So You Decided to Adopt a Dog

A twenty pound lump of hair and insanity is currently snuggling in my comforter. He is, by no stretch of the imagination, my very best friend. At night, he curls up next to me and makes me feel safe. In the morning he hovers over me, and when I finally open my eyes, his entire rump wiggles in excitement as he buries his nose in my neck. He is my shelter dog.

I first discovered him a year ago. I was trolling the SPA website (France’s version of the ASPCA) and looking wistfully through pictures when I happened upon Elliott. He was a black and white fox terrier mix with a “˜joyous disposition’. I decided the next morning to go take a look. By that afternoon, Elliott tucked in the backseat, heading to my place.

The first thing I noticed was that while he was an energetic and loving dog, he was easily frightened. Not only did certain objects trigger his impulse to protect himself by barking and lunging (walking canes and soccer balls), he also suffered separation anxiety, housetraining issues, leash pulling and the occasional mawing incident. Many of these are common problems for shelter dogs, which are often kept in high-stress environments. Once they get to their new home it is imperative that they learn to relax and feel safe. It takes time, and it’s not always easy, but with some effort, it is most certainly possible. My cousin, who trains dogs, was able to walk me through my experience. But if you don’t have a pro in the family, let me help walk you through yours:

The First Few Hours:

The first few hours you bring your pup home are crucial to establishing your relationship. You want to decide before hand what areas (if any) are off limits to the dog. Can the dog go on the couch? Bed? Chairs? Where does he eat and drink? Where is his bed? These things should be established before you head to the shelter.

Once the dog arrives, let your new friend explore your place, only correcting if he goes into human-only areas. There will be a lot of sniffing and a lot of circling. If he tries to mark his territory then you must act quickly. Interrupt him with a loud noise (penny’s in a glass jar works wonders), strap on the leash and take him downstairs immediately. Do not stop to clean. He must know that it is unacceptable behavior and that outside is where he’s to use the bathroom. If, when you take him down, he relieves himself outside then praise it as good behavior.

Once the dog is comfortable, knows where water and food are, and has found the bed, leave him alone for a little bit. Leave the room and close the door. He may whine but it is important that the dog realize sometimes you’ll be out of the house. If the dog seems very distressed, you’ll have to take steps to combat separation anxiety (more on that below).

How Do you Establish Your Roles?

Establishing yourself as a leader is easier than you might think. You don’t have to go all Dog Whisperer on the poor thing. All dominance really is anyway is the direct control of resources so your job is to make sure your dog understands this. Since my dog understood the “˜sit’ command, I made sure he sat before he was allowed to enter the apartment. When he wanted to take a walk he had to sit. Before eating he had to sit. Before he gets a toy to play with he must sit. For everything he wanted he was required to complete a simple task. As he learned different tricks, those tasks rotate so I can make sure he’s paying attention to the actual command. Sometimes he must bark, other times lay down, or even high five me for something.

This method works well because the dog realizes that by exhibiting good behavior gets it what it wants. The dog is allowed to “˜think’ or “˜reason’ his own solution. This also means, of course, that good behavior must be rewarded every time. This doesn’t mean an endless line of treats as rewarding with love and affection works just as well.

Naughty Behavior:

I ignore bad behavior. I know it may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s rooted firmly in the study of domesticated dog packs. Within domesticated dog packs (not wolf packs, because your black lab has as much in common with a wolf as you do a chimpanzee) they found that dogs that exhibited bad behavior were often simply ignored by the majority of the pack. So when my dog would maw or jump on furniture he shouldn’t be on I would make a quick noise of admonishment and then ignore him for the next few minutes, sometimes even leaving the room. As soon as good behavior was resumed, so did my affection and love. So as soon as he jumped off the couch, I would tell him he was a good boy. It’s important to note here that holding grudges doesn’t work with dogs. You stay mad for hours and it won’t improve your dog’s behavior one bit, rather it could be detrimental to it. You must remember that a dog’s single goal in life is to hang out with you. If his behavior is working against that he will police its own actions quicker than you might think. 5-10 minutes is almost always a long enough period of punishment.

Another point worth noting is that the pack leader never gets into fights. They do not do alpha rolls, they do not ever fight to maintain their position. That’s actually what lesser pack members do. In homes with more than one dog it’s normal for those creatures to sometimes scuffle. They are least-ranking members of the family. Your position as leader revolves around resources and the needs of the group, that is all. So when you yell or shout or use physical punishment on your dog you are actually doing the opposite of showing it you’re in charge. In fact you are relinquishing control and showing how venerable you are. While if you withhold and ignore you are reinforcing your power and status within the relationship. Funnily enough–these same rules work with human interactions as well.

House Training and Leash Pulling:

If the dog thinks your hallways is a bathroom then time regulation is a must. Make sure you keep a very regular (down to the minute) schedule of when walks and potty breaks are. Make sure you are taking the dog out a number of times a day, and syncing it with his eating schedule. Because dogs digest quickly, you don’t want to give the bulk of food and water right before you leave for work. It is better to start with a little food and water and then give the bulk of it when you return home. If you develop a very reliable break schedule and give lots of praise the pup when he does what he is supposed to (yes that does mean cooing over dog shit) then he should be house broken in no time.

Now, when it comes to leash pulling you have to be a little careful. Some dogs (like mine) are bred to walk in front of their owners. To force them to heel or walk behind you at all times is going to frustrating for both of you. Let the dog lead if it must but keep a loose leash. If he starts to pull you just stop. You don’t have to do anything else. Stop and wait for him to come back to your side. Then start again. If he runs ahead, stop again as soon as you feel pressure on the lead. It is that simple. Another great trick is to change direction every time he pulls. Now at first this will be annoying and you may feel a bit silly walking back and forth on the same three feet of road for a half an hour (as I did). But the results should be apparent within the first week of this method. And believe me, a solid week of annoying walking habits is better than a life time of pulling and poor impulse control.

Separation Anxiety:

Easily the most heartbreaking behavioral disorder is separation anxiety. To hear your dog crying for you after you shut the front door can be excruciating and wearisome. In fact, separation anxiety is the #1 reason people return animals to the shelter. My dog had awful anxiety when I first took him home. It took intensive work to get him over his fears and build some confidence in him. But the steps are simple and just require you to commit to practicing them often.

First you want to desensitize your dog to cues of your departure. This part could take some times so patience is key. Put your coat on, grab your purse and then sit down. He will be confused. Shouldn’t you be leaving? Isn’t that what purses and coats mean? Not anymore. Take the coat and purse off and relax for ten minutes. Then repeat. Do this until he barely responds to the ritual of leaving.

Once he couldn’t care less, you up the ante. Put on the coat and purse and walk to the door. He may follow you. Again, take off your coat, give it some time and then do it again. When he is no longer chasing you around, open the door. When he no longer responds to that–or at least remains calm throughout the process–step outside it. Take baby steps. Once the dog is used to you stepping outside and closing the door, leave for a few minutes and come back. Once he’s used to that, leave for a half an hour. It is about graduating his exposure. But if he starts to get scared, you’ve gone too quickly. His anxiety about something is your signal that you need to dial it back to the last action he calmly observed.

Now, this is not something that can be done in an afternoon or weekend. It takes months. In the meantime, when you have to leave the house, make it as enjoyable as possible for him. Get a Kong and fill it with super delicious treats. Invest in puzzle toys that will keep him occupied while you are away. You may find just using a Kong every time can lessen the pain of your departure to the point where he hardly notices.

If you find your dog is not responding to any of these methods, vomiting, defecating, scratching until injury or throwing themselves against the door you will absolutely want to seek professional help. It’s a sad reality, but some dogs have been hurt so badly in the past they lack survival faculties and can be dangers to themselves when left on their own. If this is the case, hire a personal trainer and ask the vet about anti-anxiety meds for dogs. It may not be the preferable solution, but the dog’s safety must come first.

Shelter dogs are wonderful, caring, beautiful creatures that I cannot say enough for. In fact, the past 3 dogs I’ve owned have all come from shelters, each becoming a loving member of my family. Many of these dogs come from all walks of life and it shouldn’t be assumed that all have been neglected or abused. That said, shelter life can take its toll, so just make sure you are armed with a good knowledge of dog training essentials.

The personal story of my own dog is incredibly heartbreaking and filled with abuse and awful neglect. He has bounced back from that with almost no hint of his once tragic past. Sometimes when I tell people what he went through they simply refuse to believe it because he is so well adjusted. Dogs can be amazing in this respect: they almost never give up on their need to love. It may take some time and it most certainly will take some work, but with a bit of patience and lots of consistency most dogs from shelters can make an amazing addition to your family.

About the Image: By Adrian Flint (Sony Digital Camera) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

12 thoughts on “So You Decided to Adopt a Dog”

  1. I don’t have a dog (though I’d love to have one), but I do have a question about someone else’s dogs. An acquaintance has two small dogs that she keeps “kenneled” while she is gone. The first time I went to her home and saw this I felt so awful that these two dogs stay in a kennel for at least 9-10 hours each day. She says this is the only way that she can keep them from whining and annoying her neighbors while she is gone. Is this a normal or acceptable practice? I found it really cruel.

    I’d also like to add that she doesn’t take them for walks. She just takes them on the leash to her back patio to poop after work and that’s it. These dogs are really well trained and loved otherwise.

    1. I can’t speak to your friend’s specific situation, but kenneling dogs when you’re not home is accepeted and even encourage. Aside from the fact that it prevents them for getting into trouble when unsupervised, most dogs find have a safe place to call their own preferable.

      My younger dog has a spacious crate with her blanket and a Nylabone, and she happily puts herself in there when I need to leave. When we’re home, though, she often takes a toy and goes in there to relax and hang out.Her kennel is always a positive place that she enjoys; kennels should never be used for punishment.

  2. I registered for Persephone just to comment on this article – great advice!!

    It is heartbreaking to see shelter dogs returned for behavioral issues similar to those described above. But, with a little time and patience, a shelter dog makes a great addition to any family. My avatar is my last foster dog from the shelter where I volunteer – he had a rough life, and when I took him out of the shelter he was absolutely terrified of people. 24 hours later, he adored me. It took a while to find a great family because he takes longer then most dogs to warm up to people, but just last week he found a wonderful forever home.

    Thank you for the great tips, and for encouraging shelter dog rescue!

  3. I need a lot of help with my adopted dog. She is sweet and cuddly with the family, but tries to attack anyone else who enters our home. She is big enough to cause serious damage, so we have to keep her on a leash or put away in a bedroom whenever people are over. Its getting tiresome, but I don’t know what else to do.

    1. Have a trusted friend who likes dogs help you with this.

      1) Prep the friend with treats to give the dog.

      2) Have the dog baby-gated away or someone else holding him on a leash.

      3) Get down on the dog’s level with the friend.

      4) In a super-excited voice, hug your friend while saying things like “This is my friiiieeeeend!” (Really, it doesn’t matter what you say, so long as it’s super-happy-sounding. You want the dog to know that this person is a Good Thing.)

      5) When the dog seems ready, allow the dog to approach the person to sniff them (either by the person with the leash coming closer or by getting yourselves closer to the baby gate). Praise the dog for being non-aggressive; you or the friend can give the dog treats for being friendly.

      You might not get all five steps done in one day, but it’s definitely doable.

        1. Hey!
          I actually had this same problem with my own dog. He’s not protective but he did a lot of jumping up on people. One main thing I did was practice ‘down’ and ‘relax’ commands with my dog. I also put a relax mat down near the door where he can stay down until he is released from the command.

          Teach the ‘down’ or ‘relax’ command and reinforce it a couple times a day in non stressful situations. Once he’s got it down, make the situation just a little stressful. The sound of a doorbell or a knock but nobody entering. You can slowly try to desensitize the dog and make sure it obeys it’s ‘down’ command no matter what happens.

          It might be that dog feels protective of you. If that’s the case you need to make sure it knows you are firmly in charge. You don’t need protection. That means when a somebody comes to the door or something happens you need to act very confidant and calm. Stand up very straight, keep a strong posture, and tell the dog to relax into its designated area. Don’t repeat yourself. If he doesn’t do as he’s told, you need to go back to the level where he obeyed you last and keep working on that.

          Also make sure that your dog has a ‘release’ word. So if you tell it to sit, the dog stays put no matter what until you give the magic word. This will help reinforce the ‘down’ later on.
          Hope it helps!

  4. Great post! I am hoping to adopt my first dog soon (need a job with benefits first so I can afford the things I need to responsibly have a dog). She is being fostered by a friend of a friend for a rescue organization, so I’m able to visit her and get some bonding time in. I definitely know that there will be some issues when I first get her (she is a bit sassy, haha), but those are totally worth it for the companionship.

  5. Great guide! My friends have one particular shelter dog that I’ve had the pleasure to see grow from one of the most timid scared dogs to one of the sweetest, most loving pups in the world. We got our pup from a family breeder (allergy considerations had put the kibosh on a couple previous shelter pups to much heartache), but when we’re ready for another, we’re going to try the shelters again.

    For those looking for more dog training tips, I loved learning from watching It’s Me or the Dog. Victoria Stillwell (the host) has a great book of the same title, too.

  6. My two shelter dogs and I love this article. They were both adult dogs when we adopted them (my 12-year-old boy was 6, and my 10-year-old girl was 8), so they had a whole history we had to contend with. Boy Dog had been abused in a number of ways, and was actually within a day of being PTS at one point, because he was so “vicious” that they had to feed him by pushing his food through the kennel grate with a stick. He’s curled up on my lap, snoozing, right now. Girl Dog was used as a breeding dog, which is ridiculous, because she’s clearly not purebred. At all. We had to get her spayed at 8 years old, and she had never been taught “sit” or “lie down.” She just sat pretty and shook my hand for a treat a few minutes ago.

    Shelter or rescue dogs take extra work, but it’s so worth it. My two bring such joy and love to me, and they want for nothing in this world. I figure I owe them that after they had such a rough start in life.

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