Adopting my first rescue dog was an experience! She came with all of the baggage and trauma endured by her previous owners. It’s very common, as many rescue dogs do have behavior problems, some of which can get worse before they get better.
My rescue dog was a shadow of what she would later become. Taking her home was a day of mixed emotions – for me and the dog. She was inquisitive and energetic, but also shy and standoffish at times. It was a complex few months of behavioral problems as she adjusted to life in a new environment.
Any new home is an adjustment. I’m sure when you moved into your first apartment or house outside of the family home, you spent a good few months settling into new routines.
Your rescue dog needs the same grace and will exhibit some common behaviors as they adapt. From shyness to loss of appetite, adopted dogs can act up in many ways in those early days.
Here is a guide to help you navigate these early rescue dog behavior problems, and tips on what to do if they appear to be getting worse.
Normal rescue dog behavior problems to expect
1. Loss of appetite
Dogs love to eat! My rescue dog loves food too, but on the first day, I could not get her to eat for love nor money.
It could well have been her overwhelm at the situation. She had just had an hour-long drive, followed by an introduction to a new space. So many things to see and smell!
That overwhelming and bubbling excitement distracted her from eating.
In some rescue dogs, it’s more of a protest.
They feel unfamiliar with this food, this bowl, this human. Who are you and what are you feeding me?
This is very common behavior problem in rescue dogs when you first bring them home so try not to panic too much. There are few tricks you can try to get them to eat such as:
- Mix in some wet food with their dry food
- Add a little onion-free and garlic-free gravy to their bowl
- Add chicken or bacon morsels to their food
If they are still hunger-striking after 24 hours, contact your veterinarian for help.
Handy Hint: Here are my tips on how you can get your rescue dog to start eating if they appear to have a loss of appetite.
It is completely natural for your rescue dog to be a little more reserved at home than they were when you first met them. This is a survival mechanism. I’m sure you’re wary of strangers too!
You and your family need to gain their trust over time by showing them that you are friendly, welcoming, and in control.
Encourage open interaction with your newly adopted rescue dog, with a cheerful but gentle tone of voice, will make your adopted pup feel like part of the family. As they come of out their shell more, introduce play to strengthen that bond between you.
The “in control” part is often missed by first-time rescue dog owners.
Dogs need structure, so being too loose with your rules will only serve to confuse your dog.
They want to know what your boundaries are and that you are consistent with those boundaries. Being an authority in their life makes them feel safer in your home.
Handy Hint: If you are still struggling to socialize your rescue dog, please try out these tips I’ve put together.
When we took my rescue dog home, we soon discovered she did not share. It was the rescue dog behavior problem that was getting worse over time – and the one that took us the longest to resolve with her.
We got to the playing stage but every tennis ball she caught would now be belong to her forever. Aggressive growling would start if we went to retrieve the ball from her.
Quite ironic behavior from a Retriever!
This is very normal behavior in rescue dogs. It’s a sense of control over their environment that they don’t really have yet. They haven’t established themselves as part of your home and family yet, so they hold onto items that feel theirs for dear life.
Shelter dogs have ingrained that they must compete for resources after being around so many dogs at the rescue center.
This could also result in not sharing with other pets or being protective over food.
You can train this away though.
It takes a calm, accessible disposition to combat the habit. The most effective course of action is to reward your dog when they give you the item they are feeling possessive over. You are essentially teaching the dog that it’s okay to share. Giving their prized possession to you is a good thing.
Practice the routine multiple times, and they’ll soon grow out of any aggression over food or toys.
If your efforts don’t seem to work, it is worth consulting a professional trainer to help you with this particular rescue dog behavioral problem.
4. Separation anxiety
Even the most aloof, shy dogs would rather not be left alone. Loneliness in dogs is extremely common. In rescue dogs, I would argue even more so since they had so many friends and visitors at the animal shelter.
Separation anxiety can then be a real issue.
It manifests most often in these ways. When left alone they:
- Destroy furniture
- Dig up the garden
- Pee in the house
- Poop in the house
- Try running away
- Barking lots (plus at night)
Separation anxiety in rescue dogs can be quite difficult to defeat. The family history of the dog could make them more susceptible to feeling so uneasy when a trusted guardian isn’t nearby.
There are two schools of thought around this: Absence suspension and counterconditioning.
- Absence suspension works by figuring out how long your dog can cope with being alone and then making sure you don’t exceed that time.
- Counterconditioning is when you train your dog associate being left alone with positive things. This could be leaving them with games to play or treats whilst you are away.
Both methods take a lot of time, patience, and consistency.
5. Marking territory or accidents
Your adopted dog may or may not be housetrained, but accidents are expected when you first take them home.
Firstly, they won’t know where the nearest exit is to go to the bathroom, so they can be forgiven for not know the rules yet. It’s a new house for them to navigate after all.
In some cases, the heightened anxiety of being in unfamiliar surroundings causes the dog to have more mishaps than usual. Adult dogs can also take to scent marking areas of your home with their pee to make themselves known.
Housetraining a rescue dog is relatively simple albeit time-consuming.
Start by establishing a strict routine for meals and potty breaks. It helps to always let them out from the same door in your house, so they associate that door with potty time. If you have an apartment and you have adopted a puppy or elderly dog, you may want to consider getting a pee-mat for when they just can’t hold it.
Handy Hint: Read this guide which teaches a 5 step process for potty training a rescue dog.
When you see your dog circling, scoop them up and place them on the pee mat to relieve themselves. A few repetitions here will teach them exactly where to pee in the house.
As for scent-marking, spaying or neutering your dog really helps in this regard. If they are already spayed or neutered, a firm “no” when you catch them in the act will soon deter them from doing it.
Show that this is disobedience and you are not happy with them cocking their leg on the couch. If they do get away with this once or twice when you aren’t looking, make sure you clean the scene of the crime thoroughly so there is no pee smell left. Even a hint of leftover scent will encourage them to do it again or get your other dogs to join in!
The rescue dog adjustment period is not a linear journey. Some report seeing the honeymoon period in which their dog is quite well behaved when they first arrive, only to let out their demons a few weeks later.
This is where the common issue of a rescue dogs behavior getting worse will spring from. But as with all behavioral problems, they can be resolved!
Sometimes the dog will start out badly behaved, reform for a time, and then show those bad behaviors again. Adjusting is not an upward curve. It is a rollercoaster.
With this in mind, be sensitive and mindful of your dog during this delicate time. Yes, you want to train them and instill discipline but allow your dog the leeway to get things wrong from time to time. It is all new to them.
They’ll eventually adjust and be the perfect companion once they are settled.
You might also like…
There are lots of tips on the blog about rescue dogs, with real life experiences. Check out the following guides.
- Why some people choose to rename their rescue and others not
- The guilt of returning a problem rescue dog
- Tips for bonding with your rescue dog
Image in header licensed via Storyblocks.com.