Commentary: The special needs of rescue dogs

If we can begin to understand how dogs actually experience the world, it can help us understand their behavior.

It is very "human" of us to give dogs human attributes, because we are human. But dogs don't experience the world the same way that we do. Dogs live in the present or the "now." They cannot reflect upon the past or project into the future. They cannot "imagine."

Most dogs that end up in shelters have lived their entire lives in one limited environment.

This is their known world. They recognize how it smells and looks and sounds. There is no way for dogs to generalize this experience to other places.

So, imagine what it must be like for a dog, to be removed from the only place it has ever known and to be deposited into a noisy shelter environment where nothing is familiar. It smells wrong, strange dogs are in close proximity and people may or may not be seen as friendly. It is terrifying to most dogs. It is as if they have been dropped onto an alien planet. In short, dogs that have been given up to a shelter are traumatized just by the experience, regardless of their history. What if you pile onto that a history of abuse or neglect?

Once you decide to adopt a dog and you take the dog home, the dog is traumatized a second time. Your home will be another alien planet. Remember, the dog has no way of understanding who you are or where he is going.

Below is a check list. If you think ahead and plan ahead, things will go smoothly. Remember, your dog needs time to recover and bond with you. Allow them that time.

Plan on seven to 10 days of a very quiet, predictable routine for your dog once you bring him home. No scary stuff. Think about where your dog is going to sleep. They will want to be close to you. Some dogs like dog beds, some prefer the floor.

Where will the dog be when you have to leave him alone? Almost all dogs will show some sort of anxiety when you first leave them alone. Put anything away that the dog might get into. Leaving a dog with the run of the house is asking for trouble. Dogs will often tear or chew anything they can in an attempt to "dump" stress. They are trying to calm themselves. Give them access to appropriate food chews or toys. A wire crate is the safest place to leave a dog if they are "crate trained." A kitchen that can be blocked off by gates is another alternative. Stuffed food toys like Kongs are great for giving the dog something good to occupy them after you leave the house. Do some short test runs, leaving the house for very short periods and then returning, building up time slowly. Dogs can learn to be alone if you pair leaving with another desirable event like a food toy.

Avoid having new people over to the house to meet the dog until he is well settled. Do not go to dog parks. Walk the dog in a quiet area and avoid other dogs during this settle-in time.

If you have another dog or dogs, introduce them to the new dog on neutral ground and go for a walk to let the dogs get acquainted on neutral territory.

Your home and everything in it is your established dog's valued resources and they will not take kindly to sharing it with another strange dog. Proceed slowly here. Take up all toys or things valuable to the established dog. Feed the dogs in different rooms or in crates so there is no possibility of conflict over food. Be careful of favorite locations like sofas or beds that may cause conflict.

If you have small children make sure they are always supervised around the new dog and teach them to move slowly and quietly. The majority of dog bites are to children. Schedule a veterinary visit and make sure you bring treats with you to make the visit fun for your dog. After your new dog is well settled in, you can think about taking him/her to a training class. Positive reinforcement training can do wonders for a dog's self-confidence.

It can take up to six months for a rescue dog to settle in and bond with you. Sometimes dogs will blossom but it is also common to see undesirable behaviors come to the surface that were hidden. If your dog begins showing any aggressive behavior toward people or dogs contact the shelter or a qualified trainer to head off trouble before it can take hold.

With the training methods we have today, most problem behaviors can be modified or counter conditioned and your dog can go on to be a wonderful partner and companion for life.

Suggested reading: "Love has no Age Limit: Welcoming an Adopted Dog Into Your Home," by Patricia McConnell. Available on Amazon.

Noel Hoffmann, who lives in Putney, is a member of The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and The Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Learn more at


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