Reading the website descriptions for most of the puppy mill breeder dogs in DVGRR’s rescue program, you’ll likely see under “Interaction with dogs” the statement: “OK, best with a canine mentor dog.” If you aren’t sure what that means, you aren’t alone! “Mentor dog” is actually a term DVGRR began using a few years ago. We aren’t sure if other rescues/shelters use it too, but they may refer to the same concept in a different way. For example, one program uses the term “helper dog” in the same context that we use “mentor dog.”
Think of a mentor dog the way you might think of a big brother or big sister in a human family – a sibling who understands the family dynamics, can share life lessons learned along the way, and serves as a role model for appropriate behavior. (Arguably, some two-legged big brothers or sisters don’t fit this benevolent image, but we’re talking about the ones that do….!)
For dogs that have not had the benefit of growing up in a typical human household, having a mentor dog accompany them through daily life can be a huge help. These under-socialized, fearful dogs (usually those that have spent years in a puppy mill or hoarding situation) have typically learned how to relate to their fellow canines, but not to those scary humans who now want to touch, pet, or handle them. Thus, having another dog around provides two key elements in the fearful dog’s adjustment to a new home.
First, the presence alone of the other dog(s) provides comfort and a sense of familiarity that helps the fearful dog better negotiate all the unfamiliar, overwhelming aspects of their new environment. Like a child holding onto a parent’s hand on a busy sidewalk, the fearful dog knows they aren’t alone but rather have a buffer against unexpected or frightening experiences. Second, by observing the mentor dog accept (and seek out) attention from humans, casually respond to household sights and sounds, and stay relaxed in new circumstances, the fearful dog (eventually) learns to do the same. As the term implies, the mentor dog thus serves as a teacher, tutor, or trail guide through life for the less confident canine student.
Yes, a fearful dog may ultimately adjust to an adoptive home on his or her own, but the process will be MUCH more successful and MUCH less stressful for all involved by having a mentor dog present. At DVGRR, we’ve seen firsthand the incredible (and often very dramatic) benefits of mentor dogs over the years; that is why we implemented the mentor dog requirement for any fearful dogs adopted through our rescue. It is our goal to maximize the chances of success for any adoption, and mentor dogs can truly make or break that success for puppy mill survivors or other fearful dogs.
Characteristics of the Mentor Dog
So what makes an ideal mentor dog? Of course, there are many variations and no actual “blueprint” to follow in knowing how well an existing family dog will fulfill this role. However, here are some typical characteristics we look for:
- Age – young or middle-aged adults often work best as they have a maturity level themselves and generally good “life skills” under their belts. On the other hand, we know of puppies who have served quite successfully as mentor dogs, especially in cases where the original mentor dog passes away and a new “sibling” is desired. While very old dogs should not be ruled out, they are often not interactive enough with the adopted dog to be truly effective, preferring to spend their days napping or resting.
- Gender – not really relevant; the dog’s personality and behavior is far more important than whether they are male or female!
- Activity Level – high enough to engage the adopted dog but not so high as to be overwhelming. Some of the very shy breeder dogs do well with a dog that loves to play and can show them the pleasure in doing so – though it may take a while before the adopted dog catches on! Others may do best with a “quiet leader,” a dog that isn’t so much of a playmate as a side-by-side companion. We try to assess each dog’s preference while they are here with us at DVGRR, so we can match them with an appropriate mentor dog at the time of adoption.
- Personality – this is the key element, of course. The ideal mentor dog is one that is outgoing and affable, well socialized to other dogs as well as people (and greatly enjoys interaction with both), experienced with lots of new situations, confident in dealing with change, and generally thought of as relaxed, laid back, and easy-going.
Naturally, many prospective mentor dogs will not fit this ideal to a “T” and that’s fine – it is simply a list of the most desirable traits we look for. The “chemistry” between two or more dogs is not something that can always be accurately predicted, so an unlikely match could turn out to be far more successful than expected!
Watching a mentor dog guide a fearful dog through life is an incredibly beautiful and amazing experience. In fact, we’ve been privileged to watch some formerly “mentored” dogs do so well in their new homes that they become the “mentors” themselves for yet another new addition to the family!
If you have more questions or aren’t sure if your current dog may serve as a good “mentor,” feel free to contact our Adoption Team (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.