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.
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.
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.