Rescue dog? Save your pity.
No one wants pity. Pity never helped anyone rebuild their life after a trauma; it never helped someone rebuild their self-esteem; it never helped someone move on. Pity keeps us tied to the past.
What we really want, especially when we've had a hard time, is to have our experience acknowledged, but not for it to define us.
As in life, so in dogs. Some dogs have been the victim of terrible abuse and trauma. It may have affected them in different ways. Or not. It may manifest in many ways. Or not. All dogs are different. We all react to different situations in different ways. So do our dogs.
Many people do the right thing and re-home (I've purposefully avoided the emotionally loaded 'rescue') a dog from a shelter . But sometimes this good intention can be the road to hell, not only for the new owner, but also for the dog.
Pity expresses itself in the new owner's focus on the dog's past - on the assumed effects of abuse and maltreatment. The new owner blames the past for a given behaviour, projects a bunch of feelings onto the dog, and compensates for a tragic past even when the new owner doesn't know the true story.
No matter what the re-homed dog's past, pity either forces the dog to be stuck there, or perhaps worse still causes more harm. What any re-homed dog needs is a clean slate and a fresh start.
Here are some tips for giving your re-homed dog a fresh start:
Acknowledge the past, but don't dwell there.
Re-homing a dog is a great opportunity. Let go of any pity for the dog. Pity is unproductive. It's not good for people; it's not good for the dog. As the song says, "Let it go, let it go!"
Instead, apply simple and consistent boundaries, and gentle reward-based training and positive reinforcement. They support overcoming negative behaviours and promote recovery.
Anticipate and manage triggers
A trigger is anything—a person, place, thing, or situation—that causes a particular behaviour. We're quite happy when the word 'sit' triggers a sit, but less so when lightning triggers fear. Even though they are fundamentally the same, people are happy to take credit for the 'sit' but almost never take responsibility for their role in creating 'fear' of thunder, I find!
Triggers that produce undesired behaviour are a particular problem for re-homed dogs. Often, new owners will be hyper-vigilant of a particular behaviour - but this very vigilance and anticipating behaviour often creates a downward spiral that reinforces the undesired behaviour.
Instead, notice the behaviour, but acknowledge and reinforce the desired behaviour and deny acknowledgement to the undesired behaviour.
Rebuild trust and safety
This is essential and fundamental for every single dog - and human - and doubly so when trust has been undermined.
Almost without exception, your re-homed dog will have come from a pack that was in some way dysfunctional, and like all dogs will crave a social structure that has someone else in charge - a functional social structure.
Rebuild trust and allow your dog to be safe by ensuring you communicate in ways that a dog understands you are in charge of the pack and are a competent leader, and by having consistent boundaries and rules. This is the single most important thing you can do for any dog.
Create a contrast with the dog's past by controlling access to food, beds and toys, for example, by having 'exclusive' space (most usefully, beds and couches), and by having simple rules like humans go through thresholds first. These and other simple behaviours in the home help create a healthy and relaxed social pack order that every dog craves.
Reflect on your own behaviour
If I've lost my temper with a dog or he's done something I didn't want, I look first at myself.
I think about how I've contributed to the events. Have I provided Erik, my own re-homed Pointer, enough mental stimulation and enough exercise, have I been behaving like a competent leader, have I rewarded the right behaviour?
Always assume your dog's behaviour is a result of your behaviour. Reflect on how your behaviour is affecting your dog, and how you can adjust your behaviour to influence change in his.
If you need help creating a fresh start for your re-homed dog, get in touch.