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Adopting a Rescue Dog – Karen Phillips

Labrador1_webIt’s an amazing thing to give a rescue dog a home.  Most of us find it impossible to resist the lure of a cute puppy so to make the decision to adopt an adult dog that is looking for a ‘forever home’ is something quite special.  Of course, the bonus is that you get to miss out on the not so fun puppy things such as toilet training!

The down-side is that rescue dogs sometimes come with baggage.  There are many, many different reasons why a dog ends up in a shelter or being sold on to a new home.  It could be because someone brought a puppy into their lives without realising the time and work required or selected the wrong breed for their lifestyle.  I rescued a border collie many years ago from a breeder who decided that, because the dog just couldn’t cope in a twenty dog household with no one-on-one time or education, she would “get rid of her” because it was all too much work.  Then there are the really sad cases where beautiful animals are physically abused and neglected, but all of these situations are heartbreaking with the biggest loser always being the dog.

It is highly likely that a rescue dog has missed out on socialisation with other dogs and people when it was a puppy, which is after all, the most critical period of dog development.  Since it has never been taught to interact with other dogs, it might lunge and bark when it encounters new dogs.  This behaviour exists because the dog is anxious and doesn’t understand how to act so it chooses to defend itself, just in case.  The other extreme is that the dog tries to run away or hide from new people, which is what my little rescue dog did.

Working through this lack of confidence involves plenty of patience and an understanding of how to deal with any situations as they arise.  Create distance from things that the dog is worried about and use enormous quantities of rewards to work on changing its emotional response to a situation where it shows anxiety, no matter how it is displayed.

A confident dog will be calm and relaxed whenever it encounters new dogs or people so any time your dog isn’t calm and relaxed, you can be fairly certain it is stressed and worried.  Telling it off, yelling, yanking on leads or forcing it to get closer will only serve to make the problem worse.  You must approach it with the mindset that your dog is worried and unsure, not that it is trying to be naughty.  It needs you to help by providing protection and using food to make it feel warm and fuzzy.  When creating distance from something it is worried about, you will know it is far enough if it is able to take the food you are offering as a reward.  If it won’t take the food, then you are too close since a dog not eating is often a sign of stress.  You can work on getting closer when the dog is starting to get more confident.

Bringing a rescue dog into a home where there is another dog can be a little bit tricky, especially if the rescue dog has issues.  Before deciding if a rescue dog is right, take your existing dog and the rescue dog somewhere that is neutral territory and let them meet in a non-confrontational way.  Just like people, dogs don’t necessarily like every other dog that they meet.  One of my dogs is very selective about his doggy friends but that’s just his personality and, as his owner, I make sure that new encounters are done very carefully.

If your dog and the rescue dog hate each other on sight on neutral territory it may be advisable to reconsider your choice.  They may get used to each other over time but you are potentially going to create a big issue once the dogs are home if they never decide that they like each other.  Far better for all involved to find a rescue dog that your own dog thinks is OK, right from the beginning, and allow the other to find a home that it will be happier in.

When bringing the new dog home for the first time, make everything non-confrontational so that both the new dog and the existing dog have no reason to feel threatened by each other’s presence.  If I have visitors with dogs I always let the new dog outside to explore alone and keep my own dogs inside.  Once the new dog is busy sniffing and checking out the new surroundings, I let one of my dogs out to meet the new dog with me along to supervise just in case they decide they don’t like each other.  I give them time to relax and get over the initial meeting before bringing them inside.

If your existing dog is bossy and pushy, put him outside and let the new dog explore the house in peace.  At meal times give them both plenty of space apart.  Also spend time rewarding them both when they are together with you.  If one of my dogs starts to behave possessively when they are with me and another dog comes to say ‘hi’, I get a handful of treats and with them both sitting in front of me, give them rewards for sitting calmly together.  Never forget the power of food whenever dog training.  Food makes a dog feel good.  If you feed a dog when they are unhappy about something it will work towards the beginning of a much happier dog since the food helps to create that ‘feel good’ feeling.


Karen and RiotKaren Phillips is the owner and trainer of Riot, the beautiful Border Collie that is the Better Pets and Gardens mascot.  Karen has had immense experience and success with her dogs, all border collies except for Cassie, the very fast papillon, and is currently involved as a trainer with the Agility Club of WA.  Karen is also a regular expert on our Facebook page every Monday night.

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