Understanding a Foster Dog’s Past

Doing rescue work with abandoned dogs is difficult, but those of you who adopt these dogs are the real heroes. It is a long and painful process, acclimating and rehabilitating a dog that has been abandoned, mistreated, or just ignored most of their early life. I have often recieved concerned emails from the families who open their homes to the mama dogs we foster. Their concerns are about the dogs’ strange, unpredictable and odd elimination “rituals.” Other concerns involve the dogs’ fearfulness around children, men, new situations or being left alone. Many rescue dogs take a long time to “warm up” to certain members of their families. Other concerns involve the dog’s distructive behaviors – chewing up wood trim, carpets, chair and table legs, digging holes in drywall. And still other concerns involve aggression toward other dogs or new people.



All these “problem behaviors” are normal dog problems but in a rescue dog they will be weirder. This is difficult to explain, but the behaviors also include hints to what the dogs’ life must have been like prior to being rescued. Take elimination issues for example. In a normal dog, they will poop in the house most of the time near the door …showing they get that they aren’t supposed to potty in the house, but haven’t quite figured out the whole solution. A dog with a “history” will hide their poop in the house, or poop in your bed or pee in their bed, or act really weird about pooping on a leash. One of my recent fosters, Willow, had and still has a strange way of acting on leash as she is about to poop. She circles like crazy, nearly running back and forth and looks practically frantic as she is obviously trying to find a place to poop. She would nearly pull my arm out lunging about. My first impression of her was that she seemed very underinformed (a nice way of saying stupid) about the ways of the world – she didn’t even know how to walk down stairs or how to walk on tile floors! I figured that she must have been tied up on a short leash all her life. Given that, pooping was probably really stressful for her. She likely spent a long time trying to find a place to poop where she wouldn’t be stepping on it and of course probably failed as she was tied up on a short lead. I suspect that this may be the case because when she wasn’t on a leash she pooped more easily and with less running around. But who knows, really? Only she does. But think about it… what if she was tied up on a short leash ALL HER LIFE. What would that do to a dog? I try to imagine what that sort of deprivation, containment, and isolation might do to a dog as I try to help their new families address their behaviors.


sweet Bella

It is of course the same with all the problem behaviors that rescued dogs come with. Their problems “hint” at their history. Our rescue, Bella, came to us when she was about 2 and very pregnant. My story about her past was that she was driven off her property by being shot at and before that she was often teased by groups of kids who were around 10 years old. When she came to us she was scared of kids that age and would growl and snap at any kid that came up to her. She was deathly afraid of loud noises, especially gun shots (she would literally flatten herself out on the floor and run for it whenever she heard one). And we discovered a sad piece of her history one night when Mike came home from work. She had always loved Mike, right from the start. Every night he would greet her with his arms outstretched over his head, holding his lunch box and his gym bag and say in a loud voice, “Belly!” and she would squirm with delight and lay on her back at his feet begging for a tummy rub. We don’t usually get a newspaper but one day there was a free copy on the driveway so Mike picked it up on his way in. He entered the house and Bella came running to greet him. He spread his arms wide and said “Belly!” and she took one look at the newspaper in his hand and ran down stairs and hid under the couch. So, add being hit by a newspaper to our story of her history. This happened months after she had come to live with us.