ISCP DIPLOMA IN CANINE BEHAVIOUR : FINAL THESIS
29th May 2016
ADOPTING A SHELTER DOG, BEFORE AND AFTER
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)