Article: The Rescue Dog by Jacqueline Bunn

Considering taking on a rescue dog?
Well done!

There are many thousands of unwanted dogs right at this moment gazing out of kennels at every passer-by, doing everything they can to attract attention. The luckier ones are in loving foster-homes, still waiting for the home and family that they can call their own.

Whether you take on a young dog or an older dog, the chances are that they have experiences in their past that you know little or nothing about and it is important to realise this if you have any chance of understanding the new member of your family. Even puppies of 12 weeks of age can be carrying maladaptive anxieties and fears that are going to need careful, early behavioural modification if the dog is not to carry them throughout the rest of its life.

In addition, dogs that have not been positively exposed to what we call ‘normal’ stimuli such as human contact, other dogs, cars, traffic, thunderstorms, etc., (I could include fireworks, but I do not consider these ‘normal’ stimuli as they should be seasonal – if at all…) can remain anxious, fearful or phobic in such circumstances.

All is not doom and gloom though; even those dogs that display these behavioural characteristics can be helped enormously with the assistance of a qualified, experienced dog behaviour consultant who will guide and advise you on techniques and equipment available. S/he can gently teach the dog to cope with the world around it and even better, to learn that previously fearful stimuli can actually be positive. The fundamental objective here is to alter the dog’s emotional response to a particular stimulus from negative to positive.

Behaviour Modification Techniques and Tools

Systematic Desensitisation
This is a process of gradual, limited exposure to the particular stimulus that is causing the negative emotional response (NER) until the dog displays a neutral response to it. It is important for this to be systematic, because most dogs will experience setbacks along the way and it will be extremely important to be able to take an appropriately sized step backwards in the process in order for the dog to adapt again. A random process of desensitisation can result in the dog being exposed to the stimulus faster than it can process, resulting in an escalation of the negative response.

Counter-conditioning
This is an integral, but often omitted part of the process in getting a Positive Emotional Response (PER) from the dog when exposed to a stimulus that previously evoked a NER. Conditioning a dog to display a positive emotional response rather than simply a neutral one helps to ‘lock in’ the process so that the dog does not regress into maladaptive behaviours again.

An example of this is where a dog has been desensitised to the sound of fireworks and displays a neutral response, but is then counter-conditioned to actually feel happy and positive when it hears these sounds.

Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP)
This is a relatively new item in the ‘toolkit’ of the dog behaviour consultant.

Dog Appeasing Pheromone is the name given to the pheromone released by the lactating bitch from glands adjacent to the teats while nursing her puppies from around 3 – 5 days after their birth. The secretion of this hormone is associated with feelings of security, relaxation and satiety; the association is so powerful that it can last into adulthood.

This pheromone can now be produced for use in the home via a plug-in diffuser and also as a spray for use outside the home. It is available without prescription from veterinary clinics and online veterinary pharmacies. It must be noted that this therapy is not an alternative to a designated behaviour modification programme; it works in conjunction with the programme.

There are other techniques, information and tools that the dog behaviour consultant has at their disposal for this type of work including alternative therapies and more unconventional techniques that should only be recommended and demonstrated by a dog behaviour consultant etc., but the above are the most common.

It must be remembered that although it may be possible to train a dog to ignore or disguise its responses to previously feared stimuli in order for the owner to handle the dog adequately, the ethical issue of whether this is the kindest option for the dog must be addressed. A very common example of this is where a fear aggressive dog is trained to sit behind the owner when it sees another dog. This may seem like a quick and easy option for the handler, but if the dog is still experiencing anxiety, fear or phobia, then the cause of the problem is being neglected and causing unnecessary distress. In addition, many fear aggression cases are actually exacerbated by the owners’ anxiety, which is picked up by the dog and makes the problem far worse. A good behaviour consultant will spot this immediately and advise accordingly.

Training Issues
The rescue dog can come with ‘baggage’ that needs to be addressed with training.
Common problems include:

  • Pulling on the lead
  • Inappropriate attention-seeking behaviours such as barking, nipping, jumping up
  • Poor or non-existent recall
  • Poor self-control, i.e. poor execution of or non-existent response to commands such as ‘Sit’, ‘Stay’, ‘Down’, ‘Wait’ etc.

The old saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is simply not true and probably invented by an exasperated owner who was not getting good behaviour and training advice at the time!

It can be hard work training an older dog, but the rewards are immeasurable and sometimes quicker to reap than with a puppy. The rescue dog with a negative history will react to positive reinforcement techniques of training with what can only be described as amazement at first, then increasing enthusiasm and finally, incredible loyalty. It would be anthropomorphic to say that the dog is consciously saying ‘thank you’ for the attention and devotion now being shown, but it certainly feels that way! In reality the dog is merely responding directly to your positive reinforcement and interaction, creating a continued desire to execute commands successfully in order to get positive rewards.

There are many dog training clubs available that cater for the older dog and provide not only training guidance and advice, but can be perfect opportunities for socialisation and habituation to new environments and experiences, for both dogs and people.

However, it must be noted that training clubs do not work well for all dogs. Those displaying behavioural problems such as dog-dog aggression and dog-human aggression will rarely be helped; continued attendance in an environment filled with dogs and/or humans may actually cause an increase in aggressive displays. This technique is called ‘flooding’ and it rarely produces any positive results.

In these instances the help of a qualified, experienced dog behaviour consultant MUST be sought to design a behaviour modification programme specifically for your dog. The consultant should also be able to help with training by providing one-to-one sessions tailored to help get your dog under control. Depending on the problems that your dog is dealing with when it comes out of rescue, this is also sound advice in such circumstances.

The most common mistake that owners make is thinking that one consultation is enough, when in fact the programme may need regular amendments in order to take into account the regular changes that occur in our lives and consequently, our dogs’.

Another common mistake that people make is getting advice from many different sources and changing their techniques when working with their dog. As long as the professional you are working with has qualifications in dog behaviour and training, long and varied experience of working with dogs, is adequately insured and is a recognised member of a recognised professional association, such as The Canine and Feline Behaviour Association, then you should feel able to take the advice of the consultant and continue with the recommendations as long as the dog is making some progress.

If you do not see even minor improvements in your dog’s behaviours, here are just a few of the reasons for this:

  • The dog has an undetected physiological problem.
  • The recommended techniques are being implemented incorrectly or not at all.
  • Behaviour patterns are already well-established and modifications to the programme may be required.
  • A dog with an unknown history may be experiencing ‘triggers’ related to events in its past that have not been established.
  • Unexpected events may have occurred while undertaking the programme and modifications may be required.

The behavioural development of the dog, as with us, is a constantly shifting process. It is perfectly natural for a dog to change its perception of and reaction to the world around it thus it is extremely important for us to be aware of these changes and to take action quickly before they develop into established behaviours that might result in the dog ending up back in rescue.

Taking on a rescue dog is a challenge, but every single dog waiting for a home today is worthy of our time, effort, commitment and dedication to improve its life and make their future an infinitely better prospect than their past.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Jacqueline Bunn for the CFBA, the CIDBT and their students of Dog Behaviour & Training