As a specialist in rescue dog behaviour and trauma, I am very familiar with the challenges that come with rescue dog behaviour training. Some dogs come with a story, but most don’t. And even when they do, you can’t always rely on it. Sadly, some don’t even have a name.
After 20 years working with rescues you get good at reading a dogs body language, and picking up early signs of discomfort and tension. And you accept that there are some things you’ll never know about a dogs past, and some times it’s better that way!
Assessing Rescue dog behaviour
If you have it, you have to treat a dogs history with certain amount of scepticism. Remember, that families are often in a very difficult position when they hand a dog over. Most are doing it as a last resort and have no other options. They are desperate, and that alone may have affected the dogs most recent behaviour. They are also very worried you will refuse to help them, so they’ll tell you what ever they think you want to hear.
Dogs that have been found as strays, or rescued from abroad, will come with very little information. You might get something from their microchip, or from the staff, but it’ll be very little. With these dogs you have to put your best detective hat on and start from scratch.
Behaviour can be situational too, so even if you do have a reliable report, it’s still not always helpful. A great example of situational behaviour happened in my early years. Abby was at the first rescue centre I worked at. She was a very loving and affectionate dog. But, her behaviour was particularly challenging. She had been tried in several homes, but was brought back each time because, among other things, she was so destructive.
The right home for the right dog
One day though, a very nice lady enquired about her. She fell in love with Abby and wanted to take her home. At the home check, we discovered she lived in a very well presented house. It was beautiful, but the thought of Abby dismantling her very expensive looking sofa filled us with dread. The lady considered what we said, but she was determined, so we let her go. Abby settled right in. She showed no anxiety at all, nothing got dismantled, redecorated, or relocated. She was home. And thank goodness. Every home trial had taken it’s toll and we were considering whether it was fair to keep putting her through it. The other families offered great homes to other dogs, they just weren’t right for Abby.
Abby is a good example of why you should’t make too many judgements based on a dogs history. It’s always good to know their story, and it can be really helpful. But, I’ve seen dogs handed in with a food aggression problem that never materialised. Dogs that “were reactive with cats”, but loved snuggling up with the centres resident moggy. And, of course, we had plenty of dogs that were apparently “perfectly behaved” but were extremely hand shy, or terrified of a hose, or worse!
So, you have to be careful with how much importance you place on a dogs story. You definitely don’t let it dictate your assessment or any rehabilitation plan.
New house, new rules!
One reason for situational behaviour is that dogs always take time; maybe it’s a moment, sometimes it’s a day, or even a week, to check the rules, people, and culture when they enter a new territory. They’ll be figuring out who makes the rules, who decides where everyone sleeps, where’s the toilet, who takes you for walks – and when, and what are the feeding times, etc etc. This is a golden time to establish your house rules and the clearer you are at the start, the easier everything will be on your new dog, and the quicker they’ll settle in. It’s a mistake to give them a week or two to “find their feet” why not make it easy for them and just show them their feet on day one?!
Dogs do a similar thing any time the pack is reunited, even after a day at work, or a trip to the shops, or after a holiday. To some extent, they also do it after a walk. They’ll do a quick scan to check if anything has changed and adjust accordingly. This is a golden time to refresh your training efforts. If you’ve changed the house rules recently, your work will have more impact at this time. Maybe a good excuse to make a training plan, practise it a bit, and then go on holiday!
Always looking for new behaviour
When assessing rescue dog behaviour you get good at starting from scratch and looking for clues as to what might be affecting their behaviour. But, there is always additional anxiety and possibly trauma caused by moving from one place to another. They have just been though a huge life change. They’ve probably gone from a home to a kennel. There are new people, a strange routine, and other dogs and smells to get used to. So, they need constant reassessment. Their behaviour will change as they get to know the rules and the people around them. And for this reason I often prefer to wait a few weeks before starting a rehabilitation plan.
You’ll soon know how they cope with stress as they settle, as you’ll always be able to refer back to their original assessment. When considering a rescue dog behaviour training plan, this knowledge is gold. You’ll know exactly what they’ll revert to if they are pushed out of their comfort zone and can accommodate that.
The rescue dog at home
There is an element of constant reassessment when working in a home. As we change things, the dog will adapt. Experience means that most adaptations are predictable, but that’s not always the case. So, I’ll be very interested in how his behaviour has changed at that time.
With missing or inaccurate history, you should expect the occasional surprise. You just never know what innocent object might trigger a reaction. You don’t know what a dogs been through, or what kind of training they have been subjected to, or what experiences they have had. So you can’t be sure how they’ll react to something until you try it. Years of experience will make most situations reasonably predictable though. When you have spent so long working with dogs, you learn how to read them.
It’s my pleasure
Working with rescue dogs is a huge privilege for me. Some dive straight onto their new couch, but others take a little more work. Whether they need a bit of coaxing and training, or full rehabilitation, I love being part of their story.
Most rescue dog rehabilitation is managed over a serious of face to face sessions and zoom follow-ups. As part of your rehabilitation plan we’ll first establish his needs, and yours. Then we’ll begin with balancing and heeling work.
Once he’ll settled, we’ll reassess and start work on any triggers and predictors, related behaviours, reduce any anxiety, change his expectations, and find his comfort zone, for managed and gentle progress.
Every dog is different, but typically, it takes around 3-4 face to face sessions and a couple of zooms. These will be spread out to benefit your dog and maximise his progress.
It’s important to note that you’ll still have work to do to polish everything off and make the changes permanent. Depending on his journey, his behaviour might still be vulnerable to new experiences. I’ll talk you through this at your final zoom, and support will remain in place for as long as you need it.
Do you have a street dog? Check out my blog on street dog rescue and discover the unique problems you face as a street dog owner and rehabilitator!
How can I help you with your rescue dogs behaviour training?
My recue dog course talks you through how to choose and settle a rescue dog over the first few months. Check out the FREE sample video which takes you through every step of how to choose your next rescue dog. The rest of the course focusses on the phases that follow and how to meet his changing needs over the days, weeks and months that follow.
Or, if you’d prefer more support, Private, In-person, Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in and around the Dundee area, and as far as Carnoustie, Broughty Ferry, Monifieth, Tayport, Newport, St Andrews, and Longforgan. Virtual Consultations are available for those further afield!