The Dog Express team has a lot of experience with rescue dogs; whether it’s through volunteer work, fundraising or having rescued dogs ourselves. My own experience is having rescued a Border Collie who was just under a year old, left outside day and night and tethered to a post for many months because his owners no longer wanted him.
As with all dog lovers and humanitarians, it pulls at my heart strings so much more with animals because they are helpless against the sometimes cruel actions of their would be owners; but then people can also be an animals greatest advocate as well.
Many dogs re-homed by rescue centres and animal sanctuaries go to their new owners with little to no issues and settle into their new forever home with relative ease; but that is not always the case. My Border Collie, Jay came to me not only with neglect issues, but also with a set of the strangest fear I have ever heard of in a rescue dog. Bald men, bus shelters and sheep being amongst his biggest concerns!
It has taken many years and a lot of hard work to get to this point, but I can now finally say that Jay has no issues and lives a full and happy life. Having been able to take him to my in-laws house at the weekend and have him sleeping peacefully in their lounge when previously he would urinate at the thought of stepping into someone else’s house; was the icing on the cake for me.
So, what steps can you take if you have a rescue dog with trust, neglect and fear issues?
Well first let me say that this article is written from my own personal experience and opinions and the information contained herein should never replace professional help if you feel that your dog needs it. Fear and neglect in a dog are a serious combination and through no fault of their own, a dog can snap, bite and even attack if they feel threatened by your actions.
With that said, time, hard work, rewarding and small steps can work wonders in building trust, showing love and re-training your rescue dog. One of Jays biggest problems was his fear of people, especially men and even a walk through the town centre in the first few weeks was too much for him. The easiest option would have been to walk him in quiet areas and country walks only, but leaving a dog unsocialised means they miss out on so much.
Getting a Dog Used to People
One trick that we used for many weeks at the beginning was to drive to the local supermarket with Jay, open the hatchback and sit him in the boot so that he felt secure in his own space (the car), but he could also watch people as they walked right past him. Shouting children, men and groups of people could be watched from the safety of his own space. We were very careful not to have people approach him, but it wasn’t long before he wanted to venture out of the car and get a little closer to the passing people (usually to have a sniff!)
Another tip and one that worked well with men (given that Jay had no issues with the ladies!), was to ensure whenever we introduced him to a man or a male wanted to visit, we either took Jay for a walk with the person first or invited them to meet him outside of the house. Dogs can be very territorial in their own houses and a fearful, mistrusting dog can see visitors as intruders in their space. Introducing them in the outside environment takes away that instinct and helps to relax the situation.
We were also sure to let people know that the dog was not a people person and to simply ignore him until he approached them.
Ensuring people do not make eye contact with the dog and turn their bodies away as oppose to being face on, can all help to relax the dog. Let your dog do it in their own time and they will only approach a person when they feel relaxed and comfortable. Never force a dog to do something that frightens them because you will undoubtedly make the fear and situation worse.
Changing Unwanted Behaviour
We never did discover why Jay had a fear of bus shelters, but he just refused to walk past them. He would seize up and grip the floor for dear life and pull backwards on the lead. Walking him around the block in the village became an assault course of road crossing, shelter avoiding, people thwarting chaos. However, as your rescue dog is highly unlikely to have the exact same fear (and if they do we would love to hear from you!!), these tips and tricks work on changing unwanted behaviour for a variety situations.
The most important thing to remember is that you cannot force this fear or behaviour out of your dog. Dragging them on or shouting at them for being irrational is of no use and will often make their fear deep routed and harder to eradicate. Patience and consistency are key to re-training, just like with humans.
Using our bus shelter issue as an example, our first task was to see how close we could get, whilst still having Jay walk past. It turned out to be across the road! He would nervously glance at the shelter as though it would sprout legs and chase us down the street, but he walked past it with relative ease as long as we were on the opposite side of the road. So this is what we did for approximately 2 weeks; everyday walking past the shelter on the other side of the road.
Then we introduced treats – but it is very important to remember that in this case the treats were used as a distraction and NOT a reward. The last thing you want to do is let your dog think they are being rewarded for being afraid of something.
The trick is in the timing
Walking on the same side as the bus shelter, I started to throw cooked chicken (a favourite dog treat) onto the sidewalk in front of Jay. This was done with the shelter in sight, but before Jay showed resistance or nervousness about approaching it (as oppose to after being afraid which would be rewarding for the fear). Using treats at this point distracted him whilst keeping him moving forwards. As we mentioned hard work and persistence, the fear of the shelter overtook the desire for treats eventually and we crossed the road to avoid the dreaded enemy; but with each walk we got closer to the shelter using this technique.
All in all it took about 3 1/2 weeks to get Jay to walk past bus shelters with little or no concern – then we had to start on the sheep!
The Three P’s
PERSISTENCE – Don’t give up! Depending on how much re-training your dog needs, it can takes weeks, months or even years to bring a dog back to the condition and temperament that gives them the best life; but you can do it. Repeat, repeat, repeat and you will be rewarded ten times over when you see what a good life you can give the dog and the unconditional love that they give you in return.
PATIENCE – Because re-training and building trust can take so long, you need to understand the patience and commitment needed BEFORE taking on a rescue dog. It is so detrimental to a pet to be re-homed and start to trust their new owners only to find out that they are being moved on again. A commitment to a dog should be for life, how ever long that is and whatever that entails and if you can’t commit, don’t adopt.
POSITIVITY - In the same way that you teach a child by building their self esteem, you need to do the same when training a dog. Being positive at all times and praising your pooch will set you on the road to a happy union. If you are feeling a bit under the weather or short on temper (as we all do at times), leave training for another day. It is essential that you are in a positive mood when training a dog because one angry word or shout could set you back weeks in your progress. If you snap at a person you can simply apologize and explain why, but this is not the case with a dog because it will be too late once it is done.
Rescuing is a Lifetime Commitment
With a rescue dog who has experienced poor treatment or neglect with previous owners, hard work and dedication can, in most cases pay off and provide the dog with a happy and stable life. All dogs, regardless of age, breed, health or issues deserve a happy family home and it is important to remember that a dog is NEVER responsible for the way it acts around people.
Dogs learn fear, mistrust and aggression in the same way that they learn unconditional love, trust and joy and it is always, without exception based on the way that they have been treated.
To all dog rescuers and animal centres out there – your work, time and love really does make the world of difference in the lives of these dogs and it is essential that we keep protecting dogs because without people they are defenceless against people!