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What to Know When You Bring Home a Rescue Dog

“Where did you get this dog?”

Eight times out of 10 when I ask this question, the confident answer I’m given is, “S/he’s a rescue dog.” Delving deeper, I ask how much documented information the owner has about the dog’s history. That’s often when the confidence slips, and together we face the reality that we don’t know how this dog behaved and survived before we met.

If the dog is a young puppy, we typically don’t need too much information besides the pup’s age, breed, and health. Age allows the owner to jump right into working through standard developmental periods and behavioral shifts. Breed helps us watch for genetic tendencies so we can better reinforce behaviors we want and inhibit or manage those we don’t. Health is important because we need to know what the pup is able to handle physically, mentally, and emotionally.

If the dog is an adolescent and has already lived in a home, chances are good that something the young dog was doing didn’t jibe with the previous owners’ desires. Oftentimes, the adolescent wasn’t taught or practiced in what the humans wanted. Perhaps chewing the couch leg was the most satisfying activity the dog could find, and the dog wasn’t given any toys or taught to not chew the furniture. Perhaps the humans were inadequate leaders and the dog felt the need to protect himself or herself from feared stimuli. Add to this time of self-discovery and socialization a complete change in surroundings and companionship, and you can expect the adolescent attitude to be anywhere on a scale from exuberant engagement to a tendency toward self-isolation.

When bringing an adult dog into your home, be aware that the mature dog has spent years either living by someone else’s rules or making up his or her own. Either way, there are two possible pitfalls ahead. If the dog doesn’t already know or understand the behaviors you want to see, you will need to teach the dog each behavior step by step. Show the dog what you want with an emphasis on how he or she will benefit from cooperating with you. If the adult dog is performing undesired behaviors, you will need to teach the dog one or more alternative behaviors and correct the dog when he or she performs the undesired behaviors.

Sometimes, however, it is beneficial to let the dog choose an alternative behavior on his or her own. This becomes a matter of, “I don’t care where you are — just don’t be on the furniture.” A savvy and confident dog might simply lie down on the floor next to the couch. A dog without much confidence may need your kind help in choosing an alternative place to be. From the dog’s reaction, you will learn crucial information about how your dog copes with thwarted desires and, maybe, how creative he or she can be.

When you bring a dog of any age home, it is your responsibility to guide the dog around your home, yard, and neighborhood, explaining along the way what behaviors are desired, acceptable, and unacceptable. Every human in the dog’s daily life must be on the same page with what behaviors are desired, acceptable, and unacceptable.

Consider where, when, and how you want your daily activities to include your dog. Build a regular schedule from the start. Fold the dog into your life and routine in a way that reflects how you want your life together to be. For the first month or so, follow the schedule clearly and consistently. After a short time, the dog will pick up on your schedule and your ways and, most likely, quite naturally fall into step with you.

Here is my best yet most ignored piece of advice: Until the dog exhibits consistent desired behaviors across the board, keep the dog leashed to you at all times when outside of an exercise pen or crate. (Dogs can be off-leash for supervised activities.) If your dog is allowed to perform undesired behaviors because your back is turned, you can’t expect the dog to take you seriously.

Attach yourself to your dog and observe his or her reactions to various stimuli. You will get to know your dog’s tells and can guide him or her toward desired decisions. Show him or her what you want and what you don’t want. If you’re not physically attached to your dog, it will be difficult to rein in those undesired behaviors. Being connected to your dog shows your dog you want him or her near to you.

You’re playing the long game now. Practice consistent, clear, constant observation and provide guidance with effective reinforcement and inhibition. Your dog will be grateful for your clarity, and your partnership will be off to a terrific start.

Sybl Amy Saisselin is a Certified Massage Therapist and Certified Foundation Style Dog Trainer. She is the lead dog trainer and general manager of K9 Keep Fit, San Jose. Saisselin is the 2019 winner of Bay Woof’s Beast of the Bay category Best Trainer, Peninsula / South Bay, and K9KeepFit was the 2019 winner of the category Best Daycare & Best Boarding, Peninsula/South Bay. Saisselin is working toward her certificate in applied canine ethology from the ethology institute in the UK and volunteers for various Bay Area rescue organizations evaluating dogs with borderline behavioral displays at municipal animal shelters.

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Main article photo by: Top photo,; bottom, Debbie Gildea USAF