My first ever dog was Rocky, a 150lb Rottweiler with a troubled past and an attitude to match. Not the type of dog an inexperienced, first time dog owner should get, but I was sure I could handle it. I quickly realized I was in over my head, but I had been taught that pets were forever, no matter what. So, Rocky and I headed off to doggie school and began a long, hard, frustrating, and immensely rewarding journey.
Adopting a “damaged” dog is a journey I would recommend to anyone, because at the end there is a great dog waiting to make you his everything.
Should you adopt a dog with behaviour problems?
Don’t set yourself, or the dog, up for failure. If you are willing to work through anything that’s great, but if there are limits to what you can do then be honest with yourself, and the rescue you are adopting from. Rescues don’t like “returns” so you will be told exactly what you can expect, and you need to decide if that is something you can handle. Being re-homed multiple times is as damaging to a dog’s psyche as abuse or neglect.
Consider the following:
- Time – think about the time you need for work and leisure, and then see what you are left with. Lack of time is one of the main reasons dogs are abandoned at shelters.
- Resources – be ready for some extra expenses such as a trainer, or training equipment.
- Preparedness – do you have enough knowledge about dogs, their body language, their needs, and the problem behaviours you will be dealing with? Are you ready for some stress, frustration, and maybe even some tears?
- Space – remember you will need room for the dog and his baggage. Have a space that can be used for time out, introductions, or simply for the safety of you and your dog.
Common Behaviour Problems
The primary goal of any rescue is to find a forever home, and that can only happen if the family and the dog are a good fit. To that end the rescue will tell you what problems to watch for. Behaviour issues are the result of genetics, abuse, neglect, or simply a lack of training in the previous home.
These are some of the most common behavioural issues in dogs:
- Separation anxiety
- Food aggression and resource guarding
- Fearfulness or shyness
- Poor socialization
(The ASPCA has some great articles about common behavioural problems, and how to spot them)
Making It Work – Coming Home
There will soaring highs and crushing lows. Every dog is different, and behavioural issues vary, but there are some key things that all dogs need in order to thrive:
Always remain calm:
Remaining calm is probably the single most important concept, regardless if your dog is aggressive, shy, or fearful. Dogs are highly proficient in reading humans, and can sense anxiety, fear, or anger. Their excellent hearing can detect any change in the tone of our voices. Their mood will reflect ours, and you can’t gain trust if everyone is anxious. Even an aggressive dog can be soothed in the presence of a very calm and reassuring person.
Take a deep breath:
Keep your voice low, in volume as well as in tone. Dogs tend to react better to deep, alto-type voices. Keep your body calm as well. Don’t flail or pace. Overt body gestures can be perceived as aggression by dogs. They need a calm, relaxed, and confident person to make them feel at ease before they can learn new behaviours.
(Doghealth.com has some good information on a dog’s ability to sense our emotions)
Your new companion will learn quicker if you reinforce the positive behaviour, and correct the bad, on a regular basis. Food is a great teaching tool. Keep a baggie full of small treats near you for rewards (The 5 W’s of Treating Your Dog) . Do not allow bad behaviour to go unchecked, correct it until your dog does what he is supposed to do. You are the leader of the pack and you make, and enforce, the rules.
It may take your dog weeks, months or even years to understand his new life. Some dogs are more damaged than others and unlearning the negative lessons from the past may not be easy. Don’t rush or try to force change. They will jump over the hurdles when they are ready. Impatience and frustration go hand in hand, and a frustrated human means a frustrated dog.
Your home needs to be your dog’s safe haven. Give them comfort and reassurance. Stay positive and always keep your cool.
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