Training a Rescue Dog Fetch Magazine - April, 2006
Training a Rescue Dog:
Bringing home a rescued or adopted dog can be both a very rewarding and challenging experience. A majority of the dogs make wonderful family pets and can adapt quickly to their new environment – your home. Unfortunately, with rescue dogs we usually have little or no history about the dog. If it was abused, not socialized properly, ect. This is where the challenge lies but with some basic groundwork and preparation, they can be a great asset to our pack.
First things first, try to keep the past in the past. This is probably the hardest thing for any of us who have adopted dogs, especially ones that have come from less than favorable circumstances. A lot of times we feel sorry for our dog because they had such a terrible start in life so we make up for it by showering them with affection. In doing this, we project to our dog a sense of pity or remorse which doesn’t translate into being a strong, confident leader. I am not saying not to love your dogs any less but to love them in a way they understand, not our human ways that make us feel good. Dogs live for the moment and can move past terrible situations a lot quicker than we can. Up to this point their life has been unpredictable. The best you can give your rescue is consistency, structure and then affection. Not only will this build your dog’s confidence but it will help with their self-esteem. If they clearly know what the rules of your household are, they will become a lot less stressed. Here are some other things you should keep in mind when bringing your new companion home:
Before your new addition even steps a paw into his new home make sure you give him a nice brisk thirty minute walk. Make sure you are leading your dog and not the other way around. This first walk with your new companion is a very important exercise for both establishing your leadership position and also calming any nervous energy that your new dog may have. All dogs need to walk. Make sure you are walking your dog at least 30 minutes a day. Remember, a tired dog is a happy and well rounded dog.
You may notice that your dog is a very happy dog and they are on their very best behavior. You may even think your dog doesn’t need any direction at all. However, after the honeymoon period (which could be a month to 3 months) they start to relax in their new home and problem behaviors may start surfacing. This is why it is always a good idea to take some time getting to know your new pack member and establishing you are the leader of the pack when the dog comes home.
Tethering your dog to you with their leash is the best way to bond and get to know your rescue. Take your leash and tie it around your waist, preferably keeping your dog on your left side (establishing a foundation for leash walking). Make sure your dog has enough leash to sit or lie down. This way your dog can gain the confidence to explore. It also helps establish your leadership role since everywhere you go…your pack member will follow. Since you are right by their side you are in control of their behavior so they don’t get away with any bad ones and you can acknowledge good ones.
Because of our dog’s past, many of us want to bring them home and give them the world, including our home. However, if you give them too much at one time you are sending mixed messages as to who is the leader in your household. A leader doesn’t have to work for anything because it is theirs already. Dogs should earn things a little at a time. For instance, have your dog sit before you pet them, have your dog lie down before you give them a treat, etc. Give them a job and then reward them. Little things that you ask from them, translate enormously to who you are in your dog’s eyes.
Structure is key in making this transition successful, such as, a dog should not be allowed in your bed or on your couch unless invited, feed your dog on a schedule (don’t just leave his bowl with food in it all day allowing the dog to eat whenever he wants), and you being the leader should always go through doorways first. Fulfill their drive to do something. Set boundaries and expectations. Be consistent with your expectation and ensure everyone in your household is on the same page. Don’t confuse your dog. Don’t scream at your dog or your dog will only listen when it is being shouted at. A good pack leader changes its tone not their volume. Stop saying words that make sense to you but have no impact on your dog’s behavior because you use it all the time, have no consistency or follow through with the word. Your dog will learn to tune you out. Don’t use your dogs name negatively or it will learn to tune you out as well.
Not knowing anything about your dog’s past, may make the task of properly socializing your dog daunting. However, if you follow a couple of guidelines you can turn this into a positive experience. First, get your dog familiar with as many strange things as possible. If your dog mainly lived outside, this could mean the vacuum cleaner or a timer on a stove. Get them out of your home and experience new people and places. This should all be done while your dog is on leash to ensure a good experience. Take it one step at a time, easing your dog into every new situation, i.e. just have the vacuum out not on and let your dog investigate it on its own, etc. Praising them when they exhibit the appropriate behavior. Also, do not cuddle, coo, or pet your dog if they show signs of shyness, fear or display a bad behavior such as barking or growling. Try not to let your emotions take over but distract them with something else to get them out of that mode. If our dog is afraid and we pick them up, pet them and whisper things will be ok; what we are really saying to them is “Yes! Be afraid...I will continue to give you praise for this behavior.” Now they will respond to this situation the same way every time because it becomes a learned behavior that was reinforced by you. Also, if you know what will trigger your dog’s fear, keep the session short and sweet, ending it on a positive note. There will be enough time for you to work on this, but for now remember its not a marathon, you just want a desired response and then break it off positively.
If your dog is destructive when you leave them home alone, you may have a candidate for separation anxiety. Rescue dogs have a much higher risk of having separation anxiety due to their past . Again, a structured environment is key. Also, make your comings and goings non emotional. If you have been at work all day, don’t get all excited and shower your dog with kisses and praise when you walk through the door or yell at them if they have done something wrong. The same is true when you leave for the day, don’t get sad and cuddle your dog before you leave. The best thing you can do is to simply ignore your dog upon arriving home and when leaving for the day. A good rule of thumb is 15 minutes. This doesn’t mean not attend to their needs, of course let them out if you have been gone all day. Take them out like you are the hired help…minimize the touching, eye contact and cuddling. Your dog will develop undue anxiety if when you come home everything is great and we’re happy, but when we leave we’re sad, etc. It will also develop a lot of unwanted jumping and barking when you or other people come through the door. After your fifteen minutes is up, you can pet, play and enjoy your time with your dog.
Once you have set a good foundation with your new dog, you should think of words that you and your dog can use to communicate. Sit, down, come, ect. Pick one word for one expected behavior. Teach your dog what the word means and then consistently expect that same behavior. Dogs learn by repetition and consistency. This a great way to bond with your dog and to have fun.
Training a rescue dog can sometimes be a challenge especially if you have one with a history. Rescue dogs in a sense need even more consistencies, boundaries, exercise and love than a puppy you have had from 8 weeks. All dogs just want to be part of a pack, have a sense of purpose and to be loved. Up to this point nothing has been predictable for them and it is up to you to set that leadership role so your rescue can be the best pack mate ever.
Tiffany Gutman is the owner of Paws-itivly Behaved K9s. She is the head of training at Paws-itivly Behaved K9s, has a Bachelors degree from UWM, a member of the Association for Pet Dog Trainers and an AKC registered CGC evaluator. She is an active member of Pets Helping People with her Rottweiler, Bodey, and is currently participating in the Reading to Rover program at the Brookfield Public Library. Bodey is a Canine Good Citizen and competes in AKC Obedience and Confirmation. When she's not teaching, she enjoys spending time with her husband and 2 year old son, along with her other furry family member, Mason, an American Pit Bull Terrier whom she adopted from the Wisconsin Humane Society and who is also a Canine Good Citizen.
Paws-itivly Behaved K9s is located at 9823 S. 13th Street (one block south of Colder's), in Oak Creek. For more details and class information, call 262-488-1982.