I've Adopted You, You're Adorable, Now Behave!

When my kids were toddlers they obeyed me like well-mannered puppies. I could displace their frustrations with a wave of the iPad, redirect their fears with calm reassurance and quash disagreements with an ice pop. These days I long for a metaphorical crate. On a recent trip to the apple orchard, their consternation flared over who would occupy the coveted seat in the back of our family mini-van.

Pointing out the obvious -- that there were three seats -- fell on deaf ears. I then announced, albeit humorously, that October was National Adoption Month and if they didn't behave I'd be happy to drop them off at a local animal shelter.

This bought a momentary reprieve.

"Why can you only adopt pets in October?" my kindergartener pondered aloud.

"That's not it, Dumbo!" my nine-year-old scoffed, rolling her eyes. Then she asked if we'd adopted any of our rescues in the fall, which only further perplexed her little brother.

"Does it count if we don't adopt in October? Do we have to give them back?"

My longwinded explanation of how our country chose to commemorate animal rescue in October to highlight the importance of these efforts, put their intrigue to rest. They were back to sparing for the car's most sought-after position.

While October highlights Pet Adoption in America, there is no ideal month to adopt a pet. I began my Huffington Post adoption series in August covering topics including where to go to find a dog, choosing the right dog or puppy, bringing your new family member home and identifying frustrations common to rehomed or transported pets, but I've used this month to outline a positive approach to training and reconditioning the habits of newly adopted dogs and puppies.

(Geoffrey Tischman Photography)

In last week's piece I outlined the top five complaints I hear from adoptive pet owners. Today I will begin to address how to use a positive approach to resolve these frustrations. Though the behaviors are different, they have a commonality: They develop as a consequence of the stress endured during the rehoming process.

Below I've listed solutions to three of the top five common frustrations found with rescue dogs. I'll detail tips for soothing separation anxiety and resource guarding in the coming week.

Rescue dogs come from many walks of life. Some were born into a free-ranging lifestyle and have never set a paw indoors. Others were pets, abandoned by people who are no longer emotionally, physically or financially able to care for them. Relinquished into the rehoming system, these dogs are temporarily housed in animal shelters or foster homes, often with many other confused/neglected dogs. Though shelter workers and volunteers are truly the stuff angels are made of, few can keep up with the needs of each individual pet. Dogs and puppies are often confined with or near other dogs and grow accustomed to smelling, standing or even resting in feces.

Transitions into a loving home are wonderful for everyone involved, but it can be overwhelming too. It would seem that freedom, kindness, a healthy diet and warm housing should breed instantaneous appreciation from a dog or puppy, but it can take weeks for a dog to realize that their new home is forever and is not just another awkward passing. Giving a dog too much too fast may lead to a few accidents in the first days/weeks of their rehoming.

Many adoptive parents have high hopes that their new pet will be housetrained. Some do prefer going outside or to papers to potty, but others can take days or weeks to catch on. Dogs often confuse a person's frustrated reaction as confrontation, which leads to stress, not comprehension. Stress leads back to -- can you guess? More accidents.

A healthier approach is to assume that your new adoptee will need to be housetrained in your home. Housetraining does not have to be a four-letter word. Here is a quick hit list:

  1. Keep your dog contained in an enclosure near to the door or papers, and roll up carpets when possible

  • Hang bells by the door or gate to encourage your dog to signal his need.
  • If you're using papers, set them in a separate room or distant corner.
  • Consider surface training your dog to pavement, papers or mulch to encourage him to seek a specific surface. Allowing your new dog to go anywhere can be confusing. He may prefer the quiet of the house and the absorbency of carpets.
  • I encourage clients to take your new adoptees to their area after eating/excessive drinking, rest, isolation and play, using a word like "outside" or "papers" to direct them and "get busy" to highlight their eliminations.
  • Chewing.

    Dogs chew when they're teething and need to relieve tension. Rescue dogs often chew excessively. If a dog cannot find a satisfying chew he will settle on furnishings, shoes, etc. While it's tempting to think you can discipline this problem away by shouting at, tossing objects to or racing after your dog, dogs simply can't translate your reactivity into useful knowledge. Most dogs view angry reactions as confrontational play or worse, an attack. Theatrical human displays are scary no matter your species and lead to displacement activities. Whereas a child might chew their nails, many dogs "tension chew."

    Dogs who chew need to chew. They may prefer sticks to nylon bones and rawhide to rope bones; if their stomach can handle it, provide it. Avoid anything that causes stomach upset, and please do buy American made toys and bones.

    As far as "correcting" chewing? That's a tricky topic. If a dog is tension chewing, it's like yelling at a nervous nail biter: The chewing will get worse, not better. If the new dog or puppy is simply confused:

    1. Designate an area with assigned chews in each room you share.

  • Teach them words like "settle down" and "bone."
  • Heap love and attention onto your dog whenever he chews the right thing.
  • Play with the chew toy, always using multiples, so that you're never competing for one.
  • Buy a spray deterrent at a pet store to spritz your possessions.
  • Hyper-Reactivity
    It's hard to avoid the pangs of despair when you walk into an animal shelter. Imagine being plucked from your home, plopped into a jail-like setting with no forewarning and being forced to conform to an unfamiliar situation and schedule. While those devoted to the rigors of rehoming dogs are saintly, the dogs have varying levels of reactivity as they struggle to conform to their displacement and new routine. Many develop manic routines as coping mechanisms, including frantic barking, jumping, nipping and overall hyperactivity.

    How should one cope with these routines? The temptation to discipline the dog is obvious. But thrusting, yelling or hitting a dog who is simply trying to self-sooth will backfire. The reactions will grow more intense. Here is a better way to begin:

    1. Get your dog on a routine, organize times to eat, play and (perhaps most importantly) sleep. As their life has been interrupted, the most important need to satisfy is their need to rest. Use either a crate or portioned room to designate to nap times, in an area that will suffer the least interruption.

  • Play soothing music when you're occupied and provide a satisfying chew toy.
  • Leave a lightweight leash dragging behind your dog. Step on, hold or tug it if your dog gets reactive and calmly direct him to an appropriate displacement activity like fetching a ball or Frisbee.
  • Fill cups with treats and spread them around the house. Call your dog to you by shaking the treat cup, but only reward him when he is sitting still. Keep cups by the door and only reward and greet him when he is calm enough to sit.
  • Use treats or portions of your dog's meals to teach him to walk on a loose leash and stay. Doll the food like you are a Pez dispenser when your dog stays calm and cooperative.
  • If you are longing for a coach to help you through the early stages of training and reconditioning your adoptive pet, be mindful in your search. You'll find nearly as many approaches to dog training as ice cream flavors. Those who urge you to clamp your puppy's mouth shut, throw objects or spray them in the face may mean well, but they are employing cruel, outdated punishments that serve to scare and not instruct your puppy. I was recently certified by the IAABC who doesn't permit membership before you pass a (grueling) examination that is then judged by a jury of accomplished behaviorists. A good trainer will not only train your dog, they will teach you good communication skills that will lead to a bond that will last a lifetime.

    Watch for the final installment on Separation Anxiety and Resource Guarding!