Rescue dogs go through a "honeymoon" period

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 10/3/10
By: Gail T. Fisher


One of the worst “rock and a hard place” questions I’m faced with is when a friend or client asks me about adopting a “rescue.” Some of my best friend dogs fall into the category of rescues. I adopted my first “own dog,” a sweet little mixed-breed, from Bideawee in New York City. Hobbes, my Springer Spaniel who arguably taught me as much as any dog I’ve ever owned, would have been euthanized if I hadn’t taken him on. And then there’s Kochi, my Okinawa “street dog.”

When I adopted him, Hobbes was on his way to the death chamber for aggressive biting. I took him with full knowledge of his behavior and background, making a commitment to his rehabilitation and life. As a dog trainer, I was prepared for what I was taking on, and rehabilitating Hobbes was a tremendous learning experience. But our clients are rarely professional dog trainers, and they aren’t prepared to deal with it when their new family member starts exhibiting behaviors they were unaware of, and are unable or unwilling to tolerate.

This is my dilemma in recommending adopting a rescue. You might get the most wonderful dog you’ve ever had, but you don’t always know what you’re going to get, and it can be a roll of the dice. It isn’t enough to meet the dog, or even to “try it” for a few days or a week. It often takes time for the dog’s true personality to emerge.

When a dog transitions into a new home, he or she will often go through a “honeymoon period”—a time frame lasting anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months or even longer. This transition period varies both in length and behavior. Adjusting to a new home is stressful, and individual dogs handle stress differently. A newly adopted rescued dog generally behaves in one of three ways.

Ideally, a dog that has been well-socialized dog (and often well-trained) is usually well-adjusted, and handles the stress without incident. This dog adjusts seamlessly, settling into his new routine without issues.

Then there are the other two categories— dogs that handle stress by acting out, and those that become extremely reserved. The active stressor may exhibit unruly, stress-relieving behavior such as house soiling and destructive chewing. Clients with newly adopted dogs may call us for a behavioral consultation, dismayed because they were told the dog was housetrained, and he’s not. Once the dog has settled into his new home, has adjusted to changes in his time schedule and routine, and is less stress, he will once again be housetrained.

More puzzling for the new owner to understand is the less-confident dog whose temperament causes him to proceed with caution—which translates to a calm, well-behaved dog. As he becomes more relaxed, his “normal” personality emerges, which may include undesirable behaviors such as resource guarding, growling, snapping or reactivity when disturbed or approached. Clients who suddenly see these changed behaviors invariably say, “But he was perfect! He’s never done this before!” Now that the honeymoon is over, they are likely seeing the behaviors that led the previous owner to put the dog up for adoption, failing to mention these issues to the rescue service.

No matter which category your newly adopted dog falls into, to help him adjust to his new circumstances, it’s important to establish a set routine that the dog can rely on, including set times to go out to relieve himself, predictable mealtimes, and playtimes. Don’t punish unruly or undesirable behavior, but rather establish a training routine using a positive, non-punitive method of training (clicker training is my choice, of course). Training helps build communication and speeds bonding, provides a healthy outlet for the dog’s stress, and builds a firm foundation for the new cooperative relationship—one to last throughout the rest of your new dog’s “forever home” with you.
Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2010. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.