Rescue dogs make wonderful pets. They are loving, devoted and grateful creatures that realize you have given them a second chance at life. Just like adopted children, these fur kids can come with mental and emotional baggage, associated either with their time in the shelter or their prior lives. Helping rescue dogs cope with and overcome their anxiety can be a rewarding experience, but it does require some patience, dedication, and know-how. With the proper tools, even the most scarred rescue dogs can become loving companions.
The first step is to identify the type of anxiety your rescue dog may be suffering from. Dogs can develop anxiety to many things, including stranger anxiety, separation anxiety, anxiety around other pets, children, etc. Sometimes, if they temperament test pets, a shelter or rescue agency can give you this information. Other times, you may need to get the opinion of a behaviorist or veterinarian to help you determine the type of anxiety that your dog is suffering.
Once you have that information, it is helpful to work with a behaviorist or trainer that utilizes positive training methods to desensitize your dog to the fearful stimulus, and counter condition a new response. For example, if your dog has anxiety around children, then you are going to need to work with your dog to reduce the fearful response and train a new response. It is critical to enlist the help of a professional when you are doing this, so that you can learn to read your dog’s body language and cues that tell you he is getting anxious.
Kennel training can help reduce anxiety in rescue dogs. It is important for a dog to have a place where he feels safe, and for many dogs, this is their kennel. It is important to not use the kennel for punishment – the kennel should be a pleasant place where the dog feels secure and happy. You can help get a dog used to a kennel by leaving it open all the time so the dog can go in and out as he pleases. You can also leave toys and treats in the kennel, and you can put something that smells like you in the kennel, such as an old t shirt. This is very comforting to your dog.
If your dog is severely affected by anxiety, you may need to utilize training aids to reduce your dog’s anxiety enough to train an appropriate response. There are many tools available on the market, including thundershirts, Dog Appeasing Pheramone (DAP) spray, neutraceuticals designed to reduce anxiety (Zylkene, Anxitane), and if needed, medications (Xanax, Prozac, etc.). It is important to note that these items are not solutions for anxiety, but adjunct to training.
The last thing you will need is patience. It takes time to reprogram your dog’s brain, so while your dog is training, be patient. As training progresses, your dog should become more confident over time and the fear response should diminish – if you are not seeing the progress that you would like, talk with your trainer and veterinarian. Rarely, anxiety can be due to a medical condition, such as hormonal problems or chronic pain associated with arthritis.