ADOPTING AN ADULT RESCUE DOG
By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

Years ago when I was in graduate school and really felt the need for canine companionship, I adopted an 18-month-old Labrador Retriever. I knew I would be at school for a major portion of each day and felt it wouldn’t be fair to try to raise and housetrain a puppy with my schedule. I also wanted a dog who could behave well enough to go to school with me, who could accompany me on very long walks, and who would travel well. I must admit that I got lucky. Katie fit right into my lifestyle. She was young, healthy, and active (but not hyperactive). Katie had been given away by her owners at 12 months old because they were moving. She then promptly ran away from her new home (a 140 acre farm). Apparently, she roamed and foraged for about 6 months before she was caught and turned into Labrador Retriever rescue. We bonded immediately and I started training right away. We ran into some typical rescue dog problems along the way. One of our biggest issues was separation anxiety (more on this below). However, Katie went on to eventually earn one leg in Utility and two Novice agility legs before she was retired from competition. She also spent quite a few years working as a Therapy Dog in area hospitals. I think Katie’s biggest accomplishment was that she taught me how to become a good positive trainer. The traditional methods that were (and unfortunately still are) common, didn’t appeal to either of us, so I had to find a better way.

For many people who are considering the addition of a new dog to the family, a puppy is the only option. Puppies are indeed wonderful, but they also have their disadvantages. They require constant monitoring for months, they need housetraining, and it will take several years for them to mature both physically and mentally. Puppies can be exhausting!

When adding a new canine family member, another option is to adopt an adult rescue dog. Adult rescues can have some advantages over puppies. First, they are already grown, so you already know how temperament, size, structure, and coat will turn out. Second, they have moved past the puppy stage, so they may be a bit more mature. Third, they may have already had some type of training (for example, many are already housetrained). Fourth, and most importantly, adult rescues can make wonderful companions.

Finding an Adult Rescue

So how can you find an adult rescue dog? If you are looking for a specific breed, you can probably find a rescue organization dedicated to that breed. Many breed clubs sponsor rescue nationwide. For example, the Papillon Club of America has a very organized rescue network and a website that features the dogs who are currently in the program and available for adoption. Whether you adopt an adult rescue or purchase a puppy, it is important to do your homework regarding your breed of choice. Most good rescue organizations also provide educational information about their breeds. Typically, the adopter must fill out an application, complete an interview, and possibly even have a home visit prior to adoption. The rescue organization wants to be sure that the placement is going to be successful and last for the dog’s lifetime. Many rescue organizations require adopters to sign an agreement to return the dog to the organization if it cannot stay in the home for any reason.

Another good resource for adult rescue dogs is your local shelter. Unfortunately, there are many, many good dogs who are homeless. Often, they end up in shelters not because of temperament or behavior problems, but because of human problems such as moving, divorce, or lifestyle changes. There are often purebred dogs in shelters, as well as a variety of wonderful mixes. One of the most beautiful dogs I have ever seen came from a shelter. Eddie looks like a Golden Retriever/Gordon Setter mix, but is a bit smaller than either breed. He is fine-boned and very athletic. He is also very loving and very bright.

Finding the Right Rescue for you

Once you have decided to start looking at adult rescues, you will probably be overwhelmed by the sheer number of homeless dogs available. You will probably also find it to be a very emotional experience. If you’re like me, you want to take them all home. It is very difficult to make a logical, rational choice when you see so many needy dogs. However, it is vital that you decide on the characteristics you want in a dog before you start looking, and that you stick to that list. In order to make a choice that you will be happy with for years to come, you must find a dog who meets your requirements. The right dog for you is definitely out there, it just takes a bit of searching sometimes.

While it might sound cold-hearted, you will probably make the best choice if you sit down and make a list of characteristics you must have in a dog, then immediately weed out dogs who don’t possess those characteristics. For example, if you want a dog who will be good with children and also be a good agility prospect, you have realistically narrowed your search. There are probably many great dogs who will meet your requirements and you’re sure to fall in love with one of those. Looking at dogs who lack those characteristics will only waste time and may lead to a poor choice for you.

Sherri Boone found her ‘soulmate’, Tippy, in a shelter. Sherri was looking for an older dog who was black, housetrained, and could fetch a ball. Tippy was even wearing the red collar that Sheri envisioned on her ‘perfect match’! It took some time and searching, but Sheri found the exact dog she was wanted. Even though Tippy was not specifically chosen as an agility prospect, Tippy and Sheri went on to earn many agility titles.

The old saying went “it’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as with a poor one.” We could amend that to say “it’s as easy to fall in love with a good dog as with a bad one.” In this case “good” means a dog who is appropriate for you and “bad” means one who is not. Unfortunately, many of us make poor choices in canine relationships as well as in human ones! My business partner at Planet Canine, Liz Mancz, Ph.D., is experienced in rescue and foster care. She has two sayings that apply to adopting adult dogs. The first is “if I wanted to have a bad relationship for 15 years I would have married someone from my high school.” The second is “don’t take a dog because you feel sorry for it, take it because you fall in love with it.” I think it is very important to keep these ideas in mind when looking at adult dogs for possible adoption.

Unless you have the background and experience to deal with behavior problems, keep looking and pass these dogs by. Again, it sounds cold-hearted, but it may save you lots of grief and misery. There are many really great rescue dogs out there with sound temperaments and pleasant personalities. Don’t take on a troubled dog unless you are ready for a life-long commitment to dealing with those particular problems. While a dog’s behavior can be changed drastically with the right environment and training, some things can never be completely changed or undone. For example, a dog who is 5-years-old and have been successfully using aggressive displays on humans and animals for his entire life is very unlikely to become all sweetness and light, even with good training and handling. He will probably always be a dog who must be carefully managed. If you take on a dog with ‘issues’, do it with the knowledge that you may be dealing with those issues for the dog’s entire lifetime.

On the other hand, sometimes a dog will be surrendered or abandoned due to very minor behavior and training problems. These problems may be easily avoided/overcome by an experienced owner. The foster Papillon that I have right now has some serious behavior problems. He is aggressive towards both humans and dogs. He was completely unsocialized as a puppy and young dog. However, the one issue that led to his being placed with rescue was a housetraining problem. While his owner could live with the ‘aggression’, she couldn’t live with the accidents! In my house he has not had a single housetraining accident in the time I’ve had him. Because I know the importance of constant monitoring, scheduling trips outside, and crate training, I’ve been able to completely avoid what had become a major issue in his previous home.

The Initial Adjustment

When you bring an adult rescue dog into your home the initial adjustment period typically lasts for about 3-4 weeks. In this time frame, most rescue dogs are incredibly well-behaved. In general, they tend to be very quiet and low-key. This leads their new owners to wonder why anyone would want to get rid of such a wonderful dog. They soon find out. Once the dog has settled into his new environment and has overcome the ‘culture shock’ of a new home, his true nature comes out. As he becomes more comfortable, he may also start to display some of his less endearing qualities.

Many owners of new dogs, in their enthusiasm to begin training, start working with the new arrival right away. While there is certainly much to be said for early training, it is important not to put too much pressure on the dog until he has had a chance to regroup and adjust. He’s probably already overwhelmed with all the changes in his life, don’t expect too much more from him at first. In the first month or so it is better to take some time to bond with your new pet, show him how his new world works, gain his trust, and observe his behavior to learn about his personality.


Bonding

One common misconception is that an adult dog will not bond to its new family as quickly and easily as a puppy will. I can tell you from personal experience, as well as from observing many rescues and their new owners, that this is completely false. In fact, some of the most intense human/dog bonding I’ve ever seen has been between rescue dogs and their new owners.

Actually, this leads to one of the more common behavior problems in rescue dogs – separation anxiety. Once a rescue dog learns to trust his new owner, he tends to become a bit overly attached. The new owner comes to mean safety and security (more on this below) and the dog can become anxious and nervous when his ‘safe person’ is not around. The dog may become destructive and very stressed when left alone. He may also have housetraining accidents while alone. This is a fairly common problem in rescue dogs, but it may require the advice and/or assistance of an experienced trainer to work through. Remember, this problem is caused by stress, so adding any stress in the form of punishment will only make things worse.

Trust & Predictability

What is the most important thing for a dog to learn? This was an interesting thread on a clicker training internet list. After some thought, my answer was “the most important thing for a dog to learn is trust. A dog needs to know that the world is a safe and predictable place.” Actually, the very same thing is true of people as well. Having a core feeling of safety and security, and having others around who you can count on, is vital to psychological well-being.

Many rescue dogs have lost, or never had, that sense of safety, security, and predictability. Their worlds have been frightening, confusing, and chaotic. Nothing really made sense. It is only natural that they would be suspicious and unsure. In order for your new dog to become trusting, secure and confident, you need to provide a safe, predictable environment. Setting reasonable guidelines and expectations and calmly, gently, and consistently enforcing them gives the dog a reassuring structure to his world. Heather Reid has significant experience as a Regional Coordinator for Jack Russell Rescue. According to Ms. Reid “these dogs thrive on structure”. She goes on to say that people often give up dogs for problems related to “a lack of training and consistency”.

Being consistent in your interactions with your new dog also helps him to relax. Being overly permissive and indulgent because the dog is a rescue does him no favors in the long run. A lack of consistency in your expectations (permissive sometimes and strict others) is simply confusing to the dog. For example, imagine that your new dog turns out to be a barker. You might be tempted to make excuses for his behavior because of his background. As time goes on, however, you get sick and tired of the barking and start to speak sharply to him when he barks (which does not lessen the barking). Finally, you move to some more severe methods of punishment to try to deal with the barking. In this case, you have not been predictable, fair, or calm. A better way to manage the barking problem would be to discourage it from the very first incident by giving a verbal signal (quiet) followed by a short time-out (2 minutes) in a crate. Responding in the exact same manner every time will lead to an effective change in barking behavior and it offers the added bonus of teaching the dog that the new owner is fair and consistent.

Play

While I was taking a ‘writing break’ earlier today, I was thinking about the importance of play. Not only is it good exercise and enjoyable in and of itself; it is also a way to interact with and bond more closely with your dog. All dogs seem to enjoy playing, and most have distinct preferences for their favorite toys and games. During my break I had three different games going with three different dogs. Sully, the Golden Retriever, wanted to play with the rubber squeaky ball. He would bring it to me, then back up away from me on cue until I would throw it. Then he would squeak it for a while and bring it back to start the game again. Copper, my Papillon, wanted to chase and retrieve a tennis ball (over and over and over). Pippin, the Papillon foster, enjoyed tugging on a soft fleece toy with me, then ‘killing’ it when he won the game. It felt a lot like being a juggler to keep all three games going at once, but it was definitely fun for me as well as for them.

Discovering what ‘turns a dog on’ while playing teaches you about your dog’s personality and also gives you a way to reward your dog for desired behavior with a toy or a quick game. It takes some experimentation to determine what your dog likes. I once saw a woman at an obedience run-thru who was “rewarding” her Golden Retriever by thumping him on the chest between exercises. The dog was visibly stiffening before and during this “reward”. It was clearly unpleasant to him, but his handler didn’t see that. She wasn’t reading the feedback her dog was giving. To determine what your dog enjoys it is very important to observe his reactions to your attempts to play. With Pippin I tried playing the ‘pinchy-pinchy’ game and watching his response. Basically, the game involves very mild pinching along the dog’s shoulders, back, and hips. My dogs respond by bouncing around and play-biting at my fingers. Pippin stood perfectly still at first. I took a step away and he very cautiously took about ½ step towards me. I did a little more ‘pinchy-pinchy’ and again he held perfectly still until I stopped and moved a step back, then he moved slightly towards me again. His responses showed me that he didn’t really understand the game, but that he found it at least somewhat interesting and was willing to give it a try. I then discovered that he is ticklish in his chest area and responds by batting at me with his front legs. So I incorporated this into the game.

Play also gives your new rescue dog the exercise and stimulation most dogs desperately need. In discussing rehoming Jack Russell Terriers Ms. Reid frequently mentions the need for mental and physical activity. She states that “around 99% of the dogs I’ve seen in Russell Rescue are given up for problems stemming directly from lack of exercise…”. A new owner needs to be dedicated to providing activity in many forms. By doing so, you increase the odds for a successful long-term relationship with your new pet.


Successful Matches

I’ve seen many, many wonderful dogs who ended up in rescue situations. Some of these dogs have gone on to become great companions and performance dogs in their new homes.

Anne Russell and Brandy are one example. Anne found Brandy at the local SPCA. After enrolling in obedience classes they went on to earn a U-CDX with 2 first places and a High in Trial. They are now showing in agility and working towards their MAD title. (As of this writing, they are one Gamblers leg away!) Anne simply wanted a well-behaved pet, but ended up with much, much more. Anne says “there are so many really good dogs at the shelters that would make great performance/agility dogs. Obviously, you need to pick one that will fit in with your lifestyle and your family’s lifestyle.”

Zeke, a Whippet, was found running the streets in Cleveland, Ohio. He was hit by a car, but not seriously injured, and taken to an emergency veterinary clinic. The veterinarian at the clinic took him to an agility trial where Susan Zimmerman met, and liked, him. Her initial plan was to give him to her brother for a family pet, but she soon saw his potential in both obedience and agility. Three years later Zeke has earned a CD in obedience, a Senior Courser title in lure coursing, USDAA Agility Dog and AKC Open Standard and Excellent Jumpers agility titles, along with a Canine Good Citizen and Therapy Dog International certification.

While not every rescue dog has the physical and mental ability to earn numerous performance titles, they often have the ability to be wonderful companions and friends. As Sheri Boone says “Rescue dogs are great! Sometimes they come with ‘baggage’. It gives me pleasure to take a dog that nobody wanted and turn the dog into a champion (in my eyes). They can be challenging, but it is fun working through issues and succeeding.”


 

 

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