pretty difficult to handle. He was sensitive and fearful of people at first. But in time, he started to show us more sides of himself. Before long, he was bouncing around the play yard with our volunteers, playing with squeaky toys and splashing around in the pool. Dude really loves his pool time. He may have been an otter in a past life, is all I’m saying.

Now Yoshi is a staff and volunteer favorite because they’ve been able to see him come out of that dark, fearful place to be the fun-loving goofball that he is at heart. We’re now at a point where people fight over who gets to train with him because he picks up commands so easily and is very treat motivated. Literally everyone at the shelter knows him and loves him now because we all see how much our patience and trust building has paid off.

Does he take a minute to warm up to new people? Sure! Is it worth the time to build his trust? Oh my goodness, YES!

He’s a dog who is looking for his person. For all we know, he had his person for a long time, and when he got separated from them, his life got turned upside down, and it’s taken him some time to figure out who he is in these unfamiliar circumstances.

Yoshi’s one caveat is that he likes to eat alone without anyone bothering him, which, to be honest, I can totally relate to. Being an Akita, the ideal home is one in which Yoshi would be the only dog (again, I can relate). They are defined as strong-willed and bold, but extremely loyal to their family. So basically Yoshi is in most ways what I look for in other humans: slow to warm up, but once trust is there, he’s your friend and protector for life.

By the way, if you can foster a large dog for at least two weeks, we kind of need you in a big way right now!

We’re starting to run low on kennel space, and additionally, many of our long-term shelter dogs could use a break from shelter life. Our greatest need right now is to find foster homes for big dogs (over 40 pounds), many of whom need to be the only pet in the home. If you’re able to take in a large dog for a minimum of two weeks, please email foster@pasadenahumane.org today!