Murphy’s story: is a free dog really free?

Is a free dog truly a good deal?

More and more people are getting dogs, and it is always a gamble.

You might win and get the greatest, easiest dog ever. The perfect match with your family.

Or you might have to deal with a slew of health and behavioral problems. We call these the “project-dogs”.

You need to be ready to lose if you’re going to play, and you better know the rules of the game. Getting a “project dog” when you are not prepared for it is a difficult, heart-wrenching experience.

The factor I want to talk about here is where the dog comes from.

When you adopt or buy a dog, where it comes from is the very first step in our gambling game: your starting hand. If you start in a bad position, it’ll be much harder to win! Sometimes there is no ill intent from the place you adopt your dog from. Sometimes, there is.

If you’re thinking of getting a dog and want to give a second chance to a furball that needs a new home, this post is for you. In this cautionary tale, I’ll talk about one of my clients’ dog, where it came from, and how terribly things turned out.

I’ll start by presenting our demo dog, Murphy, and then go into everything that went progressively worse and worse with him. Throughout the story, I’ll talk about the red flags as they show up.

A quick note before you read this story

Murphy’s (now former) humans have graciously given me their consent to share this story. For the purpose of anonymity, I’ve renamed everyone (and the dog). I also want to mention that this analysis is not about Murphy’s character, but really about the adoption process and the fit with the adopting family. Murph is a very good boy, and all that happened was in no way his fault.

A picture of Murphy, taken before he moved on to another family.
Murphy, shortly before he was once again re-homed

Murphy and his old-new family

“We fell in love with Murphy from the moment we met him. He was such a happy, friendly dog, and most importantly he was very gentle with our toddler. His first family was giving him away because they had other pets and because of his size they unfortunately didn’t have the time to take care of him. Having grown up around pets, we had been looking for a family pet for a few weeks and were ready to give him all the love we could.”


Red flag #1:
Circumstances change and sometimes families have to make heartbreaking decisions for the well-being of everyone. There’s no question there. However, the reason Rose was given can raise concerns: Did his old family get the dog without any research into the breed’s size and needs? Were they lied to about how big he might get, suggesting a crappy breeder? Are they making up a false reason for giving him up to prevent talking about his real issues?

The first sign that our starting hand might not be as great as we’d hoped.

Our first meeting

Rose and Jack, a married couple with a young daughter, called upon my services to help them with Murphy. When I first met Rose, she was very pleased with her decision to give a new home to this dog. There were a few frustrating situations that she hoped to see resolved, but all in all she considered Murphy a great fit in her family. As far as initial meetings went, I was impressed with this dog’s behavior and general calmness. There were, however, two more red flags.

Unattended health issue

Red flag #2:
The dog had a pretty intense ear infection only a week after they got him. It is very unlikely that his old family did not notice it or that it suddenly started right after he was re-homed. Not impossible, but not that likely. Whether his old family knew about it or not, though, that’s Rose’s problem now.

The cards in my clients hand are beginning to look a little icky.

Basic training missing

“As first time pet owners, the first week with Murphy was challenging because we realized he suffered from mild separation anxiety and besides being well socialized he wasn’t house trained, would pull in his leash and would bark whenever he heard a noise in the corridor. We called upon Stephen to give us the necessary tools to ensure a long and happy relationship with Murphy.”

Red flag #3:
Some dogs have a tougher time getting house-trained than others, and that’s perfectly fine. It is also possible that his potty issues were due to the change in home, but that is not all that common. This was an 8-month old large Doodle coming from a multi-dog household. His not being house-trained is another thing that brings forward questions about the care he was receiving.

We definitely have another “crappy” card in our hand now.

We decide to play the cards anyway

At the time, Rose’s assessment was pretty on point. Murph didn’t really come when called, he pulled and got overexcited when he saw people and dogs outside, he was wary of a few sounds in the hallway. and he needed some potty training. The biggest issue for Rose and Jack, however, was the fact that Murphy wasn’t comfortable being left alone at night. We aren’t talking about leaving the house; this dog would become anxious if they closed their bedroom door.

A lot of things to work on, sure, but nothing extremely difficult to manage. I’ve seen way worse. Rose and Jack were very motivated and Murph seemed like a quick learner who enjoys food quite a bit. I cannot fault them for wanting to give it their all and work through those issues: they didn’t seem that insurmountable to me either! Still though, that’s an unexpected hefty list of things to work on, with a dog smack in the middle of his teenage months.

Trouble in the building

Murphy had only been in Rose’s home for about a week when I met them. He had not yet fully recovered from the change he had gone through. He also had an ear infection, which might have inhibited his behavior. As he got more comfortable, how he really felt about the all the noise in the hallway started showing. His light, occasional bark became louder and much more frequent. Neighbors started commenting on the noise he was making.

Rose and Jack live in a condo. You can hear the elevator, the neighbor’s door opening and closing, and dogs passing by throughout the day. Their building was also undergoing some pretty heavy renovations. Lots of movement, lots of different noises. Murphy didn’t like that, at all. If Murph came from a house and was never exposed to these kinds of noises, it is understandable that he would react that way. Still though, what started as a “slight issue” suddenly became a bit more pressing.

While this posed a tougher challenge, Rose and Jack were still rowing strong. It took them a bit of time to find a routine where they could reliably work on Murph’s reactivity to hallway sounds, but they got there and he was getting better at a reasonable pace.

So what went wrong?

The other shoe dropped

7 weeks after getting him, Murphy developed out of the blue major separation anxiety. He would now bark for long periods of time, destroying the house when we would leave to run errands. This came in as a surprise to us as he would usually be calm when left alone provided he was well exercised and had his toys.

Murphy, who had been left home alone on multiple occasions and had been perfectly fine every time, started freaking out when Rose and Jack left him home alone.

He went into a panic twice in the span of a few days. Making enough of a ruckus for the neighbors to decide it was time to take action.

“The commotion unfortunately led to our neighbours calling the police and threatening to file a complaint and request for a fine to be issued should he bark again.
We realized that in order to keep his barking at a minimum until the separation anxiety was dealt with, we would have to never leave him alone (we both already work from home). After weighing our options, we made the heartbreaking decision to find him a new family where he would have a furry friend at least to keep him company at all times.”

Luckily, Rose was able to contact another family which had initially shown interest in taking Murphy from his first family. They were still very interested in taking him in, and so they did. This is as far as my knowledge of what happened to Murphy goes. I sincerely hope that having another dog in the house helps with his separation anxiety, but that is by no means a sure-fire thing.

So how free was that free dog, in the end?

Rose and Jack ended up spending a lot of money and time trying to fix issues that they were never made aware of, both medical and behavioral. This is on top of all the “normal” dog expenses: leash, harness, toys, crate, bed, all that jazz.

All of that to be hit with a challenge that they just could not feasibly overcome. They were forced to re-home the dog. These people were very well intentioned, they did their homework, they tried their damnedest. Rose and Jack did fantastic.

  • They brought in a trainer as soon as they saw a few challenges
  • They sought out medical help as soon as there seemed to be an issue with his ear
  • They got medication to help with Murph’s anxiety
  • They managed all of his issues to the best of their ability, so the problem wouldn’t get worse
  • They trained almost every single day

Their only true mistake was the dog they picked. Not because he was not a good dog, but because they were not looking or ready for a “project dog”.

They said they might give the dog thing another go in a few years. I honestly wouldn’t blame them if they never had another pet in the house.

So what’s the lesson here?

This can happen with just about any dog

Let me be clear, I’m not saying that you should never adopt a dog that is looking for a new home through social media, or that dogs from shelters or breeders are guaranteed to be trouble-free. I’ve trained many, many dogs. Some of the worst cases I’ve seen were dogs that came from “certified” breeders, with clients who attended a good puppy class and did their homework.

Even with actually good breeders, sometimes things completely out of our control cause a dog develop major issues. You can play your straight flush with all the confidence in the world, only to have life show you a royal flush at showdown. All you can do that at point is yell “OH COME ON!” and deal with it.

Shit happens.

Place your bet wisely

Getting a dog is always a gamble. Whether or not it’ll be a good fit for your family, especially over the course of 10-15 years of life, is something you find out once you’re living it. Just because it’s a gamble doesn’t mean you should close your eyes and roll the dice, though. My advice to you, before you go playing blackjack with your daily life, finances and general well-being, is this: learn to count the cards.

There are many things you can do to set yourself up for success, and even more things you can ask and think about to make sure you’re getting the right dog for your lifestyle. We’ll be talking about that in the coming months!

If you need help picking a new furry friend in the meantime, you can always get in touch with us!

written by Stephen Fiset, dog trainer

Mis à jour le January 1, 2024