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Taking on any dog is a big commitment, in terms of time, money and occasionally your sanity! Taking on a rescue dog that has ‘baggage’ can be even more of a challenge, especially if little is known about their past life.
It is becoming increasingly popular to re-home dogs that have been imported from other countries, such as Romania, Spain or Cyprus. These dogs may have been street dogs, or may have been in a home and been abandoned, but they often end up in a shelter of some description – and some are better than others. Rather than the kennel environment that most UK rescues use, the European shelters are often a mass of dogs all living together, and due to the sheer numbers of dogs involved they are exposed to relatively little ‘normal’ human contact.
Getting the dogs to the UK from rescue situations is stressful. It’s not uncommon for the journey to take days. Not all imports have the luxury of being delivered into a knowledgeable and understanding foster home, and ownership transfer can often take place in motorway services or lay-bys.
This would be frightening enough for a human being, let alone a dog that cannot understand what is happening. This can lead to a dog whose stress levels are high, but may not manifest it in their behaviour for a period of time. Many rescue dogs can be quite inhibited for some time while settling into a new home. This is not the same thing as being relaxed and calm – just because they are quiet doesn’t mean they are relaxed. The temptation then is to ‘socialise’ your new ex-street dog as much as possible, as soon as possible, and this can be a mistake if it isn’t done with great care and sensitivity.
What does ‘Socialisation’ actually mean?
The time for socialising dogs (i.e. getting them used to anything and everything that life might throw at them) is when they are puppies; from around 3 weeks of age until around 12-16 weeks of age. What is absolutely does *not* mean is throw your dog or puppy into overwhelming situations that they cannot cope with. Socialisation is not just about ‘exposure’. It means allowing your dog to have positive (or at least neutral) experiences so they are less likely to worry about these things later on in life. Being constantly exposed to something that they find scary is likely to make them more sensitive and worried, rather than accustom them to it.
Your rescue dog (and especially a typical import dog) may not have had any of those opportunities, or may have had repeated negative experiences. Many street dogs may not have experienced washing machines, sofas, or all the other things that we take completely for granted. Don’t assume that your dog will take these things in their stride – some do, some don’t!
Top tips for settling in a new rescue dog
- Allow stress levels to drop. It’s exciting getting a new dog, and the temptation will be to introduce them to everyone and everything straight away. This can end up ‘flooding’ the dog with too many experiences at once, so put aside the first few weeks for getting to know your new friend. Remember, they have landed in a foreign land, and don’t know the rules or the language. They need time to find out that they can trust you. You may not see your new dog’s true personality for some months, as they need time to see how life works now.
- Introduce people and new dogs slowly. Have visitors in ones or twos, rather than a whole tribe. Your dog doesn’t need to meet every dog on the planet, he needs to meet the right ones – ideally, calm steady types with good social skills. Avoid dogs with known aggression problems.
- Be consistent! Decide before the dog arrives what the rules and boundaries are going to be. Are you going to allow them on the furniture, for example? (Either way is fine, by the way – it’s up to you). Start as you mean to go on – dogs generally like life to be predictable, and constantly moving the goal posts may make them feel insecure and worried.
- Learn to read their body language. Dogs are really visual communicators, and give us loads of information about how they are feeling. By reading our dogs’ language well, we can manage potentially scary situations more empathetically, and make choices to help them feel safe.
- Reward behaviour you like! The more information we can give our dogs about what behaviour we want to see them choose, the more likely they are to do it. Remember, what gets rewarded, gets repeated. Rather than getting hung up on what we don’t want to see (‘no’, ‘stop it’, ‘don’t’), reinforce behaviour you do want to see. Be understanding & patient – your new rescue may have virtually no training history, or may have had negative experiences that you don’t know about.
If you see worrying behaviour in your new dog. Ask for advice from a reputable trainer or behaviourist before things go too wrong.