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  • John Whittaker

Adopting Rescue Dogs (do's, don'ts, challenges, and solutions)

rescue dog reaching out to new owner

The Backstory of Most Rescue Dogs

The adoption of rescue dogs is such a noble act of kindness. So many times, as in New England, these rescue dogs are from down south and have spent time, if not all of their lives, on the street. Those dogs, which have lived in homes and have been surrendered seem to have not had the socialization as puppies that’s so essential to grow into confident well adjusted adults. This is exacerbated as these dogs must endure a stressful trip north with countless other dogs. It’s a very sad situation.


Usually, these rescue dogs are adopted in advance of meeting their new owners and are often transported from down south to a local meeting point. A meeting place is provided by the pet transport company for new owners to pick up their new dogs. We are so appreciative that there are caring homes for these unfortunate souls. How these dogs are introduced and integrated into their new home, helps to determine their long-term behavior, as well as experience of life. Often what comes natural for new owners is the opposite of what is needed during a rescue dog’s first few days in their new home.


Understanding Rescue Dogs


The breeding of purebred dogs for show or working ability usually takes into account structure, health (through genetic testing) and their nervous system (confidence/ ability to endure stress). The breeding of dogs that are rescued usually just happens. It’s often mixed breeds bred to other mixed breeds. The one thing that most of these dogs have in common that they genetically pass on, is a compromised nervous system. This compromised nervous system is evident as they deal with stress.


A compromised nervous system is only one influence that determines a dog’s ability to deal with stress. A lack of socialization, during critical times of development, is the second greatest influence. This is something that is lacking in the backgrounds of most rescue dogs. The third greatest influence in a rescue dog’s ability to endure stress is their negative associations. This is where the new owner can have a positive influence in the life of their rescue dog.

The Associative Mind


What needs to be understand about the dog’s mind is that they don’t remember events, just associations. A traumatic event yesterday like being teased by a toddler doesn’t bring up a memory of a toddler, just the negative association. We can not change the state of their nervous system, nor their backgrounds. There is a chance we can influence their previously learned associations. This depends on a few factors, mostly the state of their nervous system. Most important is to not create new negative associations, which consistently happens by new well-meaning owners.


What happens prior to adoption? There’s a transition from a stressful shelter, or worse a stressful trip with a pet transport service, to the new owner. This transition creates a heightened state of awareness, and stress (more change), which makes lasting impressions (associations). These newly learned associations, in turn, determine future behavior. The great surprise to most new owners, which typically takes place when a newly adopted dog comes home, sets most dogs up to be all the more insecure, fearful and often aggressive.


The Problem: Your Perfect Home!


When dogs go from high-stress (former life and transportation) to a quiet new home, most dogs thoroughly enjoy the new peaceful quiet environment. Their well-meaning new mom and dad typically shower them with love, affection and constant reassurance, especially whenever they look stressed. Reassurance is usually in the form of very soft soothing tones, which for a dog is the same as praise. So the stress gets reaffirmed as desirable and the dog becomes more and more sensitized to needing quiet. At the same time, such a dog experiences an aversion to anything that is different. That difference includes; new people, environments, other dogs and sometimes activity. They now want the new status quo (quiet) all the time and anything that changes the status quo is a threat. 


This is why so many rescue dogs develop aggression issues. Aggression is a dog’s communicating “no”, “stop”, “get away” and “I’ve had enough”. Among the most common forms of aggression are resource guarding (protecting food and toys), meeting or seeing new dogs, new people entering the home, being awakened or moved when resting or sleeping. Then, for many dogs once they become good at using aggression, the aggression takes on a life of it’s own.


Preventing Aggression


The first key in preventing aggression is learning how to lead them through stressful situations, rather than allowing them to avoid them. The second is learning when to shower them with love and affection, when to encourage them, AND when not to do either. The third key is keeping their life active, starting from day one, so their status quo isn’t exclusively quiet. This helps address aggression early on. How you address aggression really depends on the type of aggression, and your dog’s make up. For that you really need someone who specializes in aggression and rehabilitation.


Rescue Dog Training Programs


We regularly adapt our Naked Obedience Quick Start and Naked Obedience Complete training programs to fit the unique needs and circumstances of shelter dogs and their new owners. If a new owner is not ready to enroll their new dog in a comprehensive training program we recommend classes. Specifically, a class just before the arrival of their rescue dog as well as an evaluation and additional class the day of arrival. This steers both dog and owner in the right direction.

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