Rescuing a dog is one of the most rewarding and challenging jobs you will ever face.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and all behaviors and personalities should be assessed on a case-by-case basis when bringing a new pet home from the kennel. Loving and training a rescue dog can be hard work, but understanding rescue dog behavior will make it much easier on both you and your new family member.
When you bring home a rescue dog, be prepared for the experience to be a journey, not a quick transition. With work and training your dog may become a beloved member of your family, but improving your dog's behavior won't be an overnight event. Instead, prepare yourself for the training and time it will take to gain your new dog's trust and establish those habits that will allow him to live peacefully in his new home with you.
Common Issues in Rescue Dogs
Each rescue will also have a specific set of difficulties to keep in mind that stem from breed characteristics, size, and age. These common dog home hurdles are experienced by all dog owners, regardless of if your dog is a rescue dog or not. For example, old adult dogs are going to be a bit ornery, regardless of how they were trained and raised. This can be caused by external pain, or loss of sight or hearing that results in them being spooked easier, as well as health issues. These dogs might have lived through multiple foster homes, making good behavior partially at the mercy of any previous training methods used.
The same goes for small breeds. They have their own specific attitude and behavior issues, and house training can often be difficult. Some of these issues are ingrained in each dog based on their lineage and can never be resolved fully.
Rescue dogs have a few common obstacles that they face due to neglect, abuse, or both. These get layered on top of whatever special breed quirks they have in their DNA, and suddenly you've got your hands full! A big part of loving a rescue dog is understanding why they behave the way they do. If you can understand why they might be acting unfavorably, you have a better shot at being able to re-train your rescue in their new life.
1. Food Aggression and Resource Guarding
This is a big issue with some rescues and sometimes prevents dogs from going to homes with children. Dogs that have been neglected or a stray for a long time get protective of their food.
They may have lived day to day having to fight for food, not knowing when they were going to get their next meal. So when they do have food, they get protective, barking, snarling, and even biting because they feel threatened.
Some dogs outgrow this behavior after being in a home, putting on weight, and realizing that no one is going to take their food away. Other dogs need to be crated when they get fed for this reason. Crate training is also a recommended form of training your rescue dog with behavioral issues.
Most dogs that are adopted out of shelters have been tested to see if they show signs of food aggression. If it's an issue, the adoption counselor will let you know. However, some dogs may not show this behavior problem until they are in a new environment.
Resource guarding is essentially the same as food aggression, but includes food, all other objects, and even people. This is actually left over from dogs' ancestral instincts. In the wild they would protect their survival resources (dens, food, or young) from predators.
In rescue dogs that have primarily been strays, this reactive instinctual behavior will often resurface in the form of guarding toys, beds, people, or anything else important to the dog. Training with an E-collar or other methods is a big help with any aggressive behaviors and a big factor in welcoming a rescue into a home successfully.
This is a very common and very unique hurdle for each dog. Each dog will have different fears, different levels of fear, and different reactions to that fear. Much like humans, dogs have a fight or flight response when faced with fear, each of which is equally dangerous. If a dog responds to fear with a fight response, that is a big issue and puts potential owners at risk. A dog responding to fear with a flight response can be an issue as well. When left alone, dogs have been known to chew through walls to get away from whatever is scaring them.
If outside or on a leash, they can spook and take off. This is one reason it is important to microchip your pets. If they are trying to get away from something that is scaring them, they will find a way, and it's important that they have a way to get home in the event that something like this happens. There are a number of ways to help dogs with their fears through training, positive reinforcement, and exposure. A dog behaviorist can help you with these fear-based common behavior problems.
Disciplining rescues when they slip is probably the hardest part. Whether it's a pointed finger or a sharp command, they react differently than other dogs. Through time this gets better as they learn to trust that you're not going to hurt them if you yell or otherwise have a negative interaction with them.
You have to teach rescue dogs things that most dogs already know how to do. Some need to be taught how to play with toys, or go potty outside. I had to teach my rescue dog how to play with toys, how to go up and down stairs, not to chew on his feet, as well as all basic commands. These are milestones that don't seem important to non-rescue dog owners, but they are a big deal to rescue parents.
Depending on the background of the rescue, socialization with humans or dogs can prove difficult. This is largely based on the history of the specific rescue dog and how they were treated or introduced to humans and dogs. Socializing can be achieved in many different ways, and it is up to you to find a way that works for both you and your pup. Some dogs benefit immensely from exposure therapy. You'll also need a strong understanding of canine body language so you can monitor your dog's comfort level. Repeatedly putting the dog in the situation that makes him nervous will eventually get him comfortable with the stimuli. For other dogs, this does not work and only makes them more nervous.
Other dogs benefit from activities like a dog park that can slowly introduce them to new stimuli and environments over time and in gradual increments. This gives extremely nervous or fearful dogs a chance to gradually warm up to something that puts them on edge.
6. Housebreaking and Marking
For shelter dogs that have never been taught where to go to the bathroom, housebreaking can be a big rescue dog behavior that sometimes lands dogs back in the shelter. More often than not, they have been reprimanded severely for accidents when they simply don't understand where they should be eliminating. Male dogs will also mark in a new house or environment. They may feel uncomfortable or threatened, so this is an act to make the area their own or show dominance. Some dogs cannot be trained out of this behavior depending on its severity. They make belly bands for this issue, and some male dogs might have to wear them at all times while in the house.
7. Destructive Behavior
Destructive behavioral problems are usually linked to separation anxiety or excessive energy. When dogs are anxious or bored they might engage in destructive behavior simply for something to do or to calm their nerves. Reprimanding a dog that is showing destructive behaviors is not the answer. Dogs are not acting this way out of spite, but rather are trying to tell you that something isn't quite right. Consulting a professional dog trainer or dog behaviorist can help.
Rescue dogs will bring an unconditional level of love to your life, but they will test your patience, and need some help to become a successful family member. Understanding rescue dog behavior can help you and your new dog become best friends. With love and lots of patience and training, you'll have a loyal, loving new member of your family.
What types of rescue dog behavior have you experienced? Tell us on the Wide Open Pets Facebook page!
This post was originally published on February 21, 2020.