“Ruckus” at the shelter - stay tuned, more about him at the end of this article!
Adopting an Adult Dog from a Shelter
I work as a dog trainer for an open-intake city-run shelter in an urban area several days a week. We are on the front lines there, and often get calls about dogs in situations that are less than ideal. And yet, once those dogs have had a chance to get the care they need and a behavioral evaluation (done by myself and my co-trainer) these dogs are ready and especially deserving to get adopted. Many of the dogs we meet are elderly, which is heartbreaking to see as it’s clear that they’ve known some version of a home. These dogs are especially close to my heart. If you are considering opening your home and your heart to one of these very deserving dogs, here are some tips.
Damu, who never met a stranger! Adopted from the Mt Vernon Animal Shelter.
New-to-you dogs likely don’t know the rules of your home.
I won’t assume that a dog of any age is going to be familiar with any basic rules: where to potty, what to chew on, and how to play and interact with their humans. Adopting a senior dog might involve setting up your home as you would for a puppy - limiting their space they have access to and keeping in mind that the gentle approach is best, as it’s possible that no one ever taught them basic house manners. My suggestions on this subject as a trainer center around the theme of not being “the bad guy” but rather using baby gates, crates, etc to manage where the dog can go, and limit the potential for accidents during the first few weeks. I couldn’t expect the shelter I adopted from to know whether or not the dog I’m taking home will already be potty-trained, especially in a new environment. The shelter environment and their housing can’t always give a clear indication as to whether the dog is house trained. Same goes for other rules - your new Senior adoptee may not understand that they might not be allowed on the furniture. No matter what the behavior, there is a gentle and kind way to teach it without resorting to yelling and frustration.
Freedom Ride: Mac on his way to the “Funny Farm”, a special home for Senior dogs in need.
When one of our Senior Citizen dogs goes home, (after we’re done celebrating!), we offer phone and email support to the adopter for any questions they might have. This is the time period to expect insights into the past life of your dog. Link, a Lab mix who lived briefly at my shelter, demonstrated an astonishing understanding of a long-distance Sit/Stay (better than my own dogs!) and continued to "Wow!" his adopters for months after he went home. Sadly, once a dog has left the shelter environment, there can also be signs of lack of understanding of normal household activities and even signs of maltreatment. One memorable phone call from an adopter revealed that her dog panicked and retreated to a corner whenever she picked up a Swiffer mop. In these very sad cases, ask the shelter you’ve adopted the dog from for help. Remember, a dog with fear issues such as I've described above needs humane training methods to get through these issues.
Hospice candidate Champ gets T-Touch therapy
What a training class covers, and what it might not cover
Basic manners and obedience classes at your local training club might be very helpful for you and your Senior adoptee. Finding a trainer that uses humane methods is easy! That trainer will be able to determine an appropriate class for your dog, or if your dog might be happier with in-home lessons. It’s likely that your adult dog will be happy to show you what they’ve already learned, though his interpretation of your hand signals and verbal cues may not be exactly what you expect. (Did you know that there are at least 4 different ways to ask a dog to Sit?) Your dog’s understanding of the “Drop it!” cue may also need a bit of refreshing - another behavior that I want my new dog to be very happy to do for me. Refreshing the basics with your new adoptee can only help - additionally, if your local training club offers classes in Nosework you may discover a whole new world of fun activities for your dog! Your group class may not be able to cover topics such as Separation Anxiety or significant fear issues that your new dog might have. Fearful dogs may not enjoy a group class at all and might become worse! I don’t know of one instructor that couldn’t take a few minutes to answer questions about whether their class would be suitable for you and your dog. A referral to a positive trainer ought to be able to assist you in finding help for these issues. When it’s time to ask your shelter for help I have worked for shelters that have offered “Forever Foster” programs for dogs, which has been ideal for Senior dogs and their owners. Many larger shelters are able to offer free medical care for the lifetime of the dog, and some even offer free food - from the shelter’s point of view, this is absolutely worth it if the dog can go to a real home. Your shelter might have training notes and notes that the shelter trainer has made for your dog. Keep these handy! You might want to refer to them when going over a management and training plan with a trainer. Some shelters might be able to offer low-cost boarding for your adopted dog, and some will need to refer you. It’s important to consider how being back at the shelter, even for a short time, might affect your dog. Shelter staff will likely be able to provide insight about how well / how happy your dog was while he lived there.
Training at the shelter (photo credit : Ann King)
In closing, I thought you‘d enjoy reading a letter from an adopter about her Augie, a beloved shelter dog who went to his fantastic forever home in September of 2014.
Why an adult dog? Puppies are cute but they are a huge undertaking. I knew I didn't have the resources or lifestyle to accommodate overnight feedings, potty training, and puppy proofing my home from destructive chewing. My dog came to me extremely house broken. He would hold it for up to 20 hours because he didn't want to mess up his kennel at the shelter. He would be the first to be let out by a volunteer in the wee hours of the morning. As an RN, who has also had to "hold it" for many, many hours (hence the term nurse's bladder), this broke my heart. With adult dogs, you know what you're going to get. For the most part, you know what kind of temperament and personality they have. The trainers will evaluate if the dogs are good with other dogs, kids, etc. When I walked my dog as a volunteer, I noticed he was not a barker, he was affectionate, and shy. He is still pretty much who he was, although more playful. Augie also came to me knowing several commands. I did enroll him in obedience school but it was really because I needed the training! Adult dogs may already be trained or receive training at the shelter and know how to behave in a home setting. They settle in and get the routine quickly, provided you maintain one. Adult dogs are very special as you get to give them their second chance. I see the love and devotion in Augie's eyes and I have no regrets about my choice. He has rescued me from myself many times over. People say I spoil him but it's entirely untrue. He absolutely deserves everything I give him. I don't know what the first 3 years of his life were like but I am determined to make the rest of his years wonderful. - S. Choi, January 2016
Ruckus, now Augie at home, December 2015