Starting life with a rescue dog

Posted Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Don't try too hard!

I work with a lot of owners of rescue dogs. Many rescue dogs can settle in well, but an awful lot find it difficult. I find that looking at dogs from the human perspective is helpful in drawing comparisons as to how they might feel. Yes, I am afraid to say that I believe anthropomorphism can be a good thing and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise (unless they are trying to suggest that your dog will be unhappy unless he is wearing Gucci…. In which case, that is another matter!)

During the second world war, to keep them safe from the Blitz, many children living in London were shipped to the countryside to live with strangers; however, many of these children struggled emotionally to cope with being separated from their family and moved into a different environment (country versus city). Many suffered long term emotional damage because of this emotional disruption. If you compare this to the experience of a dog being re-homed, I feel sure their feelings are similar. Yet, many dogs have gone through this several times before arriving at their “forever” home. I think it is fair to say, a dog that has been re-homed often feels insecure, anxious and frightened. Some may even feel frustrated and angry.

From the owner’s perspective - wanting to do the right thing - the first thing they often do is to take their new dog out for a lovely long walk; meet their family, friends and lots of dogs and book them onto the first available dog training classes - and that is just on the first day! This is done in the belief that this dog will enjoy it, because, after all dogs like other dogs and people, and they all love long walks. Not so much actually. It may surprise some to find that a rescue dog often just wants to figure out where home is and who he should trust first and this can take time. They need a lot of recovery time. Rest is a big part of this. If these dogs, whilst in a stressed state, are exposed to lots of different stimuli, it is likely that they will quickly reach crisis point. It is better to take things nice and slowly with them. This is when it is very useful to be aware of how to read canine body language in fine detail so that you can evaluate how well your new friend is coping.

I have spoken to many owners of rescue dogs whose behaviour has deteriorated rapidly a week or so after adoption. This is almost always because of the dog becoming stressed, and this often occurs accidentally whilst the owner is trying to do what they feel is the right thing.

My suggestion is that a new rescue dog should settle in the home for a good few days before attempting to take him out for walks. Don’t arrange any visitors to the home for at least several weeks. Establish a den for your rescue dog at home, where he can be sure he won’t be disturbed by anyone. Let him have access to this space as much as he needs or wants and regularly scatter some bits of food in his area for him to forage. A few activity toys such as Classic Kong and treat ball toys left in his area should encourage him back again and again. Whilst we do want a rescue dog to bond with us, we do not want to encourage an excessively needy bond. Short periods left to his own devices (with you not too far away) in his safe space will set him up towards being able to cope on his own. This safe place can be improved by plugging in an Adaptil diffuser (Adaptil is a synthetic form of the mother dog’s pheromones she produces after giving birth and reduces anxiety in dogs). You can also try playing, quietly, classical music for him, as this can be calming for many animals.

Only after your dog appears to settle and feel relaxed should you think about taking him out for a walk. If you don’t know his background, just assume he has no experience of the outdoors and introduce him to it as if it was his first time. Take him to quiet, calm areas first, away from too much traffic and people. If he copes well with this, then you can always take him somewhere a little more exciting in a few days. Keep the walks short and fun so that he does not become stressed. If you approach your rescue dog in this way, your dog will gradually start to feel safe and secure with you, trusting you to keep him safe and start to develop confidence in his world. For some dogs this can take many months. If you are unsure, it is better to consult a qualified dog behaviourist so that you can develop a structured plan towards helping your rescue dog to settle in to his new world. 

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