What it’s Like to Adopt a Rescue Dog

“Lucy! You’ve Got Some Training to Do!”

My husband’s mom adopted Lucy, the Shih-Tzu, about a month ago. Lucy tugged on Nedah’s heartstrings and motivated her to use her brain power to make sure Lucy’s new life would be wonderful. I interviewed Nedah so she could share her experience with adopting an adult rescue dog from a rescue organization. I thought people might like to hear what the process was like for one recent adopter.

This picture shows Lucy, the rescue dog, just a few days before publication. She is surrounded by her toys. She still looks a little concerned, but is standing and looking at the camera – a newly confident undertaking for her, almost a month into living with Nedah.

Nedah has had 3 previous dogs. The first two she got as puppies. She adopted Buddy, the most recent, as an adult.

Nedah and I talk about her background with dogs and what we know about Lucy’s history.

Lucy was bred a number of times in her early life. When her owner surrendered her to the rescue group at the age of 5, she immediately went to the vet to be spayed and have some other medical needs attended to. She spent a month in her foster home. That’s a lot of changes in the life of a little rescue dog for whom everything may have been consistent, if not ideal, for a number of years! Based on the behavior she has seen, Nedah suspects no one socialized Lucy to humans very well when she was a pup.

Nedah first met Lucy at an adoption event. The organization she worked with held the event to showcase the rescue dogs in their care.

Nedah describes how she chose Lucy to be her dog.

Behavior Observations at the Rescue Dog Event

At the adoption event, Lucy was quiet in the midst of a large group of yappy rescue dogs. When taken out of the pen, she appeared to be “shy”. Nedah saw the red flags, but Lucy tugged at her heartstrings, so Nedah adopted her. She picked Lucy up a week later, the day before Mother’s Day.

Walking with her dog is a very important activity for Nedah, but Lucy was not responding happily to a leash with her foster mom. Nedah knew she could gently and carefully teach Lucy the joys of going for walks with her, so that did not dissuade her. Besides, her daughter-in-law is a dog trainer!

Lucy may not have been on a leash much before. Even if she was, it’s clear that she did not have good experiences with leashes. But she is learning that leashes provide opportunities for fun!

High Stress Levels in a Rescue Dog

Lucy showed her high stress level on the ride home and in her first days with Nedah by being very still and stiff. Dogs can exhibit stress either in this way or in more outward demonstrations, by behaving frantically, trying to get away, and even snapping and biting. When they are still and stiff like Lucy was, people may misread them as being “shy” but comfortable, because these dogs seem to allow petting and handling.

Fortunately, Nedah understood that Lucy was stressed and shut down. When dogs want to be petted and handled, they approach and “ask” for it. When they are still and stiff, they are merely tolerating being touched and should be left alone until they feel comfortable enough to voluntarily interact. It’s only fair to allow dogs to express what they want; this is sometimes called giving them agency. Of course, we can use training and conditioning to help them change their emotional responses as well as their desires.

Helping Lucy Adjust to Her New Home

Nedah follows a careful routine, which is probably helping Lucy reduce stress. Science has shown that stress is reduced when dogs have some control over what is happening and when they can make their own choices about participating. Routines help dogs predict what is likely to happen next, and that gives them control. It also allows them to make the choice to take part in the activities or not. These same approaches help all species, including humans, reduce stress.

Physical Effects of Stress in this Rescue Dog: Movement

At first, Lucy was pacing on her walks. Pacing is a gait dogs often use when they are in pain. It is not a natural gait for them. You can recognize pacing when you see the front and rear legs on the same side of the body move in unison. In Lucy’s case, the pacing may have been due to tight muscles from internalizing her stress. When we noticed her pacing, appearing uncomfortable, we were a little concerned that Lucy may have some pain in her back. By Day 13 in her new home, Lucy was trotting on her walks, indicating increased comfort with her movement. I was amazed that this symptom of pain or discomfort resolved so quickly. This is the first time I’ve seen a case in which stress may have produced this dramatic gait change, but it fits the physiology of stress.

This video shows Lucy pacing. You can see her body swaying from side to side as she walks, rather than the more bouncy, wiggly movements produced when using a natural gait like walking or trotting. Pacing is not a natural gait and indicates physical discomfort.

Rescue Dogs May Not Eat Well at First

Nedah made a statement that makes a lot of sense:  Lucy started eating well when she finally got comfortable enough in her new home to be able to respond to her hunger. It’s important to recognize that stress has physiological consequences. As with movement challenges, where stress can cause muscle tension and actual soreness so that the gait is affected, stress can also result in an uncomfortable tummy. 

Nedah tells me about Lucy’s issues with eating meals and with taking treats from her hand. Lucy is getting better at both of these skill sets now.

Stress Can Cause Problems with Eating

As humans, we are familiar with digestive upsets that come with stress and nervousness. Dogs can have the same responses. Once the stress level comes down, dogs can finally respond to the hunger pangs, eat a bit, and have the experience of feeling better afterward. At that point, they are well on their way to being able to eat normally!

A dog who doesn’t eat well is most likely stressed. There is really no such thing as a dog who is not “food motivated,” because dogs must eat in order to live. It is in the make-up of dogs to eat ravenously, to be super-interested in food when it is near, and to take advantage of food availability. 

Dogs evolved as scavengers, searching for scraps among human living areas and raising their pups to do the same. For more on the topic of the domestication of dogs, check out Raymond and Lorna Coppinger’s 2001 book, Dogs:  A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution. When dogs don’t behave in these characteristic ways, it’s because they are not well. The imbalance may be either physical or psychological.

In Lucy’s case, we don’t know how she was fed in the past. She may have had food available at all times and developed a routine of eating small amounts all day. If so, her digestive system and eating behaviors would have adapted to this lifestyle. It will take a little time for Lucy to learn to eat meals rather than grazing. She and Nedah are working together to develop a regular mealtime schedule. Read The Mannerly Dog’s blog post on Feeding Your Dog for more information. 

Lucy is very good at relieving herself ONLY outdoors!

Shutting Down vs. Aggression in a Rescue Dog

It’s important to respect and respond appropriately to a dog’s polite signals that she’s had enough. This is true especially when a dog is not behaving aggressively. If dogs “attack”, people back off. If dogs shut down, people often continue “coming at them” to carry out the medical care and grooming tasks that are making the dog uncomfortable. That’s not fair. 

Stress Signals in Dogs

Nedah and I talk about Lucy’s specific fears and experiences with the vet’s office and groomer. Lucy, you’ve got some training to do!

Dogs use a hierarchy of signals when they need to get a point across. In cases where stress escalates during a series of experiences that they interpret as threatening, dogs may begin with the most subtle of stress signals. They may stiffen a little, put their ears back, or simply lean away from whatever is happening. If humans recognize these early signals and make changes so that the threat is removed, they may see the dog begin to offer friendly gestures. 

Gimme a Break!

Many times, giving a dog a short break with a little petting and playful interaction allows them to relax and be ready to start again. This is especially true when the humans change the plan and use a less threatening technique to approach what needs to be done. Because choice and control reduce stress, offering tasty treats and introducing medical or grooming tools in small doses is incredibly helpful. 

Control and Choice Help Reduce Stress in Rescue Dogs

Giving a stressed dog just a little control over the situation by respecting signals showing that they have had enough can help them learn to tolerate handling much better. Unfortunately, the human tendency is to do “just do a little more” because we have our eyes on the prize – task completion. The dog sees things very differently. She is tolerating another, yet another, and one more intrusion. The threats just keep coming and she doesn’t know when it will end, unless we’ve taught her what to expect from the process.  

Giving dogs and cats choices along with some simple skills for participating in their own care can help them approach veterinary care and grooming confidently, understanding their role in the process. The Mannerly Dog’s Beyond Basic Manners Course includes exercises to condition pets to handling and veterinary and grooming procedures in the most effective and efficient way. It also teaches owners how to plan ahead and prepare pets for what to expect.

Rescue Dogs are Learning All the Time

Dogs’ personalities and behavioral tendencies are not static. All animals, including humans, are learning all the time. Every experience leaves behind lessons that are used during the next experience that comes along. This is why it is so important to ensure that every experience is a good one. Dogs with the tendency to show still, stiff body postures while tolerating human intrusions may escalate toward defending themselves when they’ve had enough. Owners’ active engagement in turning potentially bad experiences into good ones is always the best approach. Veterinary teams and groomers can help by following these same guidelines.

Are People Trustworthy?

Lucy is rather fearful of humans but she is learning to trust her new mom to protect her. Nedah understands that her role is to make sure Lucy always feels secure. Lucy doesn’t run away as much anymore but also does not yet approach other people for interaction. These days, she sometimes goes to Nedah when she feels the need for security. There are exercises to condition Lucy to be more comfortable around people; however, the first step is to protect her from situations that she is not ready for.

Ouch! That Hurts My Ears!

Lucy does not seem to be concerned with passing airplanes, even though they live very close to a major airport. But she startles dramatically with sudden, loud noises like the truck emptying the dumpster at their complex. The power of Association, or Pavlovian Conditioning, is the best way to start turning that around. “Parties” involving treats, special toys, or games with Mom should immediately follow loud noises. This mimics the approach in Pavlov’s lab where the sound of a metronome preceded the delivery of food.  (You’ve probably heard it was a bell, but it actually wasn’t!) Because Lucy’s response of startling and attempting to escape from loud noises is based in emotion, Pavlovian conditioning is the way she can learn to change that emotion from fear to anticipation of something good. The process is also known as both classical conditioning and association, if you see those topics online. They are all the exact same thing.  

Rescue Dogs Have to Feel Safe Before They Can Play With Toys

Lucy looked at the toys, but didn’t play with them at first.

On her first day home, Lucy noticed the basket full of toys Nedah had set up for her. A couple of days later, she sniffed around in the basket. Another day went by before she took a toy out of the basket.

On Day 3, Lucy took a toy from the toy basket, but was not comfortable enough to really play with it.

After another couple of days, she took ALL the toys out of the basket and arranged them along the edges of her mat! At the point where she had been in her new home for almost a week, Lucy played with a toy by rolling around with it on the mat. Now, Lucy plays with her toys at least once a day, sometimes 2 or 3 times.

It’s Day 6 in her new home, and Lucy feels safe enough to roll around with a toy, appearing to have a good time!

Some Dogs Arrange Their Toys in Patterns!

In the interview, Nedah and I mentioned Lucy arranging her toys on her mat. Toy arranging is infinitely interesting to me, but there is little research on the topic. This is most likely because it is uncommon.  However, if you do a search online, you’ll find a fair number of comments on social media sites from people who describe their own dogs arranging toys. It will be fun to see if Lucy maintains this behavior as part of her behavioral repertoire. Take a look at my previous blog post on dog temperaments to learn a little about the genetics of this behavior. Below, I’ve included two videos of Donnie the Doberman, who was a master of toy arranging.

Lucy arranged her toys around the edges of her mat in this pattern on May 26, Day 15 in her new home.
Lucy created this somewhat similar arrangement on June 9, Day 29 in her new home. Notice she has placed two toys together at the center bottom edge of the mat in both photos. There is also a bone at the right of the photo both times, and a similarly-shaped stuffed toy in nearly the exact same position at the upper left corner in both. Do you see other similarities? Differences? What does it mean? I don’t know, but I sure want to explore it further!
Video #1 of Donnie the Doberman, master of toy arranging.
Video #2 of Donnie the Doberman and his toy-arranging skills.

Rescue Groups Have More to Learn About Dog Behavior Science

Nedah has only good things to say about the rescue organization she worked with. She also sees room for the application of dog behavior science to help rescue people help the dogs they love. I see the same possibilities.

Nedah pointed out that she had a great experience with the rescue group she worked with, but that they did not seem to fully understand dog body language. In my own experience, rescue groups and shelters commonly use words like “shy” in attempts to present fearful dogs in ways that don’t scare adopters away. But using behavior-based language may be a better way to provide a clear description of a dog so that adopters and rescue people can work as a team to ensure every animal gets what they need.   

Security Comes First for Rescue Dogs

Nedah has learned that helping a dog feel safe comes first.

Nedah’s advice to adopters is to first help a dog feel safe. She does a great job of describing how she is working to give Lucy choices of activities and some control over her life. Giving pets choice and control should be our main goal in building the behaviors we want. It is particularly important for those pets who have a history of inconsistency or trauma, but they all need our help to learn to live successfully in our homes and in our human-centered society.

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