Rescue Dogs: Taming Unwanted Behaviours

Since the COVID pandemic has arrived in Canada (and around the world), we have seen a spike in pet adoptions. This is an amazing thing – for the new pet owner and for the pet.  However, one of the other spikes we see on an almost daily basis at the hospital is the need for new owner to attach “a story” to their pet’s behaviours – particularly in the instance of “rescue” dogs.  In rescue situations, many of the dogs arrive with unknown histories and many of the dogs demonstrate specific or generalized fear and anxiety.

We have found that because the dogs arrive in their new homes with little to no previous history, the rescue organization or the new owners like to attach a story to explain unwanted or unappealing behaviours. We actually have found that it is increasingly common for people to adopt specific dogs because of the story. And while it is fantastic that the dog has been adopted, it is not a good idea to get “stuck in the story”. This prevents the pet and the owner from being able to move past the story. The story then becomes an excuse for the behaviour. Some of the most common stories we hear is a dog who is aggressive/afraid of men that must have been previously abused by a man or a dog is reactive/aggressive with other dogs because he was used as a “bait dog”.

In most situations, the behaviours are caused from lack of experience or inappropriately handled insecurities to a critical socialization period when the dog was young. The dog develops coping mechanisms to handle new experiences that may manifest as fear, stress, anxiety, reactivity or aggression. That being said, the “cause” of the rescue dogs’ behaviour should not play a factor for moving forward with the pet. In vast majority of cases, the “cause” can never be found. Nurturing the behaviours or by not addressing the behaviours keeps the dog stuck in an anxious, fearful and/or stressed state.

When a rescue dog is adopted and brought into the love of a family home, it is our job as pet owners to commit to improving the dog’s life. This means helping them to move forward so they don’t get stuck in a “story”. This involves some work on the owners’ part and usually the involvement of a qualified and specialized pet trainer is needed. The trainer will help you and your dog develop skills to stop or modify the behaviour – the dog will learn new ways to cope when faced with a situation that would normally invoke a reactive response. Helping the dog overcome or get better coping skills will improve the dog’s life much more than nurturing their anxieties/fears. This is a topic that is near and dear to my and my dog, Havoc’s heart. Havoc arrived with a varied and complicated history with some reactivity issues. I have been working with a trainer since adopting him in 2018 and he has learned new ways to cope with new experiences. Help your pet overcome any “story” – the benefit will be well worth the effort for you and your pet! 

Written by Shanon, RVT