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Things to Know Before You Adopt a Rescue Dog

When you adopt a rescue dog, especially if they come straight from a pound as one of ours did, it's easy to underestimate what you're taking on. Even if your adoptee has been in foster care, or living at a rescue centre for an extended period of time, their behaviour is not always predictable when they move in with you.

They’re entering into a new space, and a new dynamic so although their previous carers can give you a good idea of what to expect, they cannot tell you everything. In other words, things change and, quite often, a dog’s behaviour changes as they settle into their new environment.

The last time I was lucky enough to grace these pages, I told you truthfully that life’s better with dogs. But there are sacrifices involved when you adopt a rescue dog, especially for those with a history of abandonment. Some of these are learned sooner rather than later, and some are more obvious than others: I have found that nights out straight after work are no longer a possibility, for example, because some people want their dinner, and are most aggrieved if they’re left waiting; planning anything for ten o’clock in the evening is likely to fail because, as dogs are keen to remind us in our house, ten o’clock is Dog O’Clock and that means it’s time to go O.U.T. for a walk. Dinner, or indeed any mealtime, is no longer a quiet and peaceful time of day because there’s inevitably someone eyeing up your food with a speculative glance. Or possibly drooling on your foot. (Either way, it’s not subtle.)

We always have an audience when cooking, and it’s usually one that sprawls just behind us when we’re carrying a hot pan; I suspect this is in order to maximise the potential for scalded skin, injured paws, or a dropped meat dish. In short, it can seem as if one is never alone. And let us not discuss the flurry of activity that occurs every time the fridge is opened…

Another consideration when you adopt a rescue dog is the sacrifices when it comes to human R&R time. Our dogs have a knack of always starting a game of Growls – a massive play fight where they jump around, and knock things over, and generally create havoc – when we’re five minutes into a film or TV programme that we’ve been dying to watch; they start barking at someone walking down the street just as I’m about to fall asleep at night; they bumble in and out of rooms where we’re trying to keep the doors closed and the heat in, leaving a trail of open doors in their wake. (Actually, my teenagers do this last one too, but at least if you yell at them, they’ll close the door, albeit grumblingly.)

One of my dogs knows what time I’m supposed to get up on a work morning and developed a habit of waking me up at twenty past six by licking my eyes as I cowered under the covers; she took even greater delight in performing her alarm clock duties on a Sunday. As I write this, I’ve been climbed on twice because I’m clearly not giving my attention where it’s warranted. So, in short, I have found that general peace and quiet tends to go out the window.

Perhaps your dogs are better behaved than mine when it comes to their humans leaving the house. Do you have a relaxed exit in the morning on your way out the door? Generally, I evade an all-out riot by the judicious offering of treats when it’s time to head out to work. Our dogs are definitely fans of going out, you see, particularly if going out also involves going in the car. (Or milling around the front yard and wandering into the neighbour’s garden to sniff at hedges instead of getting in the car.)

When they are eventually corralled into the boot, there are more fun things to do: barking at passing dogs or people on bicycles, for example. We’re not sure why cyclists inspire such strong opinions but it seems to be something our dogs are adamant about. Using the rearview mirror with canines present is almost impossible, as is driving on anything other than motorways without the windows down and a stiff breeze whistling round one’s ears. While we’re discussing the rear of the car, you can forget visibility through the back window because the glass is smudged with nose marks and little clumps of fur. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt easy offering someone a lift – that wet dog smell that we all know really clings to fabric interiors.

These, really, are all small things. They simply become part of the fabric of day-to-day living – and they’re more good than bad, overall – but there are other areas in life where we simply have had to give things up when you adopt a rescue dog. Two out of our three dogs came to us as adults with some sort of trauma in their past.

As I mentioned in my last post, we are Honey’s third family at least and Ronnie’s second, if not third. As a result, they’re both quite clingy dogs. Honey is much improved from when she first moved in with us five years ago; within two weeks of settling in to her new home life, she became so territorial that no one from outside the immediate family could be in the house when she was there.

Fudge’s arrival helped to temper that tendency. In general, though, I still don’t trust Honey with other people or animals outside our family; she has been snappy with visitors in the past, and so we watch her like a hawk whenever she’s around people she doesn’t know. We understand why she behaves this way, and so we take precautions. If we have people staying, she’s normally quite happy after she’s had an hour or so to get used to the additional humans in the house; she stays on a lead until such time as we know she feels less defensive and more comfortable. In short, we do not stop observing her because she’s our responsibility and we want everyone to be safe and happy. When the initial fuss is over, she almost always becomes the favourite of whoever is visiting but she still needs that time to elapse before she is prepared to be the sweet and friendly dog we know her to be.

Ronnie loves meeting new humans but he’s not good with other dogs. Because he’s the size he is, we understand that his over-excitement (which can translate as barking, whining, or rearing up) can be very off-putting to people who have dogs with them. Again, it means that he’s always kept on a very tight lead when there may be other animals around, and it means we have to be very vigilant to ensure we’re aware of who is around us at all times when we’re out and about. The reality of this means that walks with our dogs tend to verge on stressful because we know that we cannot tune out of our surroundings for a moment.

Most of the time, our dogs are walked fairly late at night when there are fewer people about and in an open area. We are lucky to have some playing fields near our home where we can let Fudge run around, and where the other two can happily amble while still on their leads. It does mean, though, that there’s no such thing as a relaxed family walk along the promenade any more. My husband or I can take the dogs out for a walk individually because we are very familiar with their behaviours, and we know what we’re looking out for. None of our dogs is small, per se, and they each have a lot of pulling strength as individuals. They are, I think it’s fair to say, a bit much for most people.

It’s also the case that because of Honey’s innate distrust of strangers and other dogs, plus Ronnie’s size, strength and attitude towards other animals, family holidays have become a thing of the past. Putting Honey in kennels for a week or two is not something we could contemplate in good conscience. On rare occasions when someone has had to take her away from us (e.g. when the vet micro-chipped her or when she needed x-rays recently) she has been panicky and stressed.

She assumes, I think, that she she’s being surrendered again and understandably gets freaked out. Ronnie’s really too big to be easily contained, and his lack of social skills with other pets, along with his tendency towards panic when away from his people, means that he’s not an ideal boarder either.

For overnight occasions, all our dogs are very happy to visit with my in-laws (Grandma’s house has treats for dogs as well as children!) but anything else is simply not feasible. With dogs like these, someone to house- and dog-sit would be ideal but it’s a big responsibility to put on someone’s shoulders.

This is part of the choice when deciding to adopt a rescue dog and having multiple pets in a home, particularly pets with histories: there is a balance of pros and cons but, overall, I still prefer our life as it is. I’d rather have our needy and slightly neurotic dogs for fifty-two weeks a year than I would have two weeks in the sun.

And if cooking dinner means manoeuvring around three sprawled out canines, then I’m just thankful we have a big kitchen. The small sacrifices that we make are worth it because I know that, however they may panic from time to time, our three furry friends have found their home.

This piece was written by Vicky Lowsley. She lives with her two children, three rescued dogs, and her long-suffering husband in Co. Wicklow. The humans of the family fight daily battles with ever-encroaching dog hair while the dogs consider the larger of life’s mysteries such as ‘Can I Have Some More Food?’ and ‘Did You See the Cat in The Front Garden?’ in a house that is much more rundown than it was when they first moved in. It’s more fun than it sounds, she promises. 

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