Adopting animals from shelters is undoubtedly the thing you should be doing if you are looking to add a new member to your family. Seriously, f*ck pet shops and puppy mills. They are rife with abuse and neglect, and eventually those mistreated and traumatized animals wind up in rescue facilities waiting – sometimes a very, very long time – for their new forever home. This absolutely breaks my heart and I would adopt all the animals in the world if I could. Clearly that is nuts, so I’ve just taken on what I can. We have 2 cats, 2 dogs, 8 rabbits, 4 ducks and a flock of chickens. Of those animals one cat is a rescue, both dogs are rescues, and 5 of the 8 rabbits are rescues.
Bonding with rescue animals can be a challenge, and that is usually reason #1 people have for opting to go out and buy a puppy or a kitten instead of giving a new life to a shelter animal. This post is about how to bond with rescue animals, particularly with rescue dogs as they can be more of a challenge. When you adopt a cat you are essentially releasing it into your house, setting out some food and hoping for the best. Dogs are far more interactive and need a bit of effort. Not much, in fact I would argue it’s the same amount of effort you will spend training a new puppy to follow commands and not pee in your house. I’m not sure why people opt for puppies instead of mature rescues, honestly. Puppies and kittens are a TON of work and basically need 24 hour attention. Rescues need lots of love, but likely won’t need round the clock monitoring in the same way.
Here’s some advice I have based on our experiences with Suzie and Ozzy.
1. Be present, but give your new dog space. Both Suzie and Ozzy were very, very shy when first adopted. Suzie was 4 months old and had been seized from a backyard breeder in Nanaimo that was being evicted from his home. The photos taken by the SPCA showed a little dog that was clearly terrified of everyone and everything around her. When we picked her up she hid under a chair and needed to be dragged out before being handed over to us. Her medical write up noted that she was depressed and anxious, and that much was screamingly obvious when we first saw her. She allowed us to carry her, but was too afraid to walk on a leash. Things with Ozzy were very similar; the rescue organization we got him from reported that he hid behind a toilet for 2 weeks when they first got him, and while he put on a brave face for the first day with us, he did hide under the sofa several times over the course of the first week.
The way we dealt with this was to interact with the dogs at first only on the periphery. We went about our daily activities with the dog in the room, but didn’t directly address it, unless to give a treat or a gentle head pet. Using a super soft voice was also important. Both dogs were slightly afraid of J but instantly took to me, something the SPCA told us would likely happen. Men are scary to some rescue dogs, likely based on past experiences or maybe due to the fact that they have deeper and louder voices. I don’t know for sure, but definitely both dogs run to me for comfort before they run to J. We allowed the dogs to become comfortable with their surroundings without too much pressure to play with us or entertain us in anyway. Both dogs chose to sit in their new beds and get used to what was happening for a few days before getting too close to us. I think it’s really important to let them do that. They have just had a major change of scenery and they need to learn to trust you. No doubt this is stressful, so don’t crowd them.
2. Be gentle but firm in setting up new boundaries. It’s important to remember that many dogs that have ended up in rescue facilities are dealing with some kind of trauma. It’s tough to discipline a dog that completely freaks out with fear when you raise your voice or show displeasure with them in any way, at least it was for me because all I want is for Suzie and Ozzy to be happy and comfortable, not afraid or stressed. Suzie is very eager to please so when she does something wrong she looks incredibly ashamed and afraid. Ozzy is a bit less concerned about pleasing us, but definitely cowers when he knows he’s in trouble. I’ve found that what works for me is to stick to the same series of verbal commands and use them consistently when the dog does something it’s not supposed to do. The bed is a no-dog zone, so on the occasion one of the dogs jumps up there I will firmly say “Off” and direct them to the floor. Suzie gets it right away and now does not jump up on the bed at all, unless she gets an invite (she will ask for one by looking at me and letting out a soft whine. If I say no and direct her to her bed she will do it, but if I pat the bed or say Come on she immediately jumps up.) Again, Ozzy is a little less concerned about the rules so it has taken a few repeats of the “Off” command, but once the dog has done what I directed I make a big fuss in a happy voice and pet them all over praising them with “Good dog!” etc. They both love this. I feel that the positive attention I give the dog after they correctly follow an instruction reinforces that they did a good thing and are being rewarded, rather than being punished for the initial transgression.
I also find that if the dog is particularly nervous around the house it helps to move and speak slowly and gently, and to come down to their level. When we first got Ozzy he sat on the couch by himself and I would come and sit next to him but not touch him, and just chat gently at him until he felt comfortable enough to get close to me and ask to be petted.
3. Be adaptable. Not all dogs are perfect, and it is unfair to expect your rescue dog to be completely free of behavioural quirks. The life that you are offering to your dog free of abuse and neglect I truly feel takes precedence over the occasional problem you may have. It seems to happen a lot that people will adopt an animal then “return” it to the shelter when they discover it behaves in a way they don’t like. This breaks my heart; the poor dog thinks it has found a new home where it will be loved and then they are dumped back at the shelter. I can’t even imagine how upsetting this must be, so it is incredibly important to be able to compromise with your new family member.
Ozzy has been consistently having accidents on the floor… literally every morning I have to clean up at least one puddle of pee. Yes, this is certainly annoying. But are we willing to deal with it and work with Ozzy on this? Absolutely. Being adaptable is essential. We had planned to install laminate flooring in the downstairs but as that particular material is ruined when it gets wet (moisture causes the mdf backing to swell up and the laminate surface ends up lumpy and uneven) and Ozzy is continually peeing there, we will have to adapt to his behaviour and install a tile floor instead – easier to clean and won’t be ruined by moisture. It would be super unfair to uproot Ozzy and send him back because he was inconveniencing us. Alas, lots of people take this route. Please take the time to work with your rescue dog in the same way you would work with a puppy that requires house training. Accidents like Ozzy’s can be caused by separation anxiety, a disorder that sometimes develops as a result of losing their original owner and being surrendered to a shelter. This link has a great list of suggestions for people who believe their dog is suffering from separation anxiety.
4. Show lots of love. I think ultimately the best way to bond with your rescue dog is to show it a whole ton of unconditional love. Chances are your rescue dog has been mistreated at the hands of a previous owner, or is depressed after being separated from their original owner. They need to be shown kindness and love and, with patience, they will begin to trust and love you back. Trust building is very important with any new pet, they need to feel safe and comfortable in their new home. We show love for our dogs by buying them their own blankets and pillows from Value Village (which we cycle through the wash regularly), setting them up in a cozy place like the couch or a dog bed, sit with them when we watch TV, take them for long casual walks with lots of fun stuff to see and smell, and by providing treats as rewards for good behaviour. Ozzy and Suzie both love car rides so we take them with us when we go out for a drive. They also both love sitting with us at the end of the day and having their bellies rubbed. It took some time but Ozzy now jumps up onto the couch happily when I sit down and leans against me for cuddles. So show lots of love and be patient with your new dog and things will hopefully work out for the best!
We got lucky and both our rescue dogs are amazing, and we knew very little about them when the adoption went through. We hadn’t met either dog before we showed up to take them home, though you are definitely able to visit your local shelter to see which dog works best for you. We used petfinder.com to find both Ozzy and Suzie, as well as some of our rescue bunnies. I hope this post is helpful to those who are thinking about or who have recently adopted a dog from a rescue shelter 🙂