Caring for Dogs with a Past
A dog that you adopt from a shelter may be a rescued stray or a dog that someone has voluntarily surrendered for adoption. A stray with no known history may require considerable socializing, a lot of consistent training, and a great deal of patience. Dogs that are relinquished by their families may have behavior problems, which are the result of lack of socializing, a negative approach to training, or no training whatsoever. On the other hand, the dog may have been relinquished because the family was moving to no-pet housing, or because the primary guardian was ill or died. This dog may be wonderfully trained; regardless, adjustment to a new home requires time, patience, and understanding.
Whether born in the bushes behind a business, or an adolescent abandoned in the streets or in the woods, the street-wise stray can be a real challenge to incorporate into your life. The critical socialization period for dogs is between 7 weeks and 5 months of age. During that time they learn such important things as how to deal with other dogs, how to behave with a variety of types of people and situations, bite inhibition, and how to live in a human household. An older stray may not have had much contact with people or with typical aspects of a human home. A stray may not have ever been in a house, and may find the confinement stressful. The sounds of a flushing toilet, vacuum cleaner, or dishwasher may make them anxious, and they may act out that anxiety by pacing, barking, hiding, or chewing. It is important to remember that the normal activities of a human home may be completely foreign and frightening. The dog is experiencing culture shock, just as you would if dropped into an unknown culture with different practices, expectations, and language. But if you are patient, understanding, and supportive, you can help your new dog adapt.
Dogs are relinquished to the shelter for a variety of reasons: moving to no-pet housing, behavior problems, an illness or death in their human families, financial difficulties, and so forth. Frequently these dogs received some training, and many were important members of their human family. Others, however, received little or no training, may have spent their lives outside on a chain, were destructive, barked incessantly, were too friendly (or not friendly enough), or were simply too much trouble. Even those dogs who came from responsible, caring homes will need a readjustment period to settle into their new home/family. When you get her home she will be confused and disoriented. Sights and sounds will be simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. What was acceptable or tolerated in her previous home (sleeping on the bed and sofa, drinking from the toilet, guarding food or toys) may not be acceptable in your home. Part of the adaptation will probably include some retraining, as well as refining the behaviors the dog already knows (housetraining, walking well on a lead).
Training and Adjustment Basics
Part of the secret of bonding with your dog, and helping her to learn acceptable behavior, is empathy - putting yourself in your dog's place. Imagine entering a taxi in a foreign country. The driver asks "Where to?" in his native tongue. You stare at him and shrug, not knowing the language. He then goes berserk and smacks you hard on the nose. How would you feel? Would the smack help you understand what he had asked? Or, would it confuse you and make you afraid? Your new dog needs to know what you want her to do through guidance, reward, and praise. A smack on the snout, yelling at her long after she had an "accident" in the house, or repeatedly telling her to "sit" when she may not know the word, will not help her understand what you want.
Dogs with a past, whether known or not, are special cases and require patience and understanding. You must congratulate yourself on giving a dog a second, third, or maybe even fourth chance at a life-long home. Your commitment will be rewarded by the love, trust, and devotion your dog will provide. Both of your lives will be enhanced beyond measure.
"Cats - a standing rebuke to behavioural scientists . . . least human of all creatures."