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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Shelter Dogs: Pitfall or Learning Experience?

the Devine Miss M. & Curly
Dog Trainer/
Therapy Dog Evalauator/
Star Puppy Trainer
and a damn fine human!

General picture of what a shelter might look like.
 (Only minus the bedding, this is a company
that sells kennels)

I often run into people throughout the day who stop to ask me this question, “Why is my dog doing that?”

So I am assuming I must have a sign on my back that says, “Ask Me!” Hey, that’s better then having a sign that says, “Kick me!”

Don’t get me wrong, the only time I mind being asked a dog question is if I am on the way to the potty, after all, I am getting older and the bladder is very over stretched! So if I keep moving as you’re asking, don’t be put off, be patient! This leads me to the topic of potty training and patience with shelter dogs.

Eliminating in the house:

One frequently asked question which sometimes turns into a big complaint is that upon taking ownership of a shelter dog, the new owner finds that the dog is not ‘potty trained’ as the shelter had claimed it to be, thus it becomes very frustrating for the new owner. Most new owners are at their wits end, tired of cleaning up accidents in the home after having just taken the dog outside to do its business. Some people even begin to believe that the shelter lied to them regarding the dog being taught potty manners.

I’d like to clarify a few things on this issue as it pertains to shelter dogs. I do not work for a shelter so what I am going to state is my opinion of what may be going on which is based on listening to many complaints over the years and a little bit of Sally’s basic common sense which according to hubby I am full of! (Yeah right! Maybe in my mind!)

First: dog shelters are usually understaffed and overworked. The majority of them thrive on donations, fundraisers, and volunteers to help them. Believe it or not, those volunteers do have outside lives!

Second: a shelter only knows what the previous owner told them about the dog and previous owners have a tendency to embellish their story because they feel guilt about giving the dog up in the first place.

Third: neither the shelter nor the new owner has any idea how the previous owner trained the dog. If trained improperly, the dog may actually be afraid to potty in front of a human thus sneaking around the house when the new owner is not watching. (Potty training 101: See here:  )

Being pack animals, dogs enjoy their dens and do everything to keep them clean. Their den is considered where ever they eat and sleep at that moment in their life. This is one of the reasons mother dogs eat their pup's feces, it keeps the den clean.

In a home situation, a crate, or a certain part of the home if not the entire home, is considered their den. In a shelter situation the kennel they live in at the momnt becomes their den and due to the lack of volunteers those kennels might not get cleaned right away, as well, daily walks to do its business might not be happening. This scenario unwittingly forces a dog to become used to eating and sleeping among its excrement which in turn although it goes against every grain of their being, starts a new way of life which the dog eventually becomes somewhat accustomed to. The longer the dog is in a shelter the longer it may take to retrain as it regards to eliminating outside. This is not to say that all dogs that come from shelters will do this, many will not. But because this is a question I hear often, I feel it is important for this to be addressed so the prospective owner of a shelter dog will know it may require a bit more patience and guidance.
(Kind of like having patience with me running to the toilet with that over stretched bladder! I know, I know, TMI!)

That being said, if urinating in the home becomes a huge problem, do not just categorize it as behavior, but look into a possible health problem. Keep in mind that the shelter may not know there  are health issues unless the personal are trained to look for possible  problems such as bladder infection, bladder stones, diabetes or ectopic ureter. So have your own veterinarian give the dog a thorough exam if your potty training efforts seem out of the ordinary.

Showing shyness, fear, or being aggressive:

Many people believe that a shelter dog must have been mistreated because they cower, run, or shy away from the well meaning hand that wants to pat them on the head. While some dogs are mistreated, it is not always the case and this falls into another category known as personality!

Like humans, dogs have their own personalities and those personalities were more than likely established at a young age when they were among their litter mates, long before any human ever got their hands on them. In many cases pups are taken from their litter too young so the vital social skills were not learned, and it is at this time that you may see more of a shy personality develop.

Let’s look at this situation using a human model. I do this because there are a lot of similarities between child and puppy and I am fortunate enough to work with both and see the similarities, although I am sure my boss would not want me comparing the two!

Think of taking a young child away from its family at a time the child was being teased or tormented by his siblings and then sending that child to another home to live which also had children. Do you think that child will have carried some of that teasing and torment baggage from former siblings to his new home and not be so trusting of the new siblings? Of course he would, especially upon first entering the new home before he really got to know the new family. The difference is that eventually the human brain will develop as the child grows and the child can be taught the proper way to handle certain situations. Whereas a dog’s brain at some point stops developing or reaches its potential, thus the personality is developed and this can produce a shy dog.

Taking the above dog scenario again with its litter mates and instead of a shy pup, let's make the dog one that leaves the litter at the time when it is the top dog, the tormentor, or the bully, (using human terms). How do you see that dog getting along with other dogs in your home? More than likely that dog will come into your home and try to take over the pack which can lead to much fighting and angst for not only the other dogs in the home but for the humans who are not equipped to handle the situation.

Can a dog’s personality be changed? I believe that in some cases with much training the dog can view humans differently, tolerate them, and bond with them, and in some instances I feel they cannot be changed. In some instances the breed itself may be more of a 'one owner' type of dog and that is ingrained.

Much is going to depend on the breed, the dog’s past, the owner, and how they train the dog. It is my belief that dogs have been so over bred, inbred, and poorly bred that a component /chemical in the brain is missing  or out of whack causing such behavior issues that it will not allow the dog to change. This might be why we are seeing more vets prescribing antidepressants and tranquilizers to dogs. Of course as humans, we want a fast fix, not a slow training process, so that can also be a reason for such prescriptions!


Bonding is another common problem I hear from new owners of shelter dogs. The owner will often mention that their shelter dog is not responding to them as their previous dog did. (The previous dog being one that has passed on to greener pastures.) For these people I ask them to be honest with themselves. Sometimes people get a similar dog or dog breed as the dog that has passed  and then are looking for that new dog to have the same personality traits.  It is rare to find this and the human in this situation has to concentrate on the qualities this new dog has to offer, accept that they are different and unique, and then build from there. I will say that daily positive obedience training is a great way to start the bonding process because you learn more about what the dog can do and the dog learns not only to trust you, but also learns what you expect of it and what pleases you.

Personalities are unique to every animal.

I have seen dogs that start out with great personalities and fall to the opposite end of the spectrum, (mostly due to poor training). I have seen dogs with awful personalities that begin anew and become very loving and responsive animals. I have seen or heard of dogs that act out in one home and be the perfect companion in another.

I am not a scientist, I have only years of my own observations and theories but that’s where scientists generally start isn’t it? With observations and theories? :)

Before concluding this article I would like to mention and thank a few organizations in my area that run no kill shelters as well as organizations that find homes for dogs that are being fostered by families   (not in a conventional shelter situation) and in need of a new home.

  If you are a person who loves animals and want to see them blossom and grow within a new home, please help these organizations pave their path to success either by adopting, donating, or volunteering your time.
Spreading the word about these animals is as easy as posting their sites on your Face Book page or yahoo updates.

Furry Friends

Haven to home

Mostly Mutts

Animal Resource Center

Of couse if you are located in another state then try pet finder.

Until next time, remember patience and consistency play a key role in your dog’s upbringing and success. Happy training!

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