The Realities of adopting a Rescued Dog

It seems that in a lot of my posts I end up referring to rescue dogs at some point – probably because there are SO many rescued dogs in our classes and we get enquiries almost daily for help with rescued dogs. While adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue organisation is admirable and can be very rewarding, I do have concerns that many people are being pushed into opting for a rescue with little understanding of the realities they might face, due to the current popularity of rescue and the huge presence and influence that many rescue organisations have on social media.

Before I dive into this, I would first like to make it clear that I am NOT anti-rescue. We need shelters and we need rescue workers. I really do get the emotional side of working with rescued dogs and in a shelter situation. I have first-hand experience in that environment and I have personally experienced the joy of loving, living and working with an amazing dog who we rescued from appalling circumstances: Emily was burned, beaten and goodness knows what else when we found her. She had virtually no fur and secondary infections from sarcoptic mange - she was literally skin and bone. For the first few days she was so shut-down that she lay in a corner and did not even wag her stump (she was basically a long-haired Rottweiler and someone had hacked off her tail at some point). However, from the moment she chose to creep over on her tummy and rest her head on my lap, I knew we had a chance and I fell completely in love with her.

Over the next year we worked hard to overcome numerous behaviour issues: fear of noises, movements, telephones etc., major separation related distress (escaping from the property when we went out), defensive aggression towards other dogs and defensive aggression towards people. She also had no clue what children were. Emily’s early disasters included biting my father-in-law (luckily with no damage), biting my parents’ dog when they got into a scrap (stitches required) and breaking into a bag of dog food, consuming so much that she looked like a slug. And of course, she wasn’t house-trained. However, Emily clearly had a genetic resilience or “bounce-back” and in time she overcame her fears and turned into the most joyful, enthusiastic and loving dog we could ever have imagined. She ultimately became a therapy dog, visiting a school for children with special needs and a home for the elderly. Her social skills with other dogs proved to be exemplary in the long run and she enjoyed many games with known and unknown dogs over the years . She was our miracle dog and her story has even been included in a primary school text book for English comprehension! So…. I REALLY DO GET IT!

However, while we were helping Emily to work through her issues, I knew plenty of rescue dogs with apparently similar problems, that did not recover to the same extent and many who had problems which had to be managed to a certain extent for the remainder of their lives. Some had not come from circumstances nearly as bad as those Emily had come from, but nonetheless, they were not able to completely overcome the challenges of their past. We cannot know for sure why this was - many attended the same training school as I did in those days, received the same advice I received and loved their dogs just as much as I loved Emily – and I was not a behaviourist at that stage and did not have the knowledge to do everything “right”. I don’t know whether, despite everything Emily had been through, she had a good early socialisation history, before the trauma of the abuse she suffered, which she could fall back on once she was in a healthy environment. I don’t know whether she had particularly good genetics and whether her mom was healthy and happy during her pregnancy – I would suspect that her genetics were good from a temperament point of view and that naturally she was not prone to nervousness, but had the typical Rottweiler confident and playful attitude to life, which was enormously helpful to her recovery. Other dogs were seemingly not so lucky.

The problem is that when we take on a rescue dog, in many cases we simply do not know which category the dog falls into: Will they recover from apparent emotional or behaviour issues with time and the right input or will they always have certain underlying issues which cannot be resolved completely? Many well-meaning people read other stories like Emily’s that are splashed all over social media and they think that this is the norm – if they get a rescued dog, this is what they can expect. With just a bit of love and maybe some training, their dog will also be running free on the beach with other dogs and accepting everybody and everything with no problems in a few weeks. It will all be fuzzy hearts and rainbows in a matter of moments.

It is my experience that unfortunately, most people who adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue organisation, do not even consider that their dog may NEVER be able to do everything that they want them to be able to do and may possibly have certain limitations for the rest of their lives. Time and again, dogs are set up to fail by being thrown into situations they are not equipped to cope with. They may be subjected to harsh training methods in an attempt to “sort them out” and ultimately returned to the shelter when they are not able to meet the expectations that people have for a “normal” dog.

While taking on a rescue dog can be a generous and rewarding thing to do, what I would like to get across to people is that you should do it with a clear head and with your eyes open – not with emotions or unrealistic images blinding you to the realities of what you might be facing. I would appeal to anyone considering adopting a rescued dog, to consider the following: 

  1. Accept that your new dog may have limitations. Ask yourself if you are prepared to have a dog that may never be able to run loose with other dogs? Are you prepared for a dog that may not welcome another dog into your home at a later stage? Are you prepared for a dog who may be uncomfortable around certain people? Are you willing to adjust your lifestyle for the well-being of your dog? 

  2. Take things slowly: I cannot count the number of times while I was working at a shelter, that a dog was homed on Saturday and returned on Monday, because the dog was taken to the most popular dog walking spot in town on Saturday afternoon where he or she promptly had a bit of a melt-down and ended up having a squabble with another dog or barking at a stranger. A shelter dog has led an extremely limited and stressful existence – sometimes for years before they are homed. They need time to adjust to their new home, before they are thrust into the wide world and expected to cope with other people and dogs as well. Take your time. Let them settle in. Start with quiet walks. Start with limited and carefully controlled social contact and if there are signs of problems, please get advice from a behaviourist (a properly qualified one) immediately. 

  3. Take your dog’s history into account. Find out as much as you can about the dog you are adopting. Shelters are unfortunately often a bit cagey and tend to leave out certain things in an attempt to get a dog homed. This doesn’t help anyone. Know as much as you can about the dog you are adopting – if there are known issues with people or other dogs (or just a lack of social history), be aware that these issues will not disappear in your home. You may have a dog that is not suitable for beach or park walks or simply should not be exposed to other dogs, possibly forever. Be aware that just because your dog has lived with one other dog he or she was placed with when first arriving emaciated and terrified at the shelter, does not mean that they are “socialised”. 

  4. True Socialisation doesn’t happen in adult dogs: Socialisation occurs during the socialisation period (4-14 weeks). You cannot take a 6-year-old shelter dog and “socialise” him with other dogs. You may be able to counter-condition a positive emotional response to the presence of other dogs, but if there are no pre-existing social skills, you are unlikely to ever end up with a dog that loves and knows how to behave appropriately with other dogs.

  5. Consider your current pets: Is the dog you are wanting to adopt good with other animals? Are they able to co-exist with another dog? Are they used to cats (if you have cats) or are they of the type that poses little threat to a cat? Is your current dog good with other dogs? Would they enjoy the company of another dog in the home? How many dogs do you already have? Can you really manage another one, without something starting to give? 

  6. Consider your responsibility to other people and dogs: Is there anything in your rescued dog’s history that indicates that they might pose a threat to other dogs or people they might encounter? Do you need to manage them carefully in public? What safety measures should you put in place? Be mindful, that until you know your new dog really well (at least a couple of months), you need to err on the side of caution when encountering anything new. You do not have the right to test out your rescued dog’s social skills on other dogs, people or any other animals. When your rescue dog attacks another dog or bites someone, it is not any less traumatic for that dog or person, because your dog is a rescue and you are still getting to know them. It always amazes me when I hear stories of newly rescued dogs attacking horses and the owners “oh, he’s a rescue, he hasn’t met horses before”. Seriously? Then why was he off the lead in a horse riding area?

  7. Understand that training classes may not be the best option for your dog: So many people ask to bring their adult rescue dogs to group classes and there are many we admit, but there are also many that we do not admit and prefer to work with privately. Few people want to spend money on private classes or consultations, but one has to accept that throwing a rescue dog with social problems into a group class environment is not the best choice and usually does more harm than good. When taking on a rescue dog, you need to accept that you might have to work individually with a trainer or behaviourist and that it will cost you more than group classes – although it will be far more cost-effective than throwing money endlessly into training that does not bring the results you want!

  8. Ask yourself whether you are starting to hoard dogs: This is a genuine question. I frequently encounter people living with 5-10 rescued dogs in suburban homes where the by-laws only allow for 3. While hoarding usually refers to animals living in poor physical conditions, I believe the term should be extended to include animals living in stressful conditions, where their emotional needs are not being met. Frequently, in these situations we are called in to see one dog that is “acting out” with some kind of aggression issue, but what we find is other dogs that are equally unhappy and struggling, but have a less noticeable coping mechanism (they just shut down) that doesn’t cause the same inconvenience. Owners often do not notice the signs of stress that dogs in over-populated households exhibit, but to an outside professional they are obvious and disturbing. 

  9. Remember that each dog is an individual: It is so tempting to compare your rescue dog with someone else’s and become despondent or impatient when you don’t see the same progress in your dog that you see in another. You have to accept that every dog is different: some will make a remarkable, quick and apparently complete “recovery” from their past. Some will get there eventually, but take far longer to do so and others will unfortunately never get there completely. Some may need careful management for the rest of their lives and never enjoy everything that we think a “normal” dog should enjoy. This does not mean that they won’t necessarily have a happy life – what it means is that we should give up our expectations and work within their limitations to meet their needs.

  10. Finally, consider whether the dog you are wanting to adopt or being asked to adopt is actually suitable for anyone to take home: This is such an emotional subject, but when you are adopting a dog from a no-kill shelter, you do need to be aware that there may be dogs up for adoption with behaviour issues that actually make them a danger to people, other dogs or even themselves. If a dog has a serious bite-history, the dog has killed or mauled other dogs or is so distressed that it has harmed itself trying to escape when kept in any enclosed area, you are taking a huge risk by taking such a dog on and may even be allowing the dog’s own suffering to continue, when it should be ended.

 

A couple of years ago, I was contacted by a lovely couple who had just adopted a dog from a local rescue that they had been visiting for many months as volunteers, before the adoption. At the shelter, this dog had been happy and outgoing, but she had lived there all her life and once in a new environment, it all fell apart. She was utterly terrified of other dogs and would panic completely at the sight of one and then shut down. I was unfortunately not able to see the owners for a couple of weeks, as I was going away, but they made the commitment to halt all their attempts to take the dog out, until they had seen me and had the benefit of my advice. After the consultation, they worked diligently and above all SLOWLY with their dog. They never pushed, they took every bit of advice to heart and they worked within her limitations. Eventually, we were able to bring her into a quiet class and over many months, she blossomed and gained confidence. Today she is one of our advanced class dogs - enthusiastic, loves training and amazingly loves playing with other dogs, even on the beach! She has achieved way more than our wildest expectations – so yes, it does happen, but her owners would have loved her and lived and worked within her limitations, if that was what was needed and they are to this day still mindful of her emotional wellbeing at all times.

If you are considering adopting a dog, please do take all of this into account. By all means go ahead, but first make sure that you are prepared for everything that I have outlined above.

Photos: Emily a few days after we found her, Emily in her prime & Emily visiting the school for learners with special needs as a PAT dog. 

Kommetjie Canine College

Kommetjie

Cape Town

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