[Updated August 24, 2018]
So, you’ve recently adopted an adolescent or adult dog, or you’re planning to adopt one from a rescue group or shelter in the near future. Good for you! It generally takes adult dogs a lot longer to get adopted than those irresistible, pudgy puppies – even when they are calmer, better-socialized, house-trained, and past the “chew everything in sight” stage. Shelter staffers often shake their heads as families pass up ideal, kid-friendly adult dogs in favor of pups of some highly inappropriate breed or type, just because they are puppies.
There are a multitude of benefits when you bring an adult dog into your family. You don’t have to deal with those nasty-sharp puppy teeth. And because your dog has her adult teeth, she is less likely to chew everything within her reach. If not already housetrained (and many are), a mature dog at least has the physical ability to hold bowels and bladder for longer periods of time, and can usually learn appropriate bathroom habits quickly, with proper management and training.
Plus, an adult needs to be fed only twice a day, whereas young puppies need lunch as well as breakfast and dinner. And healthy, mature dogs are capable of more physical activity than puppies, so if you’re looking for a ready-made exercise partner, you don’t have to wait months for your running buddy to accompany you as you prepare for your next 10k run. As an added benefit, you have that feel-good feeling that comes with adopting a dog who might otherwise not find her forever home.
I do not, by any means, intend to imply that adopting an adult dog is all smooth sailing. Many shelter dogs settle into their new homes without a ripple, but some arrive with minor behavioral challenges, and others carry with them a significant amount of baggage. Don’t despair! If you’re grounded in the reality that no dog is perfect from the get-go, and you’re prepared and poised to help your new dog learn your household rules, conventions, and codes of conduct starting on day 1, his potential for success in your family is very good.
Make Your Own Evaluation of Your Adoption Prospects
Most shelters do some sort of behavior evaluation of the dogs in their care, so you may be warned about potentially inappropriate behaviors. This may come in the form of answers on a questionnaire (if your new dog had been surrendered to the shelter by her previous owner), or notes from a staff member or a volunteer based on their observations. If you don’t allow yourself to get distracted by the shelter’s commotion, you’ll have the opportunity to make your own observations about the potential adoptee during an introduction session. Behaviors like lifting his leg in the get-acquainted room, counter-surfing to snatch toys or treats off the table, or leaping into your lap when you sit on a chair are likely to be repeated in his new environment.
Again: Don’t let these sorts of minor transgressions dissuade you from adopting the dog. All of these are typical for untrained dogs – and absolutely expected from untrained puppies!
What if your new adoptee does seem perfect? While that would be nice, it’s also possible that you will experience a “honeymoon period” with your new family member, one that may range anywhere from a few days to several months. Unforeseen behaviors may manifest over time, as the dog tests new behavioral strategies and discovers which ones are reinforced (by you, by other family members, by visitors, or by the environment), or as she recovers from the recent traumas in her life. She may become bolder about engaging in behaviors that were temporarily shut-down by the stress of her recent life experiences.
If you’re prepared for unwanted behaviors to surface, it will be easier to work through them. If tempted to give up when poor manners emerge, keep in mind that your adoptee’s previous owner(s) already gave up on her at least once, if not several times.
Be Prepared to Manage Behavioral Problems
The first, almost universal answer to the question of handling behavior problems is management, hand-in-hand with a medical exam.
These days, many shelter dogs come with a free “well-pet exam.” Commonly, private veterinarians in practice near a shelter generously offer their services at a discount for dogs adopted from the shelter or rescue. Take advantage of the offer as soon as possible. If your dog doesn’t come with a free check-up, make an appointment for the veterinarian you’ve interviewed and selected to be your dog’s doctor.
It’s not uncommon for a previously undetected health problem that could lead to behavior issues to be identified at this time. For example, my husband and I adopted an adult Pomeranian, who lifted his leg and peed in the house – a lot! The veterinarian who provided a reduced-cost exam diagnosed a bladder stone, the removal of which quickly resolved Scooter’s house soiling behavior.
Management’s role is also critical in modifying your adopted dog’s behavior. The more often she gets to practice (and be reinforced for) an inappropriate behavior, the harder it is to modify that behavior down the road. The behavior becomes a well-practiced habit; she’ll be convinced that it will pay off if she just tries hard enough, or often enough. Don’t wait “to give her time to settle in.” Start reinforcing the behaviors you like the most (such as polite sitting) ASAP.
Common (Mis)Behaviors in Adult Rescue Dogs
Here are some common misbehaviors you might find in adult shelter dogs, along with some tips on how to work with them. If you have to prioritize a list of undesirable behaviors that came with your adopted dog, I’d suggest you start with the first two that follow: house soiling and separation anxiety, as they are two that are most likely to cause your dog to lose her happy home, yet again.
House Soiling – Some adult shelter dogs are already housetrained. Some are not. Depending on how house-proud you are, house soiling may be a minor annoyance, or a major affront to your sensibilities. When you bring your shelter dog home, assume she isn’t housetrained, and put her on an express puppy housetraining schedule: Under constant supervision (with the help of baby gates, closed doors, and leashes) or in a crate or exercise pen. Of course, you must crate train her if she isn’t already, in order to take advantage of this valuable management tool. If you just toss her in her crate and leave, you risk teaching her to hate her crate. (See “The Benefits of Crate Training Your Dog from an Early Age,” January 2011.)
Take her outside every hour on the hour for the first day or two, and reward and praise on the spot when she eliminates. If she seems to be getting the idea, over the course of a few days, gradually give her more house freedom and extend the time between trips outside. If gradual freedom results in house accidents, go back to more supervision (and clean the soiled spots well with an enzymatic cleaner designed for cleaning up animal waste).
If you catch her mid-accident, cheerfully interrupt her with an “Oops! Outside!” Take her to her potty spot – and make a mental note to amp up your supervision and increase her bathroom opportunities. Do not make a big deal, or you risk teaching her it’s not safe to go in your presence. Good luck getting her to go to the bathroom on leash if that happens!
At first, don’t crate your dog for more than four hours at a time. That might mean hiring a dog walker if no one in the family can come home and let her out at lunchtime. Eight hours at night is acceptable, as long as she is crated where you can hear her (preferably in your bedroom) if she wakes up and asks to go out. If your dog soils her crate or exercise pen during a reasonable period of confinement, you have a bigger challenge ahead of you. You may need to reverse crate train, which means putting her in the crate for short periods, only when you know she is “empty,” and having her under your direct supervision when she’s not crated.
If your dog is having inexplicable accidents despite your excellent management, head back to the vet to determine if she has a urinary tract infection (which makes it impossible for her to hold her urine for very long), loose stools (which would make it impossible to hold her bowel movements for long), or some other condition that makes it difficult or impossible for her to be housetrained.
“Marking” is a different behavior from simple housesoiling. It is sometimes (but not always) resolved by neutering. Persistent marking can be caused by stress. If that’s the case with your shelter dog, removing as much stress as possible from his life may help. You may need to engage the services of a qualified behavior professional who uses positive reinforcement methods. Belly-bands and “PeeKeepers” (see peekeeper.com) are useful house-preserving tools to use on your dog while you try to modify marking behavior. (For more about dogs who “mark” indoors, see “Ways to Combat Your Dog’s Indoor Urine-Marking,” September 2009.)
Separation anxiety – Full-blown separation anxiety can be an extremely challenging behavior to live with, manage, and modify. For starters, most dogs with significant separation or isolation issues don’t tolerate a crate well, so the “confine them to keep them out of trouble” option isn’t available.
The good news is that many of these dogs actually have separation (have to be with the one person the dog has connected to) or isolation (doesn’t like to be left alone) distress, rather than true anxiety. The intensity of canine behavior with these conditions is on a continuum from low level intensity (unhappy, but calms down after a reasonably short time, without destroying the house) to extreme panic (dog injures himself, vocalizes non-stop for hours on end, and causes massive destruction to household). If your shelter adoptee is demonstrating anxiety on the extreme end of the continuum, a trip to the veterinarian for anti-anxiety medications is in order. This will make life easier for her, and for you, while you work to modify her behaviors. (For more information about separation anxiety and separation distress, see “How to Manage Separation Anxiety in Dogs,” July 2008.)
Dr. Karen Overall’s very detailed, “Protocol for Relaxation” is useful for modifying separation/isolation distress. A downloadable, auditory version can be found at championofmyheart.com/relaxation-protocol-mp3-files.
Vocalizing – There are many different kinds of canine vocalizations: barking, whining, howling, yelping, growling, and more. You may not want to stop all of your dog’s noisemaking, but there may be some you’d prefer to minimize. It’s important that you learn and understand what each one means before simply trying to make them all go away. There may even be some you decide you’d like to reinforce! (For more about training your dog to be quieter, see “Modifying Your Dog’s Barking Behavior,” July 2007.)
Chewing – If you think adopting an adult dog is guaranteed to save you from chewing disasters, think again. While puppies are the masters of chewing behavior, dogs really do chew throughout their lives. If a dog has been well managed, he will develop appropriate chew-preferences and be reasonably trustworthy around your possessions. If he was allowed to run amuck as a pup and chew whatever he wanted, then nothing in your home is safe.
Of course, you have no way of knowing which you may have, so until she proves otherwise, you’ll need to assume that your new dog might chew anything she can get her teeth into. While you’re supervising and managing her behavior for housetraining purposes in her early days with you, keep an eagle eye out for indications of inappropriate chewing (while, of course, providing her with appropriate chew objects).
In relatively short order you should figure out if you’re home free on the chewing issue, or if you’ll need to completely overhaul her mouth behavior management and redirection. For a long-term chew-training protocol, see “Dogs and Puppies Chew for a Number of Reasons,” in the August 2007 issue.
Note: If chewing is accompanied by other undesirable behaviors such as general destruction, barking, and aversion to crating, consider separation or isolation anxiety as possibilities.
Jumping up – Remember, your dog’s jumping up has nothing to do with dominance. (See “De-bunking the “Alpha Dog” Theory,” in the December 2011 issue). She’s probably either trying to greet you, get you to pay attention to her, or perhaps seeking reassurance, if she’s stressed or frightened.
The answer to this training challenge is to make sure that no one reinforces her for jumping up. Make sure that every person who wants to greet the dog is prepared to turn his or her back and step away from her when she jumps.
Next, reinforce “sit” very generously, with high-value treats, to help this polite deference behavior become her default choice (her first behavior option – the one she chooses when she isn’t sure what to do) and make sure everyone gives her attention for sitting. (See “Train Your Dog to Greet People,” May 2008.) If she’s jumping up for reassurance, determine what is stressing her and make that stressor go away until you can help her become comfortable with it.
Pulling on Leash – Lots of dogs pull on leash. As annoying as it might be, don’t take it personally – and don’t blame dominance for this one, either! Dogs who pull just want to get where they want to go, and they want to get there faster than you do. If you want her to walk politely on leash, reinforce her generously when there’s no tension on the leash, and stop moving forward when the leash tightens.
If there are times when you know you won’t have time for the “stop and wait for loose leash” dance – for example, if you want her to jog with you – use a different kind of collar or harness that will let her know, “In this outfit you are allowed to pull.”
For more information about teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash, see “Good Dog Walking,” March 2007.
There Might Be More
There’s a good chance you will encounter other behaviors that we haven’t covered above. In every case, there is a solution to be found that can help your dog become the well-behaved companion you want her to be. You can read good books and search for answers online (and in the WDJ archives!).
Remember to look for positive solutions; you want your new dog to like you, trust you, and want to be with you. You may need to consult a qualified positive behavior professional to help you find answers. As you research the behavior and search for answers, keep these important reminders in your head at all times: Be gentle. Be clear. Be consistent. Be persistent. Be positive. Most of all, for your adopted dog’s sake, be her forever person.
Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. Author of numerous books on positive dog training, she lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center, where she offers dog training classes and courses for trainers.