Fostering and Adopting Dogs with Behavioral Problems
Saving, Training, and Loving Troubled Dogs
Of the millions of dogs who enter shelters in the United States every year, an average of sixty percent are euthanized. Shelters are crowded, funding is scarce. Healthy, well-behaved dogs are not immune, but the slightest behavioral problem or mildest malady, even the normal aches and idiosyncrasies of old age, are a death sentence for many shelter dogs. There are many ways to help. One of the most valuable (and rewarding!) services you can contribute is to foster a dog.
The dog pictured here is Ruby Tuesday, aka Rooby-Doo. Ruby is our most recent couch surfer. She's a ruby in the rough, her sweet and trusting nature glowing through a dark crust of behavioral problems and lack of training. Ruby was scheduled for euthanasia on January 5th, 2013. Fortunately, she missed her appointment.
On this page, we'll take a look at Ruby's story and I'll share what I know about fostering and rehabilitating dogs with behavioral problems. If you already foster, I hope you find some helpful tools for dealing with problem behaviors, or at least the opportunity to share a laugh over some common pitfalls and woes. If you haven't fostered yet, I hope you will consider doing so! Dogs of all sizes, breeds, and ages are sorely in need of a place to crash.
All photographs on this page were taken by the author, and feature the lovely and increasingly charming Miss Ruby Tuesday.
Ruby's Story - There are Millions Like Her, and She's One-of-a-Kind
Ruby still worries every time we leave. Will we come back?
Ruby's about eighteen months old, a dainty-but-powerful pit bull and lab mix. When she was a puppy, she was picked up as a stray and taken to the San Jose animal shelter. They're a busy, crowded, urban shelter, but Ruby was lucky. She was a puppy, and a cute one, and she quickly found a home.
A year later, Ruby was back in the shelter. No longer a puppy, she was untrained and unsocialized. She exhibited leash and fence reactivity, a common problem with stray and shelter dogs. A leash or fence reactive dog is fine with other dogs when both parties are free to romp, sniff and play, but fearful or aggressive when one or both dogs are restrained by a leash or fence.
In the crowded shelter, Ruby was put on a thirty day hold to see if her owners claimed her. At the end of the thirty days, she was slated for euthanasia because of this problem. The shelter has more than enough work just trying to find homes for all of the problem-free dogs who come through their doors.
Dogs are like people, though. There are a lot of troubled gems. Ruby won the hearts of shelter staff with her sweet and trusting nature. Despite her bumpy past, Ruby has an abiding love of people. All people. She rushes to meet new acquaintances, contorting herself in efforts to make her tail-wagging exceed the speed of light. She's useless in any kind of guard dog capacity. Unless maybe you're allergic to dog slobber. Or love.
The smitten staffers showed Ruby to a local animal rescue, San Jose Animal Advocates, who, in turn, showed her to me. What a perfect match! Whisked from the shelter hours before her date with death, she was so happy and wiggly, overcome with joy at the car ride and some human attention. Who could possibly have ever dreamed of abandoning such a sweet and loving dog?
Over the next few weeks, Ruby illustrated in exhaustive detail exactly what might have motivated unprepared owners to abandon her. One of the most intelligent, enthusiastic, and challenging dogs I've encountered to date, she's a perfect example of all the best and worst things about fostering dogs.
With no further rambling, I present to you a summary of the challenges Ruby and I have faced, and the strategies that have helped us move forward. Ruby's problems are overwhelmingly common among shelter and rescue dogs, and I hope this page makes the journey a little smoother for other dog caregivers facing similar challenges.
Raw Destructive Power - Put Your Treasures Somewhere Safe!
Deep breath. Mustn't kill the dog.
The book shown above was printed in 1903. It survived more than a century without any noticeable damage. Then it met Ruby. This book was not carelessly left lying about. It was shelved neatly on my bookshelf. Apparently, it looked delicious.
While some dogs wind up needing foster care in spite of meticulous training, the vast majority of dogs who wind up unclaimed in shelters were not well trained. Most of the time, folks who put a lot of energy into training their dogs keep them!
With any foster dog, you should be prepared for a total lack of distinction between chew toys and everything else. Put your treasures away in a room to which the dog does not have access, or store them in a secure container or out of dog reach. Remember to include climbing and jumping talents in your estimate of dog reach!
Even if you've never used a crate with your own pets, I highly recommend having one available for your foster dog. Besides confining your pet safely while you're away, a crate gives a dog a safe, den-like spot to call his own. If you can't afford a crate, dog-proof a room in your house and prepare a safe, sheltered nook for your foster dog. If the dog enjoys chewing, provide some safe chew toys as an alternative to your books, shoes, and sanity.
Kong Extreme Toys for Power Chewers - Better Than Your Tennis Shoes
Kong Extreme toys are great for dogs who really love to chew. Ruby has a Kong Extreme and a Kong Wobbler, and loves them both. And I love her chewing those instead of my pens, flashlights, books, and mini-blinds.
Built tough for serious chewers. Stuff with treats for an entertaining chew toy.
Rather than chewing to get at treats, the dog spills treats out through a small hole by wobbling the toy. This keeps Ruby entertained for hours, even though we just fill it with regular dog food.
Your Foster Dog is Not too Old to Learn - Commence Basic Training Immediately
Many shelter dogs wind up there after being abandoned by dog owners who neglected basic training. Fortunately, you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks. The more woefully untrained your foster dog, the more important it is that you devote time and energy toward training!
Basic manners make any dog so much more adoptable. Toss in a cute trick or two, and you'll have gone a long way toward preparing your dog to snare the owner of his or her dreams.
Don't assume a new foster dog is stupid or difficult by nature just because he or she seems to have no idea how to behave. Odds are, the dog has simply never been given any guidance. With a little patience and repetition, almost any dog can at least learn the basics of civilized behavior.
When Ruby first arrived at our house, she was a terror. As likely to jump on a table as a couch, completely unrestrained by any notion of proper comportment, and way too strong for such shenanigans to be cute, she was off to a bumpy start.
Once we started consistently encouraging good behavior, issuing treats, praise, and verbal reprimands as required to show her what we wanted, she proved to be very bright and eager to please! As I'm an avid shutterbug, I took to making modeling opportunities out of our training sessions. Ruby rapidly learned that the camera meant attention, and is now a shameless ham. Meanwhile, her simple "sit" and "stay" have become truly perfect! Don't be too alarmed if your foster dog seems like a total barbarian at first. It's amazing what a little love (and a sliced up hot dog issued in small bites) can do.
Forget about Punishment and Negative Reinforcement - Teach the Dog What You DO Want
Most foster dogs have been reprimanded a lot. A loud "NO" or, worse, physical punishment are pretty much the only training tools a lot of lazy dog owners use.
Positive training, where you teach behaviors that are desirable, is much more effective than punishment or reprimands. Ruby does a great job of looking contrite if you reprimand her, and then merrily resumes her bad behavior.
Case in point: jumping on people. Ruby is so happy to see any person who wanders into sight that she immediately launches herself at them in an apparent attempt to achieve perfect union. A firm "NO" or leash check simply makes her adopt a well-practiced contrite expression while continuing to launch aerial assaults on her target.
After a few days, we got smart and started rewarding her calm behavior with a treat on the floor. At first, this mostly involved shoving a treat in front of her the moment she noticed footsteps outside. She quickly caught on, though, and now waits patiently for attention and treats from new arrivals.
Leash and Fence Reactivity - How to Help a Dog Learn Dog Manners
At a glance, it can be difficult to distinguish between actual aggression toward other dogs and leash or fence reactivity. The latter is very, very common in shelter and rescue dogs. A leash or fence reactive dog generally gets along great with other dogs when they're allowed to play freely together, but barks, growls, and lunges when shown another dog while one or both dogs are restrained by leashes or fences.
When a dog sees another dog, nature dictates that they exchange certain pleasantries. Circling without eye-contact, drawing slowly close enough for a good sniff at one another's unmentionables... this is the behavior evolution has imprinted in your dog as a proper "Hello."
Leashes and fences make a proper dog "introduction" difficult or impossible to achieve. Dogs who have been properly socialized as puppies adapt to this, but dogs who have been left neglected and untrained are left without the skills to cope with this kind of introduction.
Correcting a leash or fence reactivity problem is difficult, but it can be done! The key is to create a celebration out of every sighting of another dog. Find a treat your dog loves more than anything else (for Ruby, this is hot dogs), slice it into tiny pieces, and find a spot where you can observe other dogs from a distance.
Ruby and I have been working on her leash reactivity with hours on the front porch of our house, which sits on a dog-busy street, and with weekly on-leash trips to our local dog park. At the dog park, we started observing from the parking lot, and have slowly worked our way up to investigating the outskirts of the park.
It's very important to set your foster dog up for success. Every time he or she lunges and barks at another dog, it reinforces this bad behavior as business as usual. Determine the distance at which another dog sets off your dog's misbehavior, and then retreat a few steps. Provide treats and praise the moment your dog notices another dog! If this isn't enough to keep your dog from lunging and barking, retreat a few more steps.
Leash reactivity is a slow-healing problem. While Ruby has made definite strides in the right direction, and can now manage a walk most days without embarrassing outbursts, she's still not comfortable on a leash around other dogs. Take pleasure in small steps forward, and know that leash reactivity is a problem that can only be addressed over time. Don't push too hard or too fast. A bad encounter with another dog can erase what progress you've made.
Agility is a Feature and a Flaw - Be Suspicious of Your Fences
Our backyard has a wonderful fence on all sides. At its tallest, it's eight feet. At it's shortest, it's just over six feet, and easily cleared by Ruby the Flying Wonder Dog.
As a dog in the prime of life without any rudimentary understanding of basic manners, Ruby takes a fence, any fence, as a challenge. She found the one loose board in the fence the first day she was here, and used it to pay a visit to the two big, friendly rottweilers next door.
The thing about jumping fences is that it's much easier to keep a dog from doing it than it is to keep a dog from doing it again. We repaired the loose board, so Ruby used her sixty pounds of pure muscle to jump over. Astonished and impressed, we started keeping a watchful eye, and kept her indoors when we couldn't supervise. Turns out, she knows how to use doorknobs. We started locking the doors. She jumped onto the kitchen counter, out the window over the sink, and into the neighbor's yard... during the space of a shower!
Dogs who survive on the streets are likely to be quick, agile, intelligent, and strong. Don't assume that your foster dog will be contained by fences that sufficed for previous pets! The bright side: naturally clever and agile dogs are excellent candidates for agility training! If your foster dog shows aptitude for miraculous escapes, channel that energy into cool agility tricks, which you can show off to potential adopters.
Have a Lot of Fun
Play is Important for Both of You
Working with rescued animals can be really tiring, and sometimes really sad. The happy moments you share with a foster dog are your payment for all the moments that aren't so great!
Playing with you is also of tremendous benefit to your foster dog. One of the most helpful things you can do to rehabilitate a dog with behavioral problems is to establish a happy human-canine relationship. For many foster dogs, this is their first exposure to kindness and gentle, positive training.
Time spent playing will build good rapport between you. For energetic dogs, running and fetching games provide an essential outlet for energy that would otherwise be directed toward the destruction of all your treasured goodies.
Brace Yourself for a Lot of Love - Abused and Neglected Dogs are So Grateful When They're Rescued!
While fostering isn't always easy, and can sometimes be sad or frustrating, it's also an amazingly rewarding act of love. For many abused, neglected, and eventually abandoned dogs, a foster home is their first glimpse of the wonderfully deep and abiding bond that can exist between human and canine.
Underneath, around, and bursting through whatever problems come with your foster dog, be prepared to be blindsided by an unabashed onslaught of love and gratitude. Many foster owners, especially first-time fosters, wind up adopting their dogs, won over by the whole-hearted, all-encompassing love and joy of a dog who has finally been given attention and kindness.
If you can maintain the fine balance required to love a foster dog and then let him or her go when a suitable home is found, that's wonderful! You'll remain available to dogs in need, and can rescue a steady stream of deserving dogs from the executioner's chamber. If you fall in love and can't part with your foster, that's okay, too, though. You will have saved a life and made a wonderful friend, and the world will be a better place for having one more well cared-for dog.
Have you fostered dogs or other animals? I'd love to hear about your challenges and successes! Have a question about fostering dogs or helping dogs with behavioral problems? Ask here, and I'll do my best to answer or point you to someone who can.