Follow Through With Rescue Dog Training
Professional dog trainers are often pressured to contribute our services to rescue dogs in need. This is usually something we’re happy to do. I work with a network of professional dog trainers, and we’re each proud to work with local rescues. In fact, volunteering with rescues and local shelters significantly shaped my interest and passion for changing dog behavior. I’d love to say that working with adoptable dogs saves lives, but in many cases, it’s not enough.
Where does rescue dog training fall short?
I just worked with a group of trainers who were from Atlanta, Connecticut, Philadelphia, North New Jersey, and Baltimore, and during our workshop, we worked with several dogs from a local dog rescue. The trouble is, when these dogs are adopted into what we hope will be their forever homes, a phenomenon known as spontaneous recovery occurs. Spontaneous recovery is the seemingly sudden reoccurrence of a prior behavior issue. Why does this happen? Dog behavior always occurs in context. It has just as much to do with two important factors than anything else: the dog’s relationship to his handler, and his lifestyle. When a dog is adopted into a new home, or placed into a new foster home, these factors change. Without requiring the dog’s new family to learn and follow the dog training protocols that have already been established, the dog reverts back to his old behavior problems.
Let’s break that down even more.
Let’s say a rescue dog is placed in a foster home with a family who is ready, willing, and able to do whatever needs to be done to help the dog – fantastic! It’s always encouraging to see families who are willing to go above and beyond to give a dog a better chance at life. Let’s say a qualified professional dog trainer comes in to work with the dog and the family. The family works hard to implement the training into their lifestyle, and the dog begins to respond. Just a few weeks later, the dog seems cured! The family has learned how to communicate with the dog in a very clear and consistent manner, and the dog has learned to trust and respect his family. He nestles comfortably into his new structured lifestyle, knows what’s expected of him, and is given lots of guidance. As a result of this lifestyle and relationship, he is now a relaxed, “happy” dog free of behavior problems.
Now he meets his potential adopters, and of course he’s very well mannered – their dream dog! He’s calm, well behaved, polite. They fall in love, adopt him, and bring him home. In this new home without the same kind of guidance, without that clear and consistent communication, without that relationship of trust and respect with his new family, the dog begins to unravel. His anxiety grows and his behavior problems re-emerge. The family feels frustrated, and may even feel that they’ve been lied to. Why didn’t anyone tell them the dog was food aggressive – how is it possible that the rescue didn’t know about this behavior?! Why didn’t anyone tell them the dog barked like mad as people pass by the house? Why didn’t anyone tell them the dog paces constantly? Why is the dog so different from the dog they first met?!
As the dog’s bad behavior continues (or grows worse), the relationship between the dog and the new family becomes more and more strained. This can prompt the family to return the dog to the rescue – after all, this isn’t the dog they thought they were getting. Worse yet, they might “tolerate” the dog’s behavior, which essentially allows it to grow worse. In some cases (a frightening number), this can lead to euthanasia. I know that sounds extreme – it is extreme. Here’s how that happens:
The family is frustrated, and often frightened by the dog’s behavior. When they get to a breaking point, they seek out help. These days most people start with a Google search. The amount of inaccurate and downright dangerous information on the internet is staggering! The family tries a little of this, a little of that, and the dog seems better for a few days, but then worse.
Finally, they seek help from a trainer. If they get lucky, they find a professional dog trainer who’s capable of addressing dog behavior issues. If they aren’t lucky, they find a so-called dog trainer who insists on a specific methodolgy regardless of any other factors. This “trainer” says training will take months, if not years, and says it may not work in the end – some dogs are beyond help. When training isn’t going well, or when the dog’s issue exceeds the “trainer’s” ability, euthanasia, surrender, or unrealistic management strategies are recommended. If the family is really unlucky, the so-called trainer will recommend euthanasia without even meeting the dog (you’d be appalled to know how often this happens, by the way).
The reality is that many of these rescue dogs will never last in their forever homes without the continuance of training. Many will be euthanized as a result. The efforts of rescue organizations, foster families, and dog trainers who work with rescue dogs all go to waste without passing on the training protocols to the dog’s adoptive family. Follow through is the missing link – a link that could keep many, many dogs living harmoniously in their forever homes.