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The No 1 mistake people make with a rescue Dog (and how to avoid it)

Last week I received a message from a friend of mine who works in dog rescue. Her husband had been out walking their Golden Retrievers in a local off-leash park when they met a couple with a clearly over-excited Boxer. This couple let their dog off, whereupon it ran straight towards the Goldies and started attacking one of them. My friend’s husband received a mouthful of abuse from the owners of the Boxer as he tried to get the attacker off his dog. They also told him that they had only just got the dog from a rescue centre and they wanted to see what it was like with other dogs. I can well imagine that the Boxer would be taken back to the centre almost immediately with the judgement that it was “damaged goods”. Many rescue organisations talk about the “yoyo effect” – a dog goes to a new home, starts to behave badly and comes right back to the rescue centre. Some dogs have known multiple homes in a relatively short space of time.

What makes this situation even sadder is that this could be easily avoided when you understand one crucial mistake that people often make when taking on a new rescue dog. What is the saying about good intentions?

One of the biggest – and most understandable – mistakes made by people when they adopt or foster a new rescue 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 stimulus 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.

Also, all dogs will assess any changes in their circumstances. Two such big changes are a change of environment and family. Both these factors will cause a dog to ask questions and – if the dog feels overwhelmed – they can panic. When anyone panics, the reaction is never controlled and measured. Letting a dog off in a new environment and hoping for the best is not the responsible thing to do, whether you have a rescue dog or not.

Although it is hard, the most important thing that I advise brand new owners of rescue dogs do to minimize risks and give the dog a positive initial experience is to pay less attention at first. The dog needs time to get used to the new place and family, so hold back with the affection until you feel that the dog is ready. 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, 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.

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 (or vice versa!)

Typically, dogs need a couple of weeks to get fully used to their new environment and family. Giving them time to do this will set you up for success. If we try too hard to make them feel welcome right away, they can be overwhelmed. After two weeks, they will start to ask calmer questions to find out what their role is in the team. At this point, knowledge of the way dogs think and communicate will prove invaluable to you. Bear in mind though that some individuals will start asking questions from the word go, so be prepared to step up to the role of the one to trust right away. This is particularly helpful if a dog has previously had bad experiences; knowing that you can trust someone is incredibly important.

Once you feel that your dog is responsive and calm indoors, you can then take your first steps into the outside world. Even people living in apartments can take their time if they limit the new environment to the surroundings of the building. Take your time and you will get there in the right way; too much too soon can lead to big problems.

Remember, patience is a virtue.

Tony’s eBook dedicated to Rescue Dogs is available at

#rescuedogsandwhatnottodo #tonyknightdogwhisperer #trainingyourrescuedog

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