Rescue dogs make up a large number of the canine population in our city. We have dogs coming from all over the world, each with their own stories, many of which we’ll never know. It’s so important to understand what’s happening for your dog in those early days and what you can do to help them feel safe, loved and understood.
The stress of transition for any dog is a lot, but for those coming from rescue it can be an extremely difficult and trying time. We don’t know what many of these dogs have experienced before arriving in their new homes, but we can be sure they have dealt with some degree of stress. Now it’s time to begin the healing journey and allowing those first few weeks or months, depending on the dog, to be about rest and recovery. This is the greatest gift you can give your new family member.
First and foremost is quality, restful sleep. In order for the brain to heal, for stress hormones to return to a healthy level and for the body to relax they need lots of rest and sleep in those early weeks. Check out our previous blog post on sleep here.
Studying your dog
Your best tool during the rest and recovery phase is observation, sharpening your skills in order to truly know your dog. Understanding how they communicate with other dogs, and with people, is the foundation for creating relationships built around trust and mutual respect. They can teach you us so much and just being present with them has so many benefits for you too. When we understand their language and can recognize signs of stress it allows us to intervene and get them out of a situation they’re uncomfortable in. And this builds trust; your dog knows you’ve got their back and that you won’t put them somewhere they can’t cope. You’re a team and that’s a powerful bond.
Everything is new for them at this time. So many new sights and sounds, and lots of stimuli for them to try and process. Keeping their world small to start removes many opportunities for them to become scared, stressed or overwhelmed, and this is the key to building confidence and coping skills.
Short, slow walks at quiet times of the day ensure minimum stress. Allowing them to move around freely on a long leash encourages their curiosity and gives them choice and a measure of control, both of which promote feelings of overall wellbeing.
Dogs need to spend time with other dogs, but this doesn’t mean taking them to the local dog park to “socialize” is the right choice. The first meetings with new dogs should be well managed with a dog you know and trust that is well balanced and good with others. A slow leash walk, exploring together, giving them space to observe and communicate and perhaps the opportunity to meet if your dog is happy to do that. Never force dogs into an interaction, if they want to meet someone they will, and if they don’t, we need to respect that choice. Meeting new friends in a calm, managed setting like this means a positive interaction for all involved and allows your dog to develop good social skills around others.
Sniffing, chewing and thinking are the foundations for building a healthy brain and promoting good emotional health. The olfactory receptors in the nose are directly connected to the limbic system of the brain, the emotional control centre of the body. Sniffing lowers pulse rate which promotes calm and relaxation. Chewing in an instinctual behaviour for all dogs, it helps soothe them when feeling anxious or agitated, it also lowers the pulse rate and releases feel-good endorphins. Providing the opportunity to chew for 15-20 minutes every other day is great for their health—physical and mental. Using their brains to solve problems during mental workouts goes a long way in building confidence. There are lots of fun and simple food search games to play at home. Cardboard boxes, toilet roll inserts, old towels and scrunched up newspaper make for fun places to hide tasty treats for them to find. The mental workout lowers stress hormones levels, pulse rate and tires them out in the best possible way.
Feed real food. A diet of whole, fresh, nutrient dense foods gives the body what is needs to heal and restore optimal health. Chronic stress, along with processed or nutrient deficient diets, medications and environmental toxins all wipe out the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut. This bacterial army, an estimated 100 trillion microbial cells, play a most important role in our overall health—digestion, immunity, fighting inflammation, mood, behaviour, the list keeps going. Dogs enjoy variety in their meals as much as we do, not just because eating the same thing each day becomes boring but because of the beneficial health benefits those different nutrients provide help them to feel good!
Opening up your heart and home to a rescue dog is a wonderful thing but it can be challenging at times. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, seek out the advice and help of a credible, force-free training professional. Don’t listen to well meaning “experts” you’re going to meet everywhere. Get recommendations from other people and ask questions about their education, philosophy and experience. A training protocol should never involve fear, pain or outdated aversive techniques.
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