Buying a Rescue Dog in Australia
Our dogs Spirit* and Nala* are my third and fourth dogs, first dogs in Australia, and first ever rescue dogs.
The choice to buy rescue dogs was really a no-brainer. Dog breeding/selling in Australia is a haphazard industry which permits dog breeding in large scale kennel facilities (as opposed to a family setting, which is the proper setting for production of family dogs) and puppy sale in pet stores, resulting in a large volume of low quality dogs being distributed via pet stores and newspaper ads on an ongoing basis. Buying from any of the commercial dog distribution channels in Australia is a bit like playing Russian Roulette with dog ownership.
And don’t even get me started on the systematic degeneration of dog breeds by the pure breed industry. No inbred pedigrees with deform anatomy and hereditary diseases for us, thank you. Just a dog!
The rescue dog option
A dog purchased from a dog rescue organisation may originate from the same type of conditions and haphazard breeding, but usually comes with lifetime take-back guarantee, behavioural evaluation and adjustment by passionate, experienced handlers, and plenty of support if needed. It also feels lovely to offer a good home to a homeless dog, especially considering the large numbers of dogs in need of a new home at any time.
PetRescue is Australia’s major pet rehoming web service that enables pet rescue organisations to advertise their available animals (mainly dogs) to potential adopters in a neat, informative, attractive manner. The Rescue organisations act as a protecting buffer between shelters and adopters of homeless dogs. They select and save dogs and cats from shelters and place them in foster care where the dogs are trained and their behaviour observed in a normal family environment.
The less lucky dogs that aren’t bailed out by rescue organisations can be purchased directly from the shelters. That route to pet adoption is shorter, cheaper and more unpredictable.
So, a rescue dog is typically a dog that started out as a normal puppy, probably bred commercially, which then lost its home and ended up in a shelter. That’s definitely the case for the vast majority of rescue dogs in all the major towns and the cities.
Outside the metropolitan areas there’s another large group of unwanted dogs; unlike the puppy mill dogs and shelter dogs they roam around freely and interact with people and other dogs, largely left to fend for themselves. They are an integral part of the communities they live in, but where their populations are not in check they are starving and struggle with parasites, and their numbers, condition and prevalence everywhere is a health problem for the people they live around as well as themselves. I am talking about the Australian Camp Dogs.
The Camp Dog
Our dog Spirit* started her life as a camp dog in a remote aboriginal village in the Northern Territory. Spirit’s home town looks something like this:
Source: domusweb.it – article by Philippa Nicole Barr.
and is located near the the Central Australian Desert. Below is a typical birthplace of camp dog puppies: a mama dog has dug a den under the concrete slab of a house to keep the babies safe.
Spirit was taken in and looked after by the foster carer in the village, then later driven to Alice Springs and put on a plane to Sydney with fellow puppies. The puppies were up for adoption as city pets from the organisation’s foster carer in Sydney and advertised via their website, facebook page and PetRescue.
In the meanwhile in the beach suburb where my husband and I lived in our one-bedroom flat, I had pestered my husband for several years to get a dog, and suddenly one day he said the magic words: Let’s get a puppy!
But which dog?
The dog type I had in mind would be at least medium sized, a good running buddy (I was/am running for an hour every morning), easy learner; preferably a Kelpie or other working dog breed, dog social and kid friendly. My husband’s criteria were mostly the same + the dog should be fun, social and have personality – he ruled out pure bred Kelpie for being too robotic and obsessive.
Kelpie – My favourite dog at the time
However, it was unlikely that any rescue organisation would sell us a puppy, and particularly of working dog type, due to our apartment life style.
The neighbourhood and our life style was actually great for dogs. We were working from home and surrounded by off leash parks, outdoor cafes and well socialised neighbourhood dogs. We’d had a Kelpie friend a lot in our flat when his owners were away on holiday, and my husband would take breaks in his report writing for 15 minutes fetch games in the park across the road – great value for everybody. We are responsible, loyal and patient animal-loving people who enjoy training & interacting with dogs.
But our small flat almost certainly wouldn’t fly with any standard dog adoption form and house check.
I had been following the facebook page of the camp dog adoption programme for some time, finding the whole outback-stray-to-pet-dog concept fascinating. Many of the camp dogs are Kelpie or Heeler crosses – Australian working dog X breeds with big X (possibly a bit of Dingo** in there as well). They are also fun dogs: independent and unique with fascinating silent stories in their luggage. Even if most of their individual stories are unknown.
The camp dog rescue was accepting of our living conditions after I explained the situation, and didn’t have a standard adoption form. So camp dog it was.
Spirit in the city
Spirit was not the puppy we had come down to meet, but the one the foster carer recommended for our apartment living. She was listed as a Heeler/Kelpie cross with a question mark, and heavily discounted due to not having had a single expression of interest from anyone at all. She was on of two ‘leftovers’ from the prior sending which were already 3 to 4 months old, the rest of the puppies were newer and younger.
Spirit seemed like an unusually calm and unaffectionate puppy, and didn’t seem to care much about people. She used my husband’s legs as a dog bed at some stage, but otherwise calmly ignored us. She was confident in her play with the other puppies, but didn’t run around nearly as much as them, and took long breaks. An energy-conserving puppy. I’d couldn’t quite figure her out, and my husband wasn’t sure either and said that he never really liked white dogs, so we ended up driving home without a puppy.
Fast forward a week or so: my husband was on a business trip, I kept thinking, and we decided to take the puppy home on probation; there was a few weeks trial period anyway so I could always return her. The discount mattered too, because we had very little money. So I drove down and picked her up.
The drive home wasn’t fun. The puppy panicked soon after we left, tried to cling to me in the driver’s seat all the long way home, and got a bad bout of diarrhoea in the car. On the way back (before the diarrhoea adventure) I stopped at a material shop and bought a bag of dog food, a chewing-bone, a collar and a leash so I could tie her safely in the car. Then I had no more money at all. I sat the puppy on the counter next to the goods, and she immediately grabbed the bone. This was Spirit’s first dog bed in our home:
Luckily, walks don’t cost anything, so we had quite a lot of those, and Spirit was very fond of the beach suburb life style, and especially all the potential dog friends she could make. Each walk took a very long time, because she seemed to think its primary purpose was to find food. She could find food anywhere. It turned out that soil, grass and bushes along the footpaths were full of potato chips, bread crumbs and other food scraps, and she could dig up old chicken bones with amazing speed and would desperately hold onto them as if it was a matter of life or death.
She was pretty good on leash, when she didn’t pretend to be a donkey or laid down on a patch of grass to calmly observe the world (preferably for hours), but she had virtually no recall. She loved the park across the road, and never wanted to leave it. I tried to train recall the way I’d done with my previous dogs – by pretending to leave if they didn’t come and hiding, but a bit of solitude in the nice park didn’t faze Spirit.
Spirit didn’t (doesn’t) seem to take the pet ownership concept real seriously. Humans are friends, not masters. She was (is) super smart and learns commands really fast, but chose to not obey them unless she is offered something substantially better than the fun she is having. She responds well to treats, but has a very transactional approach to obedience. Basically no treats = no obedience. She may be a working dog cross, but she doesn’t work for free!
(it got better after we did a puppy training course and taught her eye contact, but her transactional attitude is still very prevalent)
While humans can be nice and good to have, the world is really about dogs for Spirit. She is a dog-dog, but that doesn’t mean she is nice to other dogs. While she loves to interact with dogs she loves even more to steal their things, and she has a very high prey-drive. When she was a puppy and off leash in the park, we had to watch out for Cocker Spaniels and Border Collies and other fluffies, because Spirit would treat them like chewy toys and not want to let go.
Se wanted badly to play with other dogs all day long, and her dog obsession started to affect us to the point where we found ourselves stalking suitable playmates for Spirit to the park (Staffies and other robust dogs). Here she is teasing her best friend at the time, the Kelpie:
So when we got a surprise chance to buy a house, we decided to look for a playmate for Spirit.
Our criteria were different for the second puppy: it had to be kid friendly, dog friendly, well mannered and all that but also big, very tolerant and robust enough to cope with Spirit’s relentless antics. It had to be a guard dog and a fit running buddy for me, because my husband’s overseas travel would be stepped up when we moved to the house. Our favourite breed for the new role was Ridgeback***, so I kept an eye out for Ridgeback-type dogs on PetRescue.
Nala ticked all the boxes. She wasn’t listed as a Ridgeback cross, but she looked like one. She was childfriendly, very dog tolerant and very well mannered according to her profile, and a radiator of soulfulness and friendliness in her photos and video. I emailed the profile to my husband with a 2-word message: ‘This one!’
We contacted the foster carer and brought Spirit with us for a meet-and-greet. It was love at first sight, and the foster carer and my husband agreed on dismissing my objections to having two big puppies in a small flat (my plan had been to put a hold on the puppy until we moved to the house). So we got Nala home, and my husband left for an overseas trip the next day…
Spirit was in heaven about having a playmate available to her at all times, all day long and good for sleeping too. The two dogs were instant best friends, so that went very well.
After we bought Nala, I pieced bits of her history together via the information in her papers, email and Internet search (Thanks, Internet Age!). She had been surrendered to a pound when she was only 6 months old. I found the pound’s facebook page and dug through their archived photos till I found Nala’s; she had very positive comments and was described as sweet and well mannered. She had also quickly found a new home.
Unfortunately something happened in her new family within a few months, and the new owner asked the foster carer to find a another home for Nala. Nala then came to live in a flat with 6 pugs for a while, and then we found her when she was 9 months old.
Nala is a beautiful. She is incredible sweet and well mannered, super people friendly and loves kids; a playful, big tail-wriggling smooch lapdog in exceptional health. Outdoor she changes from ‘Sweet’ to ‘Powerful’ Mode. Off leash, she moves like the wind – gracefully and effortlessly through even dense bush terrain with amazing speed, strength and swiftness.
Occasionally, when she feels provoked, she switches gear into Monster Mode and becomes very hard to hold. We’re still working on that. It has become much better. I also think it is more theatre than a real monster.
One of the great things about having dogs is the constant reminder how different personalities can be, and the daily training in spanning over so contrasting mind operative systems, as well as the opportunity to learn from how the dogs bridge their stark differences and remain best friends and playmates.
Nala loves all her daily routines and repetitions, and doesn’t like new situations very much. She is mentally and physically very sensitive, and reacts to even the slightest touch. She is deeply addicted to loving, gentle strokes and hugs. She becomes very shaken if correctly harshly and ecstatic when praised. Communication-wise she is extrovert and always hungry for love.
Spirit is adventurous, inventive, physically somewhat insensitive, variation-seeking and can be a risk-taker when she’s bored. When Nala is happy then Spirit is bored. When Spirit is happy then both dogs are off on a tangent, or Nala is anxious and trying to remain on the Right Side in a confusing situation.
Car travel terrifies Nala and makes her unwell; Spirit loves car drives and has to be dragged out of the car when we come home. Nala’s fur is soft and cuddly; Spirit’s is coarse. Nala needs frequent attention; Spirit is self-entertaining and sceptical of too much cuddliness.
Nala is a people-dog. She showers people with unconditional love, and expects showers back. Although Spirit and her go great along together and rough house every day, people is the only valid currency in Nala’s world. She sometimes ignores Spirit so much in her relentless quests for human affection that she accidentally sits on Spirit.
Nala interrupts workflows because she needs frequent attention, insists on eye contact, wriggles her body and tail vigorously and say funny sing-song like vocal sounds asking for play, pats, hugs and lap-sitting. She is the world’s best teddy-bear, in my husband’s words. Her dog-talk and hugs is an essential element of the social fabric of everyday life now.
Spirit is sfinx-like, complex and subtle; she doesn’t give away her next move until she suddenly moves. She is an observer and thinker, and is masterful at predicting and manipulating behaviour. She is affectionate and deeply loyal in her own her introvert way, and my husband’s biggest fan (and baby). She spends many hours by herself every day, and looks like a wild dog when she hunts insects in the yard at sunset. Her dog communication skills are highly advanced and merciless whether she is rough housing, relaxing, or pretending to submit unconditionally in order to steal a bone.
Further reading about camp dogs
- Conducting Dog Health Programmes in Indigenous Communities: A Veterinary Guide by Dr Samantha Phelan, commissioned by Animal Management in Rural and remote Communities (AMRRIC).
- Wild Dog Dingo by Wildvisuals (video). Primarily about the history of the Dingo, but has some fascinating historic footage that shows the Dingo as the forerunner for the Camp Dog, and early Camp Dogs as they were replacing the Dingos.
Adopting a pet from a shelter
Happy personal stories about pet rescue, adjustment and bonding. Also questioning who is rescuing who.
- Kindred Souls by Musings of an Aspie. She and her husband adopted their dog from a shelter, and this is the beautiful story about the match, adjustment and relationship building
- My Cat is My Hero by Third Glance is the happy story about her adoption of her soul mate cat from a shelter
- The Howler and Me, a blog founded on the friendship between the blogger and her rescue dog
- Yup. My Rescue Dog Rescued Me by Alexandra
- What my Rescue Dog Taught me About Life by Nicole
- I Adopted a Dog in Its Final Hour on “Death Row,” and It Might Be the Best Decision I’ve Ever Mad by Mandy.
* Virtual dog ID (Internet identities are not just for humans!)
** Links to a documentary about Dingoes which happens to also show bits of the history of camp dogs.
*** Without ridge. The ridge itself is a deformity that causes a nasty hereditary defect named Dermoid Sinus in up to 10% of Ridgebacks. Ridgeless ridgebacks don’t have the condition, and occur as a natural minority in pure bred Ridgeback litters. Many Ridgeback pure breeders cull ridgeless ridgeback puppies, and if they do let them live and sell them, then they require them to be desexed; thereby removing the only individuals that are guaranteed free from the disease, from the gene pool. Read more about ridged VS ridgeless Ridgebacks in A ridge too Far? by Jemima Harrisson. An example of Ridgeback-breeders collective ridge-fixation and prioritisation of the ridge over the genetic health and fitness of the breed can be found in Dermoid Sinus, Ridgeless and Culling by DiamondRidgebacks.