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6 Tips to Help You Cope with Your Rescue Dog


photo of dogs waiting to be adopted
So many unwanted dogs

I'm often accused of trying to keep people from getting dogs at shelters or rescue groups. What I'm really trying to do is to counter all the romantic claptrap the rest of the Internet spews out and prepare owners for the reality.

Too many shelter/rescue dogs are brought back to shelters because owners didn't understand what to expect in a previously-owned dog and were unprepared for how to deal with common issues such as separation anxiety or panic attacks.

If you go the shelter/rescue route, here are six tips to help both you and your dog cope.

1.Be hard headed when you select your dog

Just because you feel sorry for a dog doesn't mean you're the right owner for him. Be realistic about how much time, money and effort you intend to put into your new relationship.

It's admirable to want to help a badly treated dog but you might be better off donating money and letting the rescue staff find a more experienced owner with the time to work with him.

Test any dog's personality by taking him alone for a walk outside the shelter/kennel. See how the dog reacts to other animals and people on your walk. Visit him several different days at different times of the day before you make a commitment.

2. Reduce your dog's stress as much as possible

Try to create a quiet enclosed area for your dog. I like to keep a dog in a small room, like a dinette or den, with a dog bed and a crate. The room or area should be dog-proofed (no hanging cords, etc.) and have a floor that's easy to clean.

I put a cover over the crate but leave the dog open (except when I'm housetraining). The open crate allows a dog to climb in if he's tired, frightened, stressed or wants to avoid something going on in the household. Don't let family members or guests bother your dog when he's in his crate. That's his private place.

Maintain a consistent schedule as much as possible. That means sleeping, feeding, walking and playing times should be the same every day. Your shelter dog may have been through chaotic living conditions and a schedule will make him feel more secure.

Also, don't overlook how much exercise reduces stress. Take your dog for a long walk every day. A healthy adult dog should have no trouble walking 45-minutes a day (or more). That also provides a low stress way for the two of you to bond.

3. Maintain a low profile for several days

The family may be wildly excited to have a dog, but don't let them overwhelm your new dog. Remember, your dog doesn't know who you are or why he's in your house.

If people are rushing up to him or giving him loads of attention, that will put him under more stress, not less. You need to see how your dog reacts to noise and objects and what, if anything, triggers negative behavior.

You also don't want to suddenly give your dog 24-hours of attention for a 3-day weekend and then leave him totally alone when everyone goes back to work or school. That will only reinforce any separation anxiety that he feels.

Brushing or combing him everyday is a great way to start bonding without overtaxing your dog.

4. Bond, then train

After a week or 10-days, you can start whatever training ("Sit, Fido") you want. By then, your dog should be more relaxed in his new surroundings and used to having you there.

Clicker training with its positive reinforcements is a good method to use for second-hand dogs. You can 'correct' your dog if his misbehaves but in gentle manner. Your dog is still adjusting to you and learning to trust you.

Don't yell at your dog or use a physical object, even a water bottle. This type of behavior could trigger negative memories or cause him to panic. Instead, rely on a simple "No, Fido."

If you want him to stay off furniture or not chew your shoes, don't let him have access to those areas of the house. Prevention is the best correction.

5. Don't let him obsess on one person or other pet

It's not uncommon for a dog to try to monopolize one family member, and sometimes families see this a good thing. It's not; it's a warning sign. Your dog could become so protective of the person or pet that he doesn't allow anyone else to have access. He could attack someone or some other animal that he sees as a threat.

Remove your dog from the person or pet every time he tries to take over or keep someone else away from his chosen one. He will learn that his 'bad' behavior limits the access to the person or pet he wants.

6. Remain alert for emotional triggers

Certain actions may trigger bad memories in your dog.

  • Until you have a good bond with your dog, don't try to reach for him from above. He may have had a bad owner who grabbed him by his collar and hit him. Pet your dog on his chest or under his chin.
  • Don't force him to interact with anyone. Some inexperienced owners will pick up a dog and place him in the lap of visitor. That stresses the dog.
  • Don't interrupt his eating. Food guarding is a common problem and it will be even more problematic while your dog is learning to trust you and relax in his new home. You may always have to let your dog eat in peace.

A dog trainer I know has been bitten one time - by a foster dog that had been fine until the trainer wore a hat. Obviously, the poor dog had been abused by someone wearing a hat. It's impossible to know what might trigger an individual dog. Don't be surprised.

When should you throw in the towel?

If you're concerned neither your dog nor you is making progress together you want, have your dog evaluated by an experienced dog trainer. You don't have to spend a lot of money for this. Both Petco and PetsMart have trainers who could help you.

Once you understand whether the problem can be fixed and the effort it would take to do, you can evaluate whether your relationship can continue or if you should rehome the dog.

The only exception to this is if you are ever afraid of your dog, you must get rid of him. I don't mean drop him at a shelter and lie about how dangerous he is. I mean have your dog euthanized.

If you need reinforcement, read my article on Bad Dogs.

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