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Read This Before You Adopt a Rescue Dog

by James Branson

If you are planning to adopt a dog from a rescue or shelter, I support you wholeheartedly, and I thank you for helping a dog in need. Before you do, you should be aware of some easy and simple precautions you can take to make the transition smooth and safe. Many dogs adopted from shelters and rescues are perfectly easy and trouble free. That may not be the case every time.  

I adopted two wonderful dogs from shelters, and I adopted several from rescue. The first dog I got from the shelter was happy and sweet, and also very destructive and lacking in obedience. I thought he should have been grateful that I rescued him from the shelter, and he should just do what I asked because I asked him to. It took several weeks before we established a relationship. After the first month of trials and tribulations, he spent 14 years with me, absolutely the best dog in the world. Two of my current dogs were found running the streets, and they escaped from me in the first weeks. One, Fozzie, was recovered quickly, and the other, Viktor, took a full week of intensive effort to recapture. I love them both, and they are no longer at risk of running off. Had I taken more and better precautions, I could have prevented those escapes. 

Below are a few strategies and tips to make your first weeks with your new dog less stressful and safer.  

  1. Keep in mind that your new dog may have had a somewhat troubled history. If a dog ends up in rescue, it could be because he had previously escaped from another home, or he was surrendered because of some behavioral incompatibility. This dog went from a familiar home life to a shelter or foster, and he had no idea why he lost his home. He may have been transported interstate or overseas. All of these new environments and new people can be very stressful for some dogs. They used to have daily routines and familiar scents, and now everything is chaotic and strange. Give them time to adjust and adapt.

  2. Use Calming Signals.  Dogs use facial gestures and body language with each other to ease tensions and avoid conflicts. Generally speaking, dogs don’t stare into each other’s eyes unless they want to project dominance, fear, or aggression. In a dog’s world, it is polite to look to the side. Humans tend to be direct and make lots of eye contact and looking to the side can be a sign of avoidance or displeasure. When people meet a dog in a rescue or a shelter, then tend to look directly at the dog and smile, because they are happy to see the dog. Dog’s don’t smile, usually, and when they do show their teeth, it doesn’t mean they’re happy. Right away, people meeting dogs at the shelter or rescue are showing two types of aggression, direct eye contact and bared teeth. If the dog is not stressed and perfectly relaxed, he may be able to interpret these human expressions as positive. If the dog is stressed, he may interpret these as acts of aggression or disapproval. The key is for you to watch the dog’s behavior and respond accordingly. If he looks away or turns his body to the side, don’t force him to look into your face, and don’t keep smiling and staring. If he looks to the side, you look to the side. If he turns his body, you turn your body. A dog who is available for adoption will be giving you a lot of information about how he is feeling, if you observe him and try to see the world through his eyes. By responding to the nonverbal communication, he is sharing with you, you can help him feel more in control of his world, and more relaxed and confident.

  3. Take precautions to prevent an escape and prepare to respond quickly if he does escape your control. Any dog that is new to you should be walked on two leashes, one attached to a harness and one attached to a collar. The harness should be fitted securely and tested, indoors, to make sure it won’t pull off if the dog pulls away from you. The collar should be a martingale style collar that tightens up if the dog pulls away. If the dog is relaxed, the collar fits comfortably loose. When he pulls, it tightens enough that it can’t slip off, but not so tight that it chokes him. It is important that the Martingale collar is properly sized and carefully fitted. The free ends should just meet when the dog pulls. The leashes should be five or six feet long, with a loop at the end. Your hand goes through the loop, and you hold the leash below the loop.  

  4. Take pictures of your new dog, in case they are needed for a Lost Dog poster. Don’t hold your smartphone straight out at the dog, as this can make them uneasy. Hold the phone to the side, so you are looking at the screen at an angle. It helps to hold a treat near the camera. Take several pictures and share them with a friend. Simple, clear, uncluttered pictures are best for Lost Dog posters.  

  5. Create a scent item for storage. If your dog goes missing, it is possible, in some locations, to hire a trained search dog that specializes in finding lost dogs. To do this, the search dog needs something with the scent of the missing dog. If the new dog runs off, soon after adoption or during transport, there might be nothing left behind that has the dog’s scent. You can make a scent item by taking a sterile gauze pad, the type used for wound care, and rubbing it all over the new dog. Put this in a ziplock bag, write the dog’s name and the date on the bag using a permanent marker, and store this in the freeze when you get home. This is simple, easy, and cheap to do, and it can make a critical difference in certain situations.  

  6. Make sure your new dog is microchipped and be certain that the microchip company has your current contact information. It’s always wise to have your vet scan the chip and verify that it is there, where it is expected to be, at the back of the neck, and the chip is working.

  7. Consider getting a GPS tracking unit for your new dog’s collar. It’s never a bad idea to have GPS tracking for any dog, even if they aren’t a flight risk. Less than $200, a GPS tracker can be a lifesaver. Considering that you will spend $4,000 to $15,000 on you dog over the course of his life, for food, supplies, and veterinary care, a GPS tracker is a minor investment that provides enormous safety benefits. Whistle and Fi are two popular brands that have good performance records. Certain breeds are more prone to escape. In particular, any Siberian Husky or Korean Jindo should have a GPS, automatically.

  8. Keep your new dog on a leash even inside your own fenced yard, for the first few weeks. People have been surprised at how quickly and easily a dog can jump a fence.
  9. If you are getting a dog from a rescue or shelter, please be cautious if they don’t take the time to make sure you are a good match for the dog. When I got my first dog from the shelter, I had him on a leash while I was filling out the paperwork, and he was behaving crazy. The shelter staff was probably looking at us like, “They’re both going to die,” and hoping we made it home before disaster struck. That was a long time ago, and most shelters today generally do a better job of screening. There are rescues that import hundreds of dogs from out of state or oversees, and they may tend to adopt these dogs on a first-come, first-serve basis. Anyone who wants any particular dog can have it, as long as they pay. This sort of retail rescue can be a recipe for disaster. You might think they are doing you a favor if they don’t ask a lot of questions or have a lot of requirements, but you are better served by a rescue that takes the time to make sure you are a good match for a dog. If anyone agrees to let you take a dog home the day that it arrives on a transport, that rescue is doing a disservice to you and the dog. If a rescue does not require a home check prior to adoption, that is a huge red flag. Perhaps everything will work out okay if you adopt a dog from a rescue with lax standards, but you would be better off going to a rescue that takes the time to make sure you are a good match for a particular dog. A rescue that lets anyone adopt any dog is not looking out for the best interests of the dog. A rescue, a true rescue, should be looking to find a great permanent home where the dog will have the best chance at happiness, and the best rescues make a lifelong commitment to always be there for the dog if anything goes wrong.  

  10. If your dog does escape from you, DO NOT chase after him, and do not call his name. You want him to come back to you of his own will, and you help him come back by using Calming Signals, as described above. If you chase him, it will only make him run farther and faster. Certainly, keep an eye on where he is going, and keep him out of traffic as much as possible, but try to avoid making him feel like he is being chased. Also, when dogs panic and run, it almost never works to call his name. It’s better to talk in a normal, calm tone of voice, and lure him with treats.

There are many more steps that you can and should take for loss prevention. If every adopter of a dog from a rescue or shelter would take the precautions above, the incidence of lost dogs would be reduced by 80%. For your sake and for your new dog’s sake, please take a few minutes to ensure that you get a great start to a long and happy life together.


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