Columnist Sara Weinberger: The challenges of a rescue dog

  • Columnist Sara Weinberger writes about her family’s experience adopting Sami during the pandemic. Submitted photo

Published: 7/18/2021 1:30:04 PM

“Let me help you find your new best friend,” read the heading on the Mass Mutt Rescue, Inc. website. It was June of 2020. Three months into the pandemic and I wanted a dog. I was not alone.

Drawn to the fantasy of comfort and companionship from a “new best friend,” canine adoption websites were overwhelmed with applications. After perusing hundreds of photos and bios of dogs looking for homes, my husband and I found Sami. It was love at first sight when the shelter volunteer brought out a year-old black lab mix, with black-speckled white paws.

Sami’s story was sparse. He came from Arkansas, a stray named “Cutter,” with four wounds on his legs, adopted locally a few weeks earlier by a man who returned him. “Something about not being able to bond,” the shelter volunteer said. He assured us that he did fine with male staff at the shelter.

Love is blind. We didn’t ask any more questions, just filled out an application AFTER they told us we could have him. We wrote a check for $500, and brought him home the next morning. I renamed him Sami. 369 days later, Sami moved out of what we thought would be (in dog adoption lingo) his “forever home.”

Sami’s world began shrinking when he reluctantly walked through the front door of our condo. He wouldn’t climb the stairs to the second floor and never set foot in our bathrooms. After a few weeks, Sami abandoned the bedroom to spend his nights on the sofa, returning at daybreak to nuzzle my face for his morning wake-up call. This ritual also ended. By fall, he moved to the sunroom loveseat, leaving only for walks and twice-daily meals.

Sami was driven by fear of the scent, sound, or appearance of the demon that he mistook for my husband, Mordi. Sami’s eyes tracked Mordi’s every move. The sound of his footsteps would send Sami fleeing his dinner in mid-bite to the safety of the sunroom. His panting tongue, drool dribbling from his jowls, and bolt upright posture were the language of Sami’s terror.

Consultants, vets, dog-owning friends, and anyone else who I incessantly shared our frustrations with showered us with suggestions. Affection, words of love, grilled meats, rescue remedies, prescription drugs, and his “thunder shirt,” were no match for the demons that possessed our beautiful Southern boy.

The cultural divide between the North and South has created a system in which dogs have become a commodity. Spaying requirements and bans on puppy mills in Northern states have made dog adoptions challenging. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of homeless dogs were shipped North to new homes. The canine migration continues to grow.

In rural areas of the South, dogs are often not spayed. Many live outside where they often produce litters of homeless puppies that become feral strays, ending up in overcrowded shelters, where many end up euthanized. These factors contribute to creating a culture that benefits wealthier Northerners searching for dogs and rescuers hoping to cash-in on the rescue market.

While there are many reputable organizations, such as the ASPCA, transporting dogs across the canine divide, profiteers also fill their vans with dogs who may be unvaccinated or have infectious and serious diseases that can spread to other animals. Some “puppy mills” are breeding dogs and selling them to rescue organizations as rescues.

While some states, like Massachusetts, require that out of state dogs be quarantined, those desperate for dogs can pick up their dog in a neighboring state, where quarantine isn’t required. The commodification of dogs has also extended to countries outside the U.S., resulting in the same sorts of dangers.

On top of arriving with histories of abuse, neglect, or being feral, rescue dogs are subjected to the extreme stress of being shipped across the country. Some escape their transports and are killed by cars. Others become overheated, like the 26 dogs who died in an ASPCA van in 2019 while being transported from Mississippi to Wisconsin.

The traumatic experiences of “rescue” dogs from birth to their placements in “forever homes” leave many, like Sami, permanently scarred. The emotional and financial toll on dogs and their humans is huge. Mutt Rescue’s website emphasizes that adoption requires “patience, love, work, and a healthy and safe home environment.” Sadly, that wasn’t enough for Sami, diagnosed with PTSD.

Sami’s story has a happy ending. His day care provider adopted him, where he happily lives with other dogs, spending lots of time outside, where he feels most comfortable. Other dogs are not so lucky. Many end up returned to shelters, euthanized or re-homed again and again.

Who is really being rescued in this scenario — dog or owner? Organizations in some Southern states are trying to save dogs from shelters by educating owners about caring for their pets, providing free or low-cost spaying, and local adoptions more affordable and available. Insuring the welfare of Southern dogs must take priority, even if it makes finding a canine pet even more challenging.

Sara Weinberger of Easthampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column. She can be reached at

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Northampton, MA 01061


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