Training tips for working with rescue dogs: Thanks to Laura Brody, CPTD for sitting down and sharing her wisdom in working with rescued mill dogs. Please visit Laura’s webpage, Good Family Dog Training, for more information.
Signs of Stress
There are several signs that a dog is stressed or uncomfortable. When you try to handle the dog it eliminates and or becomes stiff, excessive panting, lip licking, or darting as you move towards the dog.
The rehabilitation process varies with the dog. Some dogs are very at ease in a home environment right away with few issues. Some dogs can be completely shut down and may defecate or urinate when handled by a human. Because these dogs have been manhandled their whole lives they do not enjoy being picked up. Many people, myself included, think that by cuddling these dogs you can show them how to love and that humans are ok and trustworthy. In most cases they are just biding their time until you put them down again. In most cases you are never going to make a “shut down” dog love you this way. A wild animal’s life is about assessing risk in unknown situations, which is what a home is now to them. If they seem conflicted, they are. They are not sure if someone is going to grab them and do something to them that they are not going to like. You see in the puppy mill if the spot light is on you it usually means that something is going to happen to you that you will not like. You may never be able to pick up a cuddle a commercial breeding dog, but you will love them anyway.
In rehabbing a commercial breeder dog you will have to fight all your urges to pick up and cuddle the dog, you will have to go in the complete other direction: Play hard to get and ignore the dog. Do not look the dog in the eye, or not try to pick the dog up, do not face your body towards the dog. You want the dog to come to you, so the more you ignore it, the more interesting you become. If you notice a dog does not want to pass in front of you, try turning your back to the dog and it will usually pass right by. If you need the dog to be somewhere where it is not, you can get it there by herding instead of picking the dog up. Move slowly towards the dog without looking directly at it until it is where you want it to be. Leave yourself plenty of time of this technique, it can take some time. A dragline attached to a harness is also a useful tool. A dragline is a very light string or leash. If for some reason you do need to catch the dog you can do so without chasing them around and freaking them out even more. What you are waiting for in the big picture is for the dog to come to you on its own.
Step 1: Getting the Dog Comfortable Being Near You
Another thing I have been guilty of is using food to get them to come to me. All they learn with this move is that food comes with a price. Food should be free of strings for these dogs. Instead when working with the dog and treats throw the treat away from you laterally, say at 3 o’clock, a pretty good distance, again, without looking at or talking to the dog. Keep repeating this until the dog no longer seems to be assessing the risk of taking the treat. Once the dog seems comfortable with this start throwing the treat at 2 o’clock, repeating again until the dog is comfortable. Once you get to the 12 o’clock position you are facing the dog and it becomes a high risk situation once again for the dog. Now you will throw one treat out in front of you and then one or two back out to 1 o’clock. This allows the dog to get comfortable facing you and being in front of you. Once again you keep this step up until the dog is no longer assessing risk when taking the treats thrown out in front of you. The next step is to start throwing the treat slightly closer to you.
Again you will probably need to very it up to get the dog to relax about the fact it is moving towards you, thereby increasing their risk. As you get them closer and closer to you it will be necessary to throw the treat pretty randomly around you to keep the dog at ease with being so close to you. Throwing the treat off to your side can bring the risk factor down for the dog. This is not going to be a one day endeavor by any means. This could take weeks or even months to get the dog to be comfortable being in a close proximity to you; it will depend on the severity of the mental instability of the dog when it was rescued. Everything with these dogs is in very small steps and rewards. Trust me though; it is worth it when you see a dog that was once shut down with fear that you had to chase around the yard to catch run around your yard acting like a normal dog.
Step 2: Getting the Dog to Let You Touch Them
Once the dog seems comfortable being near you now you are ready to try having the dog eat out of your hand. You want something really yummy, like cooked chicken. Put something on the palm of your hand that will keep them licking your hand after the chicken is gone, something like shortening. Sit down on the dog’s level not facing them. Put out your hand off to your side. Let the dog come to you. Once the dog is eating out of your hand you can try to scritch under the chin while the dog is licking your hand. Keep repeating this until the dog become comfortable with your touch. Again this will not be something you will accomplish in one setting; it could take some time over several small sessions.
Step 3: Now the Dog is Comfortable with Touch
The dog may now be coming near you interested in touch. You are still going to have to resist your urge to snuggle the dog; it is still not ready for this yet. If the dog comes around you start small by touching its neck or under chin, never the top of the head, this can be very threatening. Once you have given them a little touch, take your hand away. If the dog moves in closer for more you can give them a little more. You still want to play hard to get to make you more interesting to the dog so always leave them wanting more.
Because commercial breeding dogs have had to eliminate in their living area they will not understand that they are not to do the same in your house. Often times these dogs will not only poop and pee in your house, but will also mark in your house, even the females. They are use to marking their territory in the kennels and will do so in your house. Traditional housebreaking is not going to work with these dogs. You are trying to earn their trust so disciplining them for eliminating in the house will set you back in earning their trust.
You have two choices: you can either limit their freedom in your house getting them on a schedule of going out or you can put out lots of pee pads and follow them around with cleaner and a mop also getting them on a schedule of going outside on regular intervals. I have chosen the second approach myself and it generally takes about three weeks for the dogs to figure out that they need to go outside. Watch for signals that they are getting the idea, like scratching or barking at doors to go out. Once they start going outside reward at the site with praise if they let you approach them. Pretty much it is just a waiting game for the dog to figure out where they need to use the bathroom.
The overall objective here is to get the dog to trust human interaction. The best way to achieve this is to let the dog come to you on its own terms. And the best way to get these dogs to trust human interaction is to realize that there are no strings attached to food or your affection. Earning their trust is not something that will happen overnight with the dogs. Depending on the mental state of the dog it could take weeks to months, and for some dogs they may never be what you think of as a normal dog that craves human interaction. Be patient.