You Can't Hurry Love: Nurturing Emotionally Wounded Dogs

Lonely Pet PuppyMore and more pet lovers these days are opening their hearts and homes to special-needs pets, including troubled dogs with behavior challenges resulting from:

  • Isolation
  • Rough treatment
  • Poor or no socialization
  • Having been banished to the garage, backyard, kennel or barn

These dogs arrive at their new homes fearful of people in general or one gender in particular; fearful of being in the house or confined in a room in the house; even fearful of human hands.

What adoptive parents of troubled dogs must understand is getting their pet to come around will be a slow process requiring patience and consistency.

According to Lee Livingwood, an animal behavior consultant and greyhound rescue expert interviewed for the article, "It's a marathon not a sprint.”

Backsliding is to be expected – often when you least expect it. Don’t assume the progress you’ve made is all for nothing when your dog suddenly slips back into an old behavior. It’s a temporary relapse. Remain patient and consistent, letting your pet set the pace. Within a short time you’ll both be back on track, moving forward.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

with regard to what behavior will be allowed.Not all that long ago, shelter animals with significant health or behavioral problems were routinely euthanized. The vast majority of these pets were considered lost causes, not candidates for new foster or adoptive homes.

Fortunately, thinking is changing. Many more people are now willing and even eager to take on the considerable responsibility of a special needs pet.

This encouraging trend is due in large part to campaigns to raise public awareness of exploitative, abusive animal-related enterprises, including:

  • Puppy mills
  • Dog fighting as a ‘sport’
  • The greyhound racing industry
  • The tragic situation of animal hoarding

Now that we’ve reversed the trend of euthanizing less-than-ideal pets, there’s a great need to help adoptive owners of troubled dogs, in particular. Most pups with imperfect pasts can grow into well-adjusted family pets if their new parents are armed with the right outlook and the right tools to help them make a successful transition.

Set Realistic Expectations

Some people adopting their first troubled dog expect the new pet will somehow just know he is now in a wonderful loving home and behave accordingly.

Other adoptive families expect their new dog to move from wounded to ‘all better’ in a matter of days or a week.

Setting realistic expectations means knowing there will be an adjustment period for both dog and owner, and it won’t take place overnight. You should plan on at least several weeks, and often longer.

No matter the specifics of your adopted pup’s background, keep in mind he has faced much turmoil and upheaval in his life. It will take time and hard work on both your parts to help him feel comfortable in his new family.

Know that it’s almost a certainty he’ll make his share of mistakes as he acclimates to his new environment:

  • Expect accidents on the floor and have the right products on hand for clean up.
  • Expect to housebreak or re-housebreak any dog adopted from a shelter or rescue.
  • Expect your new pet to have no idea what your house rules are. Get everyone in the family on the same page with regard to what behavior will be allowed. Will she be allowed on the couches and chairs, or not? Is drinking from the toilet okay or prohibited? Is barking at strange noises a good or a bad thing? Your dog will learn what’s acceptable in your home through consistent enforcement of rules, and positive reinforcement of desired behavior.
  • Expect stress-induced behavior like attempts to hide or escape; over-activity (pacing, for example); over attachment to one family member and fear or shyness around others; inappropriate barking, chewing, mouthing and jumping up on people.

Try to keep in mind your new dog’s behavior during his first few days or weeks in your home isn’t necessarily an indicator of his true temperament or personality. How you handle his stress-related behavior will, however, make a big difference in the long run.

Plan Ahead for Your Pet’s Arrival

I strongly encourage you to prepare in advance for the arrival of your adopted dog.

General areas of preparation include:

  • Pet proofing your home.
  • Making important decisions like where you’ll feed the new pet and where she’ll sleep; who in the family will be responsible for feeding, potty training, exercise/playtime, routine care like bathing and nail trims; socializing and training; etc.
  • Deciding on a vet and making that crucial first appointment.
  • Purchasing all necessary pet supplies like leashes, collars, ID tags, toys, bedding, poop bags, etc. Your shopping list should also include the all-important crate, which will either immediately or eventually become your dog’s very own safe, cozy den.

For more details on how to prepare for the arrival of any new pet, you can view my video What You Need to Know Before Bringing Home a New Pet.

Keep Stress Low and Go Slow

Ideally, you or another responsible family member can be home with your dog for several days as he makes the adjustment to his new life. At a minimum, you should bring your dog home before a weekend so you’ll have two full days to focus on his transition.

Keep stimulation and stress to a minimum for the first few days to a few weeks, depending on how your dog is responding to his new situation. The simple act of moving to a new home is stressful and compounds the trauma he may have faced in his former life.

Don’t rush introductions to neighbors, friends, or other dogs. Allow your pup a calm, stress-free bonding period with you and other members of your household first.

Take him for walks in quiet areas, and keep his play and exercise confined to your yard initially.

You don’t want to spend every minute with him, though -- not even on his first day home. He needs to get used to your absence as well as your presence. Put him in his own confined space (the all important crate, an exercise pen or other confined area) with something to distract him like a treat-release toy.

Gradually increase the time you leave your dog in his crate while you’re home, and then graduate to leaving the house for a short time.

Keep your absences brief, pleasant and ‘business as usual.’ The goal is to teach your dog that being alone in his new home is no reason for concern. 

If your adopted dog has fear or aversion to confinement in a crate, be sure to view my crate training video and the accompanying article for information on overcoming hate for the crate.

For the special needs of dogs rescued from puppy mills, read the Humane Society’s article Life Outside the Cage: Helping Puppy Mill Dogs Adjust.

Training and Socialization

It’s a good idea to begin training in basic commands like Sit, Stay, Down and Come the first day your dog is home with you.

Every dog is different. Yours may already have some basic obedience training and will respond almost immediately to commands. Or, you might need to take it much slower, working on one command a day.

Some dogs are so overwhelmed the first few days in a new home they seem tuned out or shut down. If this is the case with your pup, don’t be concerned. Make training sessions short, pleasant and playful until your dog settles in and is able to be more attentive.

It’s usually best with a troubled dog to wait several weeks or even longer to enroll her in formal classes outside your home. Your dog needs to trust you so that formal training is effective. Your new pet may attach to you right away, but building a bond of trust usually takes much longer.

I recommend you assume, regardless of your dog’s background, that she hasn’t been properly socialized and it’s your job to introduce her to all the sights, sounds, smells, people, animals and other stimuli in her new life with you. Again, you’ll want to go slow, letting your dog set the pace as much as possible.

Address behavior issues immediately -- before they become habits in the dog’s new environment -- with positive reinforcement behavior modification techniques. If your dog is exhibiting troubling behavior you can’t extinguish on your own, I strongly urge you to consult a certified animal behavior specialist to help you help your dog.

Remedies for Emotional Support

I have found flower essences to be particularly beneficial for emotionally traumatized pets. The substances are safe, all natural and won’t interfere with other medications.

You can blend your own Bach flower essences, work with a Bach flower therapist to create a custom blend for your pet, or use a pre-blended formula, such as:

Erasing the Past, Looking to the Future

The time it will take your new pet to adjust is nearly impossible to predict.

It’s best to expect it will take longer than you think to turn your adopted dog into a well-adjusted family pet.

Ms. Livingood, interviewed for the article linked above, says she usually sees measurable progress in three to four weeks, and significant progress by the time an adoptee has been with a new family three to four months. But it can take up to a year to get a troubled pet to the point where everyone, including the dog, is happy.

With time, patience, and the right tools and resources, every dog will eventually settle in. And there are few things as gratifying as knowing you are providing a bright future to a dog with a dark past.

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