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Adopting a Shelter Dog

Dog Obedience Trainer
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Many people have made decisions to adopt shelter and rescued dogs and provide them with a forever home. If a dog has been surrendered, or if a dog was found as a stray and placed in the shelter environment, they have experienced certain events in their lives that we may never become fully aware of. I don't think it's too common to get a complete history of most shelter dogs because sometimes people just don't want to elaborate on these issues, being afraid that the shelter may not accept the dog or may disapprove of the owner's responses toward their dog. Some of these people may not realize just how they did affect their dog during the time they lived with him, and so don't even realize what circumstances would even be important to relate when discussing the dog's history. Many people drop a dog off at the shelter and want to leave as quickly as possible without being grilled about why they want to surrender their dog. Of course, if a dog is found as a stray, and nobody claims him, there is no past history to make any assessment of the dog.

Dogs that have lost their homes for one reason or another may enter a new home equipped to deal with their new lives based strictly on how they lived their former lives, what their experiences taught them, and how those experiences affect their behaviors.

Our dogs definitely do let us know about their life's experiences, but we need to pay attention to what they're trying to communicate to us about that. Dogs are extremely adaptable and become a reflection of their environments and experiences. They, like us, are creatures of habit and behavioral patterns. What this means is how they react to things in life is determined by past learning, and also by their genetic makeup. A dog's coping skills is partially governed by hia basic innate personality.

Sometimes, in my own practice, people will complain that their rescued or shelter dog is nothing like the dog they had before, even though their previous dog was the same breed and also a rescued dog. I have to remind them that dogs are not clones of one another. We're not clones either. I have one brother and we share the same parents. My brother and I are actually complete opposites in most of our behaviors, even though we shared many of the same experiences in our early lives. I can't help teasing him by saying he was adopted!

Dogs also react differently from each other, even though they might be related, or they might be of the same breed, or they might have lived in the same environment. Every animal is a distinct individual, and will react to his experiences as an individual, not as part of a group. That's why it's a mistake to expect your new dog to behave the same way your former dog did.

Dogs are very impressionable during the early months of their lives. During early puppyhood, whatever they experience influences much of their emotional responses and behaviors as they go into their adulthood.

Certain triggers to things that remind them of their previous life affect shelter and rescued dogs. Even the people at the shelter may not have witnessed these triggers from the dog prior to your adopting him. Once he goes to his new home, there is often a "honeymoon period." Anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months, these triggers may emerge as life goes on for the dog. How many times do we hear about a dog becoming very reactive when a family member raises a hand to toss a ball or a stick? It's not uncommon for people to realize that their newly adopted dog is afraid of men, including the husband in the family. Something has occurred in this dog's life to trigger a negative response to a particular stimulus or an event.

My own dog became extremely reactive when his trainer lifted her leg over a baby gate to go into another room to answer a phone. Jack went nuts on her, and thankfully he was already wearing a muzzle when this happened. We were working on his known triggers, and then this hidden trigger reared its ugly head. We'll probably never know why he saw a leg-lift as being so threatening to him.

This is not to say that we have to be afraid of adopting a shelter or rescue dog! I just want you to understand that these dogs have past experiences that they may be affected by. Once you bring your dog home to live with you, these triggers can extinguish as you help the dog realize that he can trust you to provide his basic needs, that you'll not put him in harm's way (meaning also that you won't physically punish him), and that you'll provide structure and benevolent leadership in his life.

Most shelter and rescued dogs are adolescents when a lot of undesirable behaviors begin popping up. Anyone who raises kids knows that the teenage years can present many challenges to the parent. When dogs become adolescents, they will also test all sorts of behaviors to see which work and which don't. It's during that adolescent stage that some dog owners lose patience with their dogs and decide to give them up. Most shelter dogs are untrained adolescents and don't know how to control themselves very well either.

If a dog lives with a family who practices loud yelling, or physical or bullying type behaviors, and the family interacts like this with each other and their dog, this type of environment will make the dog very stressed and anxious, and may possibly cause the dog to behave with similar responses. Again, I'll use my own dog as an example here. Jack came from a family where there were 2 young daughters who were not well disciplined. The girls got most of what they wanted, and if they didn't, they learned to make a huge fuss until they finally got what they wanted. When Jack arrived at my home, I saw an amazing similarity between his attitude and behavior with those of the girls. Jack learned that if he made a fuss by biting somebody, he'd also get what he wanted.

When dogs live within a dog pack, they must learn to adjust their behaviors to fit into that pack in order to be accepted. Otherwise, they will be killed or expelled. So, if that pack doesn't practice behaviors that the dog has already learned to do from his own past experiences, he must change and adjust his behaviors to conform to the rules of his new pack. Sometimes this leads to confrontations, but the dog knows if he wants to survive, he needs the support and help of his new packmates, so he has to make changes. We're talking about instinct here.

When we adopt a shelter or rescue dog, we must understand the mental and emotional processes of the instinctual nature of the dog. We have to recognize that the new family constitutes a "new pack" having new rules, structure and hierarchy. We have now learned that the dog only knows how to interact and react by the rules of his previous pack, that being his previous owners. Our rescued dog might now offer some inappropriate behaviors with us since those were appropriate behaviors with his previous pack. What we consider inappropriate had been appropriate and worked well for him before.

Dogs experience many of the same emotions that we do. But, they react to them like dogs, not like humans! We humans can ask someone NOT to do something that annoys us or threatens us. We can yell, we can argue with somebody in order to make our feelings known and understood. We can put our hands on our hips, or slam a door shut or shake our finger in someone's face. Dogs communicate too, but they growl and show their teeth or they snap or bite. They can't just sit down and discuss what's on their minds. They just have a different mode of communication, and we have to recognize that for what it is.

I'm sure you have tried to break some of your own bad habits at some point in your life. If you've smoked cigarettes like I did, and decided to quit, I'm sure you'll agree that this was a very hard habit to break especially if you smoked over 2 packs a day for 20 years! Our dogs develop behavioral habits too, but we have to teach them more appropriate habits to replace the ones we don't like. Please remember that a dog behaves like a dog. He doesn't see ANY of his behaviors as being immoral, illegal or unethical. It's just dog behaviors! When we adopt a dog that shows inappropriate behaviors in a domestic setting, it's up to us to modify those behaviors. This is not accomplished overnight. Our dog is still under the assumption that he needs those previously acceptable behaviors to survive, based on the rules of his former "pack". So, his behaviors have become habits and patterns. We will need to take the time to recondition these habits to become more acceptable in the dog's new environment. We will need patience and understanding to accomplish this. We must always be consistent in our rules so the dog gains an understanding of what those rules are.

Suppose you adopt a dog and discover that he's food aggressive? It's hard for us to understand this behavior because most of us are happy to provide our dogs with a bounty of food everyday. Yet the new rescued dog protects his food bowl and rawhides and pigs ears. Why is that? Remember that somewhere down the line, your dog may not have been provided with ample food. And if they did have enough food, quite possibly there was a member of his previous pack who kept trying to take food away from him. Some people think they have to teach the dog to relinquish food items by grabbing things out of their mouths, or by removing the dog's food bowl before the dog is finished eating. Or, like in the case of my dog again, the young girls Jack lived with often fought with him because he kept stealing their Barbie Dolls. Off he'd go with Barbie or Ken, and then the girls had to struggle with him to get the dolls out of his mouth. When Jack came to live at my house, he was severely food protective and I couldn't even play with him because he'd guard every toy he had. If there was a ball lying on the floor, and I wanted to have a game of fetch with Jack, he'd snap at me when I would reach for the ball. Here is a prime example of how past learning experiences with a previous pack affects a dog's behavior with a new one.

When you bring your shelter dog home, teach him that YOU control his food, which will also teach him to rely on YOU for his survival. Avoid keeping food in your dog's bowl all day long. Your dog will think that it just grows in the bowl. He'll also become a fussy eater because food won't be as important to him --he knows it is always there so why should he worry about it's availability? Let your dog know that food comes from you. Feed him twice a day, and whatever he doesn't finish within a 1/2 hour, put it away for the next meal or throw it away if it won't stay fresh. Your dog will see you in a real leadership role once he learns that YOU control all of his important resources.

Let's not forget that some shelter dogs come from a previous pack where they've had to assume the responsibility for taking care of themselves, rather than being able to rely on a pack leader to do this for them. It's important to a dog to recognize someone as a pack leader for him to feel confident that his pack can survive. You may have to now recondition your dog to trust that you're going to assume this responsibility. If your dog seems anxious and stressed out, examine your own leadership skills. If your dog doesn't trust you to take on this job, he'll assume that you can't properly take care of him or the pack. Dogs don't fare well under these circumstances. It makes them nervous.

Help your dog see you as the giver of all good things. Control his most important resources, like food and water, toys, exercise opportunities, attention and affection. Let him know that only appropriate behavior will gain him access to everything he wants in his life. If he's crazy about going for walks, make sure he sits before you put his leash on. If he doesn't sit when you ask him to, just put the leash away for a few minutes and go do something else. In a little while, bring out the leash again, and ask him to sit. I'll bet he sits really pretty for you the second time, and he'll sit most assuredly more willingly on subsequent trials. Does your dog want to play tug? My dog would rather play tug than any other game. He knows that he has to sit before he gets to tug, and he also has to drop the toy from his mouth when I ask him to. He's also very careful NEVER to touch his teeth to my skin, or the game is over! No ifs and or buts about it. I control the game. I am the giver of his toys and I can put those toys away when I want to stop playing. My dog knows what rules I want him to follow, and he's become a pretty calm and relaxed dog -- at least as calm and relaxed as any border collie can hope to be. So… figure out the things that your dog loves the most and control those things. By doing this, your dog will trust your ability to do other things, like protect him and make good decisions for the safety and well-being of his pack.

Most shelter dogs, especially here in my area in south Jersey, are temperament tested very carefully to screen the dog for aggressive tendencies. Dogs are assessed for food guarding behaviors; they're tested to see how well they can deal with children's behaviors, especially like pulling ears or tails, or accidentally being stepped on to see if the dog will become overly reactive to that type of event. It's unfortunate that we have to put the dog through some of these very stressful tests, but most shelters and rescue recognize the need to keep the public safe and to allow people to feel comfortable about adopting a dog. Once in awhile, though an adopted dog might show aggressive behaviors with their new pack members. Is this a bad dog? Haven't we just said that a dog learns to do behaviors in his life that works for him? Many of you have adopted dogs that were severely abused by people. A dog like this may have learned that he needed to use aggression in order to survive. Can we blame him? Suppose a dog has been kicked around, smacked, yanked by his collar or hung by his leash? A dog such as this needs a ton of compassion in order to teach him to trust humans. This dog now has to learn that nobody is going to inflict pain on him or subject him to any unsafe situation ever again in his life. Do you think you can convince a dog to trust us in a couple of weeks? Odds are it will take quite a lot longer. One needs to be very patient with this dog. Don't let anyone, and I mean anyone, tell you that there's a quick fix for aggression. If someone tells you that, they're going to sell you on the idea of using aversives to rehabilitate your dog. What are aversives? Here are just a few of them: choke collar or prong collar corrections, shock collars and e-collars, doing alpha rolls, which means forcing a dog onto his back to submit, and any other maneuver that requires getting physical with the dog. Then there are things like squirting a dog in the face with water, scaring him by using a shake can, grabbing him by his cheeks and screaming at him, doing ear pinches, kneeing him in the chest for jumping, or stepping on his paws.

So, if your dog is behaving aggressively, know that if YOU react toward them in an aggressive manner, you will only be adding fuel to the fire. Choose a behavior for yourself that will douse this fire. Talk to the dog calmly and let your dog know that you can still be trusted. Refocus your dog's attention where he can think of something other than what he's got on his mind at that time. Whatever you do, don't threaten him; don't yell and don't use human body language that your dog will see as scary. Do NOT get in your dog's face or yell or grab. Keep things as quiet as possible, even if you have to walk out of the room.

If you don't have a strong background in dog behavior, and if you aren't familiar with how dogs learn, please consider getting professional help from a trainer or behaviorist who IS experienced in dealing with aggression. Had I not asked for help from an experienced trainer, I doubt my dog would have survived. Truthfully, if he'd gone to a shelter, he wouldn't have survived! He would never have passed a temperament test. Jack was truly an interesting study. Here was a dog that was disciplined with hitting, yanking on his collar and being hollered at. Jack was also crated a lot, and the older of the 2 girls smacked him on the head when he didn't listen to her commands. I saw this for myself. Remember too that he was physically forced to give things up that he had in his mouth. Like many dogs, Jack wasn't desensitized very well to nail clipping, and on one noteworthy occasion, a nail was clipped much too short and he bled. Way before I adopted my dog, I had visited his family and noted that his collar was extremely tight on him and he needed to have a larger size collar put on. Now, let's look at the behaviors this dog arrived at MY home with: (1) severe food/object guarding, (2) severe collar aggression--if anyone went to grab his collar he'd bite them immediately, (3) I couldn't clip his nails unless he was muzzled, (4) he didn't want to be touched on various parts of his body, which meant I couldn't clean or medicate his ears, (5) he would snap if anyone leaned over him or reached over him him, and (6) he didn't enjoy the company of children. If you examine his history, he practically constructed a blueprint of his entire life's history with his behaviors.

Was this family a bad one? Not really -- they meant well, but they were terribly uneducated about dogs and knew nothing about modern training methods or proper ways of interacting with their dog.

Dogs are incredibly honest creatures. They will never lie to us. They don't waste their time skirting issues or letting you know when they're really happy or very upset. They adapt incredibly well to the human/dog world despite the amazing misunderstanding most of us have of them. Since I've adopted my own dog, and since I've been able to learn so much about dogs and their behaviors, I am constantly amazed and impressed with how smart and clever they are. If you look at your own dogs, whether they've been adopted or not, and you get frustrated with them for various reasons, don't ever say your dog is dumb! They are resourceful, they know how to get things that are important to them, and they spend a lot of their time trying to communicate with us.

We just need to learn how to listen to them!



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