Living with a Rescued Dog

27 March 2014

Today there are an increasing amount of animal rescue organisations and many families are choosing to adopt puppies or adult dogs from these institutions rather than buying pedigreed dogs from breeders. Unfortunately, though there are also many dogs that are returned to the rescue organisation, because of behavioural problems.

In many cases the dogs are returned in a matter of days and the family involved often takes another dog instead. From this behaviour it is clear that the family believed that there was something wrong with the first dog and that a new one might be better. It is certainly a common belief that if a shelter dog has a problem behaviour it must be as a result of its history or its stay in the shelter.

What most people don't realise is that the most common problems experienced by the owners of shelter dogs are also the most common problems experienced by the owners of pedigreed dogs. Digging, chewing, barking, biting and house-soiling are the most common problem behaviours in all dogs.

Having said this, there are some problems which are more common in rescued dogs and which are likely related to their history. What follows is a brief account of these problems and how to deal with them in general terms:

Fear of People:

Sadly many dogs in shelters have been rescued from a life of abuse. There is no end to human cruelty and dogs may have been kicked, beaten (often with hoses or sticks), burned and slapped repeatedly about the head. For many dogs the only association with humans is pain and fear. It is hardly surprising that such dogs are reluctant to have anyone touch them in any way. Such dogs will usually shy away from any human contact or, less frequently, will put on a defensive display of aggression to hopefully discourage you from coming any closer.

The severity of the abuse, the innate temperament of the dog (luckily Rotties usually have really good "bounce back"!) and the skill of the new owner will determine to a large extent how the dog recovers. Many dogs simply recover with time once they begin to feel safe in their new environment and see that humans can be the source of good things (food, walks, games, toys, chews and affection). However, some dogs do need careful handling and special treatment to learn to trust people.

The following should help to build trust:

1. Hand-feeding - the quickest way to a dog's heart is through his stomach. By hand-feeding your dog you are showing him that human hands can be the source of his favourite thing. If the dog will not take food from your hands, start by throwing it on the ground a distance from you and gradually enticing him closer and closer. Use really tasty treats and not boring pellets - the reward for coming to you must be really good.

2. Be aware of your body language: make yourself smaller by sitting down or kneeling so that you appear less threatening, turn sideways or away from the dog when you call him so that he feels more comfortable about coming to you, don't stare directly at him all the time as this will make him feel uncomfortable, don't make sudden movements which may startle him, don't raise your arms above him or loom over him in a threatening manner and always allow an escape route, i.e. don't block him into a corner.

3. Begin grooming sessions without brushes, as these might alarm the dog even more. Rather begin by stroking with your hands and gently examining his body. Only once he is perfectly happy with this should you begin to introduce grooming tools. Accompany grooming with plenty of treats.

4. Don't feel insulted if your dog does not seem to want you to be affectionate with him- be patient and give him time to learn to trust you first.


Some rescued dogs have been neglected to the point where they had to exist on scraps. Some stray dogs may even have had to scavenge and hunt for their own food. As food is essential to survival it is obvious that such dogs will be very preoccupied with finding any available food source. Even once a dog is in a loving home and is getting enough nourishment, he will often continue to be obsessed with food, because he is so used to not knowing where his next meal will come from. Such dogs will continually raid the bin, steal food off the counter, eat all kinds of rubbish when out on walks and some may even seem to be in hunting mode all the time. While most dogs eventually learn that it is not necessary to behave this way anymore, there are some things that will speed up the process:

1. Ensure that your dog is being fed a balanced diet. If your dog is underweight remember to feed for what he should weigh and not what he does weigh.

2. Limit your dog's chances of successful raiding - keep bins out of reach and counters clear of food when you are not there to supervise.

3. Feed four meals a day instead of one or two. Rather let your dog have smaller amounts of food in his tummy more often than allowing him to go hungry between large, less frequent meals.

4. If your dog fails to put on any weight within a few weeks, consult your veterinarian to see whether he may need dietary supplements, like enzymes, to help with digestion.

5. Provide acceptable outlets for predatory and scavenging behaviour patterns, like fetching a ball, digging on the beach or in a doggy sandpit and chewing bones, hooves and stuffed Kongs.

6. Do not "free-feed" your dog - A previously starving dog is likely to eat as much as possible when he gets the chance - allowing him to help himself to as much food as he likes may lead to bloat or stomach torsions.

Resource Guarding Owners

It is quite common for rescued dogs (and many other dogs as well) to try and guard family members (often particularly the primary care-giver) from other dogs in the home. They may also guard other resources like places in the house or specific rooms. Often rescued dogs are used to "fighting" to get enough resources to survive and they are not used to sharing things or even having anything of their own in the first place!In order to solve guarding of people and places, the rescued dog needs to be persuaded that the presence of the other dog in the household predicts that they will get nice things (and not that they are about to lose something valuable!)

The following can be done:

1. Except for times when you are deliberately working on the problem, avoid activities which may trigger a fight. If you are making a fuss of your rescued dog and the other dog approaches (and you know that a squabble will be the result) turn and casually walk away from both dogs immediately. Also avoid having both dogs in a room that seems to be a "hot zone" until you are ready to work on the problem in that environment.

2. Try to engage in fun activities with both dogs: walks, reward-training (just simple stuff like sit etc. at home or on walks) and games outdoors are an excellent way for dogs to bond. Try and make sure that the dogs associate each other with fun activities.

3. Practise feeding and patting both dogs together. Have some tasty treats and call both dogs to you. Ask them to sit and then feed your resident dog a treat and then give one to the rescued dog. This shows the rescued dog that when the other dog gets something nice it means they are about to get something as well. If this is going well start adding some affection: give the resident dog a treat and a brief pat or stroke and then the same for the rescued dog. Repeat several times, gradually increasing the amount of affection that you offer to each dog. The rescued dog will learn that the resident dog receiving attention is a predictor for her receiving a reward and attention i.e. it becomes a positive thing. (If you feel that it is too dangerous to try this with the dogs loose and in close proximity, you can tether the dogs out of each other's reach and travel between them during the exercise. Over time you would then decrease the distance between them until they can cope when they are right next to each other.)

4. Practise having the resident dog come into the room while the rescued dog is already there. This is a similar exercise to the one above, except that this time you start with the rescued dog on her own for a while and then have the resident dog brought in afterwards. (Both dogs should be on leads for this exercise at first if they are not able to be controlled easily by those handling them). During the time that the rescued dog is alone with you, you should avoid giving her any attention or affection and no treats. As soon as the other dog is brought into the room, you will praise your rescued dog and give her a reward. After a minute of this the other dog can be taken out again and the exercise repeated. The idea is that the rescued dog makes the connection that the other dog's arrival triggers lots of attention and treats for her. Again, it is a positive thing as it predicts everything that she wants. Gradually as the exercise is repeated, the resident dog can be brought closer to you and the rescued dog.

5. Avoid giving the dogs excessive amounts of attention. Many rescued dogs are given endless attention by their new owners, because the owner is trying to reassure the dog. The problem is that the dog often becomes quite addicted to the attention and starts to try and get it all the time and feels awful when the owner goes out or is busy and not interested in them at that moment. It can be very beneficial to such dogs to actually receive less attention generally. This does not mean that the dog should be locked away from us or that we ignore the dog's friendly overtures, but that we should not give the dog attention all the time when they are in our company. Between times when they are patted and fussed over, dogs should be able to settle down and chew things or just rest while we get on with our own activities in the home.


Many rescued dogs become completely over-attached to their adoptive owners. Once they realise that this new person supplies all their needs and that life with them is good, they will often not want to let the person out of their sight. The owner may start to feel that they have a permanent shadow - they cannot even have a shower without the dog wanting to come with. This over-attachment may lead to separation related distress (escaping from property, destructive behaviour, howling, barking or soiling the house whenever the owner goes out), becoming over-protective of the owner whenever another person or dog gets too close to him/her and failing to bond or show interest in other family members. While some of these behaviours may be endearing at first (owner feels very important to the dog), they soon become seriously difficult to live with.

The following should be done to help the dog overcome this problem:

1. Share out the responsibilities for taking care of the dog amongst all responsible members of the family. In this way the dog will see that it is not just one person who supplies his needs. In many cases male dogs tend to bond more with the wife in the home and may even become aggressive towards the husband. It is very important for the dog to see that the husband is also a provider of good things.

2. Get a competent friend to look after your dog for a short time. The dog needs to see that the world does not come to an end when you walk out the door.

3. Practise short times of no attention or interaction. Using a conditioned signal like wind chimes can be very helpful here: Give your dog something to chew , then hang up the wind chimes where your dog and see and hear them and sit and read a book or watch TV, ignoring your dog completely for 10 minutes (avoid eye contact and walk away if he tries to get attention). Take down the chimes and then go and greet your dog and continue interacting and responding to him as you usually would. Every day add 5 minutes to the period of time that the chimes are up for, so that he starts to get used to periods of time that he is unable to interact with you. Once he is used to settling and amusing himself with a chew or by sleeping when the wind chimes are up, you can start to use them as a conditioned signal for going out and leaving your dog on his own for a short time. Using a conditioned auditory and visual signal like the chimes is better than simply deciding to ignore your dog for a while, because they provide valuable information to your dog that says: "I am going to have to amuse myself for a while, but that's okay, it won't last forever."

4. Do not comfort or cuddle your dog all the time when you think he or she is anxious. Trying to soothe and protect your dog too much can make the dog feel that something is wrong and that you agree that they need to be scared. Rather distract the dog with another upbeat activity or with an easy training exercise (followed by a good food treat) if the dog shows signs of fearfulness in a particular situation.

Article written by Emily's mom: Taryn Blyth CAPBT SA Practitioner Member