Ask anyone who has adopted a dog from a shelter- there is no love like the love from a life you've helped save!
Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover
It's easy to fall in love with a smiling face from a dog like Jethro (then named CJ). He was happy to greet me, rolled over on his back for belly rubs, and gave ample kisses (as was documented!).
Not every dog in the shelter is as resilient as Jethro; in fact, most aren't. Behaviors that you will see in a shelter like barking, digging, pacing, destroying, and hiding can all be environment-related.
These dogs, the ones that people pass by (who sees a barking/jumping dog and immediately pictures a calm house pet?) are exhibiting "pacifying behaviors".
The behaviors that are presented are making these dogs feel better. The environment (the confinement, frequent isolation, lack of physical and mental stimulation, loud noises, barking dogs, presence of other dogs, strange people, etc.) is a stressful place, regardless of the amount of care, dedication, and time shelter staff commit to giving these dogs a safe place to rest until their forever home is found.
The behaviors that dogs present in a kennel or shelter environment are not always representative of the type of dog they are!
Knowing what we know now, that the barking/jumping/loud dog, or the quiet/shy/nervous dog may not always be that way, how do we prepare them to be the most successful dog they can be when we bring them home?
Advocate - Delay - Organize - Pacify - Train
Be your dog's voice.
Know if a situation, or a person, or another dog is not the right place/person/animal for your dog to exist with at that time. When you first adopt your dog, you will need to give them the time and space to decompress from their past experiences and re-learn how to 'be a dog'.
When you first adopt your dog and bring them home, remember that what other people think they MAY be ready for is not what they actually ARE ready for. Because dogs cannot say "I'm not ready for that yet", be their voice and protect them from overwhelming situations.
This leads us to...
Allow your dog time to decompress.
Transitional situations themselves are stressful enough; couple that with the stress experienced in a shelter environment on top of the circumstances that led them there and you find yourself with a dog who just need some time to "chill".
Even if your dog is not shy or nervous, it is good practice to avoid introductions with new people and dogs for at least a couple weeks. Be their voice and tell your friends, family, and friendly neighbors that they can meet your dog when he or she is ready to make new friends.
Refer back to our article on conditioned emotional responses. The way your dog once saw the world and how they see it now may be very different due to their circumstances and/or shelter experience. A dog who was surrendered as "good with children/cats/other dogs" may not be when they come home- and that is ok!
By giving the dog the time they need to decompress and cope with the myriad of changes in their life, you give yourself and your dog the best chance at lifelong success.
Be prepared before and after you adopt your dog.
Before you bring your dog home, assure that your house is ready:
- You should have a crate ready and set up in your house and your vehicle (if space allows).
- Your house should be dog-proofed.
- You should have food, a collar, leash, and any other immediate needs.
- Make sure some type of pacifying object is available for your dog before he walks in the door- we recommend stuffing a classic Kong with some food and treats and placing it in the crate where your dog will be staying.
After you bring your dog home, assure your schedule is adjusted:
- Dependent on the age and health of the dog, the dog may not be able to last a full work-day before needing to eliminate- if necessary, make time to come home mid-day or have a trusted person available to help you out.
- Dogs require exercise and mental stimulation- it is best to devote some time in the morning, before leaving for work, to take the dog for a short walk, allowing the dog to fully empty itself. This may mean waking up a little bit earlier than usual, but both of you will benefit from it! Also, make time after work to more fully exercise and care for the dog's physical and mental needs.
Create an environment of trust, stability, and security.
We've talked a lot about pacifying behaviors and objects, but more importantly, we need to actively work on pacifying the dog's psychological state.
Trust is a strong word- it means that the dog believes that it is safe, that it understands the consequences of its behaviors, and that it can and will follow your guidance. Most dogs do not come out of the shelter immediately trusting their new family- remember that to build trust, we must respect the dog's needs, provide them with a safe environment to grow, and set them up for success.
Trust is earned.
Dogs benefit from routine, structured living, at least for the first few weeks of their new lives. A predictable environment (routine) provides the best outlet for predictable behaviors. Have a plan in place to give the dog a structured lifestyle for the first few weeks- feed at a certain time, potty at a certain time, play at a certain time, etc. Not only does this help with house training (a scheduling feeding time helps you schedule potty time), it also teaches the dog when is "chill" time and when is "play" time.
Stability produces consistency in behavior.
Remember when we talked about advocating for your dog and delaying introducing the dog to new places/people/other animals. Anxiety can manifest itself in a number of different ways- many dogs may display inappropriate behaviors within the first few weeks of adoption to novel stimuli (new places/people/other animals) simply due to stress and anxiety. Giving them the time they need to decompress fills them with a sense of security; it also provides security to the other people and animals in your life that may be affected by your new dog's actions.
Security generates trust.
Create an environment of positive, constructive learning.
For the first few weeks, your "training" of your dog should consist of preventing inappropriate behaviors and mitigating anxiety.
We prevent inappropriate behaviors by crating the dog when it is unsupervised, tethering the dog to us when it is out in the house, leashing the dog at ALL times when it is outside, and delaying greetings with strangers/other animals.
We mitigate anxiety by assuring the dog has ample outlets for physical and mental stimulation, providing the dog with a stable environment, giving the dog a pacifying object when left alone, and delaying greetings with strangers/other animals.
During the first couple weeks, you and your dog can train using relationship-building exercises. I cannot recommend Michael Ellis' Food DVD enough to help you learn relationship and engagement skills to help you and your dog succeed in anything you do (and no, this is not a paid endorsement!). An oldie-but-good is also Susan Garrett's Crate Games DVD for dogs that have poor conditioned emotional responses to being crated.
Formal obedience training will come with time and when the dog allows. Obedience training requires a relationship that some dogs straight out of the shelter may not be prepared to have immediately.
Remember that these are guidelines. If you were following our previous posts, our former foster, Kona, required hours of mental stimulation every day to be happy. Because of that, even though she was well within her two-week shutdown, or allotted decompression time, we introduced obedience and other skill-building exercises into her daily life.
It is always better to start slow and gradually work up to the dog's pace, together finding the balance between decompression and appropriate mental stimulation.
Following this protocol provides you and your dog the best chance of lifelong success as a family and as partners!
Remember to focus on the dog in front of you today- no matter their backstory, their past, the reason they were in the shelter, or anything else, you can only make judgements and decisions on the dog that exists today.
If necessary, consult with a veterinary behaviorist to determine if pharmacologic intervention is necessary for extreme anxiety or behavior problems.