Should This Dog Be Up For Adoption?

black and white drawing of baby carriage and dogs

drawing by Leslie Swieck all copyrights apply

The compassion that people show for dogs with fear-based behavior challenges is commendable. Rescue groups pull them from shelters by the thousands and well-intentioned people adopt them. Given the number of people joining online groups looking for support and advice about how to help these dogs the reality that it requires more than time and love should be glaringly obvious.

I was recently asked by a rescue group how to prepare people who adopt a dog living with a variety of fears, and my honest opinion is that you can’t. No matter how much people are instructed that they need to be patient with the dog, unless someone has lived with a dog who required months or years to learn how to; feel safe in their new home, go in and out of doors, ride in cars, be home alone, walk on a leash, see new people or dogs, they will not understand what they are signing up for. And if they did, they likely wouldn’t.

But the other reality is that the rescuing and adopting out of dogs with fear-based challenges is not going end any time soon. So what can we do?

Get information: Understand that dogs don’t simply “get over” being afraid. The conditions experienced during a dog’s early development can have life-long impact on their behavior. There’s no way back to normal for some dogs. Let go of biases against the use of modern medicine to address stress and anxiety.

Get skills: Despite current appearances in the dog training industry (absolutely anyone can come up with a protocol or method to train dogs or make up reasons why they do what they do), how dogs learn new skills and can change their emotional responses is well-documented and to train them requires an understanding of a few basic laws of behavior modification. There are more and more trainers who have the knowledge and skills to address the issues fearful dogs face in efficient and humane ways. If you don’t have the skills, find someone who does.

Be realistic: It is going to take time and love and patience and energy and money. Spend all of them wisely.

For dogs adopted into homes as pets the onus of change typically falls on the dog. People will only tolerate aggression, destroyed couches, irate calls from neighbors and any of the other fall-outs from the behavioral quirks of fearful dogs for so long. No amount of “Well we told you the dog was going to need time,” is going to cut it for the owner or the dog. So how can rescue groups prepare new adopters for life with a fearful dog? They can adopt out a dog with a few of the basic skills they will need to live as a pet. Expecting a pet owner, as devoted and well-intentioned as they may be, to be able to train a dog to accept routine ear cleaning when the dog currently hides, bites or screams when handled is wishful thinking. As is expecting them to be able to train the dog to; walk through doorways, go outside for leash walks, walk nicely on a leash, get in a car, sit quietly when guests come into the house, etc., etc.

Dogs have demonstrated the ability to learn despite how we train them not because of how we train them. But our fearful dogs are more dependent on the how being as clear as possible. Being re-homed is among one of the most stressful events in the life of a social animal. Being stressed and uncertain is a miserable combination and is not likely to contribute to an improvement in the dog’s behavior. We can prepare the adopters of these dogs by showing them how to cue a trained behavior and reinforce it. By training dogs using positive reinforcement every cued behavior is an opportunity to feel good and to minimize the uncertainty a dog experiences in a new setting. Will this add to the responsibilities of rescue groups? It sure will. Some are already taking it on, and my guess is that it will increase the odds the dog will remain in the home and have a head start on becoming a happy pet.

If we take on the responsibility of selecting dogs to place in homes as pets, we should embrace all that that entails, it’s how professionals operate. When buying a car from a stranger most people will have it checked out by a trusted mechanic (or they would be wise to). We don’t trust that the seller is either aware of, or being up front about possible problems that may be dangerous or costly. People adopting dogs are trusting that rescue groups and shelters are adopting out dogs who will make good pets. They should not be expected to know how to anticipate or deal with fear-based behaviors in a dog adopted to be a pet any more than a consumer can be expected to know about all the things that could be dangerously wrong with a product they are purchasing and hoping to use immediately. And we don’t expect them to know how to fix them.

I know that there will be people who will resent having an analogy made between dogs and products, but I think it’s time we stop closing our eyes to the fact that fearful dogs are returned and discarded all too often and start doing something about that.

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26 comments so far

  1. Janet on

    Our last dog was extremely fearful (people, dogs, environments, noises) and as first time dog owners determined to do the right thing and “adopt not shop”, we were SO unprepared for what that meant. The rescue encouraged us to take him and said he would blossom with the right amount of love. Obviously, it was not that simple. I am so grateful I found your resources- they helped us and our dog tremendously. We also had fantastic support from positive reimforcement trainers locally. The vet behaviourist we worked with begged us to never rehome him- no one would know what they were getting into, she said. We never would have, because we knew how disabled he was. I don’t mean any offense in using that word- it truly applied to him. We lost him in late spring, and now have a new dog, also a rescue. He’s not fearful like the last one, but like any dog who’s had a murky beginning, he needs support and positive training to gain confidence. What I learn with your posts and Facebook page is so helpful. The experience and knowledge of people involved in rescue groups varies considerably- this I’ve learned!

    • fearfuldogs on

      So glad you find the Fearful Dogs resources helpful. If only I could get around to comments sooner!

  2. Valerie Proctor Davis on

    And it’s necessary to add in my state: neuter those dogs! Don’t risk letting them breed. (There are still shelters that don’t neuter them before adoption, but depend on the owners to do it.)

  3. calkinsbetsy on

    Thanks. All of this needs to be discussed openly and without rancor if we really care about dogs and the people that love and live with them. Good for you!

  4. Blanche Axton on

    Well said, Debbie. Rescues need to realize that they are making a commitment to the dog AND to any and all potential adopters when they take on this kind of challenge. And they need to be supportive of the foster home who may not been able to deal with a fearful dog….and help that foster parent.
    When we take in dogs with significant issues, we can either condemn the dog and the handler/owner/foster/adopter to frustration and hopelessness or we can try to set it up so everyone suffers less….if there is any suffering to be done.
    It’s a hard fact to face, but most adopters do not want a project. They want a pet. They want all the Hallmark stuff. Not months and years of counter conditioning, desensitization, being hyper vigilant about walks, the presence of strangers, etc.
    I commend the folks who do this work with their fearful dogs, but as rescuers we need to see the long road when we pull dogs with big fear issues. Not just do it for the momentary high of “I saved a dog”. Saving the dog hasn’t even begun…..saving the dog is the years of work to be done AFTER it gets pulled from the shelter.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Blanche. I know the dogs you foster are lucky to be with you.

  5. Nancy on

    I adopted a 3 year old fearful non aggressive dog from a shelter that luckily had kept her for a year despite her health issues, heartworms, severe skin allergies, etc. I had never dealt with this issue and did not know what to expect. I have had her for almost 2 years now and she has improved I would say 85%. I haven’t done any special training or spent any money on
    “rehab”. A reliable routine, calm environment and firm, kind leadership has enabled her to trust me very quickly and in turn trust others over time. These dogs should not be challenged until they are ready. People do need to be more patient. I don’t ever expect her to be a “typical” dog but then again what is a “typical” dog. Puppies are much more work. She is a wonderful dog and I hope she understands she has a forever home. Every dog deserves a chance. They’re not broken, just unique. Remind you of anyone?

    • Ssk on

      The issue with the idea that they all need a chance is that not all of them can be given a chance safely. You noted that you provided a reliable routine; most households cannot provide this in this time and age. An environment that is calm today may be uproarious next week when a water line breaks or a road is repaved. You would need to live far off the beaten track to be able to guarantee a continually calm environment and have a great contract with mother nature!. Some of these dogs are challenged just by being in a house, even if that house was just walls and a human being sharing the space. Some of these dogs can do tens of thousands of dollars of damage within a single day. Some can carry on a cacophony of noise regardless of triggers for endless hours. Some of these dogs can’t even be touched to sedate them for vet care, let alone handled for vet care. I see some of these animals in my own work, animals that aren’t safe for their owners let alone for anyone else. At some point, we humans have a responsibility for our own safety and the safety of other humans and pets, which is why not every dog will get a chance. Some dogs go through the same traumas and come out well functioning in spite of trauma, others become fearful despite having all the best through every stage. While some dogs can be cured via routine, environment and training, some can’t. I put one to sleep not long ago that, when a necropsy was performed, we discovered a brain tumor.

      • fearfuldogs on

        It is so true that for one reason or another some dogs are just not built to live safely in the world they are put in. We need to be compassionate when deciding the most humane choices to make for them.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s great that your dog was able to navigate the waters of rehoming.

      • Nancy on

        After my post I realized I did not communicate the seriousness of this situation in the community. I am so thankful for the wonderful people that gave of my Pepper a second chance and I empathize with everyone dealing with the challenges of fearful dogs in their home. My point is patience and time. It’s like watching a child grow and discover the wonders of the world. And I do agree adoptees should be educated as to what they are signing up for. The shelter was up front with me and it was very obvious when I got her home. It took about 6 months to see a breakthrough beyond her bond with me. Walks,walks,walks!! The 1st time she used her nose when she was a leaf or a piece of paper on the ground instead of bolting was such a joy (I know that sounds silly but true). A canine friend can also help them adapt. Hang in there everyone!

  6. Mel on

    Amen Debbie. It is something I have been thinking about for some time. One of the dogs that came from the same mill as Maggie was placed in a home with a first-time dog owner. She had no idea what to expect. And although she has done well, adjusting to living with a dog with lots of problems, she is now facing giving her up because she is terrified of her fiancé and will bark until she can bark no more. It is heartbreaking for her and the dog.

    I hope and pray more organizations will spend the time and money on working with these dogs vs. dumping them on unsuspecting adopters. We need to be a part of the solution and not the problem.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m not sure what the disconnect is Mel. Those of us who have these dogs know what can happen. Those of us who train them, know what can happen. Rescue groups surely see what can happen. Where’s the blind spot?

  7. Laura Gail Grohe on

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I feel like such an annoying broken record–but I feel completely let down by the shelter we adopted from (Dakin Animal Shelter). We had every reason to believe the young puppy we adopted was a typical dog, with his own personality, but no major issues. Wrong. He was terrified of everything. I know that the other dog from the same litter was returned only one day after she was adopted, and that even as a cute puppy she remained at the shelter for quite a while. Clearly these dogs needed some extra help.

    Luckily for Dante my neighbor was an emergency vet tech, so she was able to guide me in getting a lot of training support. At one point I approached the shelter for help. After over a year of working with Dante I was exhausted and overwhelmed trying to help him. He was too terrified of driving and strangers for us to bring him to the obedience training that was part of his almost $500 adoption fee. I thought the shelter would want to support the dogs they adopted out, but instead I was told all they could do was give me the name of a trainer I could hire.

    It would have made such a difference to me to get some kind of encouragement from this shelter. But there was nothing other than requests for financial donations. I love Dante, and there has been slow progress, but it has been lonely and frustrating. Once it was known we were struggling, periodic follow-up would have made a huge difference to me. Getting some kind of validation of the reality of how hard it is living with a terrified dog would have been nice. What about suggested books? A list of supports available to families with terrified dogs would have been useful. Even a tea party for adopters of terrified dogs might be nice. Abandoning a scared dog and his family once the papers have been signed and fees paid is neither good for the dog or the new family.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I hope you’ve been able to find some kind of support to help you and Dante keep progressing.

      • CC on

        I’m actually really curious about this scenario – I’m sure it happens extremely often, and have experienced it myself. I think that part of the issue is that, from the shelter/rescue side, we’re often not really sure HOW to help without just sending a trainer to the house directly. We can send links and describe training procedures, but it can be quite tricky to learn how to train from a book!

        I know, as a person who has adopted out fearful dogs, I have great trepidation when it comes to calling up previous adopters. I have the fear that they’ll immediately be like “Oh, it’s you! Thank goodness. We can’t handle him; please come and pick him up ASAP.” While I sit and discuss training/routine/structure with the potential adopters, it often falls on deaf ears (or just gets pushed to the backburner) by excited new owners.

        So ultimately – how do we support people that want to be supported once the dogs are out in the community?

      • fearfuldogs on

        Find competent trainers to refer to.

      • Harper on

        This is not about a fear-aggressive dog, but we felt let-down by our rescue organization as well. The foster-style organization had stringent rules about the type of environment the dogs went into, and we were even turned down for one energetic dog we were interested in because we live in an apartment. We were hopeful, though, because after reviewing our application, they told us they’d found a dog they felt was perfect for our situation. We met her and fell instantly in love, as they had. What we found out a few weeks later was that this dog had severe resource guarding issues. After many months and lots of $$$ training, we decided that she was too much of a liability to be around anyone. We were constantly on high alert and stressed. A shame, really, because when there was nothing of worth around (her definition of worth, anyway…) she was a very good pet dog. We had trusted that the animal rescue organization knew what they were talking about when they suggested this dog–and after we returned her with heavy hearts they actually evaluated her, they were shocked at the behaviors they had missed, and euthanized her 3 weeks later. Her bites were quick, she didn’t hold and shake, but were highly intense and left damage. They said she was one of the most unstable dogs to come through their doors.
        Leaving the evaluation up to a foster’s discretion is dangerous, because everyone has a different idea of what “testing” a dog means. And since they only had her for a week, there wasn’t much time to test. She could easily go a week being sweet, without harming anyone. She was a trooper in the bath, loved grooming, was ok on walks as long as no other animals were around, cuddly, nice to the vet, the list of good goes on. But her quick switch, with very subtle warnings, was too dangerous for us to continue to work with. It’s a shame, there are plenty of dogs that need, deserve, and are ready for good homes, but our experience with this particular dog soured our view of dogs from shelters and we are scared to try again.

      • Laura Gail Grohe on

        While Dante has continued to improve he did end up nipping (biting) my neighbor’s boyfriend. The good news is that this happened at the same time my husband got a raise at work, which allowed us to FINALLY have a trainer come to the house. It was such a relief to have someone help us understand how to apply everything we’ve read in books. I think we need to keep talking about not just the incredible emotional investment these dogs require, but the financial one as well. I would never ask my vet to treat for free, nor would I ask a trainer to come to my house for free/discount. We have chosen to pay for vet visits rather than dental work for ourselves, I wish we were able to make the money appear to allow more sessions with a trainer–but we can’t. I Think it’s critical to discuss possible financial costs with adopters of scared dogs.

  8. Kolchak, Felix & Jodi on

    When we got Felix, we were told that he was a great dog who just needed a family who had the time for him. I wish they had been more clear that by that they meant “a family who has all the time in the world (and maybe deep pockets because he’s also a medical mess)”.

    At 6 months, we saw the first signs from Felix that he was a real dog and not a small furry decoration that laid near my couch.

    At 1 year, we finally convinced him my ex-husband wasn’t terrifying and he stopped growling and biting at him.

    At 4 years, he stopped being terrified of strangers at the door, though he was still anxious and very vocal.

    At 7 years, we finally broke through his leash anxiety.

    I’m not sure when we’ll truly conquer his separation anxiety, but it’s gotten SO MUCH BETTER and I look forward to marking that milestone as well.

    I still manage his fearful behaviours, in some capacity, every single day.

    We were lucky to have hooked up with a great trainer early on, lucky to have a MIL who works from home and is happy to spend the day with him and lucky that through all his fears, he really is the most endearing thing ever and not a moment of the time or money we’ve invested in him was wasted. He’s worth it.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Always good to see a trend toward being less fearful. Hope he’s even better now.

  9. Barb K on

    Our rescue group realizes that, sadly, not all dogs can be adopted into homes. I have a VERY fearful mill-type dog that will be fostering with me for a couple of months to see if she can become adoptable. We won’t place her in a home where she will continue to be terrified the majority of her life…. I personally have worked with fearful dogs that were my own and know that not everyone can do it.

  10. Victoria Clare (@cycas) on

    Although I agree that rescues should be supporting adopters and assessing dogs realistically, I do think there is also an element that very experienced foster homes can so easily lose sight of what is hard for other people.

    I have a dog that I adopted a year ago. I was told that she was a little reactive and nervy but otherwise a pretty easy dog. As someone who has been involved with running a rescue for 9 years and who has fostered a fair number of assorted dogs, I expected few problems with my new dog. But I was not experienced with salukis, and this dog came from an excellent, highly experienced foster home with bags of saluki experience.

    Salukis, it turns out, are not the kind of dogs I’ve got experience with: this last year has been an exciting and sometimes hair raising learning curve with a very sensitive dog whose fear reactions I found hard to read.

    I deserved it though: a couple of years ago, I rehomed a greyhound cross to a home who had lots of experience fostering Northern breeds – husky crosses etc. I think of greyhounds as easy dogs, so I was a bit taken aback that the new owner struggled with my lovely laid-back foster dog, with his mild separation anxiety and prey drive that is pretty much what I expect an ‘average’ dog to have – but is, I learn, very different to that which the new owner was used to.

    Finding out what other people expect from their dogs is a constant learning curve for me!

  11. sisterswithpaws on

    Reblogged this on Rescued Fearful Dogs – Our Tale and commented:
    A must read!

  12. sisterswithpaws on

    OH, HOW I WISH I HAD COME ACROSS YOU ABOUT A YEAR AGO! I contemplated getting teary eyed just reading this. Plus, you communicate your thoughts so well and like a true professional. I am reblogging this if that’s OK with you. My blog is about our experience and unintended, initially, adoption of two fear based dogs, our journey in all of it from A to almost Z. We chose to stick it out, to ride out the storm, for whatever reasons. I have learned soooooooo much. Would I or our family ever take this on again? OMG! A few months ago I would have immediately stated confidently, “NO! NEVER, EVER..EVER!!!”… But as the wheels of progress are now turning rather quickly, I now will calmly reply, ” Well, probably not, but, at least I can maybe offer sound strategies that will likely help. Together we can give it a go.” should I encounter someone I know who has discovered a severely fear base or traumatized dog owning experience. (Ours was X 2) However, now we are at a place where I can laugh about some of it in a demented way, looking back on some of it….sometimes


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