When a Safe, Secure Home is Not Enough for your Rescue Dog
As a veterinarian and behaviorist, I care for a range of pets for medical and behavior problems. When positive training, routines, and increased exercise is not enough, then the problem is a deeper often requiring medication and specific behavior plans.
Medications and managing other health problems can resolve some serious behavior problems. Behavior is determined not only by choices an animal makes, but also by the way the entire body is able to function, especially the brain. Brain function is not static - there is continual development especially in the first year of an animal's life. The amount of time for this development will vary with species - cat's brains develop faster than a dog for example. Brain development depends not only on pre birth health and genetics, but also those early life experiences. These experiences literally shape the brain's tissue in the area of memory and cognition.
A pet adopted from a rescue can be the perfect pet or have some problems. Many rescue dogs have some sort of baggage. All of my pets have been rescues, and some of them had some problems. Butterscotch was a sweetie with people, but would lunge and aggress at other dogs. Bella our current dog does not trust unknown people and has been that way since we adopted her at 8 weeks. She likely had some rough experiences around dogs and people in her puppyhood which affected her. She has improved with medications and supplements but takes days to be trusting around a new person. All the training, counter conditioning is not going to change her brain to like it. That is how she is wired.
The brain is an organ like your heart, or leg muscles. How an individual animal's brain develops depends on them - their ability to heal after severe fear, their development prior to birth, and their need for brain chemicals. So you will see variability in the same litter, experiencing the same thing in development.
So some of our rescue dogs have come from some pretty bad settings that go back to this early puppy period. All the love, routine, good food, rewarding and positive training cannot erase the brain development that was affected by early puppy hood experience. For some rescues a perfect home may not exist. Trying to get this dog to accept or tolerate other dogs for example, keeps this dog in a constant state of anxiety and aggression. No medication can completely remove this mental state for some dogs and the result is the dog will aggressive at times. While the frequency may decrease, that one time they are aggressive can still be very dangerous.
I have heard some rescues state that no animal should be euthanized due to behavior problems. That if they are physically healthy, euthanasia is wrong. This is a misinformed opinion not taking the welfare of the animal and the people into consideration. These cases are very difficult to manage like a severe physical health problem. I often see the adoptive family in a dilemma with a dog who cannot be reliably managed for anxiety or aggression despite medication, behavior plans and other intervention.
If love could fix it all, then the first home for a rescue would likely be the fore ever home. The best solution I can offer is having a lot of support for that early puppy development from shelters, veterinary clinics, and other rescues.
- written by Dr. Sally J. Foote