In my experience, great dogs are made – not born.
This is especially true if your furry friend (or soon-to-be furry friend) is a dog you adopt from a shelter or rescue group. A re-homed dog will usually have at least one behavioral problem you’ll want to address sooner rather than later.
First Things First: Helping Your Adopted Dog Adjust to a New Way of Life
If you’ve opened your home and heart to an adult dog abandoned or relinquished by previous owners, or perhaps a stray, you’ve done a wonderful thing and I applaud you.
More and more pet owners these days are willing to adopt senior, special needs and troubled dogs. It’s a very encouraging trend.
With an investment of time, effort and patience, most dogs with a less-than-ideal history can become healthy, well-adjusted family pets. This can only happen if the dog’s new owner has realistic expectations and the tools necessary to aid in a smooth transition.
Realistic expectations on your part might include:
- Anticipating accidents on the floor.
- Expecting you’ll need to housebreak or re-housebreak your new pet.
- Having all family members agree ahead of time on house rules and what doggy behavior will and won’t be allowed.
- Preparing for stress-related activities from your new dog like hiding or escape attempts; hyper-activity; extreme attachment to one family member; bad manners like barking at every noise, chewing inappropriate objects, mouthing and jumping up on people.
If after a few weeks in your home your dog continues to show signs of stress or emotional trauma, consider using a Bach flower essence blend like OptiBalance Adapting to Change Formula or SpiritEssences Changing Times.
Your new pet’s adjustment period – and yours – will take from a couple to several weeks, and sometimes much longer. Chances are your dog’s life up to this point has been chaotic. It will take some time and hard work to help him adjust to his new chaos-free life with you.
Behaviour Modification and Training
The most important thing to keep in mind about eliminating undesired canine behaviors is that dogs learn desired behavior through positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement behavior training means rewarding good behavior and ignoring undesired behavior. It doesn’t mean yelling or physical punishment of any kind. Please don’t add to your adopted dog’s stress by terrorizing or hitting him.
As soon as your dog comes home with you – that very first day – you should begin training basic obedience commands like Come, Sit, Stay and Down. You might discover your dog can already follow basic commands. You might also find that you need to take it very slow, working on just one command a day or for a couple of days or weeks then moving on to another command. Repeating a command over and over won’t make your pooch listen any better. If you find he can’t speak any English, solicit the help of a ‘translator’ or positive dog trainer to help you communicate more effectively.
If your dog is having trouble adjusting, it’s a good idea to wait several weeks before enrolling in formal classes outside your home. It takes time to build a solid bond of trust between you and your dog, and it’s that bond that will make training effective.
It’s also a good idea to assume your dog wasn’t socialized by previous owners. At a minimum she isn’t socialized to all the stimuli in her new life with you. It will be your responsibility to expose her to all the sights, sounds, smells, and other living creatures in her new environment. Take care not to overwhelm her, though. Let her set the pace and use gentle encouragement if she’s especially timid or shy.
Address behavior issues immediately — before they become habits in the dog’s new environment — with positive reinforcement behavior modification techniques.
If your dog is exhibiting troubling behavior you can’t extinguish on your own, I strongly urge you to consult a certified animal behavior specialist to help you help your dog.
Building a Great Dog from a Solid Foundation
I often talk about what I feel are the three pillars of health in creating a healthy, balanced, long-lived pet:
- Species-appropriate nutrition
- A sound, resilient body (frame and organs)
- A balanced, functional immune system
Nutrition is the first pillar. The ideal food for your dog, the carnivore, is a species-appropriate, raw food diet. You can make healthy food at home for your pet with recipes from my book, Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats.
There are also commercially available raw food diets that combine USDA-inspected meats with human edible-quality vegetables and fewer grains, which is more biologically appropriate. You’ll find these in the freezer section of your upscale pet-food retailer.
If you are unable or unwilling to feed your pet a species-appropriate raw food diet, then your next best choice is USDA-approved canned foods.
The second pillar of health is a sound, resilient body. Exercise is the key here.
Your dog is a natural athlete. If you don’t provide enough opportunities for physical activity, your pup will end up with bone and joint problems and behavioral issues. Dogs that get adequate exercise have far fewer behavioral problems than dogs and cats who are sedentary.
By exercise, I mean aerobic exercise sustained for at least 20 minutes on a consistent basis (a minimum of 3 times a week). This is often a challenge for folks who come home tired after a long day at work. But I can’t stress enough how important this is.
Some ideas for keeping your pet active:
- Take a walk or a hike with your dog.
- Play fetch the ball. If you don’t have a strong throwing arm, you can use a gadget like a Chuckit! Ball Launcher to lengthen the distance your dog must run to fetch and return the ball.
- Take a bike ride alongside your dog using a special dog bike leash.
- Roller blade or jog with your pup.
- Take your dog for a swim and play fetch in the water.
- Play a game of tug-of-war.
- Play hide-and-seek with treats or your dog’s favorite toys.
- Get your dog involved in obedience, tracking, flyball, agility or other types of sports. If you can match an organized activity to your dog’s breed characteristics, all the better.
A balanced, functional immune system is the third and final pillar of health. The goal here is balance. Your dog’s immune system should be responsive, but not over-reactive.
A balanced immune system is one that protects your dog from pathogens, but doesn’t overreact, causing allergies or autoimmune disorders. One of the best ways to insure your dog’s immune system is healthy is to not subject him to unnecessary yearly vaccinations.
Molding your adopted dog into a great dog can be a tremendously gratifying experience for you and other members of your family. And your wonderful dog will reward you every day for the rest of his life with love, loyalty and devotion.