Are You Ready For Rescue?
Of course, there are many rescues that don’t seem to have any long-term issues. There are some that have dramatic about-turns of behaviour once in a good home. There are even a few happy, easy-going and delightful dogs that seem to thrive in spite of circumstance and are able to maintain a permanently sweet disposition regardless of what life throws at them. But the latter are not the norm and dramatic about turns in behaviour are dramatic for the very reason that they are unexpected.
As I have said many times before – I am not anti-rescue. However, I am anti people embarking on acquiring a rescue dog without proper forethought and without an understanding of what might be required of them. I am truly weary of having to be the first person to break the reality of a situation to people who believed they were embarking on an exciting adventure, only to find that they are faced with huge and unexpected lifestyle changes, because not enough information was given or requested up front. I am tired of seeing dogs being returned to shelters because they could not meet the requirements of a home that never thought to ask whether the dog they were adopting was remotely able to fill those requirements.
My gut response (never voiced) is becoming a rather impatient: “Well, what did you expect?” But at the same time, I am very aware that adopters are not really to blame. People don’t intentionally take on a dog they are not equipped to cope with. They do so, because the information about what to expect is not readily available. Instead, social media is full of fairy-tale, happily-ever-after, miracles. Social media is also filled with appeals designed to evoke sympathy and guilt and push people into making emotional decisions rather than intelligent ones. No one ever tells a potential adopter that acquiring a particular dog may mean an end to dreams of strolling on the beach with the family and dog on a Saturday afternoon. No one tells them that adopting a particular dog may mean an end to visitors freely walking in and out your house. No one tells them that it may mean hiring a dog sitter or changing their schedule to help the dog cope with a separation distress issue.
But I don’t want this post to focus just on the negative. I want to focus on the solution rather than the problem, as I believe that there are things that we can do to better prepare for the realities of adoption and to prevent dogs ending up in the wrong homes or being passed around from one home to another.
1. RESCUE ORGANISATIONS NEED TO BE HONEST ABOUT THE DOGS THEY ARE HOMING. When someone tells me that they are considering getting a Rottweiler puppy, I don’t say, “They’re the best dogs out – you have to get one!” Instead, I give them a realistic idea of what to expect. Despite how much I love the breed, the reality is that they are big, strong, active dogs that require a lot of enrichment and stimulation. They also require far more management in public than many other types of dogs – not because they are inherently “aggressive” or dangerous, but because there is a huge stigma attached to them. It has taken me many years to develop a thick enough skin to laugh off the ridiculous reactions and thoughtless comments from people we encounter. Not one week goes by that I don’t hear something to the effect of “I hope they’ve already eaten today!” or see someone literally dashing off the path and hiding to avoid us. As well-socialised as my dogs are, I have to maintain higher standards when it comes to their behaviour and their management. We cannot give anyone cause for complaint and this can be frustrating at times – especially when we see other dogs completely out of control and people just laughing it off. But it is a reality we have to accept and one which we have learned to live with. If you can’t live with this, then get a Labrador.
The same goes for any rescue dog. If the dog is not good with other dogs, is an escape artist, can’t cope being left alone, doesn’t like men etc. then this needs to be told to the potential adopter upfront. If they want a dog that can run loose on the beach or be totally chilled in the midst of a children’s party, then rescue organisations have to be very careful about the dog they choose to adopt out to that situation. If no dogs match those criteria (and no clear history is NOT a match), then the truth must be told. If the adopter walks away, so be it.
2. DON’T DISMISS WHAT THE RESCUE ORGANISATION TRIES TO TELL YOU. There are many rescue organisations that desperately try and communicate the requirements of their dogs to potential adopters, but the information falls on deaf ears. Every time a poster goes up with “NO CATS” someone with 5 cats will still try to adopt the dog, because they believe they know better. If a rescue organisation has the professionalism and decency to be honest and warn you about potential problems, please respect that and listen to them!
3. ASK QUESTIONS ABOUT THE DOG. One of the things that I find quite hard to wrap my head around is how often no information is requested by adopters. We get called in for a consultation and end up contacting the rescue organisation ourselves to get the full story, because the adopter did not think it was important to find out the dog’s history. Please do ask as many questions as you can think of. Where did the dog come from? What was the dog’s physical and emotional state when surrendered or rescued. If the dog was surrendered, then why was this? What exposure has the dog had to people, children, other dogs, cats etc? Any social problems noted at all? Any notable incidents in the dog’s past? Any likes or dislikes? Any areas the dog does not like being handled? Health issues and past health issues? Remember that no information is not an indication of no problems. Also be aware that when stories about the dog’s history keep changing depending on who you talk to, this is a red flag and you are likely being kept in the dark about something. Also be mindful that breed type will play a role in behaviour, even in mixed breed dogs. Make an educated assessment of the type of dog you are considering and whether you can meet their behavioural needs. A collie mix is unlikely to make a good couch potato companion.
4. DON’T ASSUME THE DOG WILL BE FINE WITH SOMETHING IF YOU DON’T KNOW! The amount of times dogs have gotten into fights, nipped people, chased horses or run off and gotten lost just days after their adoption is astounding. The excuse always being: “Well we have only had him a few days and didn’t know what he was like with….. (insert whatever animal or person the dog had a meltdown around)”. We have to stop assuming that not knowing means everything will be okay. We have to start being more proactive with management and protection of our dogs, to prevent incidents until we know them better.
5. TAKE THINGS SLOWLY. Another popular trend is taking the dog for a walk in a busy park or throwing a party the day they are brought home. This is usually too much too soon and ends up sparking an incident which might never have happened if the dog was given more time to adapt to the new environment. If you are adopting a dog over 5 months of age, the socialisation period is OVER. There is no point in rushing out and trying to socialise your dog. If your dog has not been sufficiently exposed to people or dogs by this time, flooding them socially the first week you get them home will only make things worse. Give your dog a chance to adjust to their new home and new family for several days, before expecting them to meet more people or dogs. When you do start taking them out, start in quiet places with minimal exposure to novel social encounters. Get them used to being outdoors first. Once they are comfortable in new environments, slowly and carefully assess their reaction to new people and dogs from a safe distance. If you are unsure about their response, get help from a registered behaviourist.
6. DON’T THINK THAT PROBLEMS WILL GO AWAY ON THEIR OWN – THEY WON’T. While it is likely to take time for your dog to settle, signs of existing or developing behaviour problems should not be ignored. Don’t wait until a growl at your resident dog turns into a full-blown fight. Don’t wait until anxiety on the lead turns into reactivity. Get help immediately from a registered behaviourist. Manage the dog (avoid the trigger situation), until they are able to see you.
7. BE PREPARED TO WORK WITH A BEHAVIOURIST AND NOT JUST HAVE GENERAL TRAINING. Unfortunately, most people don’t seem to understand that general training is not going to resolve significant behavioural or social issues. Group classes are not the place for socially anxious dogs. Teaching “basic manners” or developing a generalised communication system through training will help to strengthen your bond with your dog and help them to find appropriate ways of getting their needs met, but it will not resolve deeper issues. When adopting a dog, one has to understand that it may mean spending more time, money and resources on addressing behaviour problems than just enrolling in a local group class.
Finally, before adopting a dog, consider whether you are prepared for permanent limitations with regards to lifestyle, if certain issues cannot be resolved. Are you willing to go to the effort of popping your dog in the car and driving to a quiet place for a stress-free walk rather than playing dodge-the-dog on the local off-lead beach or strolling round the noisy neighbourhood? Will you give up competing in agility and find a quieter activity for your dog, if they find shows over-stimulating? Are you prepared to train your dog to be comfortable being put away safely when certain visitors arrive? Or are you prepared to forego hosting the annual Christmas party? Are you able to let go of the idea of taking your dog to restaurants if they find the waiter threatening? Are you prepared to provide emotional support for your dog, rather than expect your dog to emotionally support you?
These are questions we must ask ourselves upfront. Not doing so is not helpful for us or the dogs we are taking in. A little realism and preparation can make life so much easier for us and our dogs.
This is a topic I have written about numerous times, but unfortunately it is a problem that comes up again and again: Unrealistic expectations for rescued dogs.
Adopting a rescue and giving a dog a second chance, can be a wonderful, rewarding experience – BUT it can also be extremely challenging and managing a dog with a difficult past can be life-changing.
Difficult pasts don’t necessarily mean physical abuse. They may simply mean lack of early socialisation and habituation, frustrations and “inappropriate” behaviour patterns that have formed through lack of emotional fulfilment or negative influences on the way the brain developed due to maternal stress, poor early nutrition or lack of stimulation.
Photo: My first rescue dog, Wyatt Earp, who I took in over 22 years ago. He was actually one of the more easy-going rescue types, but if only I knew then what I know now, his life would have been even better! me. It's easy.