Adopting A Dog: De-Bunking The Behaviour Myths
We've said before here at K9 Magazine, and we'll no doubt say it again - adopting a dog isn't about pity or charity, it's about getting a fantastic new pet, from a reputable source, with a well trained support network.
All too often, people misjudge dogs in shelter as last chance dogs, dogs with no place else to be. Whilst they are normally in shelter because they have no place to be, they are not there because of their own fault. There are many reasons that dogs end up in shelter. A drastic change of living circumstances, an owner passing away or they may be unable to look after them due to illness and sadly, it is still the case that some people just abandon their dogs when they think they've had enough.
As a result, some dogs in shelters and rescue homes can have a nervous nature. They lack the security and confidence that your dog and my dog are lucky enough to enjoy. They don't know where they're going to be sleeping tonight, tomorrow night or the night after that. Which is why in some cases, dogs that are currently in the rescue system in the UK require a little extra understanding when it comes to behaviour. Sadly, there is a vicious cycle at play here.
Abandoned dogs can sometimes develop behavioural issues due to the fact that they were abandoned, mistreated or both. Because of this, they can be slightly harder or more challenging to manage and therefore are at greater risk of becoming abandoned again. A little understanding goes a long way, especially when it can re-assure a new dog owner that they don't have a naughty or bad dog on their hands, but they simply have a nervous, depressed or insecure dog on their hands that needs a little more time and care than your average pup.
The label of "behaviour problems" covers a multitude of common canine misbehaviours such as house-soiling, chewing, digging, and general rowdiness or hyperactivity. If one of those bad habits is what landed your dog in a shelter, you'll have to be willing to work to overcome it when you bring him home.
Remember, too, that your dog will probably have been calling a shelter “home” for some time, and the rules of the shelter may not quite correspond to the rules of your household. Your dog will have been living in a cage where housebreaking was irrelevant and barking was nonstop. He will not have seen furniture or stairs recently (or perhaps ever), and he won't immediately understand that he isn't allowed to teethe on your couch and climb on your kitchen counters. If he's been living by his own devices for several months or more, he'll need some extra training so that he learns his manners and can live peacefully in your home.
If he's a young puppy, especially if he was taken from his mother and litter-mates too early, he'll need a lot of socialization from you and your family so that he grows up to be a normal, well-adjusted dog. You'll have to teach him the things he should have learned, but may not have, during his first few weeks of life: how to play, how to respect authority, how to accept correction and praise.
It's never too early or late for a dog to learn all these things. While it may take somewhat longer to train and socialize a shelter dog or puppy, you'll find that the training process will bring the two of you even closer together and help you learn to appreciate and respect each other right from the start of your relationship.
One thing your adopted dog does not need is your pity. There are a lot of adopted dogs who get away with shameful behavior because their people feel sorry for them. And we know many humans who use their dogs' uncertain histories as excuses for all their problems. But dog needs your understanding and leadership, not your indulgence.
That is the lesson here: if your dog grew up on the streets, that may explain why he has no qualms about shredding your curtains, but it doesn't give him license to do so. If he was or has been unkindly treated by someone in her past, that may explain why he initially mistrusts people, but it doesn't give him the right to growl or snap at them. It's going to take a magical mixture of forbearance and toughness on your part to help him adjusted to the world outside the shelter.
When we adopt a dog from an animal shelter, we are also bringing home a personality that may not suite our household. This personality needs to be worked on and carefully trained. For example, many dog's come out of an animal shelter as a “worrier”. The worried dog is a pup who frets over every loud noise, every strange-looking object, every unfamiliar person or situation.
Dogs who grow up without loving, reassuring families especially during early puppy-hood are likely to become worriers, so shelters are full of overly concerned canines. My first adopted dog – named Sebastian - was was one of these: he spent his first few weeks shrinking in terror from all sorts of things, from ballpoint pens to remote controls to men with beards. He still has doubts about vacuum cleaners and exhaust fans, but he's learned to keep his anxiety in check, and he no longer fears new objects, experiences or people (even bearded ones).
Sebastian just needed to be exposed to as many new things and people as possible and to learn that they weren't going to hurt him. If your adopted dog is a worrier, the best thing you can do for him is not to shelter him from the things that frighten him. That doesn't mean, of course, that you should deliberately scare him, but you should make sure that he's introduced to new objects, noises and acquaintances every day.
If your dog is uncertain, for instance, about your remote control, let him get used to it slowly; show it to him (just put it down or hold it still in front of him; don't wave it in his face) and pet him. Say "What a brave boy - this remote control isn't scary" or something similarly reassuring, and (as with a submissive dog) demonstrate to him that you are happy and confident in the presence of the remote control, so he can be too.
You can do the same thing if he gets anxious about a thunderstorm or a plane flying overheard. But if he runs to you for salvation when he's scared by something, don't reward the timidity by cuddling and praising him; just be upbeat and try to take his mind off her fear by playing a game or having a training session.
When you introduce your dog to new people, follow the same procedure as with a submissive dog: Both you and the new person must make the encounter as casual, non-threatening, and cheerful as possible for your pup. Chatter with him, make eye contact with him, pet him, even have the new person slip him a treat if necessary. He'll learn that you're not going to put him in situations that will harm him, and gradually he'll begin to be a bit less on-edge about life in general.
By the way, lots of people who adopt submissive or shy dogs assume that their pups must have been physically abused in the past, and they respond with pity rather than positive training. More often than not, submission and shyness are the result not of direct abuse but of a lack of early education and socialization. If your dog cringes when you reach out to him, that doesn't necessarily mean he's been hit; more likely, it simply means he didn't grow up knowing that a hand moving toward him was something to welcome rather than fear. You can change his mind - but with gentle perseverance, not pity.