If You’re Adopting A Traumatized Dog, Here’s What Experts Want You To Know
Preparing to welcome a pup into your life can be an exciting time. But adopting a dog who's experienced trauma can make the transition from shelter to home a little trickier than it would be for a dog who didn't have this history of neglect or abuse. According to experts, dogs who have gone through these kinds of traumatic experiences need extra patience, love, and care so that they can begin to heal and feel safe again.
Since each pup has had a different life before they joined your family, your dog might express their traumatic past in a different way than another dog would. "Trauma is individually related in that all beings express trauma differently," Russell Hartstein, CDBC, CPDT-KA, a certified professional dog trainer and founder of Fun Paw Care, tells Bustle. If you adopt a shelter pup, you might not know the extent of their history of trauma, but some common signs to watch out for are being shut-down emotionally, timid, shy, or fearful. "Of course, a dog may exhibit these qualities without having experienced trauma," he says. "However, fear and aggression are usually signs that some sort of neglect and/or abuse has occurred."
Here's how to help your dog heal from trauma, according to experts.
1. Keep Your Pup Safe
"Getting used to a new environment full of new objects, people, smells, and sounds may overwhelm the dog," Pia Silvani, CPDT-KA, CCBC, director of ASPCA behavior rehabilitation, tells Bustle. Taking some extra precautions to make sure that your new dog is safe can ease this transition, she says. Make sure that your pup's collar fits properly she says, with ID tags with your name and contact information. If your dog seems to want to bolt away, keep a long, lightweight leash attached to their collar so that you have a way to keep up with them if need be.
2. Set Up A Comforting Spot
For a dog who's experienced a lot of trauma, having a little spot that feels comfortable can make a big difference. "Prepare a comfy, private space," Silvani says. Covering their crate with a blanket can make it a great hiding spot, especially if you leave the door to the crate open so that they can retreat whenever they need to. This will help decrease their anxiety, Silvani says. If you have the space, try to set up this "safe zone" away from where most of the action is in your home. A bathroom or laundry room can be perfect for this.
3. Be Patient
It can be hard for anyone to adjust to a new environment, regardless of whether they're a human or a canine. "Give your dog several days to settle in before starting to introduce unfamiliar people and experiences," Silvani says. Once they've begun to feel familiar with your home, you can begin to slowly expose them to new people and places. Just be sure not to overwhelm your pup with too much chaos early on. This is not a situation where you want a dog to face their fear, which can make them even more scared. Instead, let them set the pace and take things moment by moment.
4. Use Food To Bond
If you've spent time around dogs, you know that treats can be a powerful tool for influencing behavior. But they can also help connect you with your traumatized adoptive pup. "At the behavioral rehabilitation center, we use food as a motivator to help the dog see people as an asset," Silvani says. Try hand-feeding your dog their meals for the first week or two after welcoming them into your family, she says. "This practice will teach her to associate you with good things. It’s a good way to start building a strong bond."
5. Let Them Keep Some Control
Leaving a shelter and suddenly being dropped into an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people can make your dog feel like they're out of control of the situation, which can be anxiety-inducing. "Don’t force your dog to do anything they don’t want to do," Hartstein says. While you are an authority figure for your new pup, this is not the time to dominate them or use "alpha" behavior, he says. Instead, let them keep some autonomy and give them space to decompress.
6. Get On Their Level
If your dog has a history of abuse, they might be wary of people, no matter how kind you try to be in the beginning. In addition to helping your pup feel safe and showing them plenty of love, something as simple as being physically near them can help you gradually form a trust bond. "Just sit still near them," Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM, a small animal and exotic veterinarian and consultant for DogLab, tells Bustle. If you're tall, especially, sitting on the ground nearby can make you seem less intimidating. In their own time, they'll approach you.
7. Ask For Help
Even though you're your new dog's parent, there's no reason to make this transition all alone if you think they might need some extra help. "Hire a certified dog behaviorist or veterinarian behaviorist," Hartstein says. They'll be a great resource, thanks to their experience and knowledge about behavior modification. By working together, the two of you can figure out the best ways to heal your fur baby's trauma so that they can live a full and happy life as part of your family.
The road to making your newly adopted dog feel totally comfortable after trauma can be a long one, but with patience and love, you can get there eventually. Going through the healing process together can make your bond even stronger.