Many people in search of a family pet have no thought other than to go to a local shelter and pick out a dog or cat, with the aim of giving him a better life. It is an admirable thing to do. Unfortunately, it is a gesture that goes wrong far too often. A pet chosen without research, forethought, careful assessment of their needs and realistic goals, often ends up returned. The failure of adoption is something that shelter workers face daily. There are concrete reasons why adoptions fail, but I believe the most important one is that our society has forgotten the meaning of compassion and lacks the ability to forgive. Our desire for instant success has made us intolerant of anything less than what we want for ourselves at the time we decide we want it. Adoption can make us better people – and not just because we are saving a life; rather, it gives us a unique opportunity for personal growth. I feel that many adoptions fail because people miss out on this aspect of the process.
Compassion and forgiveness are emotional "muscles." If we don’t use them, they don’t grow very strong. It is often very hard to call up compassion – and even harder to forgive and forget. One way you can build these muscles is working with a dog from an animal shelter. It is tempting to rail against thoughtless people who may have yelled at or hit him, but that is not compassion. Compassion is accepting that some people don’t know anything other than to yell at and hit a dog that misbehaves. Feeling anger over this doesn’t solve the problem, but working with the dog using positive techniques and showing him how to behave does.
"Emotional baggage" is a familiar term in our culture and can be a pitfall in human relationships – and not surprisingly, with pets too. Memories can get in the way of our success and sabotage our attempts to form an emotional bond. If we are to succeed, I feel we must do a few things. We must not worry about an animal’s past. Our job is to forgive his past and move on to our future together. We must also forget about our past – not hold him up to the standards of a dog or cat we had before. He is his own self. I think this is the most important lesson adoption teaches us. In our own lives, many of us hold on to our demons and can’t them go – but if we can let them go with our new companion, then we are a step closer to doing it in other aspects of our lives.
Building a relationship with an adopted pet is not very different than building a good human relationship. Love is not instant. We will make mistakes. We will feel exasperation at times. We’re going to have to rethink our strategies along the way. If we can do this – accepting both our own and his mistakes – then we’ve practiced the art of forgiveness. If we’ve learned how to adjust our expectations in relation to his abilities, then we have mastered the art of compromise. If we can accept that he can’t master housetraining until we figure out whether he’s eating the wrong food, our schedule is wrong or he just hasn’t put two and two together – and we’re not mad about the stain or smell – then we’ve practiced compassion, forgiveness and tolerance.
There are those who feel animals are inferior and we can’t learn from them. They are missing out on a lot. Giving an animal a second chance might be the best way to learn about ourselves – and in this endeavor, the ordinary dog or cat can indeed give us a better life.
By Alexandra Murphy
Dog Trainer & Animal-Welfare Enthusiast