I am seeing an increase in the number of people contacting me for behavioral help with their recently rescued “street dog” or “mill dog”. These dogs are obtained from a shelter or rescue that has purportedly brought these dogs into the United States from foreign countries such as Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Korea and China, to name a few or from an overpopulated and under cared for puppy mill. The stories of these dogs are heartbreaking. Some have lived on “Dead Dog Beach”, some were rescued from meat farms, some have just roamed the streets of the towns they are found in and some have lived in deplorable conditions in a cage for the sole purpose of producing puppies.
One thing I know about the “street dogs” and “mill dogs” is they have a completely different life experience than the dogs that grow up in homes in the US. The “street dogs” may have never had a full belly, they spend their days in search of their next meal, digging in garbage to eat whatever scraps another dog didn’t find first. They come and go as they please, they have none or little knowledge of collars and leashes, let alone fences, crates and houses. They have learned to protect themselves when needed, to watch warily as some humans are kind and food giving while others are harsh and kick at them or throw rocks to drive them away. They live a life of daily survival, of being on their “game”, of hunting and missing out on food. Their brains are active in a way most of us will never understand, they are living and breathing survival.
The “mill dogs” live lives separated from people, often their only contact with humans is delivery of food and removal of their puppies to be sold. Many have never been out of their cages, let alone off of the property. They may seek the comfort of a small space, many are afraid of everything. Their experience with the world outside of the crate and/or mill is non-existent.
When we bring these animals to our comfortable homes, we are responsible for the world turning upside down for these dogs. They have been caught, collared, leashed, taken to a vet for vaccinations, loaded in crates, placed in loud scary holds on airplanes or travel many hours by car on noisy highways, moved into shelters and rescues that can be loud with anxious and stressed dogs barking, spinning and jumping. They are put in cars and driven to a “home” that doesn’t resemble anything they know and they are expected to behave like a pet.
I understand that the “creature comforts” have been rolled out for them. They have a temperature controlled environment, cushy soft beds, toys, no threat to their survival and plenty of food. It is a life we Americans think is the best for them. But, these dogs don’t understand it. To the “street dog”, the home is a barrier to running free, the leash shackles them to a human they don’t know and may or may not trust. To the “street” and “mill” dogs, the house is so big and confusing, there are door bells, telephones ringing, vacuum cleaners whirling, people coming and going, and a host of rules they know nothing about. They can’t flee that which they are afraid of, and that may be much that is normal in our neighborhoods. They become terrified of the one “normal” in their lives, their one human, leaving the house without them. Separation distress or anxiety is prevalent in the “street dogs” and “mill dogs” I am seeing. Our world is confusing to them and the one constant has left for work and they are all by themselves for 9 hours in a box, whether it be a room, the entire house or a crate. They want to feel safe and that is hard to do in such a strange place.
These “street dogs” are not asked to use their brains as they did to find food in their “street lives”, everything is handed to them. They lack the mental stimulation that survival is. They seem frustrated, fearful, stressed and anxious. The “mill dogs” are fearful of everything. They have behavioral problems and can hide away from any contact. These dogs don’t understand the dogs barking behind the fence, they do understand they can’t run away when on leash, I suspect, they must often feel trapped, unsure of where the next scary thing will come from.
They also have humans. Humans who are determined to make their lives better. Sometimes, desire is just not enough.
Adopters need to plan for these dogs. They are not the average pet. Some will be resilient and able to cope with this new and scary environment. Others will shut down and hide behind the sofa, sometimes for weeks. These dogs will take time to acclimate to their new normal. They will need time to adjust to being on a leash and not feeling trapped by it. They may need time and help to get along with the home’s other pets. They may need to eat in a room by themselves as they have had to fight for food. It will take time for them to understand that they will have a full belly and food will be given each day. It will take time for them to see a hand approaching as a means of a belly rub and not one that will try to grab and catch them. They may become resource guarders of food or people as those are valuable resources and need to be kept close to them. They will need time to feel comfortable being in the big box of a home while their human is gone. They may need a professional trainer to help their new family teach them to relax and use behavior that we humans find acceptable.
If you are the proud new parent of such a dog, give them time. Time to settle in, time to understand how our world works, time to trust. Give the time to feel safe, just because you know they are safe doesn’t mean they do. Take the time to show them your neighborhood, ½ block at a time until the dog is comfortable and then add a little new territory as their comfort level grows. Spend the time letting them look at their new world from a distance that feels safe. Use your time to teach them that novel things mean chicken is coming. Invest your time, when your dog is ready, in classes that are taught with positive reinforcement. Use your time to plan your dog’s feedings to use food puzzles to stimulate their seeking brains. Slow down and really watch your dog, know his or her comfort level, and help them navigate this new world. It will be time worth spending for the life of your new dog and you.
Jan Gould, KPA CTP
KPA, CTP: Karen Pryor Academy, Certified Training Partner
Knowledge, training and teaching assessed.