Adopting a dog from a pound, shelter, or rescue part 3: The first month

First of all, is it just me or did this particular WordPress theme start displaying all text in small bold characters instead of the normal plaintext? I’m finding it very annoying to read, and it’s not me–I have everything except the stuff I want bolded in normal roman text. If anyone has a suggestion or can tell me I’m crazy, please feel free.

OK, the first month at home. I think I’m going to end up having to split this into two parts, because there’s a lot to cover.

You’ve decided that you’re ready to adopt a dog. You’ve picked out what you’re hoping is the right dog. And now he or she is standing in your living room, staring at you. Actually, he’s standing in the living room staring at you if you’re lucky. It’s just as possible that he’s now standing on top of your dining room table eating your centerpiece, or is cowering under the china cabinet chewing apart a throw pillow.

What the HECK do you do now?

I’m going to answer that, but I want to back up first and talk about an absolutely VITAL preparatory step. You need to build a support system.

EVERY dog, from the bluest purebred to the dog who hasn’t seen the inside of a house for three generations, is going to need a problem solved at some point. These are living creatures. So are you. You’re completely different species. Last time I checked, it’s pretty hard to communicate accurately even with other humans, even when you love those humans and they love you. It should never be surprising that you run into communication issues with a creature who thinks you make about as much sense as a turnip. When you add to that the fact that behavior is incredibly strongly influenced by health and by pain level, but a dog won’t tell you that she’s sick or hurting, you can see why you need to find people to help “translate.”

It is NO SHAME to have a problem with a dog. This was the number one issue I ran into when I sold puppies; no matter how much I said that I wanted owners to call me day or night, they would wait until a very minor issue had become an entrenched problem that required major intervention. I don’t know whether they thought I’d be mad, or that THEY were mad (because I was supposed to have sold them the perfect puppy), or they didn’t want to admit that they were less than successful in one area with the dog, or what. I just wish everyone could get this message. DO NOT WAIT AROUND. Engage your support system immediately, engage it often, insist on help, do not let things escalate.

Your support system should be, at a minimum, a health-related professional and a trainer. EVERYBODY NEEDS A TRAINER. I will explain why (at length) later, but for now just pick up the phone and call the people you know who have dogs you like to be around. Ask them who their trainer is. Then go on the Internet Tubes and find your local obedience club. Obedience clubs are, in my opinion, a good place to start because the members are very serious about the discipline as a whole. They are very picky about the people they recommend and most of them have trained multiple dogs and solved multiple problems. They’re also obedience junkies like I’m a behavior and breeding junkie, and they’ve read every book and can comment sensibly on every different school of thought.

If the club as a corresponding secretary, contact him or her. This is a great time for an e-mail where you can write at length. Introduce yourself. Be honest. Say “I’m adopting soon, I have no clue where to start; I want a trainer who will be supportive of me and supportive of what may be a totally undisciplined dog.”

I have a post that goes a little deeper into choosing a trainer, but my take-home message is that I am far less concerned about methods (clicker/shaping, positive reinforcement, luring, combination, drive-building, etc.) than I am about whether you are a good match with the trainer and the trainer understands dogs. Don’t get too caught up in the philosophical disagreements. I understand why they happen; I have every sympathy for being passionate about something–but if a trainer trashes another trainer or an entire genre of methodology, ignore it. You can use that trainer–it really is all about making a good match and feeling like you and your dog are supported. Just don’t be a hater.

Next, you need to choose a vet. In my opinion, the ideal way to do this is to contact the local AKC-affiliated breed club for the breed you are likely to bring home, or a breed that’s pretty similar in size and needs, and ask for recommendations. Breeders are very, very picky about vet care and we tend to gather around the good ones. The vet I use right now is in a very small practice, in a modest building, four parking spaces outside–but she’s got breeders coming from hours away to her. She is a breeder and has done a ton of training herself, which I think is a huge plus. It’s sometimes a little startling to realize that most vets are no more experienced in dog ownership than you are. They’re great at dog diseases, but they usually have one or two dogs at home and may never own more than a half-dozen in their lives. That’s why I tend to seek out breeder-vets or trainer-vets, who have much more experience in the kind of ownership-related problems I need help to solve.

The other reason to get the advice of a breed club is that certain breeds have very specific needs. When we had Danes, the first question I’d ask is “Do you have a lot of giant breeds in your clientele? How many bloat surgeries do you do?” If the answer was very few or none, I’d look elsewhere. If you’re adopting a Dalmatian, it’s a good idea to find a vet who doesn’t give you a blank look when you ask about bladder stones in Dals. This means some work on your part, researching the prevalent health problems in the breed or breeds involved, but it could very well save your dog’s life if a vet looks at him and says “Looks like Addison’s; we see this a lot in these dogs” instead of spending weeks being puzzled and running tests.

So you will be going to the shelter with a short list of vets and trainers. When you decide on a dog, the dog should immediately have an appointment with the vet, even if she doesn’t “need” it. In fact, it’s even better if she doesn’t need it, because then the vet will see her at her normal behavioral and health levels and so will be able to diagnose her better if and when she does become ill. It also won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

Make sure that you have any and all prior vaccine and health records faxed to the new vet before you show up, so the vet doesn’t re-vaccinate without reason. If the vet does feel that the dog should be vaccinated, do ONE vaccine (not one combo vaccine, ONE vaccine). The dog does not need the assult on her immune system when she’s already stressed. For a puppy, I would do a single parvo like Merial’s new recombinant vaccine. For an adult dog, I’d do a single distemper instead (parvo is not as dangerous in adult dogs, but distemper is). Under no non-emergency circumstances would I give a rabies vaccine until the dog has settled in to your home. Rabies is SUPER tough on dogs. Do get it done, but give her a couple of weeks to normalize.

I would also sign up for a basic obedience class as soon as you know you’re adopting.

WHY is organized, class-oriented training so important? Well, I’ll give you a clue: It’s not because of the training.

Well, it IS because of the training, but honestly, a good savvy owner with a book or DVD can have a dog obeying some basic commands in an afternoon. That’s actually what makes recommending “training” so risky–owners ask themselves why on earth they’d ever pay $150 for something they can do themselves at home. So don’t think of it as training commands. The reasons you go, as soon as possible, and you seriously consider going for multiple units for as long as you can afford it, are as follows:

– It keeps you honest. This is my problem. I know enough to have a dog doing all the normal stuff almost instantly. But I suck at follow-through and I am not good at remembering to only give the command once, and all too often I tell myself I’m training every day but I’m really only getting to it every three or four (or ten) days. If I have to walk into a class, I’m a lot more motivated to have a prepared and eager dog, and I know I’m going to get called on it if I double-command or forget to motivate the dog.

– It trains you to train everything. If you are taught well, the skills you learn are infinitely applicable. Teaching a complex behavior like “always go to your mat when guests arrive” is no different than teaching “sit”; it just takes longer and requires more patience. A good trainer gives you the tools to embark on an entire life of success with your dog.

– It socializes the dog. You have a VERY SMALL window in puppyhood where the dog is primed to accept new things. After that, and with any adult dog, you’ve got to put real effort into socializing. Training class is SO GOOD for that. Dogs in training class are also learning to ignore other dogs, to calm down brewing conflicts, to look to their owners for assurance and help, etc.

– It builds confidence in the dog. The more a dog knows how to make you happy, the more confident he becomes. The more a dog feels that he can rely on you to act predictably, the more secure he becomes. Dogs are almost totally oriented toward others, and most particularly oriented toward a stable and predictable pack leader. A secure dog never thinks “What do I want to do?”; the dog thinks “What does she want me to do?”

In fact, the more the dog is asked to make his or her own decisions the more anxious and neurotic they become. Dogs are happy when they are making you happy. Please understand how key this wording is. Dogs do not need to make you happy; dogs do not want to make you happy; dogs are happy when they are making you happy. It is entirely joyful and fulfilling for them to understand what you want them to do and to do it.

A bonded dog with a predictable and stable owner takes so much joy in obeying that owner that they would rather follow their owner’s commands than eat, sleep, run, play, or have sex. If you watch a competitive obedience ring, the well-trained, secure dogs with predictable handlers are vibrating with happiness. They laugh as they heel, laugh as they sit. (You can immediately tell the dogs who do not have that connection; they are like robots, immaculate but joyless.) The better trainer you are, the more time you put into training and building that connection, the happier your dog will be and more bonded you will be with the dog.

Again, let me assure you that I’m preaching to myself here too. I have my own story to illustrate this rule.

When we got Bronte, our younger Cardi, I found out I was pregnant on the day we picked her up from the airport. This quickly became a medically complicated and extremely painful pregnancy; I had severe shingles, hyperemesis, and SPD (my pelvic bones pulled apart and with each step they would grate against each other). Getting her to class was a practical impossibility. Heck, most days I was glad I could get the dogs fed and watered, much less trained. Clue basically raised her.

Bronte is an incredibly sweet, gentle, soft dog. She never disobeys. So from that period of time she never gained any bad habits. Unfortunately, she also never gained any good ones. She was very nervous in strange situations, she was frantic without Clue, she didn’t understand how to play with other dogs, she stress-barked constantly. She could sit, down, stay, roll over, heel, and come, all of them perfectly, but she had only ever done it in her own house or yard.

I knew this was totally my fault, and when the baby was five months old (Bronte was just turning one) I dragged my breastmilk-stained self out of the house and put her in a class. It was a DISASTER. Poor thing was terrified.

But we kept going. The first day, when I was supposed to let her off-leash and call her to me, she ran like a lizard to the other corner of the room. The second week, she hid behind the trainer’s legs and then ran back to her mat. The third week she looked at me and at least thought about it before freezing. The fourth she made it half-way across the room before she freaked and ran back to the chairs. The fifth, she made it all the way to me, eyes rolling. The sixth, she ran to me at top speed. The seventh, she ran through a tunnel to get to me, and her tail wagged the whole time.

A week after I finished that class, I took her to seven shows in thirteen days. She had to be in a single room with five hundred other dogs, and to show she had to look not just OK, but happy and enthusiastic.

She won three of those days, beating large classes. She came home with nine of the fifteen points she needs for her championship.

This was ENTIRELY because of that obedience class. It gave her the confidence that the world wasn’t going to end if she was in a strange situation, and it gave her the security of knowing that I was trustworthy and predictable. She will always be a sweet, soft dog. She’s never going to go out there and beat the world up. But she is now a happy, secure, tail-wagging, sweet and soft dog.

And that brings me to the final benefit of training: It makes you proud of your dog. That class really completely changed my attitude toward Bronte. I always loved her, but she was so squirrelly that it made me impatient with her (which is terrible, because her behavior was entirely my fault, but so goes human nature). After her huge, MASSIVE success, I wanted to bring her everywhere and show her off. I wanted people to see her. I wanted to pet her a lot and reward her and spend more time with her. And that builds on itself, until you have totally transformed your entire perception of and relationship with your dog.


2 thoughts on “Adopting a dog from a pound, shelter, or rescue part 3: The first month

  1. J, I have to thank you over & over for your thoughtful and thought-provoking posts. I’ve learned SO MUCH from you!

    After reading your last post on why you shouldn’t adopt a shelter dog, I reluctantly dragged myself away from a dog that was beautiful but that would’ve been a total disaster for my family right now — too big, too much of a puppy still, would’ve probably chased the cat and turned her neurotic just when she’s getting settled in to our family dynamic (and she’s the best cat I’ve ever had, she doesn’t deserve to be ruined). I’ve been praying for him (and all the other dogs at the shelter, of course) to find loving & capable homes. And I’ve also kept reminding myself of the things you’ve written, so that I’ll only adopt a dog when our family’s ready and when we can give it the RIGHT home. I still have so much to learn…

  2. Pingback: Adopting a dog from a pound, shelter, or rescue: roundup post « Ruffly Speaking: Railing against idiocy since 2004

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