The Number 1 Mistake people make with Rescue Dogs
Meet Gypsy, a stray dog who had been brought into the local vet surgery with serious injuries after being hit by a train in Victoria, Australia. She had been rescued by railway workers, whose responsibility is to patrol the track, removing any items of debris that could cause an accident (including dead animals).
They found a tiny, fragile dog lying by the track in a terrible state. When they went to throw what they thought was a dead dog into the container, she moved. They initially decided to leave her to die. Thankfully, their consciences go the better of them and they took her to the local vet clinic.
Upon initial inspection of the patient, they determined that she was too injured to try to save. She had a fractured jaw and skull and a badly broken leg. It would have cost thousands to save her. Once again, the little dog got lucky; they also quickly thought better of it and operated on her.
Her original name was “Vee” (named after the V-Line train that hit her – nice). Maybe she took offence to this name, because the vets who named her found she was impossible to handle. Every time they went near her cage at the clinic, she would growl and snarl at them like a demon (the ingrate in a crate).
Normally, she would have been transferred to a local dog rescue centre, but given her aggressive behaviour, the vets decided to call us to see if she could look after this particular patient for a while.
On a Monday morning at the end of 2012, I was sat watching live American football (the time difference is big between the two countries) when Hayley arrived with this trembling, obviously frightened, bat-like creature. We carried her crate outside with as little fuss as possible as she was a smelly bat too (she had toileted in the cage at the clinic and wouldn’t let anyone near to clean up).
Hayley then left me with this creature while she went off to work. My first reaction was to carry on watching the game and leave her to settle into her new digs at first. As I had been told of her aggression, I wanted to be sure that she was not going to try to go for me when I let her out. This meant walking near the crate with my video camera so she could get used to my movements (and I could gauge her reaction to me). Happily, it was quickly clear that Gypsy was fine once she realized I wasn’t going to kill her right away. In fact, by the time Hayley came home, I had already given Gypsy a bath (much needed) and she was asleep on the blanket.
One of the biggest – and most understandable – mistakes made by people when they take in a new rescue or foster dog is to try to “make it up” to the dog for any previous negative experience that they may have suffered. It is all too human to lavish the new arrival with affection and treats to “make them feel at home”.
Don’t misunderstand me here; you will be able to be as loving and affectionate as you want to make your dog’s new life as happy as possible. Unfortunately, there is a massive temptation to lavish a new rescue dog with all of this affectionate immediately, which can have a detrimental effect as the dog can feel overwhelmed with so many stimuli in a completely new environment. Some will shut down to cope, while others may actually react negatively, especially if the information given is not correct. Remember that most dog bites occur because a dog is trying to tell someone to not invade their personal space, so cuddling a dog can be a problem at first.
Although it is hard, the most important thing that you can do to minimize risks and give the dog a positive initial experience is to pay less attention. The dog needs time to get used to the new place, so hold back with the affection until you feel that the dog is ready - less is definitely more. At the very least, you can feed the dog and let it out to the toilet. Once you feel that the dog is getting used to your presence, try calling it to you. If it comes, then a quick and calm fuss is perfect (there is time to build this up later). If the dog does not come, that is a clear sign that it is not ready yet, so try again another time. If, however, the dog comes to you and you did not ask, although this is a great first step it is important not to react (remember that you did not ask for this interaction). Wait until the dog leaves you alone, and then call it to you. Everything is on your terms, which shows the dog that you have what it takes to be the decision maker in this new pack. This in turn will help them settle in quicker but remember, patience is a virtue.
N.B. Be prepared for your dog to appear completely different to the one you took from the refuge. Once in a new environment, some dogs that were previously shut down will feel liberated (and vice versa!)
Although I had given Gypsy a bath on her first day, it was only after I had already left her alone and waited for her to make the first step of approaching to sniff me. Even then, it was crucial that I did not react to avoid spooking her initially. I limited my interactions with her while she took time to explore her new surroundings. I allowed her outside to go to the toilet but I did everything in a matter-of-fact fashion.
Giving her this space at first meant that she quickly relaxed in my company. Only when I felt that she was ready for an interaction did I call her to me. I did not approach her; this is what had made her react in the vet clinic. When Hayley picked Gypsy up at the vets, she also made sure that she was as nonchalant as possible to take pressure off as much as possible.
I did not expect to be able to give Gypsy a bath on the first day; that was a bonus that I was able to achieve because the initial ground work had gone so well. If I had rushed it, I may have put Gypsy under pressure and she may have reacted.
Typically, dogs need a couple of w