Teresa Tyler

Rescue Dogs & Relationships

Dr Teresa Tyler

Put your hands up if you have fostered or adopted a rescue dog!
Adopting or fostering rescue dogs is something many of us have done over the years. I have lost count of how many dogs I have fostered, although I still have their memories show up on my Facebook page regularly.
Still, I am left with the legacy of being a ‘failed foster’, sharing my life with those who nobody else wanted to adopt for one reason or another and whom I couldn’t bring myself to hand back to a shelter.  
I was watching one of my dogs sleeping last night, curled around a cushion on my sofa, safe, warm, fed, tired from a day of activities that have entertained and challenged him. I was reminded of where he had come from and of many others who are still out there, existing in cold cages, feeling afraid of their environment and the people who come and go in their day to day lives.
Being a stray, unwanted, neglected dog must be hard, and being in a shelter cannot be much of an easier option.  
The dogs I fostered were usually the ones that nobody else could get near. Those that would take days, weeks, and months to trust me enough to allow me to touch them. Those who couldn’t enter the house until ready some weeks after arrival and who couldn’t feel the lightest of collars on their neck without endless careful and slow conditioning. They would pee if you so much as looked at them, or growl defensively if you got too close. It was always a very slow process, learning about each individual and allowing them to learn that you were actually quite a nice human. Not just there to supply food, but were someone that could be trusted and form a relationship with.  

And that was what was key with any interaction with these more challenging dogs- the relationship.  

The first lesson they taught me was about mutual respect. As humans we need to drop the ‘them and us stuff’. They will relate to us in much the same way as other humans do so the starting point is with respect. I respected and valued their boundaries as much as they always respected and valued mine. It is when we try to overstep these or misinterpret them that things go wrong. If a dog tells you he is not ready for an interaction, then respect that and give more time. Once we both know where we stood, then trust could be built because without trust there is no relationship. One of those trust building factors is honesty and there is no point trying to be anything but with a dog because they very quickly learn that being lured, coerced, or forced into a situation they don’t want to be in means you cannot be trusted, and you’ll be back to square one. Compromise is another important factor in our relationships with both humans and dogs. Sometimes we must change our lives to meet a dog’s needs in order to make progress. That may mean having to ensure someone stays home with the dog when you go out until she feels secure enough to stay home alone. It may mean reconfiguring parts of the house so that dog can have a ‘safe area’, or rescheduling visitors until the dog is comfortable around new people. Compromise is key in all our relationships and dogs are no different. The single most important factor that will influence all the above is good communication. In its broadest sense communication is an exchange of feelings, thoughts, intentions. Dogs are keen on communicating intentions, especially about important factors such as danger and safety. Understanding what dogs are telling us is an absolutely fundamental aspect of forming relationships with them. Dogs are extremely good at telling us all we need to know yet many of us are still poor at understanding their body language. Until we learn to understand what they are telling us, we will fail to be truly authentic in our relationships with them. And it works the other way too, if you are trying to teach, or influence a dog yet are not doing it in a way that they can understand, you’ll get nowhere or make a situation more difficult. As Brenda Aloff says, “If you have to explain it in a sentence, your dog will never get it”. Dogs don’t communicate directly or deliberately much of the time; their behaviour and body language are more a running commentary that we can observe and interpret. They may give an indicator of an inner state or an intention rather than a direct communication, and it is up to us to notice this. For these special dogs, a relationship that develops into companionship can be extremely rewarding. Allowing us to enter their vulnerable personal bubble to a point where they show relaxed acceptance is a huge achievement. But it can only be done with a solid, safe relationship.
That is what they taught me and what they will teach you too if you are up for the challenge.    
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