Understanding Your Rescue Dog’s Behavior
by Valerie Trumps
Fixing Rescue Dog Behavior Problems
He seemed so sweet and docile at the animal shelter, but now that you’ve got your rescue dog home, disturbing behaviors are surfacing. He growls and snaps when anyone is near his food, urine and feces litter the floor upon your return home from work, and your couch looks like a bomb went off on it. Even more disconcerting, he’s displaying aggression toward strangers and small children. Why is your rescue dog so unfriendly, and how do you fix it?
Reasons for Unreasonableness
Irritating as it may be, there are reasons for your rescue dog’s behavior that make sense to him and simply putting yourself in his paws can help you fathom his behavior. For one thing, chances are good that your rescue dog has not come from the most loving, attentive, and understanding of homes. Such an environment promotes the development of defense mechanisms that help the dog feel safe. They also help prevent future infringement upon his rights, as he sees it. These are also things people do, as any adult who’s been abused as a child can attest to.
Let’s Talk Specifics
So what does all this hippie talk mean? Basically, your rescue dog was probably mistreated, remembers it, and is trying to keep it from happening again. For example:
Being territorial with food. Your rescue dog probably had malnutrition, either because he was underfed or had to compete with other animals to get his fair share of whatever food was available. He came to associate people or other animals around his dish with having his food taken away, and that makes him want to protect it. If this began in puppyhood, the conditioning of aggression in order to keep food runs deep.
Biting when cornered. Often rescue dogs have spent much of their pre-you lives outside instead of indoors around people. If someone approached him, he could run away to deal with invasion of his personal space. With the great outdoors as his disposal, Fido isn’t accustomed to people coming close to him for positive reasons and reaching their hands out to pet him, rather than to beat him.
Not housetrained. Neglectful owners can spend significant time away from home, denying the dog a reasonable number of opportunities to take care of his “business.” Another viable explanation is that the rescue dog’s pleas to be let outside were ignored until he just couldn’t hold it any longer. Dog housetraining takes consistency and time, which your rescue dog’s prior owners probably lacked.
Destructive behavior. Dogs are pack animals with a need for company that’s ingrained into their DNA. Without a companion, human or otherwise, to play with, they become bored. Boredom leads to creating their own fun activities, like ripping your sofa to shreds. Notice how his tail is wagging and he looks like he’s smiling when you discover his destruction? He doesn’t hate you; he was simply looking for something to do to pass the time until you got home.
One exception to behavior caused by abuse and/or neglect is an organic condition called dominance-aggressive syndrome. Like epilepsy and Tourrette’s Syndrome in humans, it is a mental condition manifesting in inappropriate behavior – in this case, unprovoked vicious attacks. Unfortunately, there is no medication available to curb these tendencies, which can strike out of nowhere, for no reason. A dog with this condition is best surrendered to professionals (dog trainers, veterinary behaviorists) who can provide a safe environment while keeping their own safety intact.
Stop the Madness
Now that you have an explanation for your rescue dog’s behavior, you can take steps to undo his damage. For instance, keep him well-fed and give him a wide berth of space while he’s eating to gradually gain his trust. Don’t ever corner your rescue dog and gradually introduce him to new people of all ages and sizes, asking them not to reach for him but to let him come to them. Take a stay-cation from work to invest a week or two in dog housetraining or install a doggy door. Provide adequate stimulation for your rescue dog while you’re away from home, like leaving the TV on, giving him lots of toys to play with, letting him chew on a bone. Confining him to a safe area with indestructible items, like the kitchen or bathroom, is also a good solution. The point is to understand why your rescue dog is behaving inappropriately and taking concrete steps to overcome it.
Because that’s what good pet parents do.
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