You’ve adopted a shelter dog and that makes you awesome, in my book. You may have also made the eternal solemn promise to your shelter dog. “You will never be abandoned again.”
I have a ritual on the car ride home that’s always pretty much the same. “I’m Betsy. We’re going to take some time to figure out what your name is. This may seem strange now, but we’re going to love each other. And I promise you, you’re never gonna be (lonely, hungry, etc.) again and you are part of this family forever.” Most of the time, things go without a hitch because dogs, like kids, are amazingly resilient and tough and forgiving.
But every once in a while an adopter will find him or herself with a pet that either ended up in the shelter because of some unattractive personality trait or, scarier yet, developed one while at the shelter.
And then all of a sudden the promise that “you’ll never be lonely again” starts to feel a little out of your control. Especially for dogs with separation anxiety, which seems like the most common behavioral issue facing once-homeless dogs, internal stressors seem to override our best efforts to provide a happy home.
Our dream dog is smart, loyal, emotionally healthy, playful, brave and robust and listens. Lassie didn’t have projectile diarrhea at the kitchen door when her family was gone too long. Nor did she cower under the bed during thunderstorms.
But every dog is an individual with a very different past. A collection of shelter dogs, especially, will yield not only varied genetic differences but a potpourri of histories – some were unwanted, some were living a life on the streets, some were beloved or were at the shelter because of bad luck, like divorce or the death of an owner, and others are there because their families couldn’t care afford them anymore.
Shelter dogs often come with an unknown past. Even if it is supposedly known, some research has shown that people lie about why they are relinquishing a dog. Even if we assume that “true” behavior issues are a top reason dogs end up at shelters, many behaviorists will tell you it was the people’s behavior, not the dog’s, that was the problem. I’ve heard of extreme cases of shelter dogs that were perfectly house-trained when they went to their new homes and, when returned to the shelters for whatever reasons, were completely untrained. (I must reiterate, that is not the norm.
Shelter dogs are pretty well socialized and pretty amazing, resilient creatures, in spite of our often sloppy parenting.) And one thing seems obvious: the majority of shelter dogs are moving on to a better life, with someone like us, who will take the time to try to understand them.
I once adopted an old community dog – an adult dog that had always been free-roaming. He’d made his living begging at the entrance of restaurants and homes. It took me a year to figure out why sometimes he got stuck on our threshold when we’d come home from a walk. He’d stare longingly inside the house, not budging or daring to cross over, as if stuck there. He wasn’t being stubborn. I was asking him to override years of a successful survival strategy. Habits can be really sticky and, without insight into our dog’s past, super confusing to us.
Lack of experience can also produce wild results. A dog that responds aggressively to men in ties was probably not once abused by a man in a tie, which is our first assumption. Rather, she’s probably freaked out because she’s never seen a man wearing a leash. Or a tie, for that matter.
So what about what happens at the shelter or on the streets? Change is stressful. Too much noise is stressful. A scary dog in the next kennel is stressful. Loneliness is stressful. We can’t know the effects of these on each individual dog but we can safely make the assumption that some amount of healing is warranted after such a transition.
We know that research (and reason) tells us that extreme stress can cause a rewiring of our brains and dogs are no different. In constant stress, we start habitually responding to stress and lose our ability to assess threats appropriately and assume the correct coping mechanisms. In over-stressed shelter dogs, you may see nervous behaviors like repeated jumping, pacing, licking, separation anxiety or shock.
The good news is that this concept of neuroplasticity, that our brain’s wiring is impacted by our environment, works in reverse, too. Repeated good experiences can rebuild trust. In people, meditation can cause positive structural changes in the brain and improve our ability to cope with stress. Can we extrapolate to dogs? I wonder if sharing quiet moments with your dog can provide the benefits of meditation? Perhaps that is why the Tellington Touch has been so effective for so many dogs.
Be sensitive to the confusing and sometimes scary experience of rehoming. It may take your pet a few weeks, or longer, to find her confidence and her place. I once had a street dog that I took home. Max seemed super-confident, as if he knew his place in my heart and family. Then, about six months later, we moved. The transformation in this dog’s personality was remarkable. What emerged after the first week in our new place was a joyful dog that celebrated life on a whole new level.
Now, I can’t know for a fact what was going through his mind, but it seemed obvious to everyone in the family that the act of moving together solidified our relationship, and that trust let the “real” Max emerge. No one was more surprised than me to learn that he’d been holding back or lacked confidence before.
If you believe that you’ve adopted a pet that has serious anxiety or post-traumatic stress, whether from a bad experience or his or her own innate wiring, consult with a behaviorist as early as possible. We’ve got a lot of options these days, from behavior modification and confidence training to medications from your veterinarian.
And of course, one of the cool things about dogs is that they are so forgiving and innately happy. My goodness, many of us take half of a dog’s lifetime to rebound from divorce or get comfortable in a new community. Meanwhile, many, if not most dogs, show few scars from tough times.
I have two dogs now. One is a nervous-Nelly who spent just a few days at the shelter as a puppy before he entered a foster home. The other is brave and self-actualized – a go-with-the-flow-kind of guy — and he spent months at a noisy city shelter. For some dogs, like some people, life inside their minds is just easier.