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Adopting the Right Dog

For one woman, adopting a dog meant keeping an open mind and redefining her perception of a family pet. by Lisa Rubisch
Martha Stewart Living, October 2012

I spied him in the window of a New York City shelter, as I walked home from Chinatown with my small son. The dog was furry and black, the size and shape of a meat loaf, with the type of crooked underbite you see only in cartoons -- a creature so homely that he was cute. His name was Lil Sweet, which may as well have been tattooed on my heart. It was love at first sight.

When we went inside, the shelter employee eyeballed my younger son, who was 3 years old at the time. She shook her head. "Not a family dog, this one. You're better off with one of those," she said. She pointed to two sturdy puppies in the other window that were playfully attacking their bed.

Reluctantly, I held one -- a female with a brindle coat, a white stripe on her nose, and a spot of white on her chest. Her name was Jitterbug. She had recently survived several surgeries after someone found her gravely ill in a box on the street. She had been at the shelter just a few days, but she was already everyone's favorite, thanks to her extraordinarily gentle disposition. She nuzzled my neck the way a human baby would.

I asked what breed she was. There was a pause. "A pit mix," the shelter employee said. And that was that. I couldn't imagine a pit bull as our family dog.

We weren't even looking for a dog. Two years before, we had lost the dog I had "married into," a Jack Russell that was two parts crocodile, one part wildebeest -- and who, in his old age, had given my older son a dog phobia.

Yet I found myself returning to the shelter several times that week with my family just to visit Jitterbug. To my great concern, we were falling for her. As my older son shyly pet her, I saw his fear melt away. At dinner that night, we took a family vote, and the next morning, we brought Jitterbug home.

I could not sleep for two weeks. I had impulsively walked into a shelter for one dog and ended up with another; a pit bull, no less. If you search online for "pit bull," you will, of course, find some unpleasant information. What I wasn't expecting, however, was link after link of info to the contrary, as well. Veterinarians, trainers, dog walkers, and other experts -- the majority come to the same conclusion: The breed gets a bad rap.

We introduced Jitterbug to my parents through Skype. I told them she was a mutt. Leaning in toward his screen, my dad sputtered, "Lisa, that's a pit bull!" They both pleaded with me to take the dog back.

Though it may not have been love at first sight, it is a love that has lasted. Two years after the adoption, Jitterbug is a dream dog -- a goofy, affectionate, well-behaved mush. She licks babies. She lets our ancient skin-and-bones Persian cat boss her around. She cuddles with my boys and tolerates her fair share of ear tugging, wrestling, and being dressed in superhero capes and soccer jerseys. She stole the show at show-and-tell, with 20 pairs of first-graders' hands on her all at once.

Now and then, Lil Sweet pops into my mind the way an old boyfriend might. I hope he's happy and that he found his own family after leading Jitterbug to ours.

How to Find a Match

October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. Before you bring home a canine companion, consider these helpful tips to find the right dog for your family.

Think Shelters

"Shelter animals are not damaged goods; most are given up for reasons that have nothing to do with the pet, such as a family's finances," says Tiffany Lacey, executive director of the Animal Haven shelter in New York City.

Take a Test-Drive

"Most shelters will let potential adopters spend time with a dog or take it on a walk," says Katrina Krings, a dog trainer and animal-behavior specialist. "Don't be afraid to ask the staff questions about the dog. These people know the dog best."

Get an Evaluation

Inquire about the dog's behavior evaluation, something every shelter should do. Although evaluations aren't 100 percent accurate, they help eliminate biases based on breed and instead focus on behavior so a pet can be placed appropriately.

Be Flexible

"People come in thinking they know exactly what they want -- it can only be a Pomeranian, or it must be a specific color or sex," says Lacey. Instead, she suggests you match the energy level of the dog to your lifestyle.

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Comments (10)

  • jacksonn 7 Apr, 2013

    Dogs are very special and need good care. You should give them healthy food. My dog, Atom, is really healthy because I always prepare homemade food for him. You can find lots of healthy homemade food recipes here please don't give them commercial food.

  • Principessa811 10 Oct, 2012

    Loved this article! It is very true that Pit Bulls get a bad rap when they are actually one of the nicest breeds! My sister has one and her dog has never been aggressive nor has she had any behavioral problems in her life and she is 15 years old! She is very sweet, loving and loyal and always lets my Persian cats and my 3 pound rescued Chihuahua boss her around. It is hilarious to see a big strong dog like her being bossed around by my little Chihuahua!

  • Principessa811 10 Oct, 2012

    Loved this article! It is very true that Pit Bulls get a bad rap when they are actually one of the nicest breeds! My sister has one and her dog has never been aggressive nor has she had any behavioral problems in her life and she is 15 years old! She is very sweet, loving and loyal and always lets my Persian cats and my 3 pound rescued Chihuahua boss her around. It is hilarious to see a big strong dog like her being bossed around by my little Chihuahua!

  • cinnamonskyes 3 Oct, 2012

    Absolutely loved this article! Its so true that pits are terribly misunderstood. I have a two-year-old male that has become truly one of the most cuddly and sweet-natured dogs I've ever owned. He was easy to train and just likes to be with someone all the time. He sleeps with a pillow, loves his paws rubbed and likes nothing better than curling up on the couch with you to watch some TV. Biggest downfall we've found? Cookies... You cannot fathom how much he likes dog cookies! Thanks for sharing!

  • Joan Snow 24 Sep, 2012

    I advocate for pit bulls, and your story brought a tear to my eye.Jitterbug was lucky to have found you. I assure you,Jitterbug being a pit bull, makes her one of the best dogs a family with small children can have. They didn't call them The Nanny Dog for nothing.Sadly ,most pit bulls who find themselves in shelters are not adopted,it has been reported that only 1 in 800 will find a home, the other 799 will die there.So hugs to you for adopting JB, and hugs to the aid who pointed JB to you.<3

  • srose 18 Sep, 2012

    Thank you for sharing this story. I have 2 rescued pit bulls and they are the sweetest, most well behaved dogs I could wish for. They truly serve as ambassadors of their breed - educating people about pit bulls everywhere they go. Any dog that is raised, socialized and trained properly can make the perfect family pet. I know King Charles Spaniels that are more unpredictable and snippy than any pit bull I know.

  • ARF Ontario 18 Sep, 2012

    I rescue in Ontario and the law here states that we would need to kill those two babies, like the thousands of other mutts/mixes/square chested puppies who have died horribly since breed specific legislation was pushed through here. We rescues here advocate, educate, and endeavour each day to teach all humans that a dog should be judged by temperament, never by appearance. HOORAY FOR MARTHA STEWART for encouraging readers not only to adopt, but also to adopt based on personality NOT appearance!

  • Misty Song 18 Sep, 2012

    Kudos to martha stewart for bringing these dogs into the world they belong -- one of our adopted pitties is now a breed ambassador for the Ladies Who Lunch in a town filled with millionaires. They were once the All-American family dog until their good nature was used against them by the wrong kind of people :( Glad to see the right people are stepping up on their behalf.

  • pibble mom 18 Sep, 2012

    Thank you for sharing your story!
    If only others would open their minds. A dog breed does not define the dogs temperament. Sadly pitties are # 1 on the hit list for people who don't understand, or don't want to understand.
    I have 3 pitties and a current foster pit. They are my babies and I can not imagine life without them. All they want is love, like every other dog.

    Every dog deserves a good home, regardless of breed.
    Thank you again for sharing.

  • Christine Reilly 18 Sep, 2012

    thank you for this article. we have 3 adopted pitties and they are the best dogs in the world. i hope more people will open their minds, homes, and hearts to these amazing dogs.