Written by Nicola van Ass – Qualified Dog Trainer, Groomer and Feline Behaviourist
When you have come to a decision that you’re going to add a furry friend to your family, there are quite a few factors to consider. Do you want a puppy, an adolescent, an adult, or an elderly dog? What problems can you expect? Are you okay with previous physical injuries or problems? Or do you prefer a clean slate? All these questions and more will help you not only choose the best companion for you but also can help prepare you for specific issues when they come home with you.
Puppies, adolescents, adults or seniors?
Puppies are where you’ll get the closest to a clean slate. Yes, they may have some behaviour traits that are passed down from the mom (fear in the mom, for example, can cause the puppies to be wary and scared from day one), but generally, these are little balls of fur that absorb information like a sponge. While that may seem like a dream come true, it’s important to remember that every puppy, no matter the upbringing, will have some quirks that you need to be aware of. Bringing your new puppy home is where your patience, persistence and consistency come in. Just as they haven’t learned bad habits, they don’t have good ones either. They need to be taught.
Adolescent dogs are between twelve months and three years, depending on the dog. This is the age where they have learned from their past experiences. If they have been abused or suffered in any way, it will take time and patience to earn the trust of the teenage pup. They will sleep less than a puppy, have energy that doesn’t run out, and various behaviour issues can become evident at this age. They’re still generally quicker to trust us than older dogs who have experienced the same things.
The adolescent will need to be kept busy throughout the day so that they have less chance to get up to mischief. They also need you to be very consistent with what the rules are. Rules help them know that they can behave like the pups they are without worrying because they know where the boundaries are.
Adult dogs are sometimes harder to adopt out. They have good and bad habits that have formed over time, and their experiences are broader as they have lived longer. They have definite personalities, likes and dislikes, and sometimes you don’t see their true behaviour until they’re settled at their new home. This can take up to three months, so you need to be able to give them time to adjust – unless there are serious issues, such as aggression, then you need to address those immediately.
Elderly or senior dogs are just that – elderly and desperate for love. They’re also very, very good at giving you all their love. They may have more health issues than the younger dogs, and they also will have habits that will be almost impossible to change or fix. When adopting a senior dog, you need to make sure that your home is suitable (having to climb up stairs when they have arthritis or tiled floors with no carpets that make it easier to slip on), and you need to make sure that you have the finances to cope with any medical issues that arise.
One of the biggest issues when it comes to owning a dog of any age is how to deal with the various behavioural problems that arise when your newest family member arrives. Here are some things to think about before and during your adoption period:
House training your dog should be your first priority. After every meal and sleep, if they look like they’re walking near a door, take them outside and give them a command in a happy but firm voice. I use “pee & poo outside!” and I make it sound exciting. You’ll then place/lead your pup onto the grass or designated area, and when they do their business, you praise them and give them a treat. (Wait for them to finish, though!) They’ll associate going to the bathroom outside with a reward, and this will make things much easier.
Remember, a dog’s bladder isn’t fully developed until they’re about six months old, so expecting an eight-week-old pup to sleep through the night without peeing is only setting yourself up for failure.
All dogs make some kind of noise when they communicate. It can be whining, growling, yelping, barking and anything in between. Beagles, for example, bay, while the Basenji sings. If any of these sounds become excessive, like barking all day or going mad when the doorbell rings, you will need to work on reducing the barking.
The first thing to do is to find out what is causing them to bark. They may bark when they want attention, while playing or as a warning. They also may bark because they are scared or anxious or just because they’re bored.
One of the best ways to control the barking is to teach your dog the “speak command”. Having treats with you, you’ll ask your dog to make noise. If they do, they get the treat. Once they’ve learned that when you ask them to bark, they get a treat, but when they bark on their own, they get ignored, you can then start using the command less and less. This should help lessen the barking. Another way is to teach them a quiet command – something like “settle” or “hush”. This is where you wait for the dog to stop barking, and when they’re quiet, you say “settle” and give them a treat. They will start to learn that being quiet means a reward, so they will bark less. Speaking to a behaviourist is also a very good way to help with the barking.
Chewing and mouthing
Dogs use their mouths and teeth for almost everything. This means that most dogs will go through a phase where they chew things that they aren’t meant to. Different breeds are also a factor when it comes to chewing. Labradors, for example, are retrievers. Their genetic makeup is to bring you something they think you want. They use their mouths and teeth far more than your average dog. Teething in puppies is also a reason for chewing. Chewing also reduces stress and relieves boredom.
The best way to stop your dog from chewing things they aren’t supposed to is to make sure you have appropriate chew toys and snacks. If you catch your dog chewing, quickly distract them with something they are allowed to chew. Remember, though, that if you allow your pup to chew on an old shoe, they cannot tell the difference between old and new and won’t know why they are in trouble. That’s why the appropriate toys should always be on hand.
Separation anxiety is one of the most common behavioural issues, but it’s also one of the hardest to overcome. Remember that your adopted friend has had their lives change drastically more than once, and they may be unable to cope when a person isn’t around. You’ll be able to point out this behaviour because they tend to get nervous and agitated when you’re preparing to leave. They’re very good at picking up cues like car keys, work shoes, etc. Your pup will follow you everywhere and will always want to be close, if not touching you. This might not seem like a huge problem – who’d say no to cuddles? But after fifteen minutes to an hour after you leave is where the major problems come in. Constant barking, crying, chewing, digging, and messing inside when they’re normally well house-trained, are all signs of separation anxiety.
Sometimes you can get away with teaching them that your being gone isn’t a bad thing by giving them a chewy treat or chicken stock that’s been frozen with treats inside and putting it on the grass/patio outside. You’ll start with short trips away from home. Even just driving for 10 minutes before coming home. Get them used to being on their own for short periods before asking them to cope for longer. Many times, a behaviourist is needed to help you know what to do and what to implement. Very serious cases could require medication to help with the problem.
There are many behavioural traits that dogs will display that are good and healthy habits. But the most important thing to remember is to be patient, understanding, gentle and consistent. Start how you mean to finish. If you don’t want your dogs on the furniture, don’t allow them on from the get-go. Everything you do impacts your new family member.
One last point to remember is that just because you’ve adopted a dog from a shelter doesn’t mean you cannot take them back if there are issues you cannot resolve. It might be that it isn’t the right dog for your situation. Never feel obligated because you’re feeling guilty about taking them back. They will find another home more suited, and you can find the Soul Mutt you’ve been looking for.