We’ve all seen the stories of the shelter dog who finally finds his person and they live happily ever after in perfect harmony. Unfortunately, this is not the norm. When a dog ends up in a shelter they have suddenly lost their family with no idea why. The reason doesn’t matter because the dog does not know that reason, just that his home and family are gone. The rescue or shelter may be amazing but it is not their home.
It can be very hard for a dog to adjust to shelter life. Staff and volunteers come and go, as do the dogs around them. They can hear other dogs barking, sometimes in fear, as well as smell the disinfectants. They don’t know what is going to happen from one moment to the next as they are moved from one kennel to another to a play yard with strange dogs. When a person or family makes the decision to adopt the dog they are then thrown in to another new place with new people and maybe even new dogs. This also applies to the "rehomed" dog.
Be patient. You will want to show off our new family member but please remember that Fido’s world has been turned upside down and he needs time to decompress and adjust. Supervision is very important to make sure he doesn’t escape his new home and is safe with the new people and pets in his life.
Dogs do not generalize behaviors to all locations unless taught. They may have been house trained but that doesn’t mean they are trained to your house. They may have had a doggy door which allowed them free access. Set up a way for the dog to tell you they have to go by using a bell hanging from the door. Take them out frequently, ringing the bell before you open the door. Soon Fido will be ringing the bell to let you know.
For the first three weeks your new dog is building his trust in you and learning some of the family rules. Separate Fido from children and other pets when you are not there to actively supervise. What may be normal activity in your home may not be something he is familiar with and may cause fear. He needs time to process and learn the family rules. Now is not the time to take him to the dog park. You will start to see his personality come out. You may also see some challenges that need to be addressed with a positive reinforcement trainer.
It takes about 3 months for most dogs to fully adjust. Fido may need a trainer to help him learn how to follow family rules, social skills, leash training and safely introducing to new dogs and environments. Adding lots of enrichment can help him learn to settle and keep him out of trouble.
A great resource for bringing home an adult dog is Patricia McConnell, PhD book Love Has No Age Limit, Welcoming an Adult Dog Into Your Home. She discusses the Rule of 3s and how to apply it to making your new family member feel welcome and wanted.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. This idiom is never truer than when it applies to dogs. You see that sweet dog and decide that is the dog you want. You start imagining how he will fit into your life just so. Long walks in the neighborhood, playing with kids, maybe you’ll even become a therapy dog team and visit nursing homes.
What do you get is not always what you thought you were getting. Your dog barks at every person and dog he sees while walking thru your neighborhood. He just sits there while you throw the ball for a game of fetch or runs off to bark at a butterfly. The couch potato you thought you would be snuggling with turns out to be a highly driven dog that needs activity or the dog you wanted to run and hike with prefers a short walk and then to lay in the sun in the yard.
Sometimes we need to adjust our approach to the dog rather than trying to fix it. When we brought our Dixie home she was going to train as a service dog. She would be the perfect service dog, I thought. We started with puppy class and quickly realized something during the first session. Dixie preferred to be laying down than following along with the lessons. Instead of auto sits while on leash she did auto downs.
Dixie also electrocuted herself 3 times in completely different ways before she was a year old. She destroyed every toy she came in contact with. She could not do a recall to save her life as she was busy being distracted by leaves, bugs, air. We started calling her “Pretty” as in “It’s a good thing you’re pretty”. She was not fully housetrained until almost a year old and also had excited urination. Meeting a new person, seeing a new toy, anything that was exciting, would cause a flood. Her self control area of the brain never kicked in.
Even with all these training challenges our girl Dixie had two super powers. She did not react when other dogs were reactive, barking and lunging. They never fazed her as she was always in her own world. Her second super power was that she acted like it was the first time every time when we would teach the basics and was a super star at assisting in demonstrating how to teach new behaviors. Service dog was out but Dixie became the best assistant I could have for working with reactive dogs and teaching training classes.
Dixie has helped hundreds of dogs learn to be better. How lucky was I to have this dog come into my life and be exactly what I needed? If I had not been able to take that step back and see what she could do instead of what I wanted her to do we would have missed out on helping all those dogs and our relationship would have likely been full of frustration and disappointment.
First introductions should be outside, preferably in neutral turf. Take the dogs on a side by side walk. This helps tire an active puppy and while providing a happy back drop before entering the yard and home.
It is important that all early interactions be supervised. Whether a new puppy or an older
dog it can take a few weeks for everyone to get used to the new family member and new normal. Watching body language closely during this adjustment period can help prevent future problems. Separate the dogs if you are not able to closely supervise, especially during the first 3 weeks, until they have time to adjust to each other.
Baby Gates, crates and Xpens make great separators so that the dogs can have down time where they feel safe and comfortable. Separate eating areas since new puppies can be overly curious and older dogs may not appreciate a puppy interrupting them.
Make sure there is always an escape route so that the dogs don’t feel cornered. Have a clear path to get away can make the difference in whether a dog goes for the bite or not.
No matter what happens do not punish either dog. Punishment can make a bad association between the dogs resulting in escalation of aggressive type behaviors.
Reward when the dogs are getting along, whether playing with or simply being in the same room, be sure to reward with attention, special treats or even going outside. This will help cement that good things happen when the other dog is around.
Watch for body language that indicates a problem may develop and intervene early with time apart to de-escalate. Older dogs may be tolerant up to a point so watching their eyes, ears, tail position and watch the puppy for signs that he is getting too ‘in the face’ of the older dog and needs time apart to calm down.
Give the dogs time to become acquainted and adjusted. This creates a foundation rather than forcing them into a relationship that isn’t comfortable. Following the Rule of 3s, after about 3 weeks you should see things moving toward a comfortable co-existence and, depending upon the ages, playing together.
Watch the body language. Lots of licking can be a sign of increasing anxiety which means the dog is not adjusting to the new dog. If the puppy yelps and the older dog does not back off but instead escalates it’s time for a break. You’ve hit the 3 week mark with no improvement. Any of these should net a consult with a fear-free professional.
The weather outside is frightful so I thought I'd give a few tips for easing your dog's fears or anxiety during storms.
We were eating dinner the other day. The dogs should be laying down and not bugging us but one seemed to have forgotten what to do. I asked for a down but the dog in question was looking everywhere but at me, all the while “ignoring” the cue. I don't know if she looking for a spot to lie down since all the good spots were taken? Maybe she was focused on the smell of the food or heard a noise outside. I didn’t give her time to follow thru, instead I repeated my request a second and then a third time. That’s when I caught myself and realized I wasn’t giving her what she needed, time to hear, process and follow thru on the cue. This time, after I asked for down, I remembered to count in my head to 15. On 14 she lay down.
The tagline is 15 seconds to failure. Why is it so important? If someone says your name while your brain is engaged elsewhere does it take you a moment to process and then respond? She wasn’t ignoring me, she needed that same opportunity: to hear, process and respond. We also reinforce giving her the chance to make good choices. If we keep repeating the cue, often getting louder each time, the dog will either tune you out completely and you become background noise or decide that “down down DOWN” means down and will literally wait for you to say it 3 times each time.
You may even find that you stay calmer and won’t get as frustrated when counting to 15. Glaring at a dog and waiting for them to follow the cue that, like a machine gun burst of shots, repeats “down down down down” doesn’t give a clear direction of what we want. Keep the cue short, say it once and then wait for the dog to process and respond. The dog will be happier and so will you.
As the song says, "All I'm askin' Is for a little respect".
Pet owners often tell me that, in preparation for having a baby, they have started pulling tails and ears in order to get the dog "used to it" before the baby comes. The dog is not 'getting used to it" but is simply tolerating something that is annoying, uncomfortable and may even be painful. It may even increase their anxiety.
Tolerance only goes so far, tho, and then a dog may decide enough is enough. If someone was poking you with their finger how long would you tolerate the behavior before finally reacting? You can say "stop" but a dog can only say it thru body language before they eventually resort to biting. If you aren't going to stop your child from pulling the dog's ears then separate them.
How does Fido say "enough, I'm not comfortable with this"? You may notice the dog licking you and/or the baby. Yawning. Very round or "whale eye" (where the white is quite visible). Lip licking. Ears pinned back. Tail tucked. Body shifts away. Whining. Lip lifting / showing teeth. Growling. These are all ways the dog is telling you they are not comfortable. What should you NOT do? Punish the dog who is trying to tell you there is a problem. Respect your dog and teaching your child to respect the dog you will help you protect them both.
A false sense of security can develop when a baby first comes home. The dog may be curious and even want to be near this new bundle that is taking up so much of your attention. You let your guard down, feeling a sense of relief that Fido appears to be accepting the baby. The baby, tho, is pretty stationary at this point. As months pass and the baby becomes more mobile, as well as more curious about the dog, Fido's anxiety can build. Baby's are unpredictable and some dogs don't handle this as well while some may tolerate for awhile but may eventually say "enough".
What SHOULD you do? Institute a very strict supervision and separation plan. Try to keep yourself positioned between the child and the dog, offering treats to the dog. Use stuffed toys to show the child how to pet the dog and make sure you are always there. Teach them to never put their face near a dog's face. Don't leave them alone for a moment as a quick run to another room to get your phone or a soda or that project you were working on could spell disaster, remember dogs and babies are FAST. They only need a moment for something to go wrong. When separating the dog be sure not to make it a punishment. It's a great time for the dog to enjoy a snuffle mat, stuffed Kong, or a favorite toy while in their own space.
Hire a reward based or Fear-Free certified trainer who is experienced in behavior challenges, a behaviorist or Veterinary Behaviorist to work with your family and the dog. Talk to the vet and make sure there aren't any physical causes for the dog to be anxious. Even a small tug on an ear or tail or the pat of a hand or a toddler climbing on the dog could be painful for an arthritic dog, prompting the dog to be less tolerant.
It's our job to protect both the child AND the dog. The bond between a child and dog can be wonderful but it needs to be safe.
Is your dog reactive to other dogs while on walks? You know what I’m talking about. That sweet, furry love of your life, who turns Cujo-like when he sees certain dogs (or all dogs). You aren't alone, it happens much more often than you realize. When it happens to you, tho, it seems much louder, much worse than when you see another dog react. This is normal because you aren't emotionally invested in someone else's dog but your dog can skewer your heart with this behavior..
You ARE emotionally invested in your dog and this affects how YOU react to your dog's reaction. Embarrassment, nervousness, fear, shame...these are all normal feelings. That's when we typically begin to yell, cajole, threaten, plead for the dog to behave. "It's no big deal" "STOP IT" "C'mon, you know better than to act like this" "ENOUGH already!" Maybe throw in a prong collar or e-collar for good measure to punish the behavior in hopes that it will fix the situation.
Instead, tho, the behavior eventually begins to escalate, getting worse. The first step in addressing the behavior is not punishment or bribery but identifying what the dog is trying to tell you. What they are trying to say is usually either “I’m so excited I don’t know how to control my behavior” or “I’m scared and need some space”. Either way your dog is over threshold which means that learning is not going to happen. Trying to yell or beg or bribe will not affect how the dog will react next time
So what is a frazzled handler to do? Take a deep breath, step to the side and say “lets go” while turning around and heading the other direction, increasing distance to that which they were reacting to. Once the dog has calmed down and giving you good attention you reward this behavior. Now it is important to make a plan that avoids these situations until your dog is ready and able to handle them.
Contact a professional who is experienced and educated in science based methods to work with you and your dog. One who understands that the research is very clear on how to best address the challenges for best results long term and has the experience to teach you and your dog. No flooding, no forcing, no punishment. Solid behavior help instead. Your average dog trainer is just that, a dog trainer. They aren’t educated or experienced in dealing with behavior issues in the best and most modern ways possible. This isn’t about cookie pushing but in timing rewards so that counter conditioning occurs by changing the emotional response to the stimulus (the other dog). Timing is everything, and must occur at precise moments with a high enough value reward while at the same time preventing over threshold or flooding situations where learning does not happen.
If you can’t afford a behaviorist there are also online resources, such as CARE For the Reactive Dog, that can help the dog owner learn skills to address their dog’s challenges. Beware of any trainer promising fast fixes…these fixes typically require use of punishment which may suppress the behavior but does not fix the emotional response. This can lead to even more challenging and dangerous behaviors later because the dog is still reacting but with a new level of fear added on.
If a friend tries to help you because something worked with their dog remember that not all dogs are the same. Educated and experienced trainers and behaviorists have spent countless hours learning about animal behavior and how to address these things in the best and safest way possible. While your neighbor or friend may mean well, they haven’t put their heart and soul and wallet into learning the best methods to make your dog better.
With the warmer weather (or on rainy days) your dog may not be getting as many walks or even playing in the yard as much. Adding mental stimulation (also called enrichment) to their day can be a big help in curtailing unwanted (and often destructive) behaviors that can be caused by boredom. A few suggestions:
Teaching your dog the "find it" game is an easy one to do. Initially you'll do this while the dog watches from a "wait": toss a few treats on the ground and then say "find it". As the dog gets the point of the game hide a few treats in easy to find spots. Then up the ante and hide the treats in harder to find spots and move the dog out of the room. You can also do this game with a favorite toy.
If you have a "stufficidal" dog that can destroy even the toughest of stuffy toys this works great: Use paper towel or toilet paper cardboard inserts. Put a couple of treats in them and then fold
the ends. You can also use small boxes or paper bags for this.
Lick mats and Kongs are great. We fill them with kibble or treats
and then put peanut butter or plain yogurt (be sure it's not sugar free
as the sugar substitutes can be dangerous to dogs) and then freeze or chill them (soft drink kosies are great to hold them upright so they don't make a mess in your fridge). This makes the Kong experience last longer.
Freezing ice cube trays or cookie cutters filled with mixture of plain yogurt, canned pumpkin, broth, canned dog food, even blueberries in water are great treats in the heat and interesting to the dog.
Hide and seek. One person hides and then the other tells the dog to go find. When the dog gets to the person hiding be sure to ask for a sit before rewarding (in this case you are the reward with big praise and attention.) In addition to alleviating the boredom this also helps your dog learn to give wanted behaviors even when excited.