Written by our resident dog behaviourist, David Drew.
We are supposed to be a nation of animal lovers, yet in the media we see vast national coverage showing distressing cases of neglect, cruelty and abandonment of man’s best friend. Even people with no interest in dogs cannot fail to be touched by their plight. The scope of the problem is massive and indeed worldwide.
The Wild at Heart Foundation tackles these issues with vigour and professionalism. My part in this process is to offer behaviour and training support both pre- and post- adoption to people kind enough to take on a dear soul in need of a home.
Most dogs that are rehomed through the Foundation settle in quickly, forming a strong bond with their new owners in a short amount of time, many seem grateful to be there and only require basic socialising, house training and lead walking. In fact, it is estimated that only one in twenty need extra training of some kind. Of two hundred dogs that have been rehomed by the Wild at Heart Foundation only twenty have needed behaviour advice and only around five of those have been thought to have serious issues. Not bad when you consider the myth suggesting that all rescue dogs display behavioural problems.
Top five tips for rehoming a rescue dog
Don’t spoil your rescue dog, over loving them will not help you or the dog to adjust to their new life. You cannot make up for what has happened in the past with love alone.
Put in place some house rules and boundaries; be sure to be consistent with them.
Be patient and understanding, your rescue dog may need time to adjust.
Learn to recognise your dog’s body language to judge their emotions and possible intentions.
If you encounter behaviour problems with your new rescue dog don’t be afraid to ask for help.
When I am asked to contact a new adopter my first port of call is to find out as much history about the dog as possible - not always an easy task with rescue dogs. I consider the environment the dog has been rehomed to and the issues they are having. Initial assessments can be inaccurate if the dog is exhausted or traumatised by their journey. There is always approximately a three week ‘honeymoon’ period where the dog is settling in, over this time the dog will gradually build confidence and their true traits and characteristics will emerge. Often new owners think they have ‘cracked it’ in the first week, only to find the dog presents new undesirable traits a couple of weeks later. All dogs are individuals and should be treated as such, finding what motivates them can help to build confidence and modify behaviour.
A new environment for a dog can be a terrifying thing, especially when the transition is as dramatic as coming from living on the streets as a stray to sitting by the fire in a loving family home. The experience can be overwhelming for some dogs and a great deal of understanding and compassion from the adopters is required to get them through this change. Some people find this part much more than they bargained for. If this is the case I always offer guidance: support at the end of the phone or a one to one behaviour session at their home.
Adopters need to not feel sorry for their new dog whatever behaviour problems their past has left them with; their issues will not be improved by over-loving, mollycoddling, or feeling pity for them. In fact, setting down some kind, fair, but strict rules and boundaries will help the new dog understand right from wrong. Being consistent with these will really help the dog settle into their new home; the dog’s past can present more of a problem if owners dwell on it.
When working with rescue dogs I try to recognise the problem (which can sometimes be different from what the owner sees as the problem). Next, I assess the dog’s tolerances to it; this way I can work the dog under threshold, which allows the dog a ‘learning window’ due to the dog not being too worried to learn. Over threshold the dog releases stress hormones which hinder the learning process. Gradually these tolerances can be pushed to a level the dog can cope with using counter conditioning and desensitisation. Often by creating a solid bond between dog and owner the dog starts to trust the decisions the owner makes and builds confidence as a result. Rescue dogs are sometimes self-sufficient, if they have been a stray they don’t feel the need for human interaction which is why building this bond is of paramount importance. Focus exercises and classically conditioning eye contact as a default behaviour so the dog learns to check in with their new owner helps to balance this and makes the human more relevant to the dog.
Negative experiences with people can make a dog shy or timid and can result in fear aggression arising. Mistreatment in an environment can cause defensive drives to intensify which makes the dog feel safe - if using aggression is successful to the dog it will be sure to use it in the future to prevent infringement upon its space or rights. Rescue dogs are often kept outside and stray dogs obviously spend most of their time outside, rarely if ever touched by a human. Once rehomed and taken inside the home the dog loses its ‘flight response’ and feels unable to move away from anything it considers to be a threat. The same theory applies to dogs that have never been on a lead before.
Teaching new owners to read their dog’s body language to understand their emotions and intensions is important. Dogs communicate through posture, signals, and body language. Dogs don’t speak English, they learn through consequence and association, so the cultural differences from a dog from for example Romania makes little difference to this. It’s all about communication and bridging the gap between human and dog. Often a dog is giving out warnings and calming signals which are simply not acknowledged by their human owner until they are given no other choice but to snap out. Recognising signs of stress can prevent things escalating to this level.
It is immensely satisfying taking on a rescue dog. The majority thankfully do not have the issues I tend to see, and what can be more rewarding than looking into the loving eyes of a dog that offers unmatched devotion, loyalty and friendship? If you have the time and commitment to take on a dog the Wild at Heart Foundation team is a great place to start.
David is the Wild at Heart Foundations resident dog behaviourist. He is available for advice and support to all our adopters.
David Drew GoDT (MT) is recognised as a Master Trainer with the Guild of Dog Trainers, he offers one to one behaviour assessments and owns Homeward Hounds Training in Theydon Bois, Essex and takes specialist classes at Elmtree Training Centre in Enfield, London called Harmony for reactive dogs, Sensitivity for shy dogs and a rescue class for dogs that have been rehomed.