By Jane Gill
Each rescue dog arrives with his own story. The fortunate ones are healthy and happy, and come to your house complete with vaccinations, toys and favorite blanket. Others can arrive nameless, dirty, and with a laundry-list of problems. But even sad stories can become happy ones if you are willing to use patience and common sense. Here are some suggestions not only from my (limited) experience, but also from Maureen Simon, who has successfully counseled many happy rescue owners.
There are really two facets to your first days with your new friend, the physical side and the emotional side. On the physical side, is the dog brown instead of white? Do you suspect critters creeping around? Is the coat matted? If so, once the dog has had a chance to settle down and catch his breath, a bath is one of the first things on the agenda. Get as many mats out as possible before bathing, and then into the tub! Maintain a cheerful, soft patter of conversation as you work, and be as gentle but businesslike as possible. Let the dog look at and sniff brushes, shower heads, etc. before you charge in with them, and keep telling him what a good and beautiful boy he really is. (If you have a really dirty boy, Murphy’s Oil Soap works great as a first shampoo. It’s non-toxic, kills critters on contact, and is gentle on irritated skin. Just be sure to rinse thoroughly!)
Are shots up to date? Is the dog on heartworm medication? How about his weight? Are the eyes clear and bright? Is this dog neutered yet? An appointment with your vet for an all-around checkup is probably in order (and don’t forget to take stool samples!). While you’re at it, the county dog license and a tag with your name, phone number and address should also appear on that collar right away!
Housebreaking is yet another physical issue that is of immediate concern. Some rescue dogs arrive never having been housebroken, and others may temporarily lose their training from stress. Cheer up! It is easier to housebreak or re-housebreak an adult than it is a puppy, became once they get the idea, adults have more physical control than puppies do. Approach this as you would with a puppy, getting your guy on a regular schedule, praising enthusiastically when he goes outside, and confining him when you are not there to supervise. Accidents will clean up more quickly if the dog was in a crate or on a smooth surface, and vinegar and water will remove the odor (which could trigger another accident if not eliminated!)
Speaking of bowels, be careful with the treats the first few days. Stress, change in diet, and even change in water can trigger a diarrhea attack–no small thing when dealing with a large dog! If your buddy arrived with his own food and you wish to change to something else, do it gradually–mixing one third of the new in with two-thirds of the old, then over a period of days increasing the proportions until you are switched over. Don’t be unduly alarmed if he doesn’t eat much the first few days. Pyrs can be pickers at the best of times. This can be frustrating, admittedly, if the dog is really underweight. (One of my favorite ploys for stimulating appetite while avoiding diarrhea is to use the classic post-diarrhea diet of three parts rice to one part boiled hamburger, and then mix it with some dry food.) Try to provide a peaceful area at feeding time, with little to worry or distract him.
We’re into the emotional side! Changing households is stressful for your dog no matter what his story. The first few weeks can be really critical for establishing a good relationship, and the adjustment process will take far longer (Maureen suggests at least three months is typical). Especially the first few days, Boris will probably spend a lot of time exploring his new home and yard, sniffing everything in sight, and may seem skittish. His tail may seem to be permanently wheeled up over his back (Conrad’s didn’t relax into a badger hang for a week!). Supervise these explorations from a slight distance, and clearly indicate with a sharp “NO!” if he starts to do something that is not allowed. Then distract him to something that is allowed and praise enthusiastically. Be especially alert during first trips into your (fenced!) yard. You may wish to do this on leash. You may have a Great Houdini on your hands, and Pyrs can move amazingly fast at times. (Marple found four escape routes in as many minutes her first day at our house, and the next day she started working on the gate latch!)
Your entire family will no doubt want to shower Baskerville with lots of love and attention, but let him have some quiet times too. Time spent curled at your feet while you read or watch television is just as valuable for him in bonding with you as fun trips around the neighborhood are. Walks, car rides, and play sessions are in order, too. But again, be alert to how the dog is reacting in these new situations. Does he love rides? Hate bicycles? Disapprove of garbage trucks? Does he have any idea in God’s green earth of how to walk on a leash? You will no doubt develop a list of behaviors that you want to work on in the upcoming months, and get some valuable insights into his pyrsonality. Be cautious about having the entire neighborhood come over to play with the new dog. Be there! A seemingly gentle guardian dog may interpret rough play as a threat to your child, you, or himself, and act accordingly– and possibly tragically!
Always keep in mind, too, what Rhonda Dalton explained to me as the “Pyr World View”: DIFFERENT IS EVIL! Pyrs, even as young puppies, will notice very small differences in their environment and may bark their fool heads off. A well- socialized and experienced dog learns to be more discriminating in his area of concern. But a poorly socialized dog, or one who has moved to an entirely different environment needs to be helped just as a puppy does. If your Pyr is worried about an object, pat it, and tell him in a happy voice that he is very silly. Encourage him to sniff it for himself. If a noise is setting him off, go look with him in the direction of the noise, to acknowledge his concern, and tell him it’s OK. DON’T ASSUME THAT THE DOG IS WRONG! In my first month with Conrad, I assumed that he was barking at nothing and yelled without looking, only to discover that a helicopter had set down three doors from our house!
As far as general behavior is concerned, start out as you intend to go on. Establish house rules firmly and without question. If the dog is not allowed to beg at the table, he is NOT ALLOWED. EVER. It is extremely unfair to the dog to allow one thing one day, and scold for the same behavior the next. Boris may “act up” in various ways during this time as he tests the boundaries of acceptable behavior. You may also discover behavioral or personality quirks that the previous owner never mentioned because they were afraid to! Sadly, some owners fail to teach their young dogs manners, then send them down the road when they decide that Pickles is out of hand. If Pickles winds up at your house, don’t blame the dog. Just get working!
Pickles may, in the course of his first days with you, at some point growl at you. This is also pretty normal behavior. Don’t panic! He has been thrust into a new pack, and is trying to figure out his position in it. Dogs signal dominance this way, as well as by direct stares. Signal back with a firm scruff shake, a sharp growly “NO” and a dominant stare back. As soon as Pickles looks away he is signaling submission, and you can go about your business. You really don’t need to yell, scream, or hit. Alphas are firm, fair, and forgive (in the words of Carol Lea Benjamin). If Pickles comes toward you happily but with a dip of head, slightly averted eyes, and perhaps a bend to his body, he is greeting you as a dominant pack member. Greet him joyously, pat him on the head or top of the body, and confirm that yes, this is a wonderful pack.
Boris? Pickles? Baskerville? Just what IS this dog’s name? Well, you decide! If your new darling arrived with no name, or a name you dislike, sure you can change it! It takes a surprisingly short time for dogs to associate a new word with themselves. Just work it into the conversation a lot, especially when engaged in pleasurable activities like feeding, brushing, calling him to you for a treat, etc. If your new dog looks worried whenever you use his old name, he may be associating it with scoldings, hitting, and other unpleasantness. So change it, and give him a word that he can associate with love and a wonderful new life.
Does all of this sound scary? Are you re-thinking whether you want a dirty, ill-behaved, growling, wacko dog? All of the above things are just things that MAY happen. Not all of them will! And remember that Pyr Rescue believed enough in the stability and placeability of this dog to match him to the pyrfect home–YOURS! Also keep in mind that you are not alone as you work with your new dog. I cannot emphasize enough that if you are feeling confused, frustrated or down about how things are going, you should feel free to call your Pyr Rescue contact people. Do not be embarrassed, and don’t feel like it is an imposition! Rescue folk have a strong desire to see placements succeed, and dog lovers adore talking about dogs anyway. I certainly do! Feel free to share the good news, too! We love hearing it!
Now’s the time where my obedience bias gets trotted out. DO SOME OBEDIENCE PRACTICE SESSIONS WITH YOUR NEW DOG! If the dog came already trained, it will help to remind him that “Sit” means the same thing in this new house, and will reinforce in his mind that he needs to pay attention to you just as he did with his old master. Is the dog untrained? Then start training! Any dog can learn basic obedience behaviors, no matter the age. You don’t know how to train a dog? No problem. Read the newsletters, and get a hold of some of the books recommended by the GPCA and Pyr rescues. Here’s another book to add to the list: Second-hand Dog by Carol Lea Benjamin. It talks about behavior, training, dog brains, and lots of other things.
Sign up for an obedience class in your area. Keep sessions short, happy, and fun, but DO IT! I cannot stress this enough. Why am I such an obedience “nut”? Because I’ve been there, and I can personally vouch for the truth (almost a religious truth for me) that the time spent will reward you and your dog a hundred-fold. Obedience training not only trains the dog, it trains the trainer. You learn valuable lessons in how dogs think and behave, and how to communicate effectively with them. At the same time the dog is better able to communicate with you, because in a way you are learning his language. A body posture or flick of the ear begin to speak volumes.
Good obedience training also can be wonderful for encouraging a shy dog, or settling a dominant one. It offers a way for a working dog to WORK for you. It gives him a time of day when your attention is totally focused on him. And it gives him a way of gaining honest praise. Along the way you will probably also learn patience and humility, because Pyrs are not the easiest subjects for training. But just think how much greater the reward is when your dog finally masters his lesson. Anyone can train a Golden! You trained a PYR! As you work through your first months with your wonderful dog, let yourself daydream a little about all the things you two will do together. Perhaps appear in the obedience ring and earn a CD? Pass the Canine Good Citizen Test? Become a therapy dog team and bring furry love to nursing home patients? Go backpacking? Learn to pull a cart? All of these things and many more are things that rescue Pyrs have done and are doing. Have faith that your guy can do them too. You may not be able to appear in the Conformation ring with your neutered dog, but there is a world of other activities out there that are just waiting for you!