Feist was an adorable ragamuffin of a dog, a little grey and brown mop with bright eyes and a zesty personality. For the Smith family, who were looking to adopt a pet from their local shelter, it was instant love. Feist left the shelter cradled in the arms of the five-year-old daughter, with a brand-new life ahead of her. Ten days later, an upset Mr. Smith dropped her off at the same shelter, reporting that Feist had consistently peed in the house, she tore up clothes and furniture, and the neighbours complained that she howled when the family was out. The final straw came when she nipped the daughter. Now, as a dog with documented behavioural problems, Feist was not only back behind bars, she was close to death row.
Although the particulars of this story are fictional, the situation is not: fully one-fifth of all dogs adopted from shelters are returned within a few months. Unfortunately, each “return” stands a reduced chance of getting adopted out again, and often becomes one of millions whose time simply runs out. According to the Humane Society of the United States, an unwanted shelter pet is euthanized about every eight seconds.
Why do shelter dogs get returned? Sometimes the reasons lie with the new owner, who, though well-meaning, just isn’t cut out for the responsibilities of dog ownership. Lack of time or experience, or even expense can cause the most altruistic to reevaluate and return. Many ill-fated adoptions are also the result of an impulse acquisition by someone who might have ambled by an adoption drive at the right (or wrong) time.
But, more often than not, it’s the dog who causes the trip back to the shelter. Something about his behaviour or character makes him incompatible with the perceptions and expectations of the new owner. What seemed like an adorable, needy creature at the shelter becomes a behavioural nightmare once in the home. From there, it’s a quick trip back to the slammer.
The high return rate among shelter dogs points out some problem that is not being properly addressed by shelters or by well-meaning dog lovers. Generally, it boils down to an inability of the interested parties to deal with the extent of trauma shelter dogs go through in their struggle to survive.
Life for a dog making her way through the shelter system can be a hellish experience. Many have been moved suddenly from a stable family environment to a noisy, crowded shelter with dozens of strange dogs who might or might not be friendly. To a dog, the place is a chaotic collection of edgy strangers, some amiable, others not so much. Alien smells, strange humans moving about unpredictably: a foreign environment, with a disordered routine. Like an inmate on her first day in lock-up, the newcomer must survive and adapt, if possible. Fights, sleepless nights, competition for food and space add up to a nervewracking experience that can change a dog forever.
Dogs learn bad habits behind bars. Aggression can become the norm, particularly fear-based, territorial, and food aggression. Though comfortable interacting with a reasonably sized group of dogs, the typical canine becomes nervous surrounded by scores of strangers; as such, her mindset can become one of constant defense, resulting in a dog who, once adopted out, can show hyper-vigilant behaviour and disdain for other dogs.
Shelter dogs learn to bark. A lot. It becomes the status quo in most kennels; if everyone else is yelling and screaming, why wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, this behaviour can carry over to “civilian” life, making things difficult for the new owners. Additionally, a dog’s housetraining habits often fall to pieces in a shelter kennel, where other dogs eliminate randomly, and where a sense of correctness no longer exists. Coprophagy—the consumption of feces—becomes common, due to food competition and boredom. Nervous chewing and licking become an issue as well.
Shelter dogs can contract infections such as bordatella, coccidia, distemper, or parvovirus, become infested with fleas, ticks or worms, or contract mange. Though shelter personnel strive to identify and quarantine sick dogs, the truth is that, if a dog is in a shelter, her former owner might not have been as timely with vaccinations, raising the odds that a dog you adopt might have contracted something.
All of these issues add up to one thing: rescue dogs suffer disproportionately from physical and behavioural issues, resulting in a high rate of return, and, ultimately, euthanasia. But if potential good Samaritans arm themselves with an understanding of the special needs of a secondhand dog, the odds of a happy ending go up dramatically.
Choose the Right Dog
You can’t take them all, so choose a shelter dog that will best fit into your lifestyle. If you prefer a sedate pet, for instance, avoid sporting breed types and high-energy terriers, as they will need activity often. Calmer breed-types such as Maltese or Toy Spaniel mixes make more sense. Consider adopting an older dog, who will be calmer than a puppy or adolescent. If you want an active dog, look for a Lab or Pit mix, or a herding type.
Before choosing, ensure the dog is healthy. Watch for lameness, or a poor coat. Pay attention to discharge from his eyes, nose, ears, or genitals, and watch for excess panting. If possible, look at his stool, which should be solid, with no worms or blood present. Insist that vaccination records be provided before you take any dog, and learn whatever you can about his past life.
Observe the dog’s behaviour in and around the kennel; look for a dog who is socially competent, and not worried around other dogs. Avoid cowering, hyper-vigilant, or barky dogs with poor focus on you; a good shelter dog should be relaxed and curious when in your company.
Try to spend time with the dog away from his kennel. Some shelters will even let you try a dog out for a few hours, in a place where you can better see the dog’s real personality. Watch him with other dogs and people, and make sure he shows no aggressive tendencies. If you have another dog at home, ask the shelter if you can bring him or her in to see if the two dogs get along.
Set Up Your Home Ahead of Time Before you bring the dog home, be sure your territory is secure. Fix fence holes and ensure barriers are high enough to prevent a jumper from escaping. If you suspect the dog is a digger, place paving stones along the inner fence boundaries. Indoors, secure windows and doors, and teach kids to always close doors and gates. Remember, a rescue dog may want to escape and find her old owner, so button her up!
Buy a plastic dog crate. Avoid wire crates, as they do not afford a dog with the proper level of emotional refuge; to a dog, being in a wire crate is like living in a fishbowl. Use this to housetrain the dog and serve as a safe haven. Place the crate in a quiet area, and have the dog sleep in it for at least the first few weeks, to prevent accidents and destructive behaviour. Remember, a rescue dog will be confused at first and not dependable; best to ease her into the household while preventing mistakes from ever happening. It’s also a good idea to feed the new dog in her crate to avoid food conflict with other pets.
Schedule a veterinary visit for the first week to ensure health and get needed vaccinations. The relationship with your vet will be one of your dog’s most crucial, so make it happen right at the start.
Though you’ll want to feed your new companion the best food possible, buy a small supply of whatever she was eating at the shelter, then switch over to the preferred food over a twoweek period. This will prevent diarrhea and help with the dog’s psychological transition.
Establish a Routine
Help your rescue dog properly assimilate into your world by establishing for him a structured routine. Regimenting his day and not allowing too much initial independence will help prevent accidents, destructive behaviour, separation anxiety, and escape. Set a schedule. Get the dog out early each morning, take him to the same spot to eliminate, walk him, feed, train, and put him to bed at the same times. Give the dog something he can count on. Though your aim will be to gradually give the dog more and more independence, in the beginning, keep a close eye on him and never trust him off leash until he has been trained and in the home for a few months.
Training should begin the moment the new dog arrives. Manners, basic obedience, and socialization—key elements missing from her life—should be integrated into her day. Teaching her to sit, lie down, walk nicely on leash, come, and stay will make your life easier, and help her focus. Teach tricks and vocabulary, too, for fun, and to expand her repertoire of behaviours, the key to intelligence.
Exercise and Enrich
Walks, runs, fetching—whatever you can do to get the dog moving—will help him feel part of something special. Enrich his world not only through exercise, but by teaching him tricks, giving him safe toys and chews, socializing him, and taking him to new places. Avoid isolating a rescue dog for long periods, as this can accentuate separation anxiety and incite barking.
Because a rescue dog has led a tough life, your tendency may be to spoil her. Don’t do it, as this will only reinforce whatever scattered ideas she has about what is right and wrong and increase the odds of separation anxiety. Instead, treat her with respect and love, but make her earn attention and praise. This will help her understand consequences and learn to adjust her behaviour to whatever consistent rules you set.
Feed and Handle With Care
Rehomed dogs often develop food guarding tendencies. To minimize this, feed the dog separately, away from other pets. Also, work on food guarding by regularly picking up his empty dish, placing a handful of food into it, asking him to sit, then placing the dish down. When the bowl is empty, pick it up again and place another handful into it. This will teach the dog that whenever humans touch the dish, good things happen.
A rescue dog may be nervous about being touched, so it’s vital that you brush and pet him every day, randomly rewarding him with treats during the process. While grooming, run your hands over his body and legs, and casually check his teeth and gums while petting his head or rubbing his neck. Handling his feet will pave the way towards regular nail trimmings. When trimming nails, be sure to trim only a scant amount, to prevent cutting the “quick,” or the vein inside the nail. If you are unsure about doing this, use a professional groomer.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
A dog in a new home does not need an owner with unpredictable mood swings. If you are overly attentive one moment, then overbearing the next, the dog won’t learn to see you as a steady, positive force in her life. Avoid both ends of the emotional spectrum and adopt an attitude of “calm indifference,” a way of projecting an unruffled, carefree demeanor, to minimize the chance of the dog worrying.
It’s crucial that every person in the home be aware of the dog’s needs, and apply the same rules and rewards in a consistent manner. If one person in the family breaks the rules, this behavioural inconsistency will confuse the dog and damage his chances at successfully adapting to the new home.
Gradually increase freedoms, social activities, and training so that, after six months, your dog will feel confident, secure, and loved. By the end of the first year, your shelter survivor will barely remember his ordeal, and instead feel completely adapted to his new life with you.