What you see is not what you get

on 11 July, 2018

Dog Adoption: A Myth and A Mistake

Part I: A MYTH: What you see is what you get.

July 23rd marks our 1 year gotcha Day with Dolly! The slinky and shy Great Pyrenees Border Collie mix – at least that is our best guess at what breeds she is - leaned into our legs and pushed her way into our hearts. The journey we’ve had with her over the past year, as well as a common question from potential clients, prompted me to write this two-part series.

I should’ve started keeping track when I noticed a recurring theme, but I didn’t. The consistent stories of how an adopted dog was nearly perfect when brought home, and only started doing “x” (fill in unwanted behaviors: barking, guarding, jumping, reactivity, digging, nipping, etc) a few days, weeks or even months after settling into their forever home. The question, “What did we do wrong?” echoing from one client to the next.

Sadly, there are many trainers who would jump on the opportunity to point out imperfections in a family’s training and homecoming days, or spout off a bunch of dominance malarkey as the culprit. However, the truth is that many behaviors you see surface the first 6 months (or even more) after bringing home a rescued pup were likely already there to begin with. Whether your dog was temperament tested at a shelter or came from an involved foster home, there just isn’t a reliable way to fully know what you can expect from that doggy in the window.

There are numerous things that alter behavior over time, even something as natural as maturation. Yet, when bringing a new dog into your home, it’s important to remember that moving from a familiar environment to an unfamiliar one is stressful - even if the prior place was dangerous, dirty, or neglectful. The distress from these changes can affect a dog in numerous ways! Behaviors like barking and resource guarding may be suppressed because the pup withdraws or shuts down to cope. They appear to be a quiet snuggle pup when observed or tested. On the flip side, a normally gentle dog may exhibit uncharacteristic fear based behaviors like growling or kennel soiling.

Dolly’s homecoming story started when she was transported from Kiowa, Oklahoma to Springfield, Missouri where we had traveled several hours to meet her. She had this gorgeous face with a big panting smile and the softest head of white fluffy fur. We were told she was likely a Golden Retriever Pyrenees mix before meeting her, and her pictures very much resembled that. However, at first glance, we realized that likely wasn’t the case. She looked a heck of a lot like an overgrown border collie!

pexels photo 612813

We chatted with her amazing foster mom about her history and behavior in their home since coming into the rescue about a week beforehand. Dolly seemed to get along well with other dogs, never barked or jumped, and only had a few fearful quirks from her questionable upbringing. They were minor things that didn’t surprise me at all having worked with thousands of rescue pups. Pulling hard and fast to get away from the back of any open vehicle, or cowering when a hand or leash came near her were the most obvious. Things that I’ve seen fade time and time again with patience and positive, force free training and handling.

We brought Dolly home and followed our careful homecoming plan (more about that next month in Part 2: The Mistake of this series). It became glaringly obvious to me that Dolly was not the people loving cuddle bug she appeared to be at the rescue. She spent the first several weeks home ducking down and immediately rolling on her back in our mere presence. This was not a plea to pet her belly as most people interpreted, but an appeasement signal trying to relay that she didn’t want to cause any “trouble”. If she was a person, it would be like cautiously waving a big white “I come in peace” flag. Dogs often offer this behavior (among others: like tucked tail, freeze, diverted eye contact, lowered head and body, submissive/nervous urination) when they perceive a threat and want to divert attention away from themselves. How sad that our girl spent the first year of life trying to avoid human interaction because it was so unpleasant.

Dolly didn’t know that she had hit the jackpot with a family committed to earning her trust and building her confidence without force or fear. Over the next few weeks, she started growing more comfortable in her new environment. With this confidence, she began exhibiting some different behaviors she never showed in her temporary foster home or rescue. Traits of her suspected breeds began to surface. Whether it was nipping and herding the kids and other dogs, or demonstrating guardian tendencies, Dolly was changing before our eyes!

Thankfully, when Dolly started to come out of her shell so to speak, I had a trainer friend remind me of the “3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months” mantra. The general guideline of “threes” is relevant when adopting an adolescent or adult dog. The idea is that a dog needs about 3 days to overcome the shock of being moved around or displaced. It takes around 3 weeks for a pup to acclimate to your routines and begin feeling at home. After 3 months, everyone should be pretty comfortable and ready to let their true colors show, if they haven’t already. From 3 to 6 months after adoption is the most common time for me to get the calls for help with “new” problem behaviors, and the question, “What did we do wrong?”.

There is no hard and fast rule, but I’m convinced familiarity with this concept would save many people a lot of guilt and grief. If you’re adopting a dog, remember what you see is not likely what you’ll get. That pup you’re bringing home will probably change, and somewhere along the journey, you just might, too.


**for more insight on what to expect when adopting a dog, check out our May blog here: https://www.smartypaws.net/blog/69-great-expectations-the-reality-of-getting-a-dog-that-no-one-talks-about.html

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