Giving a home to a rescue dog is not a decision to be taken lightly. Yes, it can be immensely satisfying and rewarding but it's important to remember that with at least one previous home behind them these dogs are likely to be suffering from some degree of emotional upheaval and disorientation at the very least.
This may cause them to exhibit various behavioural problems initially, while with others, ‘problem' behaviour may have been the very reason why they found their way into rescue in the first place.
If this sounds a little daunting, bear in mind that although problems may occur, very often it is because the dog has previously lacked guidance and training and once these are provided and he is placed in the right environment, any difficulties can usually be overcome without too much trouble.
The problems most commonly encountered at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home include house-training, separation anxiety, destructiveness and a lack of socialization. "House-training is often a source of great concern to owners but it's generally relatively easy to sort out so it is not usually a major problem," said Ann O'Brien, head of the behavioural unit.
"Rescue dogs can sometimes become a bit clingy, which can lead to separation anxiety problems, while destructiveness may be related to this, or to boredom. These problems can require a bit more effort to resolve but we have a rehabilitation unit where programmes are individually adapted to those dogs who need a bit of extra help in overcoming any issues. On the whole most ‘problem' behaviours are only minor - and we're always here, ready and able to offer back-up advice if necessary."
Making an assessment
Most shelters have some form of assessment. Finding out as much as possible about each dog is especially important if he has arrived as a stray with no background history at all. Battersea Dogs & Cats Home has an extremely detailed and thorough assessment scheme which looks at a number of areas, such as temperament, how the dog relates both to people he knows and strangers, other dogs, toys, grooming and handling, whether he is possessive of food and what training he knows.
These assessments help in determining the most ideal environment for the dog to be placed in as well as discovering any potential behavioural issues. Their success can be measured by the fact that very few animals end up being returned. Detailed assessments aren't always available however - some smaller shelters simply lack the facilities, resources, time and availability of trained staff to do more than offer a very basic outline.
Even when every effort has been made to assess a dog, and to remedy undesirable behaviours, there are no guarantees; they may reappear or possibly only come to light once established in a new home. Do be prepared to be guided by staff assessments and be realistic and honest with yourself as to whether you have sufficient experience, skills and time to remedy any known problem behaviours.
As well as having experience of working in rescue shelters, Sarah Marsh works with many rescue dogs who come to her on veterinary referral. In addition to being an APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) member and COAPE (Centre of Applied Pet Ethology) animal behaviour practitioner, she is a TTouch practitioner and finds it an invaluable teaching tool whether working with puppies or resolving behavioural problems in older dogs.
"TTouch helps in so many ways; for example, you're probably going to want to spend time petting the new arrival but not all rescue dogs have positive associations with being handled. Using the TTouches is a brilliant way of enabling you to initiate that physical contact in a way the dog won't find stressful or threatening. It builds confidence and helps you to form a bond with the dog, as well as bringing to your notice areas of tension within the body, which can affect behaviour. It can teach the dog better communication skills plus reduce stress levels accumulated from being in the kennel environment. TTouch is a great tool in many situations, with a wide range of applications and it really does come into its own with rescue dogs."
Sarah recommends allowing your new pet some ‘neutral' time during the first few weeks to give him a chance to settle in and help you to avoid either creating problems or exacerbating any existing ones. "Very often I'm contacted by owners who have flooded their new dog with too many new experiences too soon - whether it's been inviting family and friends over for a ‘meet the dog' party, taking him out to too many highly stimulating areas or, as in one case, taking him to the vet's to be neutered within three days of his arrival.
"The dog can find it hard to cope - better to take things quietly and slowly, letting him learn that he's in a safe and secure environment and building on establishing levels of trust and confidence. If you need to work on training, by all means do so but try starting off at home rather than rushing straight off to sign up with an obedience or training class.
"As well as experiences, it is very easy to flood the dog with too much attention - new owners can often have the feeling that they need to make up for the dog's past. This is really not necessary as dogs simply don't have an understanding of it and all that excess attention can backfire on you and cause problems such as separation anxiety when you need to go out and suddenly he finds that he's all on his own."
Steps for success
Sarah offers the following tips to help ensure that your new dog makes the transition to his new home as smoothly and trouble-free as possible:
- Constant petting and stroking can inadvertently put your dog into a state of stress and anxiety. Ask your dog to ‘work' for attention, praise and fuss instead - this helps reinforce the bonding process between you, as well as ensuring that they don't cease to have any real meaning or desirability.
- Find out what things motivate your dog and reinforce them so he becomes more responsive. This will make training and pre-empting any problems much easier.
- Give your dog time to feel secure in his own environment before introducing him to new ones.
- Start as you mean to go on and be absolutely consistent. Make up house rules that everyone in the family agrees to stick to before your new dog arrives so that he doesn't get confusing or conflicting messages about what is and isn't allowed.
- Don't expect too much too soon in terms of changing undesirable behaviours. Take things one step at a time.
- Sometimes you can handle things incorrectly and accidentally end up reinforcing or even creating a problem. Do read as much as you can about training and how the dog's mind works as this will help; there's plenty of information nowadays in books, magazines and on CDs.
- If you have a problem seek help sooner rather than later - it's not a reflection on your abilities or anything you did or didn't do - sometimes we all need a more experienced hand or a different perspective on an issue. Don't wait until a problem is really established as it'll be much harder to sort out. Getting your dog checked out physically by your vet is very important and will help to eliminate the possibility of any physical causes.
Getting help if you have a problem:
- First of all, ask your vet to check that your dog's physical condition isn't either the cause of, or contributing to, any problems.
- Contact the rescue centre your dog came from; staff may be able to offer first-hand advice and assistance or, if not, put you in touch with someone who can help.
- Your vet may also be able to refer you to a behavioural counsellor or trainer.
- The Battersea Dogs & Cats Home website has a whole range of useful factsheets about commonly encountered problems which you can download for free; visit www.dogshome.org
- Battersea Dogs & Cats Home also operates an advice line, which receives over 300 calls a month. Although most callers have ex-Battersea pets, the support given isn't restricted - anyone can call. They recommend that you have your pet examined by your vet before ringing. Contact the behaviour advice line on tel. 0905 020 0222 (calls cost 25p per minute) or email [email protected]
- To find a local trainer contact the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, tel. 01285 810811 or visit www.apdt.co.uk
- Find a behavioural counsellor by contacting the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, tel. 01386 751151; www.apbc.org.uk
- To find out more about how Tellington TTouch can help your rescue pet or contact a local practitioner tel. 01761 471182; www.tilleyfarm.co.uk or www.ttouchtteam.co.uk
- Don't be put off the thought of getting a rescue simply because you are worried about inheriting behavioural problems. Although you should be prepared to encounter them, they may not actually happen. Even if you were to buy a puppy from a breeder instead, you wouldn't necessarily be starting with a clean sheet; behavioural problems can happen to any dog at any time and aren't something confined solely to shelter dogs!