Adopting A Dog With Issues

Dogs Naturally Magazine
Post At A Glance

I’m very outspoken about the value of early socialization for puppies. The education they get early in life can not be replaced by pills, therapy, shock collars, obedience classes, or having their teeth ground down so that when they bite someone, at least the person will probably not need stitches. There’s no substitute for just getting that little guy out there and introducing him to as many different people, places, things, sounds, sights, floorings, animals and environments as possible in a pleasant way so he learns to accept or like all those things. In doing so, you will develop a wonderful dog who has few, if any “issues” as an adult.

So, let’s look at these three cases…

  1. What if you didn’t realize the importance of early socialization, and you’ve already adopted a dog over 4 months old?
  2. What if you know how important socialization is, but you find yourself in a position to adopt a rescue, or an adolescent dog from a shelter?
  3. What if you didn’t know how critical it was to socialize (or maybe someone told you that it would be “safer” not to expose the pup to outside “germs” until he finished his final puppy shots at 16 weeks of age) and you accidentally did not expose your puppy to anything but your own house and family during the time he was eight to sixteen weeks old?

Well, your dog could be at risk for developing “issues” or “social sensitivities.” This is basically a fear of the unknown. Pups in the wild see almost everything they would see as an adult by the time they are 16 weeks old. As a means of self preservation, if the dog sees something later in life that it DIDN’T see as a pup, it assumes it is dangerous, even if it’s something harmless, like a turtle. If it never saw a turtle as a pup and investigated it to determine if it was safe or dangerous, the natural instinct is to assume it will kill him.

Now some domesticated dogs are more “easy going” as adults and can take new things without assuming the new thing is dangerous. They wouldn’t survive in the wild, but they are easier to live with. Most dogs, however, do best if they have proper socialization as puppies to help them learn that new things and new situations are more likely to be safe than dangerous.

When you don’t know the dog’s history or if you know they didn’t get socialized (or worse, if they were abused at a young age) you or the dog won’t realize that there are potential fears lurking in the future. Sitting at home, snuggling on the couch with you, there’s no need for the puppy to get hysterical. The pup was familiarized with you, your home, and your couch during his critical socialization period. By all accounts, he seems like a normal adolescent dog. But what happens the first time he sees something unusual, or “not of this world.”

Suppose you were sleeping comfortably in your bed, when you were awakened suddenly by a bunch of green-faced aliens groping you all over? You’d probably shriek. You’d probably fight them and try to flee.

If you had a weapon handy, you’d probably try to kill them (in self-defense, of course.) This is probably how your un-socialized puppy feels when he is approached and petted by someone who looks “alien” to him. This could be a person of color; someone wearing a funny hat; someone with an irregular gait; or even someone of the opposite sex of the person who raised him. That’s right; your puppy may hate and/or be terrified of your future boy or girlfriend, simply because he wasn’t introduced to any members of the opposite sex, as a puppy.

This isn’t because the puppy is bad, stupid or vicious. It is only because he is traumatized of novel stimuli –the things that are “green aliens” to him (stuff he’s not been familiarized with during the critical socialization period.) He was led to believe that a cage in a pet shop or a home with a backyard was the extent of the universe, and now he’s going to get forced into a world where almost everything is alien.

This manuscript is to help you deal with dogs that have social sensitivities or could develop them.

Let’s go back to the first case. You’ve got yourself a dog over 4 months old and you’re not sure if that dog received proper socialization during the critical periods. This is a gamble. The dog you have could turn out to be fairly normal, depending on how much and what kind of socialization he received. You just don’t know. So, you should approach all new situations cautiously.

When this dog meets something for the first time, like a cat, or someone wearing a kimono, or a crying child, you should not immediately approach the potentially scary thing. Hang back and feed your dog a lot of treats in the proximity of the new thing. You don’t know if he’s going to be terrified into a hysterical fit, or just say, “Oh, a clown…. fancy that.” So, play it safe and try to create a pleasant association with this new “alien” being. Don’t force him to allow himself to be held (groped) or touched by a scary new person, until he has had ample opportunity to realize that:

  1. the new person or thing is not going to hurt him, and you will protect him
  2. lots of treats magically appear whenever this new thing is around
  3. he won’t be forced into anything, and he’s free to move away if he becomes overly frightened
  4. the treats disappear at the same time the new person disappears

It’s your job not to let any new people frighten the dog. Take an opportunity to educate. Explain that the reason your dog thinks this person is a mutant with two heads is because some ignorant person failed so socialize him as a puppy. Allowing contact with the frightened dog will only intensify the fear. It is best if you have the new person ignore the dog until the dog feels comfortable enough to be in the same vicinity as the scary person. Don’t let the new person approach the dog or reach for him. The DOG should go to them, if he chooses to. Just tell the new person “I don’t know if my dog will be afraid, so please stay still and hold your hand still and let him come to you.” You may want to add “if he moves away, please don’t try to follow him or hold him.”

Be very careful. A dog’s natural reaction to extreme fear is to flee, or if he can’t flee, he will attack and fight for his life. Don’t put your dog or others in danger.

Let’s look at case number two. You know it’s a gamble, but you’re staring at a really cute dog in the shelter, which is going to be put to death on Thursday if no one adopts him, and you’re really ready to throw caution to the wind and sign adoption papers.

First, try not to let your emotions make your decisions for you. There are so many dogs being killed each year in this country, that it’s pathetic. There’s no room for all of them, and they’re going to have to continue killing them, if we can’t convince people to become more responsible dog owners. If you adopt the cute little fellow, and he turns out to be fraught with issues, sensitivities and behavior problems, your life with him is not going to be very fun for the next ten or more years. I know a lot of people who went for the adorable “face” and took home a dog that was totally incapable of loving the owner back, or being held, or being in the same room with another dog without fighting. This is not a totally impossible situation, but it is one that will require a lifelong commitment to managing the dog’s environment, and it won’t be very rewarding for you.

Don’t assume that because a dog looks “lovable” that he will be loving. There might be a gangly mixed breed dog in a cage two doors down who is un-cuddly looking, but has a heart of gold, and by some miracle, was taken out and introduced to many novel stimuli during the critical stages. He will turn into a dog that will follow you anywhere and will always be up for the next adventure. He will probably not bite your children’s friends and send them to the hospital and you to the courtroom. The dilemma is: how do I know which one was socialized the best (if at all)?

It might be wrong to assume that the shelter has weeded out dogs with poor temperaments and already slated them for death. You can assess a dog fairly quickly by touching or lightly pinching him on the butt when he’s not looking. If he whips around, like he wants to bite or attack whatever is touching him, walk away. Sue Sternberg has created a device called an “assess-a-hand.” It is a fake hand and arm in a shirt sleeve on a stick. The idea is to put some food down in a bowl, and then “reach” for it with the assess-a-hand.” If the dog is a resource guarder, he will hunch over the food and eat fast, so the hand can’t have any. Or, he may even bite the assess-a-hand for coming too close to “his” bowl. These are problems that you want to avoid dealing with if at all possible, so I would weed out the dogs that fail these two tests right away, in addition to any dogs that just won’t approach you at all. Kneel down and see if the dog will approach you of his own free choice. See if he’ll come up on your lap. If he’s fearful of you already, it’s going to be tough to develop a bond with him. And if he’s fearful of you (a person who is new to him) chances are he will be fearful of other people he meets for the first time.

After you’ve weeded out these difficult temperaments, proceed.

The service dog organizations perform a kind of a temperament test to get an idea of what kind of upbringing the dog has had. These organizations are often in a position to make use of shelter dogs of unknown breeding and origin, and unknown socialization background. You could very objectively take each adolescent dog out to a new area and give them this same sort of little test, to see how each reacts. There is usually a room in the shelter where you can go to be alone with a prospective adoptee. This may be the best place, even if the dog has seen it before.

  • First, present a cookie! See what the dog’s reaction is. If the dog is not interested in cookies or in taking cookies from your hand, that is a bad thing. The dog may be stressed or may not really care about food. You’re going to want to train the dog to do all kinds of neat things, and if he doesn’t care enough about food to use that as a reward, then you’re going to have to jump through hoops trying to find something he DOES like, that you can use for a reward. Food greedy dogs are SO much easier to train.
  • Next, pet the dog all over his body. Head to tail, down each leg, gently pull the ears, and touch the belly. Does the dog accept this handling? Pick up each foot. Does he let you touch him? Touch sensitivity is not a good thing. You’re going to have to bathe, groom, give medical attention, and possibly put on things such as backpacks, life jackets and harnesses, all the dog’s life. It’s not good if he is resistant to handling or tries to mouth your hand.
  • Bring something like a pan lid that would be noisy to drop on a cement floor. Drop this and note the dog’s reaction. This is a test for noise sensitivity. If the dog startles, but goes to investigate the source of the noise, it is an excellent response. If the dog cowers or runs away, or refuses to go anywhere near the pan, it is not good.
  • If the dog seems non-dangerous, you can give him the “hug” test. You can either hold him down on his back on the floor, or you can kind of restrain him with your arms around him. If he objects to this type of contact and thrashes about, it’s not good. If he sits there like a mushroom and takes it, it’s not very good either. It’s a natural thing for the dog to struggle a little when held in an awkward position, but then (if he’s been well socialized to humans) he should decide to trust you and submit to the restraint or handling.
  • Test to see if the dog is hand-shy, or has possibly been abused, by raising your hand up as if you were going to swat the dog. You could even pretend to clobber the dog, to see if it wets itself, or has no reaction to your odd flailing.
  • Willingness to retrieve is the one area where a potentially great dog will shine. In tests done for Seeing Eye dogs, the ones that passed the training program were almost always the ones who naturally retrieved as puppies, prior to any training. Take a sheet of paper and crumple it up. Wiggle it in front of the dog and bat it across the floor. Nine out of ten dogs will run after it (if they see it.) If you have the one in ten that does not, it’s not a good thing. They may be stressed or not have normal investigative instincts. If you have one of the ones that will actually bring it back to you, it’s wonderful. If the dog retrieves it and takes it elsewhere, it’s not so good, but if you are able to walk over and take the paper with no issues from the dog, you may be able to work with this dog. If you have the one that takes it elsewhere and shreds the patooties out of it, this is a poor choice.
  • Paws with a Cause tests the reaction to a mirror, to gage a dog’s curiosity. If they do nothing when they see their reflection, it’s a poor response. If they investigate, it is an excellent response. If they just look at themselves in the mirror it’s an ok response.
  • Another test that has it’s origin in the puppy test that people give to litters at age 49 days of age, to determine their future temperament, is the “reaction to pain” test. You simply take a paw and pinch the web between the toes with your finger and thumb, as you count to ten. If the dog “wimps out” early and starts pulling back and biting at your hand, it’s bad. That dog will melt away if he gets a leash correction, and might bite you if you accidentally step on his tail. If the dog is stoic and stares off in the distance and has no reaction, it’s not good either (he’s oblivious to everything). But if the dog shows concern (looks at the foot or pulls a little), that’s good. And if he notices something is happening to him but toughs it out, that’s great.

So, you’ve now tested the dog for touch, sound, motion and human social sensitivity. If there is another dog present, you could test for dog-to-dog social skills. Basically, what you would be looking for is something that would indicate that your dog has learned to speak “dog.” He should understand about calming signals (getting and giving them), and greeting behavior, and should have good bite inhibition (he’s not biting the other dog too hard, if they play rough.)

Ok, now let’s examine that third case from the opening paragraph. You’ve got yourself a dog that you know for sure was not socialized during his critical socialization period. He’s now fearful about most new things and has many issues and sensitivities. But, he’s your dog and you love him, and you’ve promised him a forever home. What do you do to deal with it?

My first advice is to not live in denial. If your dog has sensitivities, then face up to it. Don’t tell yourself that you have a wonderful little poochie who just doesn’t like children (or men, or dogs, or people on crutches, or air…). Realize that you’re working with a dog that’s going to be a challenge at every step of the road, and be prepared to meet that challenge.

You will have to manage the dog’s environment constantly, so that strange new sights and sounds and environments don’t send him into a panic. You will have to have the courage to stop people from terrifying your dog. You will have to master the phrase, “Please keep your dog back.” Or, maybe for your dog, it would be “Please keep your child back.” It is your job to protect your dog from all of the “aliens” of the world.

If your dog is dog-aggressive, it is your job to prevent him from having potentially aggressive encounters with other dogs. You will have to facilitate a proper, friendly dog social greeting behavior every time he meets a new canine. And if he is incapable of even that, you should try to find a good behavior counselor and enter into training with a “re-socialization class,” which might be an ongoing commitment for a long time.

You’ll want to do a lot of the same things recommended for the dog in case one. Use cookie therapy to change the emotional response your dog has to certain stimuli. This is classical conditioning. No behavior is asked of the dog at all—you just start pairing something the dog likes (food) with something your dog is nervous about (like kids) until the dog as a new conditioned emotional response (like Pavlov’s dog.) The dog comes to learn that kids make treats “happen.”

There are other ways to control the nervousness, like aromatherapy, or Bach Flower Remedies (Rescue Remedy), Tellington Touch, or prescription drugs. But these may only mask the symptoms by relaxing the dog somewhat. They will not take away the dog’s fear of certain things or situations.

After the millionth time a kid walks up to your dog and doesn’t kill him, you’d think the dog would realize that kids aren’t going to kill him. But it’s not that simple. During the critical socialization period, the dog learns, after a few opportunities to associate safely with children and that kids can be safe to be around. After the critical socialization period, it’s going to take a lot more than a few trials to get the dog over being leery of various novel stimuli that he was not exposed to as a puppy. So, you’ve got your work cut out for you. It’s not impossible. It’s not hopeless. You shouldn’t lose hope if you find yourself in an uphill battle because you share your life with an improperly socialized canine.

So, don’t misunderstand me. By all means, adopt a rescue; adopt from the shelter, but be smart about it and test “drive” the dog with kids and men and the other dog he’s going to live with, in addition to performing the tests above. And if you find yourself living with an under-socialized dog, don’t give up on him, but realize that it won’t be easy. You will learn more about canine behavior and training to help a dog with “issues” than you ever would with a “normal” dog.

I have a number of Dog Scout friends who adopted dogs who turned out to be less than ideally socialized, and have issues with other dogs, or people, or new things in general. But, because they’re members of Dog Scouts, they know what it means to take responsibility for being the “smart end of the leash.” They manage their dog’s environment and love their canine “kid” in spite of the issues they have. They’re patient and conscientious and diligent in their effort to increase the quality of their dogs’ lives without unduly stressing them with terrifying stimuli. My heart goes out to them, and I have all the admiration in the world for them. And, though I’m probably someone that doggie calls “Auntie Lonnie,” and I love him too, I can’t wait for that person to get their next dog. Having lived through the trials and tribulations of this one, I have a feeling that next time, they will place extreme importance on choosing or raising a dog that is well-socialized as a puppy, regardless of where he comes from, and at what age he becomes a member of the family.


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