By Dr Edward Bassingthwaighte, Holistic Veterinarian
Rescue dogs are unique in many ways. It takes special, big-hearted people who are willing to take on rescue dogs, to give them a forever home. If you’ve ever rescued dogs, you’ll know that many come with a weight of trauma from less-than-experiences.
Most rescue dogs, in my experience, are traumatised to at least some extent, and many of them are heavily affected. This often leads to increased anxiety, reactivity, and poor ability to be calm and learn. In severe cases, you may be met by a dog with PTSD, who has big trouble dealing with anything like the people or situations when the traumatic events occurred, or anything new and unusual.
In addition to this, many rescue dogs are lacking healthy socialisation - when they were puppies, they were never exposed to a range of new environments, stimuli, people, and other dogs. This leads to dogs who have challenges (ranging from mild to severe) in being able to cope with anything new and unusual. This increases anxiety, reactivity, and often makes it harder for the dog to process and heal traumas.
When lack of healthy socialisation is a concurrent problem alongside trauma, things are even harder for the dog (and for the humans caring for the dog). Another complicating factor is that (often due to neglect) many rescue dogs have minimal if any obedience training and if they have been trained at all, the training methods that have been used are often aversive, ranging to flat-out abusive.
It’s not unusual to have a reactive, anxious rescue dog who
- Struggles with anything new,
- Is triggered by men (sometimes beards, hats, hoodies etc make this worse),
- Has never learned how to behave well (has poor manners, jumps on people etc),
- May have learned a whole lot of undesirable behaviors extraordinarily well,
- Is lacking even the most basic understanding of obedience commands,
- Is not happy about being touched or handled
- Is poorly socialised and either scared of other dogs, or overly boisterous and pushy,
- Is stuck in a state of unhealthy over-arousal,
And, of course, these are also dogs who are desperate for connection, love, healthy boundaries, safety, a strong bond, and who are incredibly sensitive, responsive, intelligent, and awesome once you help them heal, settle, and learn how to fit into the family.
To say that taking on a rescue dog can be challenging for you, the human, and the other family members, human and furry, is probably a massive understatement! But it’s important to remember that it’s extraordinarily challenging for the rescue dog, too. They are always doing the best they can with what they have.
Your first step is choosing which dog to rescue.
A bit of prior planning and working out some criteria of what kind of rescue dog will be the best fit for your family and circumstances is a very wise choice.
Age, breed, background, temperament, how they get along with any other dogs that already share your life, how safe they are with kids, how challenging they are in comparison to your experience and skills when it comes to training, etc are all important things to consider.
Remember that it’s all too easy to take home the first dog that gives you ‘that look’ - but that might not be the best choice for that particular dog, or for you. Spending some time with a prospective rescue dog is a good idea.
Being real is so important! Do you have the capacity this particular dog needs to be well, happy, safe, and comfortable? Physically? Mentally? Emotionally? Financially? The better prepared you are, the more likely you’ll make the best possible choice for this dog, for you, and for your family.
It’s important to understand that the dog you meet at the rescue shelter may be shut down, suppressed, and not showing you who they truly are. They may be actively grieving the loss of their last family if the rehoming is due to an older owner dying. They may be completely overwhelmed by the sounds and smells of the rescue centre, over-stimulated, and crazier than they normally would be. It’s a very challenging environment for the dogs.
Integrating a rescue dog into your family
You’ve found your rescue dog, now you're going to bring them home. You’ll need to allow your rescue pup time to decompress, to relax, and to settle, all while keeping everything as calm, steady, kind, and loving as you possibly can. The more you or someone else in the family can be at home all the time for this initial period, the better.
I’d suggest a whole stack of home time only for at least the first week. Your new dog may seem very quiet at first. They will come out of their shell over time- some quickly, some slowly. Some dogs may take weeks or months to really settle and get used to their new home.
If your new rescue tolerates touch, do lots of slow, gentle, loving touch. Make your hand speed really, really slow, with the kind of touch this dog loves the most. If they get anxious, aroused, or over-excited, do everything you can to help them be calm and easy. The calmer you are, the calmer your dog will be.
If you are new to dogs, find a great positive reinforcement trainer, and get them to come in to teach you how to train your dog kindly and easily.
When you feel your dog is settled, start with some short walks. If they pull on the lead, you may need to teach them how to respond to the lead first - or use a front clip harness or a Gentle Leader head collar to stop them dragging you around, injuring you or them, or getting into dangerous situations.
Be sensitive to other dogs, cars, bikes, anything coming into your space, or anything you approach. If you feel or sense your dog tense up, stop. Take some time. If this escalates, turn and walk away.
Once your dog is pretty well settled, go to your primary care veterinarian. See how your dog responds to the vet clinic. If they are fearful, take things gently, slowly. Talk to your vet about how to help the dog have the best possible experience at the hospital. Get a full health check.
Be aware that it may take anything from 2 weeks to 12 months to fully integrate your rescue dog into their new home and life - and then, it is a continually ongoing process of helping them meet the changes life inevitably brings.
The therapeutic touch work that I teach Whole Energy Body Balance (WEBB) is incredibly helpful and empowers you to discover and heal hidden soft tissue pain (most rescues are suffering from significant Silent Pain), soothe anxiety, and heal trauma. It also helps you rapidly build deeper trust, connection, and a strong, healthy relationship. If you have a new or old rescue dog, the WEBB work will help you help them so much!
Rescue dogs need a home, and they often make the best pets ever. However, if you get one who has severe issues, it may not be in the dog's best interest, or in yours, to keep them. Sometimes the circumstances just don't suit a particular dog, and they will be happier in a more suitable home.
Sometimes a particular dog may not suit you and your family. You have not failed the dog if you have to rehome them. You will just have been a stepping stone to their perfect forever home!
About the Author - Dr Edward Bassingthwaighte.
Dr Edward Bassingthwaighte is a holistic veterinarian, and a world-leading expert in silent pain in pets. Dr Edward is passionate about fresh raw whole foods for dogs. He is the founder of the Whole Energy Body Balance method- a profoundly healing bodywork modality for pet parents and pet wellness professionals to relieve silent pain, anxiety and trauma in pets. Join Dr Edward's free masterclass on silent pain in pets here.
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