THERE IS SO MUCH MORE TO RESCUE . . .than just pulling them out of the "killing room.
Science-based Tips for Rescue Fosters/New Owners
As a canine behavior specialist and professional dog trainer, I work with clients who adopt rescue dogs from various places, and just when the dog is beginning to get “comfortable,” they want to return the dog because he or she is not “perfect” or is not as originally presented. Of course the dogs are emotionally damaged. Who of us, even as a human, would not be, after being discarded, sometimes traumatized by being pursued and caught by animal control, transported to multiple places and to different fosters under varying conditions, then hauled to endless ‘adopt-a-thons’ to experience even more rejection. Before you jump the gun and decide to never adopt from a shelter or rescue, and choose to go to a breeder because you want a dog that is not “damaged”, please remember that from a careless or ignorant breeder, a puppy can come with much more “baggage” than dogs from “death row,” and those issues are sometimes more difficult to deal with.
Nothing in their life has been a routine or predictable. But that does not mean they cannot heal, and that’s what we at EXTRAORDINARY DOGS INC do for our dogs. We give them stability, support and love so that they can bloom.
There is a lot of outdated recommendations and misinformation that is being forwarded by well-meaning rescue organizations to help fosters. Some of it can actually put the dog at risk. So, let’s put some of these practices in the trash bin and handle these dogs more proactively.
TRUST AND SAFETY
Assume that the rescue dog you are fostering is clever and skilled in survival skills. I’ve seen fosters bring in a new dog and the first thing they do is let them have the freedom to run in a spacious back yard. Then they are surprised when the dog suddenly scales, jumps or digs under a six-foot fence. Your new foster dog does not know that your place is his new home, albeit temporary. All he knows is that he was trapped in a noisy, uncomfortable, and scary kennel, sometimes after considerable pursuit by animal control. That’s the norm for him so he will try to escape, and sometimes will patiently wait for the opportunity to do so.
When exercising the dog, always keep him on a double-headed long leash . . . one is clipped to the collar and the other to the harness.
Dogs can wiggle out of either one, but not out of both at the same time. This should be standard procedure whenever you are moving the dog (to vet, transport, etc.) How sad when a dog is pulled from “death row” and then “lost” during transport. Many end up as coyote dinner, hit by a car, or shot, and this happens more frequently than rescues like to admit. If you have the new dog in the house, be very careful when answering or opening the door. They can be amazingly fast at slipping out the door.
This term is thrown around in the rescue world without any clear definition or system of recognizing when the dog is “finally decompressed.” Ask a soldier returning from war when he or she will be finally “decompressed,” and the most likely response you’ll get is “it depends.”
Decompression is defined as a return to a normal, more relaxed state after a period of intense stress, psychological pressure, or urgent activity. So it depends on how intense and frequent those periods of stress were. Severe and/or persistent trauma “rewires” the brain, and research has shown that traumatized humans (e.g. PTSD) have brain scans that are very different from those of relaxed, “decompressed” subjects. All mammals share the same emotional brain and dogs can be traumatized to the point of developing PTSD.
Decompression does not follow a straight-line trajectory. It’s more like a hilly road with bumps, valleys, plateaus and peaks. It takes time, patience and understanding for decompression to be effective, and the timeline is different for each individual, dog or human.
So what does a dog need?
Above everything else, he needs to feel safe. That usually means giving him a quiet place that he can call his own (a comfortable crate, a room apart from the rest of the household such as the laundry room or spare bedroom or bathroom.) If he’s within hearing of household activity, he’ll understand that the invitation is there for him to join when he’s ready. Do not force anything. That will only create more stress for him. He’ll need time to assess the situation. Learn how to recognize fear/stress symptoms (low carriage of tail, tense body, tongue flicking, enlarged pupils, curling lip), and immediately stop the activity and let him return to below threshold. Let him choose when he wants to meet others in the family, such as your own dogs. Always give him access to get to his safe place. Absolutely NO reprimands or corrections.
How long it will take a dog to decompress depends on what has happened to him in the past. Humans can talk about their bad experiences and that ability helps them to work through their feelings. Dogs can’t verbalize and are very stoic so it’s up to us humans to help the dog to”see” his world as safe. We sometimes think that just because an animal does not verbalize, their feelings are less significant or that dog’s don’t feel a certain emotion. Sadly, too many people are still trapped in this fallacy.
When we bring in a new dog, we focus on the future . . . “this is the first day of your new, awesome life!” While we don’t let past experiences be a crutch or an excuse, we are always mindful that something in the dog’s past might emerge as a trigger at any time in their life. A dog will always tell you his story if you learn how to listen.
The longer the time the dog spends in a safe, force-free environment, the more quickly he can return to a calm state.
PUTTING PAVLOV IN PERSPECTIVE
Learning theory is important not just in dog (or other species) training, but for survival. A species would be quickly doomed if it didn’t learn to move away from pain. However, Pavlov’s classical conditioning model has been used to justify some pretty awful treatment of animals, especially by those who don’t understand the interrelationship between emotions and neurology. Fosters are often advised to not give in to a dog’s whining while he’s in his crate and only open the door when he stops because opening the door will serve as reinforcement for his whining and encourage him to whine more. Ignorant trainers often tell new puppy owners to not offer comfort/relief/attention to a puppy until it stops crying. That’s akin to letting a newborn cry and not a picking it up until it stops because if you do, it will “teach” him to demand cry.
A dog’s emotional and cognitive level is about that of a human toddler, 2-5 years of age. Ethologists are proving that unless the basic needs of an organism are met, no learning takes place. The baby cries because he needs something . . . he’s hungry, uncomfortable, frightened. This is why a child who comes to school hungry, or traumatized by family dysfunction, does not learn a task regardless of how much wonderful reinforcement is provided. Same with a dog; yet humans, even those who claim that they believe that dogs have feelings, continue to treat them as if the dog has some Machiavellian tendency to overtake society.
Dogs have died in crates because of following this archaic rule. If a dog is crying in his crate, then he is experiencing some kind of discomfort. Maybe he spilled his water and needs more, maybe he needs to go potty, maybe his toenail got caught in the blanket. Maybe he’s just frightened and needs to know that someone is there for him. I certainly will not wait for him to stop crying before I tend to his needs, human baby or dog.
Animal behavior continues to surprise researchers. In one study, rats had been taught an activity that earned them a high-value reward. When given a choice between the reinforced activity, and one that had not been taught (in this case, releasing a captive rat), the rats overwhelmingly chose to release the prisoner rather than perform the activity that would earn them the reward.
In real life for all of us sentient beings (human and non-human), it’s not just about responding to stimuli . . . we have emotions and the needs of a dog are the same as those of a human. Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from your basic psychology class?
A starving or frightened animal will not learn anything, regardless of species.
GRATITUDE AND ENCOURAGEMENT
Fosters save lives and all of us who treasure these dogs, no matter where they come from, are so grateful when someone opens their heart and home to take in a dog who would otherwise be dead. Thank you to these often overlooked heroes.
Helene Kobelnyk has a Master of Science degree in mathematics with extensive post graduate work in psychology, biology, and business administration. She continues her studies in neurobiology, nutrition and ethology and incorporates the latest scientific research into her training and healing of dogs entrusted to her. As founder, director and lead trainer of the nonprofit Extraordinary Dogs Inc., she works with some of the most traumatized dogs to help them blossom into the wonderful dogs they truly are. She shares her expertise with owners and handlers who want a rich relationship with their dogs and occasionally accepts private clients who are willing to work toward that end.
She is also a creator on PATREON and offers membership in various tiers for the lifelong learners and lovers of all things “dog.” She invites you to become a patron and receive additional benefits such as advance previews of publications, training videos and checklists for owners who want to enhance their dog’s cognitive ability, personalized coaching, and much more.