So you have decided to adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue group. Many adopted dogs have unknown histories, however we know many of the dogs in shelters have been surrendered because of behavioral problems. The cause of these problems may be hereditary, little socialization, bad socialization or just a bad fit with the previous owner. The surrender, sheltering and fostering may have also occurred during the critical socialization period disrupting a positive developmental process.
Your adoption of the dog may seem to the dog as if the aliens have come again and taken them to yet another planet. All of these relocations and disruptions are extremely stressful to the dog even in the best of circumstances. Be patient and go slowly with your socialization process, which begins with adjusting to their new home. This includes becoming familiar with new dogs, people, places, sensory experiences and things. Remember that what seems common place to you may be very strange or frightening to the adopted dog.
Resist the urge to immediately take the dog to the dog park or group class. The dog park or group class may be very overwhelming to the adopted dog. There will be plenty of time to learn if your dog is a good fit and will benefit from the dog park or group class. More about dog parks in future articles.
Task one is getting to know your dog and laying a foundation for a relationship. Suzanne Clothier has outlined six elemental questions to begin this relationship.
Suzanne’s simple but powerful Elemental Questions are:
Hello? Looks at the dog’s social interactions
Who are you? Asks about how the dog perceives and responds to his world
How is this for you? Asks about the immediate situation and the dog’s mental, physical and emotional balance
Can you…? Looks at the dog’s physical (emotional and mental) abilities & limitations
May I…? Seeks ways to gain the dog’s cooperation and permission
Can we…? Balancing the dog/handler team’s abilities and limitations against goals
An excellent article by Laura VanArendonk Baugh, CPDT, KPACTP outlines four criteria to guide you in the socialization process.
Does the dog have an escape route? (Can he move away from the motorcycle or the funny hat or the other dog?)
Is the dog using the escape route repeatedly, or is he reluctant to come back to the challenge? (If so, the challenge is probably too challenging!)
Is the dog coming back of his own volition? (That's a good thing, as it means you are keeping the challenge level with his curiosity!)
Are you using food to lure the dog back? This is very common, but in my opinion it's a mistake. This demonstrates not the dog's comfort level, but the magnetism of the food. I sometimes see dogs drawn into an uncomfortable location by food, focusing on the food to avoid seeing the scary parts. When the food is gone, these dogs look up and "suddenly" have a fear reaction. I use lots of food in training, of course, but food is for rewarding, not bribing!