Taking on a rescue dog

Deciding to adopt a rescue dog means giving an unwanted animal a second chance at enjoying a safe and happy life as a family pet. And, while this can be an incredibly worthwhile and rewarding experience, it’s not without its challenges. However, if you’re ready to expect the unexpected and realise that all great relationships take time and effort to
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7th March 2018

Deciding to adopt a rescue dog means giving an unwanted animal a second chance at enjoying a safe and happy life as a family pet. And, while this can be an incredibly worthwhile and rewarding experience, it’s not without its challenges. However, if you’re ready to expect the unexpected and realise that all great relationships take time and effort to flourish, any problems you encounter can be worked through together.

While dogs never forget experiences from their past, they continue to amaze us humans by their ability to live in the moment and, even if they’ve had a really tough time, learn to adapt to their new situation. Trainer and rescue dog owner Victoria Stilwell notes: “Rescue dogs are often prime examples of a dog’s ability to persevere and bounce back from even the most tragic of situations.”

With rescue dogs, it’s all about patience, reward-based training with lots of praise when they get things right, and being consistent – your new friend will learn much quicker if he understands what’s expected of him.

Plan to invest time to socialise, teach and get acquainted with your new dog and his unique character, which may not fully come out for several weeks or months as they learn to adjust. Help them learn to trust you by giving them time to settle in with their new family.

First things first

Many rescue centres will arrange for you to have several sessions of walking and playing with your rescue dog before you bring them home and will make a big effort to match each dog with the right situation. Find out as much as you can about your new dog from the people who have been caring for him before you bring him home.

Welcome home

Dogs are particularly impressionable when they first arrive in a new environment, and how well you manage their behaviour during this transitional period will have a direct effect on how quickly they settle and become a well-adjusted member of the family.

When you first bring your rescue dog into your home, allow them time and space to sniff about and become familiar with their new surroundings and process all the new information and experiences. If you have other resident dogs, a baby gate is an ideal way to provide some distance while they get to know each other, while still being able to see, smell and sniff each other.

Leave a short lead trailing when you first arrive home in case you need to move your new rescue dog off of, out of or into anywhere. This will eliminate the need for you to grab for their collar, which could be scary to an already stressed dog that doesn’t know you.

Make sure your rescue dog has a place to go where they feel safe. This may be a comfy dog bed in a quiet spot or a crate. However, never, ever shut them inside it – instead, make it into a cosy ‘den’ by providing soft bedding and some toys inside and covering it with a blanket. If you need to keep them in one area of your home for certain parts of the day, a baby gate is ideal. There are even extra tall ‘dog-gates’ for larger canines that you can buy.

From the beginning, start leaving him in his ‘safe place’ for five to 10 minutes while you go somewhere else in the house. The more times you can repeat this from day one, the better your new dog will cope with being left when you have to go out for longer periods.

Settling in

Give your rescue dog plenty of space and regular periods of quiet time during the first few days and avoid having lots of visitors. Let your new arrival settle, get used to their new environment and to you before you start introducing more new people. When you do have friends round, advise them not to fuss the dog, as many can find this stressful. Let your dog choose how and if they want to interact with new people.

Avoid the temptation to keep fussing over them as they may find this adds to the stress of finding themselves in a strange, new environment. Also, don’t allow them to keep demanding attention from you – this is usually insecurity behaviour and reacting to it could increase the possibility of separation anxiety and owner possessiveness/resource aggression. Distract their attention from you by giving them a treat ball or toy filled with dry dog food or a tasty chew treat.

Toilet training

Expect accidents to happen – and if they do, quietly clear it up but don’t make a fuss about it or tell the dog off. Get into a routine of taking your rescue dog out every two hours, as this will lessen the risk of accidents indoors and give you the opportunity to praise all toileting outside. This will increase the likelihood of them quickly learning where they are supposed to go.

Out and about

Keep your rescue dog on a lead, preferably a long line in the garden, for the first few days. Some dogs can be very panicked by all they’ve been through and you want to be sure they have no intention of trying to escape. This is especially important and a very real possibility if your new rescue dog was a street dog.

When you first walk your rescue dog outside, start somewhere quiet and slowly build up their outdoor experiences as they may not be used to busy environments and noisy traffic. Double lead your rescue dog with a harness and lead and flat collar and lead in case they get frightened by something and slip out of either the collar or the harness. Also take a slip lead as a back-up just in case. This is a real ‘belt and braces’ approach, but it’s worth it as a frightened rescue dog is highly likely to fight to escape and run off.

Don’t attempt to let your rescue dog off the lead for several weeks, or even months, until you are 100% certain you have a reliable recall. Practice this regularly in a safe, enclosed environment. Be aware that some rescue dogs can never be relied on to come back.

Food, toys and treats

Keep new dogs and resident dogs separate at feeding times for at least a few weeks, perhaps longer. If an argument over food takes place, it could ruin the relationship between your new rescue dog and your resident dog.

Always feed treats and any high value chews separately to avoid scuffles. If you have a resident dog, pick up all the toys for the first few days until you’ve assessed how they’re getting on together and if they’re happy to share these resources.

Always keep treats handy as they are a great way to help your new dog adjust and feel confident in their new situation. Pair anything you want them to feel good about and not fazed by with tasty treats, such as being brushed, having their harness put on, the sound of the washing machine, the appearance of next door’s dog, visitors, riding in the car, going to the vet or just walking out the door. This is about building confidence and learning to feel OK about things. The dog is not required to do anything, but immediately they hear, see or feel something new, offer them a treat. This will help them learn to feel good about all the things they are learning about in their new life.

Ask for help if you need it

Some dogs may slot quickly into their new lives, while others take more time to adjust. If your rescue dog is exhibiting any behaviour that you’re finding difficult to handle, don’t give up on them. Instead, get help from the rescue centre as many have a resident animal behaviourist, your vet or from a qualified canine behaviourist who only uses modern, reward-based training methods. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers can put you in touch with an accredited trainer in your area. Alternatively, your vet can refer you to the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors .

You may find that you could both benefit from some training such as the Kennel Club’s Good Citizen Dog Training Scheme . This is a great opportunity for your new dog to learn some valuable skills while you will find out more about how dogs learn, which is a great way to build your bond together.


The RSPCA has a really useful online booklet on adopting a rescue dog which you can read here

Sources: rspca.org.uk, positively.com, pdsa.org.ukthedogspov.com

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