I get this question a lot – “What should I expect when I bring my rescue home?” My standard answer is this, “Not what you were expecting.”
That response is probably not what you want to hear. That response is scary and doesn’t give you the idyllic image you probably have in your mind. You want to think that you’ll come home and your new addition will bound into his or her new life without missing a beat (I know I did!). Sorry, but that’s not usually the case, and it’s very unlikely to happen, not right away anyway. I think new rescue parents will have a better chance at succeeding if they hear the truth and have a more realistic goal in mind.
When I look at pictures (and I’ve seen hundreds) of newly adopted dogs, 99% of them look afraid (including pictures of Panzer and Smokey when we first brought them home). The captions say things like, “We knew this was forever when we saw Fido’s smile!” and “He is so excited to start his new life!” I scroll through them and think, if by smile you mean fear grin and if by excited you mean pacing so badly he can’t sit still then I suppose you’re right on the money.
Unfortunately, I also see stories of dogs being surrendered after only a few days in their new home because of “separation anxiety” or the dog being “too high energy” or even, in some rare cases, the dog showing aggression, not always biting, but sometimes growling or snarling or barking.
Rescue organizations want people to feel good about rescue (which they should) and one of the ways to do that is to showcase “successful adoptions”. It’s just a shame they can’t get more pictures later, after the fear and stress is gone and the dog has gotten more settled in his/her new environment, which is when I consider the adoption a “success” anyway. The problem, of course, is getting people to follow through with this plan. People like the instant gratification factor, especially in our society, so snapping a picture right before Sparky goes home to live out his days lounging by the fire and escorting the kids to soccer practice is usually the best chance the rescue is going to have to get a good picture. It also leads to the unfortunate occurrence of people feeling that rescue dogs “just know” that you’re going to take great care of them and adjust accordingly, spewing out gratitude with every furry step.
You may recall me describing the process of adopting Smokey. For those who haven’t read it, quick recap: Smokey was brought into an interview room where Joe and I were sitting, and he immediately sprung onto our laps, kissing our faces. We knew it was meant to be. Everything was just shining and bright and wonderful.
When we finally signed the papers and got Smokey’s leash to lead him out the door to his new life filled with treats and ice cream and romps in the yard and a big plush existence, he absolutely refused to move. When I was in school in North Carolina, I heard the story of the Tarheels, the soldiers who dug in to defend their ground despite the odds like “they had tar on their heels”. Up until that point, I couldn’t quite picture that story. When I saw Smokey in that moment in the SPCA parking lot before he was even Smokey, I knew. It was like four years of hearing a legend crashed down on me and finally I had a picture in my mind of what a Tarheel is. Not a ram, not a blue foot with tar on the heel. A Tarheel was this sad, terrified German shepherd, who was dug in like there was tar stuck to his heels. His ears were pinned back, his back hunched, tail tucked, long nails ripping on the pavement as Joe tried to pull him forward to a better life.
Eventually, we had to pick him up and carry him to the car. For two days after we got him home, he refused to move from the little spot of carpet in front of the front door. He wouldn’t eat; he wouldn’t drink, not even when I brought his new shiny bowls to him. He just laid there, staring at us. When we took him outside, he refused to move off the pavement. It was not exactly our fairy tale ending.
Panzer adjusted to our home quicker than Smokey, but I think he is still adjusting to us. There’s a lot of fear in Panzer, more than I think I’ve seen in any other dog. He’s constantly tongue flicking and eye rolling and hunching down like he’s about to be punished. I’m working on changing his recall, because every time I say, “Come” in my happy, upbeat voice, he runs to me, slides to my feet and rolls onto his belly. At first, he used to submissive pee while conducting this whole display. “Come” has been utterly destroyed by whoever abused it (and him) in his past life.
While I was sitting on the couch the other night petting Panzer who was lying between us, I grazed his back foot, and he sprung up with terrified eyes and mouthed my hand. I looked over at Joe and shook my head, “I think he’s still kind of afraid of us.” Joe nodded, “I think so too.”
Like everything, it depends on the dog. I don’t think Smokey was ever afraid of us a day in his life. He loved people, all people. But it did take him awhile to get used to his surroundings. Stress is high when rescues are brought home. If you think about it from the dog’s point of view, there is a lot of new that he doesn’t understand, and he generally isn’t working off of a puppy sponge-brain mentality, even if he is, in fact, a puppy. There are new people, new sounds, new smells, new places, new sights, new yard, new house, new potty place, new leash, new collar, new tags, new bowls, new food (often), new water taste, new dogs, new cats, the list goes on. Everything is new, new, new, and it can be a lot to handle for the dog, especially if “new” has not been connected with “good” in the dog’s youth.
With stress levels that high, you need to be ready to expect things that might not be typically characteristic of the dog. It’s important to be calm and patient and take things extremely slowly. Remember that the stress hormones streaming through the dog may take days to fully dissipate and because of the high levels of stress, any small thing may make those levels go back up, restarting the stress counter. Taking your new rescue out to Petsmart or the park five minutes after he got home is not generally a great idea (we did it with Panzer and everything turned out okay, but I really wish it wasn’t something we did). If you can, try to be prepared before the dog comes home, so you’ll have a lot of time to help him acclimate to the newness of everything (we broke this rule with Smokey and Panzer, but with Smokey, we had literally nothing when we adopted him, not even a crate, so we had to leave him alone in the house while we ran out to get things).
Martha told me the rule of thumb is that it takes rescues about a month to get adjusted and a full year to get completely acclimated, though it varies, some dogs it takes longer, some it takes shorter. I think Smokey was fully acclimated by about month three. Panzer, on the other hand, isn’t there yet, and we’ve had him for six months now.
As the dog begins to adjust, it’s possible (but not always the case) that behavioral problems will crop up. It’s a sign of the dog becoming more and more at home in your life. After about three months, Smokey started displaying signs of dog aggression. We knew Panzer had shown signs of reactivity to strangers, because his foster family told us about it, but we didn’t see him start to exhibit any real signs for several weeks. However, Panzer did start displaying signs of resource guarding after only a week or so, which his foster family hadn’t noted in their home. I think it most likely developed because Shelby’s personality is different than Panzer’s foster siblings, as all personalities tend to be.
Mild to serious separation anxiety can be noted in some shelter dogs, especially in the first several months. Smokey had a pretty serious case of separation anxiety when we first rescued him, which we worked through with him, but the only thing that really did away with it was getting rid of the crate.
Be prepared to take on anything and everything under the sun and hope that you don’t have to deal with anything. Have a trainer lined up if you can, a positive reinforcement based one would be even better. Because a lot of the issues you’re going to deal with when bringing in rescues involve fear, positive reinforcement training is really, in my opinion, the gentlest way to go. For example, Panzer runs and hides when Joe and I even bicker, I can’t imagine what he would do if we tried to alpha roll him or even direct our yelling at him. Joe yelled at him once, because he jumped up and ball tapped him (Panzer actually did this pretty frequently in the beginning). He shouted his name, and Panzer hit the deck and peed all over the floor, then he ran away peeing because he’d peed on the carpet. My neighbor once gave him a “stern no” for something silly he was doing, and he ran behind me, shaking, tail tucked, whining slightly.
I don’t like to make blanket statements, but for the most part, I think what people experience with behavioral problems in rescues is not “dominance” or an attempt to “find their place in the pack”, it’s fear. And it’s okay that they’re afraid, they have every right to be. Even if nothing bad ever happened to them a day in their life, they’ve been through a lot of change that they don’t understand in a short period of time, so it’s only natural that they’re afraid. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to have rules. Actually, having a solid routine with a schedule and limits and boundaries is a great thing to have with a rescue, they gravitate toward the predictable, even more than most dogs in my opinion. That just means that you really have to work at the relationship, take baby steps, and slow everything down.
One of the most important lessons my dad ever taught me was that “Life is a marathon, not a sprint” and I think rescues really bring that home. At the end of the day, taking your time and being patient pays off big time. It’s also a great stress reliever for you.
There are days that Panzer can be overwhelming and disheartening. There are days that Shelby can be too. There are times I get frustrated and just want to ask him, “Why don’t you get it?” There are days when I feel like I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But there are so many more days when Panzer is the only thing that gets me through the day. For all his fear and anxiety, reactivity and confusion, he is a miracle. He is a miracle because he made it out. He, like all rescues, is a sign of hope and a sign of our own humanity. He is grateful in a way that Shelby never will be, because he has been where she will never be. Some days, when I’ve had a bad day at work, he’ll run to me with his wubba to play. “No buddy, I don’t want to play.” He’ll drop his wubba and lean into me, the same way he did the first time I met him. That lean keeps me going through all the bad times, because I know that he’s not a bad dog, he’s not a mean dog; he’s just him, with all his quirks. He’s just like the rest of us.
So what can you expect when you bring home your rescue? Fear that turns into a love that surpasses anything you could imagine, love that blossoms but never dies when it is nurtured by patience and made to feel safe to grow.
For some great books on different rescue experiences, try the following:
Comet’s Tale by Steven Wolf
Little Boy Blue by Kim Kavin
The Lost Dogs by Jim Gorant
Oogy – The Dog Only a Family Could Love by Larry Levin
Saving Gracie by Carol Bradley
For some good information on helping a dog with problem behaviors see these books/articles:
Patricia McConnell on Separation Anxiety
Patricia McConnell on Dog on Dog Aggression
Patricia McConnell on Aggression
Emma Parsons on Aggression
Jean Donaldson on Resource Guarding