Tag Archives: dog psychology


The concluding part of my Diploma Thesis:

Now, let’s say a dog has just been adopted and has arrived in its new home. Now what?

One of the biggest mistakes a new owner can make with a dog, any dog, is to automatically assume that the dog knows exactly what it’s supposed to do. They treat it like a human houseguest, and expect it to unpack its suitcase in the guestroom, put its feet up and the kettle on, and settle right in. What they don’t seem to realise is that the dog has never set foot in their house before, and has absolutely no idea where it is, what it’s supposed to be doing, or what is expected of it. Depending on its personality, some dogs may start sniffing around excitedly, climb up onto furniture, pee against the side of the sofa, or decide to play Catch, Tug or Hide-n-Seek with its new owners. Timid and fearful dogs, on the other hand, may cower on the floor and even urinate as a gesture of appeasement, just in case it’s done something wrong by being there in the first place! They may simply crawl off into a dark and quiet corner, and not come out for hours.

It is up to the owner to show the dog where to do its toileting, where its food and water bowls are, where it is to sleep, where the garden or yard is where it can sniff around and play, what toys it can play with, areas that are off-limits to it (like the toilet and home office, studio or baby’s room). The owner needs to show or teach their new dog basic “house rules”, where and what its boundaries are. It’s got nothing to do with dominance. Dogs that know what’s expected of them tend to behave better and are more confident in themselves, than dogs that are constantly confused and afraid to put one paw wrong, and who live in constant bewilderment in a state of constant agitation and stress. If a dog is not relaxed, but is constantly aroused, it will not be in any frame of mind to learn much, or even eat.

Before being adopted, the dog would have already been introduced to other members of its new family, including any other pets. It may take the dog a while to settle in, but with time and patience on the part of the new owner, this will happen.

The settling in period for Shelter dogs can be anything from 1 to 2 weeks to several months. The more extroverted dogs will “come out of their shell” within a few days, and settle right in at home like they were always there. Others may take a long while to come round. People can be too impatient sometimes, and give up too easily or too early, before they’ve even seen the dog’s true character emerge. These people are the ones who surrender or return their dogs and then try to get another one, one that they believe will be Perfect from Day One.

Such a dog does not exist.

Most Shelters have Trainers who will attempt to work through any teething problems or behavioural issues with new owners, in the first few weeks after they’ve adopted a dog. Many Shelters offer Training sessions for owners, to help them and their dogs get accustomed to each other. Such training can be in groups, such as Puppy Classes, or singly for dogs that need individually tailored help.

Shelters work hard to match the lifestyles and requirements of new owners to their dogs, before allowing a dog to be adopted out. It’s against anyone’s interest, especially the dog’s, for a dog to be treated as a “recyclable” commodity, being adopted and then returned, over and over again. There is only so much a dog’s psyche can take, before it starts developing bad habits and then has to be taught to unlearn such behaviour.

A good Shelter will thoroughly screen prospective adopters, by way of a Questionnaire, in order to determine if the person is a good match for the dog’s character and space requirements. Big dogs don’t necessarily need big yards, but they do need space indoors, so apartment dwellings may not be the best place for them. Some dogs are natural fence-jumpers, or escape artists, so the prospective owner must have secure fencing or high walls, or a secure yard to keep the dog in. Separation Anxiety can be a major issue for some Shelter dogs, so it is important to not let the dog go to someone who’s away at work all day long and only comes home at night. Some dogs may only suit part-time workers, or those who work from home, because they fret too much if left alone for more than a couple of hours.

Many dogs have been returned to Shelters because they were reportedly “destructive” and tore up the owner’s mattresses or sofas, chewed through all the wood in the house, ripped the curtains and carpets up, toileted in the most inappropriate places, or killed the cat while the owner was out.

Such behaviour is not necessarily genetic or inherent in the dog. It may be a sign of frustration or anxiety that the dog has “self-pacified” itself by chewing, digging or generally destroying the objects around it.

Dog Trainers are generally trained to make dogs do a certain behaviour on cue – walk on a loose lead, sit, lie down, stay, etc. Dog Behaviourists try to make dogs Stop doing a certain behaviour, by offering it alternatives with the aim of extinguishing the unwanted behaviour. Most if not all Shelters have Dog Trainers, but they are already hard-pressed to do their daily jobs looking after hundreds of dogs, and may not have the resources to devote an hour or so each day to each dog on an individual basis, over a period of time. That’s when a dedicated Dog Behaviourist can play an important part in a Shelter, 1) for dogs awaiting adoption, to increase their chances of getting adopted, and perhaps more importantly, 2) for dogs who have already been adopted but are at risk of being returned because their owners don’t know what to do about their problem. A good Dog Behaviourist will be able to offer owners real options and a plan of action for shaping their Shelter dog into their Best.Dog.Ever.

The secret to a long and happy life with any dog, are these 4 simple things:


You have a dog because you LOVE it. You develop PATIENCE when it’s learning how to be your dog in your house, you never, ever use anything but Positive Reinforcement to guide it. Certainly NO electric or prong collars and Never any hitting. With TIME and REPETITION, your dog will be shaped by you into the most beautiful dog you have ever had the privilege of knowing. It will be your faithful companion for Life, until it passes over the Rainbow Bridge. And when the time is right, you will do it all over again…for the Love of Dogs.



29th May 2016


Premise: The purpose of my Thesis is to look at the experiences of both the dog and its human adopter, from when the dog first arrives at a Shelter, to it getting adopted and its first few days in its new home. By writing this, I hope to make anyone thinking of adopting a Shelter dog more aware of the reason behind a dog’s behaviour being different in kennels, outside on a walk, or in a home environment, and how it appears to Not be the same dog that they adopted. The examples and scenarios are drawn from my own experience as a Volunteer and Staff Member of such a Shelter in Western Australia.


People get a dog for many, varied reasons. They may have grown up with dogs, and now that they are adults and settled in their own homes, they may want a dog to keep them company, or as a friend for their own growing family. Their dog may have just passed away, leaving a hole in their hearts needing to be filled by another dog. They may have an elderly dog and feel like a younger dog may give the older one a new lease on Life. Or they may have had 2 dogs and one passed away, and the remaining one appears to be lonely and pining for companionship of its own kind. They may be retired and have more time on their hands now, and are looking for a furry four-legged companion to share their golden years with. They may be farmers looking for dogs to work on their farm. Or they may be looking for dogs to do agility training with, or to train up as Service/Therapy/Assistance/Guard dogs.

Dogs are often regarded as part of the family, and so they should be, especially when it comes to considering their future welfare. You don’t give up on your children just because they’re not toilet-trained, or keep having “accidents”, or because they misbehave or turn into surly teenagers. Well, that puppy that you bought is going to go through very much the same kind of juvenile stage as human teens. It is going to try your patience to the limit, as it tests its boundaries again and again. But, just as you wouldn’t dump your own child at an orphanage, neither should you dump your dog at a Shelter just because you feel you’ve had enough of its bad behaviour.

Unfortunately, this tends to happen a lot. People get a cute little puppy, and then when it starts growing bigger and gets rambunctious and goes through its rebellious juvenile stage, they suddenly decide that they can no longer cope with it. And so off it goes to an Animal Shelter, to be someone else’s problem.

Of course, there are other reasons for a dog ending up at a Shelter. It may have been a stray that got impounded by a Ranger. It may have escaped its home and gotten lost, found and impounded, but its owners never claimed it back.

Its previous owner may have been elderly and either passed away or moved into an aged care facility where pets are not allowed. It might have been surrendered by loving owners who could no longer care for it, or who are moving abroad and have decided not to take it along (though why anyone would even consider leaving behind a loyal family member just because of geography beggars the mind). Or its family has recently had a new addition, and decided the dog is either too big, too clumsy or too nippy to have around an infant or toddler. In any relationship breakdown, often it’s the dog who suffers most and ends up being surrendered through no fault of its own. “Through no fault of its own” is a codeword used at many Shelters to indicate these types of surrenders, where the dog’s behaviour has no bearing on the reason for it being surrendered.

Or, one of the saddest reasons for a dog going to a Shelter is that it was used for breeding by a backyard breeder or puppy mill, and when it outlived its usefulness it was simply cast away. Just as bad, if not worse, are those poor dogs bred for illegal fighting, who, when they’re not winning fights anymore, are simply thrown out like garbage. Sometimes quite literally, out of speeding trucks and cars, onto highways. Some dogs end up in Shelters because they were abused by their owners, or are the poor victims of cruelty and neglect.

Older or Senior dogs may have painful arthritis in their joints, which predisposes them to being somewhat grumpy and snappy if someone tries to touch their paws. With old age comes a plethora of illnesses and diseases, just like in humans. It’s shameful how many older dogs get dumped at Shelters because their owners decided they didn’t want to pay expensive vet bills or a lifetime’s worth of medication. There are even some people who decide to “get rid” of their old dog, in order to make way for a younger model, or a different, trending breed. Old doesn’t always equate to ill or dying; some Senior dogs live to very old ages, quite happily and may be active right up to the end. Senior dogs often make the most delightful companions.

What happens when a dog arrives at a Shelter and is put into kennels? Regardless of its background and history, Shelter kennels are frightening and strange environments, and not terribly conducive to relaxation. The dog hasn’t had time to adjust to its new circumstances, or to mourn its owner’s passing, or even begin to process the events that took it away from its familiar surroundings. Suddenly it’s in a new place full of barking dogs that it can smell but perhaps cannot see, because of high walls around it. Everything looks and smells unfamiliar, and no one is able to tell it what’s happening. Then there are those total strangers who crowd around its kennel, poking their fingers in, hoping to touch its nose, head, paws or length of its body. There may even be smaller versions of those strangers, with their unpredictable behaviour, propensity for pulling at tails, and high, squealing voices which grate on the dog’s ears. Small wonder why Shelter dogs are constantly stressed. They simply don’t get the time to recover from one shock to the system, before the next one arrives.

Some dogs cope better than others in kennels. Dogs that were well-socialised as they grew up, that are used to being handled by people and accepting food from them, that were perhaps taught cute, amusing tricks, generally cope better than dogs that are poorly-socialised or that have been used for dog-fighting or breeding, or simply been neglected and left out in the yard to their own devices all day. Potential adopters visiting Shelters want to be able to visualise the dog in their own homes, lying at their feet, begging for treats, walking at their side on a loose leash, playing Fetch or Tug with their children, even sharing their beds at night. Dogs that were surrendered “through no fault of their own” therefore tend to get adopted faster than others, because they fit this ideal.

The other types of dogs in Shelters can be withdrawn, timid, afraid, sometimes completely shut down and depressed, or bored to the point of being destructive. Fear aggression can be a problem for handlers and kennel hands, even getting in and out of the dog’s kennel can be a problem. Depending on the dog’s background, it may not like being touched, or may flinch and then snap at people purely out of fear…no prospective adopter wants a dog like that, no matter how beautiful it may look.

Some typical appeasement signals that appear to be universal in all dogs, and can be seen quite often by the casual observer at a Shelter, are:

Lip-licking. The dog flicks its tongue out and licks its nose. It’s a sign that the dog isn’t completely comfortable with what’s happening around it. You may not notice this much, however if you were to use your camera or mobile phone and take a number of photos of the dog in quick succession, chances are in some of the photos the dog will have its tongue out.

Yawning. Dogs yawn not just because they’re tired, but to tell other dogs that they are not too happy with you being so close, so please go away. It’s a distraction tactic that also shows their intended audience that they have rather nice and sharp teeth…which they’d rather not use, so again, please go away.

Stretching and Shaking Off. Dogs that have been lying down might get up, stretch and do a full body shake. It’s simply a dog’s way of saying one chapter’s closed, now a new one’s opened.

Belly Up. Some timid dogs may come over to you and lie down, offering their exposed bellies for rubbing. It’s another form of appeasement. They’re saying that they’re harmless, please don’t hurt them, and offering you their most vulnerable part of their body, to show their good intentions. Often some dogs will urinate, to further emphasise their point.

Rubbing up against you. Most Shelters use chainlink fences, though some have clear plexiglass walls for viewing the dogs. Where chainlink fences are used and visitors’ fingers can be poked through to touch the dogs, some dogs will come towards you in a delightfully mincing way, tail wagging low, head to one side, and once they reach the fence, they’ll turn their bodies sideways and rub up against the fence. It’s an affectionate gesture and shows the dog’s trust in you. If you’re in the kennel with them, they’ll come right up to you and rub against your legs. They just want a pat or a cuddle, so go on, indulge them.

Most Shelters employ Trainers to train and help with the socialisation of their dogs – introducing dogs to each other so they may play or walk together, dealing with problem behaviours, basic obedience training, etc. Generally there are also many Volunteers who walk the dogs daily, or simply sit in the kennels with them doing Kennel Calming. Such activities aim to provide the Shelter dogs with some semblance of normality, a gentle touch here, a kind word there, a pat on the head, body massages, treats for doing tricks, enrichment toys, trips to the beach or even to an outdoor cafe. But these don’t always happen often enough for the dogs, and indeed there is no real guarantee that they Will happen at all. Some dogs can languish for days in their kennels without any social interaction with humans, apart from toilet breaks twice a day. This can lead to boredom and self-mutilating actions, such as flank-sucking and paw-licking, or even Obsessive Compulsive Disorders such as tail-chasing or lunging and snapping at invisible objects in the air, or destructive behaviour such as ripping up their bedding, scratching or chewing their beds and water bowls, incessant barking or whining, or in some breeds, howling. Howling can be catching, and it’s not uncommon to hear one Shelter dog start up, followed by an entire chorus of howling by other dogs joining in.

Some people regard Shelter dogs as “damaged”. But really, whilst the dog may come from a checkered or not so nice background, and it may have indeed picked up some bad habits or become fearfully aggressive, no dogs are born bad. They really are victims of their circumstances, and it takes a big heart to be able to see past all that, and appreciate the dog for its potential to shape up into an amazing family companion.

Sometimes Shelters get dogs that are heavily pregnant. These are generally placed with foster carers until they’ve had their puppies, up til the time the puppies are weaned and around 10 weeks old, and have had their first vaccinations. They are then made available for adoption. It’s nice to think of puppies as “blank slates” to train up into the perfect family dog. But the reality of it is that puppies whose mothers are not well-socialised themselves, or who are fearful of people because of past neglect and/or abuse, will pass on some of their traits to their offspring, resulting in puppies that are fearful and timid themselves. A good foster carer will ensure that the puppies in their care at least, if not the mother too, are well-socialised and used to being handled by people, are exposed to different sights and sounds so they don’t startle easily, and that they are cared for together and not separated too soon during their “crucial” period, which can be up to 14 weeks of age, where their capacity to learn is at its peak.

Puppies, simply because of their cuteness and appeal, generally get snapped up the fastest at Shelters. Unfortunately, due to lack of commitment on their owner’s part, they tend to get returned too often, once they’ve outgrown their cute phase. Being young and impressionable, these half-grown puppies don’t cope too well being “recyclable” dogs, and down the line can develop behavioural problems, such as stubbornness, selective hearing and destructive tendencies, or nipping without inhibition. Some develop Separation Anxiety and whine and fret if left alone for more than a few minutes. Who can blame them, really?

Responsible Shelters always neuter/spay/desex their dogs before allowing them to be adopted. This means there is no chance of the dogs being used as breeding machines in puppy mills, thus cutting off such avenues of income for greedy, unscrupulous breeders, and preventing even more unwanted puppies from ending up being dumped at Shelters. A Shelter dog therefore will always be a unique, one of a kind dog.

(Stay tuned for Part 2 and my conclusion in tomorrow’s post)

Introducing your dog to a new dog

(Another part of my assignment for the ISCP‘s Diploma in Canine Psychology course. The question was about how to introduce a dog to another. A harrowing prospect, and quite daunting to think about…but I’m game to test this out on my Shelagh, after a few more sessions of walking in public places getting used to people and other dogs. Poor Shelagh, when I first got her I was working in the City and didn’t have time to bring her to puppy classes for socialisation. I hold my hand up, guilty as charged. Still, we’re making up for lost time, and Shelagh’s made tremendous progress in just a few weeks. Such a clever girl! ❤)

Introducing a dog to another dog can be an intimidating prospect. The thought running through an owner’s mind would be along the lines of “What if the dogs start fighting? How do I separate them without getting bitten myself? What if one dog kills the other?”

Early socialisation is very important for dogs. As puppies, they should be exposed to the company of other dogs, humans, animals, forms of transport, sounds, sights, smells etc. The more they experience as puppies in their developmental stage (6 weeks to 18 months), the more amenable they will become, and better able to cope with everyday life. Dogs from puppy mills will not have had much opportunity to socialise, dogs at pounds and shelters even less so. Dogs accustomed to being handled by humans when they were puppies will be more trusting and outgoing with people, than dogs that were abused or ill-treated, which may be timid or show fear aggression.

Dogs that have not had proper socialisation from a young age tend to be more fearful of their surroundings, more suspicious of other dogs and strange people, more reactive to unfamiliar objects or situations. But dogs are highly intelligent and have a tremendous capacity to learn and adapt, and I believe any dog can be rehabilitated, no matter what their background or history. All that’s needed is love, time, patience, logic and the ability to put ourselves into the mindset of the dog.

When out for a walk with her dog, if an unfamiliar dog approaches on a lead, watch how the other dog’s owner is behaving, and at the same time watch the other dog’s body language. If the other dog’s owner is tightening or shortening the leash, looks despairing/frustrated/angry, and the dog is lunging forward while barking or even frothing at the mouth, it would be wiser to practice avoidance, and take a different route away from that dog. If, on the other hand, the other dog’s owner looks relaxed, the dog is on a nice loose leash, and the dog’s body language is relaxed with a gently waving tail and a soft face, then it will be possible to move closer for an introduction.

To move closer to each other, avoid moving in a straight line directly at each other. Instead, signal to the other owner to move in a curved angle, slowly getting closer to each other. If all is still well, with no lunging forward, pulling on the leash, growling or aggression from either dog, it may be possible for the dogs to meet and engage in their sniff-and-greet ritual. Both owners must make sure their leads are loose and that they are not inadvertantly restricting their dog’s movements, which can cause frustration, leading to aggression. If all is still well after that, the dogs may be let off the leash to play together, as they would have made friends with each other.

If the scenario is one where the owner is out walking her dog regularly, and she wishes to introduce her dog to another dog so they may walk together, then it’s a good idea to follow in the wake of the unfamiliar dog, about 20 metres back, so that her dog is able to get used to the scent of the other dog. If the dog urinates or defecates, her dog will be able to pick up useful information about the dog. Then, on another occasion, she could be the one walking ahead with her dog, while the other dog and its owner follow behind them, so the other dog can get used to her dog’s scent. Once both dogs are accustomed to each other’s presence, if the owners are still apprehensive about introducing them to each other, they could parallel walk the dogs. This is done having the owners walking beside each other, with the dogs walking on the outside. Then, slowly, as everyone becomes accustomed to being in the same space at the same time, the barrier between the dogs i.e the human presence, can be removed, one at a time, until both dogs are eventually walking parallel to each other amicably. So now the dogs are walking side by side, and it is their owners who are walking on the outside.

If the scenario is one where the unfamiliar dog is perhaps a friend’s dog brought to the house for a potential playdate, then all the resident dog’s belongings – bed, blanket, toys, food and water bowls, should be removed beforehand, to simulate a neutral environment. This removes the resident dog’s reason to resource guard or compete for high value posessions. If the dogs have already been introduced at a park or during a walk, let them off the lead in the garden first, before allowing them inside the house.