What to Expect When Bringing Home a Rescue Dog
Adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue organization can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life--but it's also one of the most challenging. Making the decision to rescue is not a process that should be taken lightly. My boyfriend and I threw the idea around for a solid year (while raising three other dogs: a 7-month old pug, a 6-year old lab, and a 7-year old pitbull) before we saw this picture on the website for Ark of Promise, a rescue based in North Carolina, which has the highest shelter kill rate in the nation.
"Sprinkles", as the rescue had named her, was a 6-month old bulldog/boxer mix who had been given up to a shelter after her family could no longer afford to take care of her. The organization rescued her two days before she was scheduled to be put down via heartstick (a very painful procedure where dogs are euthanized by injecting chemicals directly into the heart, without even being sedated first.) We took one look at her, with the adorable underbite and contrasting eyelashes (one white, one black) and fell in love. The rescue made arrangements for transport, and a few weeks later she was ours! We renamed her Liberty, since she now had a new lease on life, and began working on integrating her into our daily lives. Transitioning her into our home wasn't easy--but it was so worth the effort. Here are a few things that I learned along the way.
1.) Rescue dogs do not automatically know what's expected of them. It's up to you to teach them. Despite the organization assuring us that Liberty was great with other dogs, she was extremely territorial at first when it came to ours. She was food aggressive (growling at our pug if he got too close while she was eating), toy aggressive (growling at him if he came near her when she was chewing on a bone or a toy), and just generally possessive. It was integral to her training that we corrected those behaviors IMMEDIATELY. We couldn't for one second let her think that that was acceptable. A stern, authoritative "No!" was all that was required before she'd cower and slink away. After just a day or two of constant correction, the bad habit broke.
2.) Don't assume that because they're older, they know basic commands. Despite already being 6-months old, Liberty knew almost NOTHING. She knew "sit", but that was all. We had to teach her to respond to her new name (although she didn't respond to the name the rescue had given her either). We had to teach her not to fear going up and down the stairs. We taught her "stay", "come", and after a solid month she finally learned "paw". Extreme patience was key.
3.) Don't expect "normal" dog behavior right away. Our dogs love going for off-leash runs in the woods, and they always stay within our sight. The first time we took Liberty with us, we made the mistake of letting her off-leash, thinking she would just stay with the pack, but she ran off so far that we couldn't see her anymore. She didn't know her name, or "come" yet, but luckily she responded to a whistle. When my boyfriend picked up a stick to throw for the dogs, Liberty immediately cowered, whimpered and showed her belly. Her history was a complete mystery to us. We suspected that she had been abused when she exhibited this behavior (combined with the way she would only army crawl or slink along the ground when walking), but of course there's no way to be sure.
4.) Definitely don't expect your rescue dog to be in optimum health. Although the rescue de-wormed and spayed Liberty, and got her up to date on her vaccinations, heartworm and flea preventative, we knew right away that something was still up with her. She was so skinny and boney, even though boxers are generally lean; but she had frequent bouts of unexplained vomiting and diarrhea, too. We took her to the vet and her stool sample revealed an "over-infestation of worms". She had to be de-wormed two more times before she was finally in the clear and could begin gaining weight.
5.) Be extra patient. In many cases, training and socializing a rescue takes even more patience than raising a puppy. It's a lot easier to forgive a 5-lb. puppy for having an accident in the house than it is a fully grown dog. Even if a rescue dog is advertised as being housebroken, that progress might reverse once he's in a new environment. Although Liberty was supposed to be housebroken, we ended up having to crate-train her and start at square one--which we were happy to do.
6.) Don't expect to fall head over heels in love with your rescue dog overnight. Rescuing is the ultimate labor of love. There were definitely moments where I struggled with wondering whether we'd made the right decision, and stressed about her progress--when she growled at our pug, when she showed aggression towards our neighbor's dog, when she peed on the carpet over, and over, and over again in the span of just one day. But then she would literally climb into my arms, put her head on my neck and look up at me with those beautiful brown eyes and my heart would just melt all over again.
After a few months of constant and consistent structure, and clear boundaries, Liberty became a well-behaved and fully integrated member of our pack. Looking at her today, I can't imagine life without her.
"He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog.
You are his life, his love, his leader.
He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart.
You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion."