If you’re considering adopting a dog who started out life in a really different scenario—outside, kennelled, chained, the list goes on—you may have questions and concerns: will the dog fit in as well as a more socialized pet? Is there anything I can do to ease the process? I recently spoke about this very topic with my friend and colleague Linda Green when I visited her rescue in October, 2018. Linda co-founded and directs the Guatemalan rescue Unidos para los Animales (“United for Animals”). This rescue works with Guatemalan strays and relinquished dogs and places them in pet homes in both Guatemala and the United States. I spent a week with her getting to know the rescue, the beautiful dogs they work with, and the lovely city of Antigua, and I couldn’t help but admire how well-prepared these dogs are for the homes they’re destined for.
Many, many rescue dogs around the world live outside or otherwise in a non-pet scenario for part of their lives before moving inside to be a pet dog. These dogs may start out as strays but not necessarily… puppy mill puppies (i.e. those found advertised on buy-and-sell sites online and from many pet stores) and many types of sporting or working dogs all live in situations very different than what most pets in North America have. Most of these dogs can move inside as pets at any stage of their lives, despite what seems like a massive change in lifestyle and scenery. Linda and I spoke about the transition that the dogs in her rescue go through on their way to pet homes. I ran a sled dog rescue for a decade (albeit on a much smaller scale than Linda), and we found some common threads in our experiences. We both agreed that dogs, with a bit of help and training, can make this transition just fine. And for many adopters, there is something a bit special in the knowledge that the dog they brought into their homes and into their hearts had a rather circuitous journey en route.
Background: Unidos Para Los Animales
Terry and her husband John had just bought an old, decrepit building in Antigua, and pending renovation, we decided we could house recovering street dogs there. It was full of rubble, but had walls and a roof, and we kind of jokingly dubbed it the “Puppy Palace”. Over the next several years we cared for many dogs and puppies pulled from another rescue group, as well as many dogs we brought in ourselves. We got them treated, socialized, sterilized, and sent them in adoption to the San Francisco Bay Area. Downtown Antigua is not an ideal place for an animal shelter for a multitude of reasons, so in 2012 when Terry and John bought their dream property on the mountain 8 km above Antigua, they generously sectioned off a piece of it. We moved up to Cerro del Perro in 2012.
Cerro del Perro (“Dog Hill”) has a number of runs, yards, and kennels for dogs, a cat sanctuary, and a kitchen for preparing dog food and staff use. It’s a lovely spot—I spent many hours there training and playing with Unidos dogs.
Unidos para los Animales generally places young dogs for adoption—puppies and juveniles. They get a lot of puppies for social and economic reasons. Unfixed but owned female dogs are allowed to roam in Guatemala, and in areas where low-cost spay and neuter isn’t readily available or culturally accepted, roaming dogs will do what roaming dogs do: breed. Since many unwanted litters are born, many puppies come in to the rescue. But not all the dogs are pups. Juvenile and young adult dogs between about six months and three years are frequently brought to the rescue as well. There are a few reasons for this. Puppies are relatively easy and tend to be social, but when dogs start to mature, they can become behaviourally or medically frustrating for their owners. These dogs may be coming into heat, they may have developed skin issues or other health issues, or sadly, they may simply be behaving like adult dogs…but doing so in ways that don’t fit well with their human families.
The rescue typically brings in about 60 puppies and 20 to 30 adults every year. The rescue does have a few older dogs as well, mostly permanent residents. Older dogs are much more difficult to place, as most potential adopters are seeking younger animals.
The rescue initially sent dogs to the San Francisco Bay area due to logistical reasons and existing contacts. They continue to focus on this area due to the fantastic network of people—both volunteers and adopters—that Unidos has drawn into its fold (some adopters have even adopted multiple times). The Bay area is also progressive in its dog training culture and has many wonderful services for dogs and their owners.
Our “sleddie” rescue, Parkland Husky Rescue in Manitoba, Canada, was a much smaller deal. We took in retiring or unwanted sled dogs from the far north and also from the prairie provinces, trained them in our home, and rehomed them. The dogs ranged in ages from pups to mature adults – up to seven or eight years. We usually placed about five dogs a year, and like Linda, we focussed on a large urban area (Winnipeg, which is about six hours’ drive from our place). There was simply a bigger audience of potential adopters there. We needed as big a pool of adopters as we could find, since sled dogs aren’t like gorgeous Siberian huskies…they’re kind of random-looking, and often come with some behavioural baggage and proclivities that don’t suit many pet homes, such as bolting, escaping, predatory behaviour, and fearfulness.
Matching dogs and families
Unidos Para Los Animals pulls out all the stops to make really solid and appropriate matches between an adopter and their potential new dog. This is for several reasons: there is a lot of effort and expense involved in sending the animals to the United States, and poor matches can mean returned dogs (an expensive and stressful thing, although relatively rare due to their diligence). They are also committed to a high-welfare experience for their dogs. This means the adopters must be committed and willing owners. In order to screen in the type of family they are seeking, the rescue volunteers and staff ask a lot of screening questions through an online form. They are looking for a sense of what these families are looking for in a dog, and who the adopting families are: their home and family set-up (alone time, other pets, children), their lifestyle, and their activity levels.
After receiving an application, it is reviewed and checked for flags. Flags do not necessarily mean that the family is inappropriate and won’t be approved—some flagged topics are simply areas where Linda wants to educate families prior to adoption. After the application form is reviewed, Linda or another adoptions counsellor spends an hour or so on Skype with the applicant. These conversations are a wonderful opportunity for the adoptive family to ask questions, to meet the dog virtually, and for Linda or her colleagues to educate.
At Parkland Husky, we did not have a formal application process. Instead, we used whatever medium the applicant was most comfortable with—email, phone, or skype—to see if a match was possible. We entered into every conversation from the starting point of “let’s see if we can make this work”. Although most applicants ended up not being a good match for a sled dog, many wonderful families added a sled dog to their lives and we felt like we were lucky to have been a part of the process (read more about that here). We always asked a few targeted questions of our potential adopters. These questions were, unsurprisingly, very close to those in the Unidos’ application form. All the questions were oriented towards finding out if the adopter was a good match for a sled dog. We asked what the applicant was looking for in a dog. We wanted to know the current make-up of their family, both humans and other pets. Getting an idea of their regular activity level was vital, as sled dogs can be energetic. Finally, we asked how many hours the dog be left alone during most days, and how the adopter would handle any behaviour issues that come up. These questions were seen as simply the beginning of a conversation.
I asked Linda what would constitute an immediate no for a potential family. Since the rescue’s resources are limited, they flag certain mis-matches early, so that those adopters who will likely be a good fit can receive time and consideration. Linda said that they use the filling out of the application form as a proxy for the type of commitment that a dog really needs: if someone can’t take the time to fill out a form, they might not have the time to learn about, let alone meet the needs of a new dog. Linda also looks for flags that might suggest a family is looking for a backyard dog. Backyard dogs, who spend all or most of their time alone, have a poor quality of life. Linda and her colleagues also simply avoid adopters who are wedded to aversive equipment or techniques, such as shock collars, prong collars, or other forms of punishment. Aversive techniques and equipment are correlated with aggression and can cause a reduced quality of life for the dogs they are used on. Otherwise, the rescue is open to a broad variety of adopters: age, number of people in the home, children, other dogs, and so on. The most important thing is a good match, so a dog-friendly dog who loves kids is a good match for a home with another dog and kids. As the adoption milieu becomes more complex in any one match, Linda and her colleagues simply educate, and provide resources, to help create good adoption outcomes.
The top three ways to ease the transition
I asked Linda about the top three things they provide for the pups and dogs in her rescue, to ease the transition from relinquishment to pet. She readily came up with the big three: Medical needs, simple exposure to a home-like environment, and training.
Upon intake to Unidos Para Los Animales, all dogs need deworming, vaccination, and routine medical care and sterilization. Some need much more intensive medical assistance, for injuries or deprivation. Physical health and comfort is the first step for these dogs, on their trip to a new home.
“After we meet their medical needs, we just give them time. Time to settle in, in a semi-home environment.” The rescue is located in a large and well-tended yard, and there are numerous people around during the day, including rescue staff and volunteers. The dogs take time to habituate to the sights and sounds of the rescue (read more about the process of habituation here). Linda likes to give these dogs the time they need to decompress and get used to the rescue, as a stepping stone to a new home.
And finally, training. Linda is a credentialed dog trainer as a graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers. She also has a stable of competent volunteers and staff she has taken under her wing and mentored. Each dog that passes through their gates receives some formal training from a trainer. “They’re going to be pet dogs, so we need to set them up for success”, and success means replacing some undesirable behaviours with more pet-home-compatible behaviours. “Street behaviours that are successful are usually not acceptable in a home.” Linda often has to replace “anything that’s worked for them for their whole lives, like toppling garbage”. The training also includes getting them used to life in a home and with leashed walks. “[We are] trying to expose them to as many different places as possible, so they can see different stuff. From pigeons in the park to kids to people with different skin tones to all kinds of vehicles.”
The sled dogs who we were lucky enough to work with were generally in good shape and didn’t need immediate vet care. In most cases, they needed the same decompression time that Linda spoke of, and time to habituate to an in-home environment. And most needed training: house-training all around, and a crash course in In-Home Manners. Sled dogs like to jump up on their houses to sun themselves, and they often merrily brought this behaviour inside with them. But (strangely) our adopters seemed to prefer dogs who didn’t jump up on the dining room table, or the kitchen counter, or the bathroom counter…or the coffee table. And finally, we trained the dogs to be comfortable walking around on leash, happy in their crates, and to come when called.
The top three things we want adopters to know
Linda had some wonderful advice for the adopters of both puppies and adults dogs moving into a new home. The first thing is house-training: do the work! House soiling is a nuisance, but it can also ruin more than your living-room carpets. Serious house-soiling can ruin the bond that humans form with their animals. So dog professionals and adoptions specialists are firm about this one. No freedom for newly adopted animals! Supervise, supervise, supervise. And don’t stop with supervision: head outside with your new dog and reinforce every single appropriate elimination, for at least a few weeks. Linda takes the time to explain what this will look like when she talks with adopters: crating when left alone, cordoned-off areas of the home, leashes and treats kept by the door, and so on. She reminds the families who adopt from Unidos that “you can loosen that up after a couple of weeks”, but that it’s much easier to ease up on supervision after a few successful weeks than it is to fix an entrenched house-soiling case.
Second, Linda advises adopters to be patient for the first few days. “As tempting as it is, don’t invite people over for a big party. These dogs have dropped down a rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland–let them settle in for a few days before parties and dog parks.” When we placed sled dogs with new families, we would offer the same advice. I call this practice cocooning, and asked our adoptive families to cocoon their new adult dogs for a few weeks. We asked people to keep their worlds safe and small, and let the dog show them when they’re ready for more. (Note: This doesn’t apply in the same way to puppies. Puppies are very different, due to the sensitive and timely nature of their socialization period. With adult dogs, the socialization ship has sailed, and it’s safe to cocoon).
And finally, Linda is emphatic about support. Adopting a dog is hard stuff. There is so much information available about dogs that is outdated and outmoded. Finding a modern, humane, and evidence-based approach is almost impossible without good help. And for Unidos adopters, that help is Linda and her colleagues, who know (and let their adopters know) that the best time to reach out for training help is the first time the dog does the worrisome behaviour. Trained and credentialed support is available at the touch of a button, and Unidos has also built a wonderful community of adopters of Guatemalan rescues and excellent trainers to refer adopters to in the San Francisco area.
How long does it take for a newly adopted dog to settle in?
I asked Linda how long the dogs they placed would take to settle in. For puppies, it was no surprise to hear they settle in fast: two or three days. Linda said that really shy puppies may take a bit longer, perhaps a week.
Linda did surprise me, though, by saying that even adults settle in fast. A few days or a week at most, she said, for the adults heading north from Guatemala. “They settle in shockingly fast. They seem to know they’re home.” The short settling-in time is due to the training provided and the good matches made between adopting families and dogs. Also, the rescue is not sending fearful dogs or dogs with behavioural issues to adoptive homes, as much as possible. Linda often sees Unidos dogs a few weeks or months after they land softly in their new homes, at her Guatemala Street Dog Reunions. She is always delighted to see the dogs looking even better than when they were in rescue: glossy, happy, and healthy.
For our sled dog-adopting families, we asked them to expect a few months for the dogs to settle in fully and blossom as pets. Sled dogs, unlike Guatemalan dogs, tend to be under-socialized. When I look at the Guatemalan dogs that end up in Linda’s rescue, they march up and down narrow streets filled with people of every age, shape, and size; vehicles of all makes and models…I was delighted and amazed. The dogs, generally, took it all in like casual dog champs. They were born to cities, to streetscapes, and to the hustle and bustle of modern life. A general rule is that what a dog experiences a lot of before they’re about 8-12 weeks old will not scare them in adulthood. These dogs were competent and confident! Sled dogs, on the other hand, tend to be born in pens outside, on rural properties. They may get high quality food and vet care, including all their shots, deworming, and so on; but they are neglected in one of the most important ways: socialization. When puppies are served up a helping of social isolation on top of fearful genes, the resulting adult dogs can be fearful and anxious. Although fearful dogs can make huge leaps and bounds in overcoming their fears in pet homes, this simply won’t happen in a few days.
How can we help Guatemalan dogs?
After meeting these beautiful dogs and seeing Linda’s work, I wanted to know: if someone wants to help, how can they? As it turns out, their biggest limiting factor is good foster homes. Their puppies need careful socialization on the way to their adoptive families, and adult dogs need in-home time to learn pet-specific skills. Furthermore, having a dog in foster gives the rescue staff vital information that helps to make those perfect matches between dogs and families. If you’re in Antigua or the San Francisco area, consider whether a new adventure awaits: fostering Guatemalan dogs! And finally, the rescue needs funds. Although Unidos para los Animales needs funds to function as a rescue, they also do amazing work with underserved dog owners in the Antigua area, providing spay/neuter clinics along with some basic medical care, especially deworming and vaccination. They need funds to continue and expand their spay/neuter services as, like all rescues, their long-term plan is to simply put themselves right out of business.
You might also like:
- Easing into Life with a New Rescue Dog
- Patience and Time—the Keys to Successfully Integrating a Rescue Dog with Your Resident Pets: One Dog’s Amazing Story
- Help Your Scaredy-Dog To Live a Better Life: How the Science of Behaviour Change Healed my Hornet-Fearful Dog
- It’s About Time: What Dogs Really Need
- Treating Dog-Dog Aggression in the 21st Century: More Carrot, Less Stick
- Dominance Theory: The Outdated Idea that Harms Our Dogs
Linda Green, Kristi Benson, Jared Hickson.