In Praise of Rescue Dogs (and Cats)

Better with Age

We know it, of course: Our values and desires are driven by consumer culture. New is best, “new and improved” better yet. “Previously owned” is code for second-rate.

The saddest manifestation of this delusion involves dogs and cats. Let me illustrate with a story. Back in 2000, I was volunteering a lot at the S.B. County Animal Shelter in Goleta. Day after day, people would come in looking to adopt a puppy, or at least the youngest, freshest looking dogs (as if canine excellence is like produce). Day after day, visitors would blow by the best dogs because they looked used. Prospective adopters would shake their heads dismissively as I pointed out two dogs named Shadow waiting for homes-both black lab mixes in early-middle age, sitting patiently in their cages. “No,” they’d say, “we want something younger.” They thought anything else was settling for less.

A few people do know better. One lovely older gentleman took my advice and went home with one Shadow; he called the next day to ask, “How could such a wonderful dog ever end up in a shelter?” The other Shadow? Seven years later, at age 13, she is doggy desirability embodied: bright, brave, obedient, joyous. She’s the best dog I’ve ever had, worth the house I had to buy to adopt her.

Do older pets develop health problems? Sometimes. But that puppy or kitten will get old and have the same problems eventually. What does it matter if it happens a few years sooner as long as you’ve had the pleasure of great companionship along the way? And if you can’t afford them now, will you be able to later?

Sure, some previously owned animals do come with baggage-bad early handling, innate temperament flaws. But more often than not, dogs and cats need new homes through no fault of their own. (The majority of shelter pets are runaways whose owners can’t be bothered to come looking for them.) Except for the worst cases, most adult pets will train out of any problems they might have long before a puppy has stopped using your favorite pair of clogs as chew toys.

Behind the temporary adorability of puppies and kittens is a lot of work. (Kittens aren’t as bad, although they do climb your drapes, take down your Christmas tree : shall I go on?) Puppies are cognitively challenged for the first six months: there’s housebreaking (those lovely 3 a.m. “Go pee pee!” moments), not to mention the prolonged agony of obedience training an adolescent (roughly equivalent to parenting a teenager, although puppies at least don’t have cell phones). Unless you are experienced, or wise enough to have chosen one of the fast-learning breeds, you have just committed the next year of your life to civilizing a wild, albeit charming, beast.

Adults, by contrast, often come pre-trained. Most of the many adult dogs I’ve adopted or fostered were already housebroken, and have fit as smoothly into my household as a good Mac-software preinstalled, ready to execute their programs. More to the point: They have the cognitive capacity to learn about 10 times as quickly as a puppy. And, most telling, they have the desire to please, along with an understanding of the consequences if they fail.

Anyone who has adopted an adult pet will laugh uproariously if you tell them, “Oh, I want to get a puppy/kitten so it will bond with me.” Clearly, you have never had the experience of being worshipped by a rescued adult who is convinced you are the God/dess incarnate. (Okay, maybe not a cat-but they will at least pretend to be mildly appreciative.) Puppies and kittens, on the other hand, have not known suffering and consequently do not understand that you are That From Which Joy (and Food) Emanates. They take you for granted, and no one much likes that.

Resources for finding a good previously owned dog or cat are everywhere: newspaper classifieds,, local shelter Web sites (check out, and national clearinghouses such as petfinder.comand If you have a yen for a particular breed, there are breed rescue groups-just Google “[breed name] rescue California” and marvel at the results.

Now, if only it were that easy to find a good man. :

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