You Can't Hurry Love: Nurturing Emotionally-Wounded Dogs

With time, patience, and the right tools and resources, every dog will eventually settle in. And there are few things as gratifying as knowing you are providing a bright future to a dog with a dark past.
01/18/2013 11:55 am ET Updated Mar 20, 2013

Not all that long ago, shelter animals with significant health or behavioral problems were routinely euthanized. The vast majority of these pets were considered lost causes, not candidates for new foster or adoptive homes.

Fortunately, thinking is changing. Many more people are now willing and even eager to take on the considerable responsibility of a special needs pet.

Now that we've reversed the trend of euthanizing less-than-ideal pets, there's a great need to help adoptive owners of troubled dogs, in particular. Most pups with imperfect pasts can grow into well-adjusted family pets if their new parents are armed with the right outlook and the right tools to help them make a successful transition.

Set Realistic Expectations

Setting realistic expectations means knowing there will be an adjustment period for both dog and owner, and it won't take place overnight. You should plan on at least several weeks, and often longer.

Know that it's almost a certainty he'll make his share of mistakes as he acclimates to his new environment:

• Expect accidents on the floor and have the right products on hand for clean up.

• Expect to housebreak or re-housebreak any dog adopted from a shelter or rescue.

• Expect your new pet to have no idea what your house rules are. Get everyone in the family on the same page with regard to what behavior will be allowed.

• Expect stress-induced behavior, like attempts to hide or escape, over-activity (pacing, for example), over attachment to one family member and fear or shyness around others, and inappropriate barking, chewing, mouthing and jumping up on people.

Try to keep in mind your new dog's behavior during his first few days or weeks in your home isn't necessarily an indicator of his true temperament or personality.

Keep Stress Low and Go Slow

Keep stimulation and stress to a minimum for the first few days to a few weeks, depending on how your dog is responding to his new situation. The simple act of moving to a new home is stressful and compounds the trauma he may have faced in his former life.

Don't rush introductions to neighbors, friends, or other dogs. Allow your pup a calm, stress-free bonding period with you and other members of your household first. Take him for walks in quiet areas and keep his play and exercise confined to your yard, initially.

You don't want to spend every minute with him, though -- not even on his first day home. He needs to get used to your absence as well as your presence. Put him in his own confined space (the all-important crate, an exercise pen or other confined area) with something to distract him like a chew bone or treat-release puzzle toy.

Gradually increase the time you leave your dog in his crate while you're home, and then graduate to leaving the house for a short time.

Keep your absences brief, pleasant and "business as usual." The goal is to teach your dog that being alone in his new home is no reason for concern.

If your adopted dog has fear or aversion to confinement in a crate, view my crate training video and the accompanying article for information on overcoming hate for the crate.

Training and Socialization

It's a good idea to begin training in basic commands like sit, stay, down and come the first day your dog is home with you. Some dogs are so overwhelmed the first few days in a new home they seem tuned out or shut down. If this is the case with your pup, don't be concerned. Make training sessions short, pleasant and playful until your dog settles in and is able to be more attentive.

I recommend you assume, regardless of your dog's background, that she hasn't been properly socialized, and it's your job to introduce her to all the sights, sounds, smells, people, animals and other stimuli in her new life with you. Again, you'll want to go slow, letting your dog set the pace as much as possible.

Address behavior issues immediately -- before they become habits in the dog's new environment -- with positive reinforcement behavior modification techniques.

Erasing the Past, Looking to the Future

It's best to expect it will take longer than you think to turn your adopted dog into a well-adjusted family pet. It can take up to a year to get a troubled pet to the point where everyone, including the dog, is happy.

With time, patience, and the right tools and resources, every dog will eventually settle in. And there are few things as gratifying as knowing you are providing a bright future to a dog with a dark past.

For more by Dr. Karen Becker, click here.

For more on pet health, click here.

Dr. Karen Becker is a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian. You can visit her site at: Her goal is to help you create wellness in order to prevent illness in the lives of your pets. This proactive approach seeks to save you and your pet from unnecessary stress and suffering by identifying and removing health obstacles even before disease occurs. Unfortunately, most veterinarians in the United States are trained to be reactive. They wait for symptoms to occur, and often treat those symptoms without addressing the root cause.

By reading Dr. Becker's information, you'll learn how to make impactful, consistent lifestyle choices to improve your pet's quality of life.