Managing Emotional Problems in Rescue Dogs

Many dogs are rescued out of abusive or traumatic situations, causing them to exhibit a wide variety of emotional and behavioral problems. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t make great companions for the right adoptive family. Sadly, however, one of the reasons people are hesitant to adopt these dogs is because of the assumption that such dogs are always “damaged goods,” and can’t be re-trained. However, with some patience, training, and most of all love, even dogs with horrific pasts can overcome their emotional obstacles and become healthy, happy pets. I hope my own story will encourage you to rise up to the challenge of adopting hard-to-place dogs like mine, and patiently help them bond with you and overcome their fears.

Juliet and Foxy, a Terrier mix and a Chow Chow/Cocker Spaniel mix, are my rescues. The no-kill shelter I adopted them from didn’t know too much about them except that they were found half-starved in the Jasper area after Hurricane Rita tore through areas of the east Texas coast. They had gained some weight by the time I first met them. Juliet, a very attractive dog, had been adopted once, but was brought back to the shelter due to extreme separation anxiety, excessive barking, and other behavioral problems. Foxy, who had never been adopted out, was cowering in the corner of her pen when I met her. Here is what I learned from working with them.

Get Them Healthy First
Before I ever started with the training of Juliet and Foxy, I arranged for vet appointments. Juliet had a nasty case of Sarcoptic mange, which the shelter’s vet had misdiagnosed as an allergy. We had to get that under control. Foxy, on the other hand, was so distressed by the move from the shelter to her new home that she worked herself into a stomach upset that caused vomiting and diarrhea (and a lot of sleepless nights for us). Only after we got them in good health and eating on a regular schedule did we begin working on their respective emotional problems.

Reward Method
Because both dogs cowered under our hand due to what we assume must have been a history of abuse, it bolstered our belief in using a reward method rather than a discipline method for training Juliet and Foxy. We used treats to reward them for answering to their names, coming when we called them, eliminating outside instead of in the house, and for obeying commands. We made brushing a weekly ritual, even for wire-haired Juliet, so that the dogs learned that being near our hands and on our laps was a happy experience, not a fearful one. This helped them bond with us. We also never raised our voice at either of them, and always let them sniff us thoroughly before we handled them.

Kicking Separation Anxiety
When we learned Juliet had separation anxiety, we decided to adopt Foxy as well for companionship. I was convinced that having a pack companion would be a great way to mitigate this problem. However, what I learned was that having two dogs didn’t mean the separation anxiety went away it was just doubled. While Juliet barked and whined anytime my husband and I left the house, Foxy would become nervous and eliminate inside even after potty training. At the advice of a dog trainer, we slowly over a period of many months trained them to be left alone for progressively longer amounts of time.

We started by getting them desensitized to the sound of keys, which previously sent them both into a panic. We jangled our keys throughout the day and night for no reason and they learned not to associate the sound with our leaving. Then we put up a baby gate and got them comfortable being left to themselves in certain areas of the house. We would then practice going outside for a few seconds at a time, progressing that to minutes, and then hours at a time, until the dogs no longer became distressed when we left.

We also slowly began socializing them to other dogs. Juliet the barker and Foxy the coward slowly grew accustomed to other people and other dogs. Over time, Juliet started barking less and less as we distracted and redirected her with a treat and brought her progressively closer to other dogs. While Foxy will always be more submissive and timid than the average dog, she will at least sniff other dogs and people instead of cowering and shaking in fear.

Above All, Patience
While we have certainly experienced success with our two rescues with the help of a trainer to correct emotional and behavioral problems, none of their issues were solved in a day, a week, a month, or even a year. We still have the occasional barking session with Juliet and Foxy still works herself up into stomach sickness anytime we have her boarded due to her timidity. But both have come such a long way in their behavior. They show improvement all the time. With patience and love, I’m convinced that even the most “damaged” dog can show great improvement and even be made whole again in a good home.

This guest contribution was submitted by Lenore Holditch, who specializes in writing about top online colleges. Questions and comments can be sent to: holditch.lenore @

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2 Responses to Managing Emotional Problems in Rescue Dogs

  1. Diane Swett says:

    We rescued a Shiloh Shepard about 6 weeks ago, she has bonded beautifully with our other resuce dog, our granddaughters & myself, but she is terrified of my Husband. We feel that she is associating him with someone who harmed her. My Husband has a wonderful repore with all animals but no matter what he tries to get her to warm up to him & feel comfortable, does not work. If he comes into the room where she is she panics & runs so fast to get out of the room,she slips & falls. We called in a trainer & her opinion was to keep her leashed to him,through- out the day, but don’t talk to her or pet her, feed her by hand(he can’t even get close to her) & eventually she’ll warm up to him. Not so! I’m desperate for help & my husband is so upset by her actions because he never did anthing to harm her in any way & we don’t know what else to try to make her feel more secure & less frightened. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated to help our girl along. Thank you! Diane S.

  2. Brewster Smith says:

    What a great story! And great advice. I have been the head honcho at a few doggy daycares in New York city as well as an international consultant in the running of daycares. I agree 100% with all of the great techniques described in that article. I would love to add that to institute a regimine of activities that occur daily will help a dog build a foundation that they can count on when they have been dealt a bad hand. To be fed at the same times each day. (do not leave the food down to be picked at whenever they choose…) To be walked at the same time each day. Variety may be the spice of life but do be sure to provide things that a dog can count on daily. As people we feel more at ease when we don’t have to worry about our next meal or where we are going to sleep. We like security. Dogs do too. Even our bodies on a mechanical level function better when we make our eating habits the same. If we eat often with small portions of healthy food it results in the loss of weight. If we skip meals and eat sporadically we gain weight because the body no longer knows when the next meal will be so it must store fat to survive in an uncertain envirinment. In short, uncertainty may cause behavior over time that we may consider unsavory. There are many examples of this in life. With people, with dogs. A dog may exhibit signs of stress if he/she believes they have to fend for themselves because of a lack of some structure. It may manifest in barking or aggression on the leash…the licking of paws…seperation anxiety….and stress has an effect on their health just as stress effects our lives as well. Adding some form of structure in a dogs life lets them know that they are being cared for and their world is solid. When I am approached for advice on a previously well behaved dog who’s behavior recently changed for the negative, i.e. Going to the bathroom in the house, aggression, anxiety..I always ask “What has changed in your life?” It is usually a new baby in the family…a recent change of address…a house guest…even nearby construction…Providing love, understanding and a solid foundation are key elements in the well being of your canine companion. It may seem that when a dog has a been rescued…when they’ve had a rough start…that our instinct is to supply freedom. To let them do as they please. You can supply structure with love. They coexist. Allowing too much absolute freedom may result in a stressful life. Provide some structure for your little fur ball and you are handing them a winning lottery ticket. They need never work again!

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