Kennel to Human Home Lessons

If you ask my family and friends, they will tell you I am a, ʻdog rescue,ʼ person and 
admittedly I have gone above and beyond to rescue, train, and find dogs their forever homes. Dog adoption events are a common sight in many communities. Typically there is a wide variety of dogs in all shapes and sizes adorned with brightly colored scarfs around their necks and vests that read ADOPT-ME. Dedicated and hard working people parade these dogs around in hopes some kind-hearted person will sign the papers and take a dog into a car to a wonderful home with everything any dog could want. Images of a dog, previously confined 20 plus hours/day in a crate or kennel at a shelter, now running free in a lush yard with balls to fetch, soft beds and couches to be slept on, and friendly people to pet and love them. Success and a happy ending ...until the first phone call happens less than 24 hours after the adoption, or even worse, until that very same car that was to be the dogs salvation is back to return the dog, still wearing the scarf. Kiara was one of these dogs. Finding her another home was now going to be that much harder after she had a failed adoption history, an incidence of growling, nipping, and lunging.

"Kiara wouldnʼt submit to me," the adopter told me. I kept a calm tone and asked him to explain to me the circumstances of her behavior. Although the word, ʻsubmit,ʼ made my stomach turn, I listened to the adopter describe how Kiara growled at the father when he approached her. Kiara also tried to attack their other dog. His wife became afraid and they were all disappointed it was not going to work out. Kiara was set up to fail and I knew this not because of anything she did or didnʼt do but simply because she was returned less than 24 hours after being adopted.

Dogs who reside in dog shelters/kennels for extended periods of time may have less than one hour/day of time spent in the outside world. In those brief hours of freedom, they will probably follow the same routine and see the same people which is exactly the structure that can help dogs keep from deteriorating. As trainers, we encourage the staff to stick with a feeding and cleaning routine and similarly offer the dog enriching but confined parameters of play and training with great consistency to keep stress levels low. All in all, this controlled environment can be okay for dogs, especially ones like Kiara who never had a red flag behavior on any level and was one of our sweetest and most appropriate dogs in the play-yard.

When structure and routine are removed from a shelter dogs life, even if that means going into a lovely home with a family, it can actually create stress, inability to settle down, fear, anxiety, and some unpleasant behaviors to occur. The best thing a new owner can do for his/her former shelter dog is KEEP IT SIMPLE: Safe place to sleep/rest, food/water, exercise, and regular potty opportunities for the first week. Despite the human joy of welcoming a new pet into the family, it is so important to not have a PARTY where friends, relatives, neighbors come over to meet the new dog. The dogs do not know exactly who has signed that adoption contract and it is better for the the new owner(s) to first establish a bond using the basics like feeding, walking, and creating a designated rest time. So often, the hardest thing for a dog living in a shelter to do is to simply learn to relax in the presence of a human(s). If it takes professional trainers and staff to teach one of the shelter dogs to just DO NOTHING in a training room for 15 minutes, you can imagine the challenge it will be for that same dog to not implode with sensory overload when brought into a bustling home, however loving it may be. An overwhelmed dog will behave in ways that can be frightening or frustrating for humans.... and yet it is these first behaviors that sadly get them sent back. Although I get resistance from clients about this, I am big proponent of using a crate for a newly adopted shelter dog for a variety of reasons and find it to be one of the most useful tools a dog owner can have. ( I say this after having had shelter dogs who I was able to successfully crate train and also those whose fear and anxiety inside the crate made it counter-productive and these dogsʼ transitions were so much harder and required more time and effort!).

Thankfully for Kiara, it was not long until a great perspective family called to inquire about adding another dog to their family. After speaking with them, I knew Kiara could be the perfect fit. They had a fabulous male Pit Bull, 3 kids, a few cats, and a large piece of land in Vermont. As always, I was honest about Kiaraʼs previous adopterʼs experience and asked the family to do some reading on shy dogs. I had actually spent many hours with Kiara at this point and also had my own kids and husband interact with her just to be extra sure I knew her temperament. The new family was terrific and we arranged to have her transported 5 hours to Vermont. It was a great relief to know that she had arrived without incident. She had immediately taken to her new big canine-brother and they were romping and laying around together immediately.
 
After a week in Vermont, I received a troubled phone call that Kiara had growled and
became nippy towards her older son and a visiting uncle. This was very similar to what had happened in the previous home so the new mom was rightfully very concerned that Kiara might not work out. As with all dog behavior cases, the context in which a classic warning behavior occurs is the key in understanding it and preventing it.
 
In Kiaraʼs case, her new family followed almost every piece of advice for the first few days except for one thing. They allowed her to cuddle for HOURS and HOURS on Grandmas lap which clearly became her "safe spot." She was growly when 2 family members approached Grandma and Kiara, "Do not disturb my love fest." I knew Kiara was a sweet/soft girl and shy dogs have a way of being more emotionally needy. It is very hard for adopters to limit affection when they know how hard their journey has been.....but in fact, lavishing too much affection in the first week or two can lead to some troubles for a shelter dog. Kiara had 22 hours/day with no human contact while living in the kennel and now she was sucking up affection like a drug, a drug she did not want to part with! The solution was simple: Kiara was not allowed any lap time for the first few weeks/months. I recommended taking bonding time as a family while hiking and provide similar interactions with both dogs with no special cuddle time for the new girl.The keep it simple rules are not meant to starve a dog for affection but simply ease a dog into a home life. Just as you should not overfeed an emaciated dog, introducing things like lavish attention, affection, and toys can sometimes be overwhelming to a dog who has not had such things before.

One week later, I spoke with Kiaraʼs owners and all was right again with Kiara (now
named Dutchess to compliment her 4-legged brother, Duke). She never growled again. Kiara is a pit bull mix and I deeply respect the Vermont family for not using breed discrimination to send her packing within the first week and for falling in love with a dog who may have had a rocky start but is now officially a country girl. From housetraining issues to guarding, I have seen it all happen within the first few weeks (sometimes months) of the transition. By adding more structure from the shelter-life and less of the Disney movie vision of bringing home a new dog, I have had very good results in preventing returns and adjusting dogs like Kiara into the family they really do deserve. This is just my experience and of course not textbook, but worth thinking about...


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