In the past several years, I’ve been able to work with many dogs who have been adopted from a shelter or breed rescue. While these dogs are very special in their individual way, many of them come with unique behavioral issues that often are caused by their first owner. Adopting a rescue can be very rewarding, but it can also be a process that involves unique challenges and frustrations as the dog settles in and his true personality comes out.
For instance, it is possible that a dog who gets along wonderfully with dogs in his foster home or shelter will be reactive or aggressive towards other dogs in their new home or neighborhood. It is possible that a dog who does not exhibit separation anxiety in his foster home could be anxious and destructive in her new home. It is possible that a friendly dog can become protective and fearful once she becomes comfortable. Dog behavior can be very context specific, and some environments can be quite different to a dog and will cause him to behave differently than in the past. Certain situations could even remind a dog of his first home, where he was neglected and/or abused, and cause him to become defensively aggressive or bite out of fear.
I recommend several things to do before and after you adopt your rescue, not only to help make things easier, but to give your new dog the best chance possible for his future.
1). Do Your Homework. Just as if you were picking out a puppy, research different dog breeds to find out which one will most fit in to your lifestyle. Please keep in mind that most dogs from shelters will be a combination of breeds. For example, if a dog is a Border Collie/Labrador, you will have a very high energy, athletic, and intelligent dog…This mix of dog would not do well with someone who is a couch potato. If the dog is a blue heeler (Australian Cattle Dog) or Australian Shepherd mix, it is possible she will ‘herd’ with her mouth and some people may find this troublesome, and the dog may not do well with young children. If the dog is a Schnauzer or Yorkie mix, he may bark all the time. If the dog is a St. Bernard or Mastiff mix, she could grow very large and your dog food expenses will grow exponentially with her!
2). Ask Questions. When adopting from a breed rescue or shelter, always ask a lot of questions about breed, temperament, known history, health, etc. Be wary of rescues or shelters who try and guilt you in to adopting a certain dog. Be sure the dog you are adopting is right for you.
3). Have Realistic Expectations. I think it’s probably safe to say that all of us have had unfair expectations of someone or something in our lifetime. Even worse is having unfair expectations put on us by a spouse, boss, parent or co-worker. The same holds true for our animals, especially dogs. It is so fundamentally important to have fair and reasonable expectations of our dogs, and in my experience, I can tell you most of us don’t. What is reasonable and fair? I think that is up to each specific dog, their breed, their exercise level, and their family life. It is up to you to set your dog up to succeed in every situation. Please do not expect your newly adopted dog to be welcoming and happy with 8 people over for a dinner party the day of your adoption. Please do not expect your dog to know where to eliminate, or what not to chew on. Consider confining your dog for the first couple weeks until you get to know him. If you keep your expectations low, you will inevitably be setting your rescue up to succeed much more than if you expect too much. Your dog will need training just as if she were a puppy- expecting her to ‘behave’ just because you want her to is not a fair expectation. Also, it is important that you don’t compare your new Golden Retriever to your old Golden Retriever- every dog is different and comparisons will only hurt your relationship.
4). Ease the Transition. Please do not bring your dog to the pet store or dog park immediately after your adoption. If you are planning on adopting a dog, be prepared with a collar, leash, bed, and meat-based dry food ahead of time. If possible, take a day or two off from your job to spend with her to ease the transition.
5). Create an Enriched Environment. It is important to provide an enriched and accommodating environment for your dog. It is not uncommon for me to work with dog owners who don’t walk or exercise their dog outside of the backyard, even when the dog is crated all day. And many people don’t provide their dog with activity or puzzle toys, either while they are alone or when the humans are home. It is not uncommon for dog owners to provide only stuffed squeaker toys for their dogs, who then shred them, and then the humans get mad when the dog chews up the couch pillows. It is not uncommon for humans to leave food or objects on the counter for the dog to reach, or a Thanksgiving turkey on the table. I have heard on numerous occasions that humans spend many hours trying to train their dog what not to do, when all we have to do is teach the dog what TO do. Environment plays an essential part in both the mental and physical well-being of your dog. Giving them adequate aerobic exercise outside of the house makes dogs tired and happy. Giving your dog a place to go and relax, such as a dog bed, and teaching them how to stay on it gives them a sense of security. Making sure the counters and tables are free of food, and the floors are clear of dirty socks, and the garbage is secured is your job, not theirs. It is also important to give dogs much needed mental stimulation. It’s wonderful if your dog has a bunch of stuffed toys to play with, but allowing them to be destructive to them defeats the purpose. Dogs love to problem solve. Have you ever had a dog who could get out of his crate, or open up child proof locks, or open the latch on the closet to find your most expensive leather shoes? Put simply, give your dog a job so they have something to do. There are several interactive puzzle toys on the market that you can stuff food treats and even feed their meals in. Many people tell me, “My dog gives up” or “My dog gets the treat out in 3.2 seconds”. The answer? For dogs who give up, make it easier. Don’t stuff a large dry treat in it so your dog can’t get it out. Smear some peanut butter with a little greek yogurt on the inside and put a few pieces o freeze dried liver in. For dogs who are more adept at getting the treats out, layerthe smeared peanut butter and treats, and then freeze it. Sometimes you have to teach them how to do it, and most dogs will not like the rubber toy just by itself. Make it fun and interactive, and they will have a blast!
6). Refrain from Punishment. As with any dog, but especially with traumatized rescue dogs, do not physically punish their behavioral infractions. It is important to give your dog verbal and visual cues, but don’t force them to do anything. If they are afraid, don’t attempt to be ‘dominant’…Give them space and time to warm up to you. If your dog submissively urinates when you pet her, she is either scared or excited, and punishment will make it worse. If your dog growls at you, turn your back and take a moment to let him relax, and then try and redirect him without force. Use a happy voice and small pieces of hot dogs or cheese to lure him where you want him to go- Do not force him! If you punish growling (a very appropriate dog warning), next time he may skip the growl and go directly to snapping and/or biting. Remember, it is likely that he was punished and forced in his former home, and this will inevitably damage the bond you are trying to build.
7). Provide an Education. As with anything unknown in life, if you don’t know how to communicate with your dog appropriately and effectively, education is the key. I like to compare training your dog to learning a new language. Your dogs don’t know English. In fact, they communicate mostly with body language and visual cues. So, it is imperative that we, as humans, learn ‘dog language’. If your dog only spoke Portuguese, and the only way you could communicate with her is to speak Portuguese, wouldn’t you learn that language? Many people make the mistake of using an English word, such as ‘sit’, without first teaching the dog what the meaning of ‘sit’ is. Your dog already knows how to sit by placing his rear end on the ground, but without the meaning and context of the verbal word or cue, the verbal ‘sit’ means nothing to him. In my experience, I have seen countless people ask their dog to sit by saying it over and over and over while the dog looks to them with confusion and fear because the dog doesn’t know what the human wants. Dogs want to please us, so why not just simply show them what we want and expect?
I believe that ‘lure reward’ training is the most effective way to teach a dog verbal language, commands, and cues. The techniques that include harsh corrections, shock, and force are outdated and unneeded if you focus on lure reward training and teaching your dog what you want him to do, instead of what you don’t want him to do. When you are learning something new, perhaps a task like changing a tire, putting in a new furnace filter, or learning a new computer program, what is the most effective way for you to learn? Do you learn better when someone slowly and methodically shows you the steps and says “Yay, Good Job!” and gives you piece of your favorite food or $10 when you get it right? Or do you learn more effectively when someone expects you to already know the steps and then punishes you when you don’t do it correctly?
Above all, know that rescuing is the most rewarding experience when you can accept that your dog probably isn’t going to be perfect, but can be with some time, training, and effort. Congratulations on saving your dog’s life!