Lately, it seems that we are seeing more and more animal abuse cases. I’m so thankful for all of our local media bringing to light the plight of these innocent creatures that have suffered in the hands of those who can’t or won’t properly care for their animals. For most of these animals, the lives they led before they were rescued were unimaginable to most of us. Filthy conditions, lack of food and little, if any, positive, friendly human contact force these pets to live in “survival mode.”
The media coverage is also a wonderful tool to help these animals find new “forever families” willing to open their hearts and homes and give these pets a fresh start. As a local dog trainer, I see many dogs from situations like this in my classes and private clients who are looking for assistance in helping these dogs transition into their new lives.
One of the first things we talk about is expectations. It’s important to remember that these dogs have virtually no concept of what to expect (or what is expected of them) when they are placed in a real home and family situation. Setting expectations too high in the beginning and/or falling into the mindset that they must be pampered and felt sorry for can lead to failure on all fronts. Patience and consistency are the two most important things adopters will need, followed by the ability to accept the dog at the end of the leash in that moment. In the beginning, there will be limitations of what the dog can emotionally handle, and how much training can be accomplished. Being able to take things one small step at a time is the best approach, building with positive reinforcement a strong foundation of trust and understanding.
Housetraining (teaching the dog to relieve himself outdoors) is one of the biggest hurdles that needs to be overcome. This is best handled by frequent trips outdoors to a designated “potty spot” followed by lots of reinforcement (really yummy treats) coupled with close supervision indoors. Dogs that are given too much freedom too soon will not be as successful, as they can sneak off to eliminate in a private indoor spot. Keep in mind that for many of these dogs, indoors may have been the only potty option, which is the case in many hoarding situations. Dogs that are kenneled 24/7 also don’t usually learn to be clean, and need some extra patience in the housetraining department.
Social skills are often another area that many of these dogs are lacking in. Many have had limited if any exposure to people, other animals, noises, etc. The critical period for socialization in dogs is from about three to 16 weeks of age. After that it becomes increasingly more difficult for most dogs to accept novel situations. Progress can be made, but it takes much more time, and some dogs will remain unable to accept new things easily. Again, here is where it is so important to be able to accept the dog at the end of the leash for what he or she is.
It is critical when starting to socialize any dog to keep in mind that simply exposing him to things is not socialization. In order to be effective, a positive association needs to be made with the novel things he encounters. This can best be done following a few basic rules. First, keep your distance from the new situation or person until the dog shows a willingness to move forward. Feeding tasty treats to your dog while he is experiencing something new will help create a positive association for the dog. Go slowly, if the dog needs five minutes, give him five minutes. Forcing him to go faster will generally backfire and make the dog more scared. Basic training is also important. Name recognition is one of the first things we teach, by rewarding the dog for looking at and responding to his name. From this simple training tool, we start adding the basics at a pace the dog can handle. It’s important at this time to prioritize what is the most important in your specific situation. Perhaps it’s good kitchen manners, or leash walking, or what to do when visitors come. Whatever the case, always remember that the dog sets the pace, not the human.
Patience and acceptance are most important, followed by continual positive reinforcement for baby steps in the right direction. There is so much gratification in choosing to open your home to rehabilitate an abused or neglected dog. I’ve owned and helped many over the years, and I still get that warm fuzzy feeling watching these dogs overcome their obstacles and live happy lives.