Being Prepared

This was written years ago as a three part piece for the now defunct Sheltie Pacesetter.  Those who breed and rescue are putting themselves in a position of great responsibility.

photo of woman walking on dock with her dog

Photo by Bruno Cervera on

Be Prepared

Not Just for Boy Scouts!

Part 1:  Client Studies

When people charge themselves with placing dogs for whatever reason, they are undertaking an awesome task.   Whether reputable breeders, private rescues, public shelters or pounds, pet shops, people with an accidental litter or unwanted pet, they all are responsible for the condition that dog leaves them physically and mentally.  Honestly, with pet shops, lesser “quality” breeders and public rescues (pounds) I do not expect much in regards to how they prepare dogs for placement.  Some do not care, some do not know better and some just cannot do the work they want to in regards to prepping dogs for homes.

However, I expect more from “good” breeders and private rescues that foster dogs into homes.  I have been getting an increasing number of dogs  that are unable to cope in the average pet home.  I am not referring to dogs that were acquired as puppies that have been in homes for months or longer.   I am talking dogs that have been at the breeder or foster home for months or years. These dogs had never left the breeder except for limited experiences.  The ones from rescues had spent months or more in foster homes awaiting adoption.  The only outings they got were higher stress adoption events. Regardless of the source, the owners of these dogs all sought help within one to three weeks after acquiring the dog.  The dogs came to the new homes with the problems already in place.

I will not into the extensive work done with each home to try to bring the dogs about.    All I want to cover is what I observed, learned through interviews and what the cause of the issue was discovered to be.  In this first part, I am going to discuss the three cases that best outline what I have been experiencing.  These are borderline extreme cases, but trust me; these are far from isolated incidents.  For the privacy of the owners and those placing the dogs, no breeds, crosses, or actual names will be mentioned.

As you read, remember these facts about each dog:

  • There were no puppies involved.
  • Each dog grew up in the environment responsible for placing the dog.
  • Each dog was from a respected source (two of which I am personally familiar with).
  • The owners were quite experienced with the type of dog brought in.
  • The homes were far more prepared than the average dog owning home is.
  • Each owner went to greater lengths than most average or even above average people will when it comes to choosing the right canine match.
  • Each owner was able to devote an exceptional amount of time and effort needed to work with a dog.

Let us look at the three cases illustrating my concerns.

Chester was from a well-known local, all-breed rescue.  The dogs entering the rescue are placed in foster homes.  Chester’s vet is very familiar with his breed and has owned many of this kind of dog. Chester’s adopter brought him to the vet within a couple days after adoption.  The vet called me the day she saw him, after she had contacted the rescue director.  The vet wanted to give me background on the dog before she asked his owner to contact me.  The dog, a breed known to be outgoing and friendly to a fault, was a wreck.

Chester had significant signs of physical neglect: serious bilateral ear infection (the outer gunk was cleaned out so the severity was masked); pressure sores; signs of nutritional deficiencies; internal parasites.  Behaviorally he was worse.  Chester was hand-shy to the point of terror with the staff and the owner felt he might have fear of strangers as well.  Normal sounds from the average suburb sent him into panic. Sirens, trucks, doorbells, children, etc., were sources of fear. The vet had extensive interaction with the rescue over the years and was very curious about Chester’s background. She made several calls to get more information on Chester before contacting me.  She wanted to prepare me the best she could.

Chester entered rescue as a pup.  He was under six months of age when surrendered.  Chester was reported at the time of surrender to be very typical of his breed – especially when not getting physical and mental needs met.  This was the reason for his surrender: too much activity for his owners.  Chester was just shy of two years old when adopted out by the rescue.  He spent over a year and a half in the same foster home.

The foster home kept Chester confined inside to an unpadded crate (he shredded beds) unless he was outside in a concrete floored kennel.  House freedom was limited to one room.  Chester was deprived of adequate physical contact.  Though no explanation was given by the foster home, we can only guess it was because Chester was a big goofball.

His socializing was limited to chaotic adoption fairs at a local pet supply super store.  The poor dog was relentlessly subjected to situations he was far from ready to handle: so he shut down and withdrew.  He was taken out of the fairs but never worked with to prepare him for any level of stress.  In the foster home, his comfort zone, he was better.  This is where his prospective owner saw him.

The foster human downplayed Chester’s issues and the length of time he was in foster.  The owner was led to believe he came into rescue recently – not the fact that he had spent most of his life there.  The foster home wanted to move the dog.  The vet was furious.  Pressure sores and the extent of the ear infections take months to develop.  His social neglect was even more appalling.   A goofy, happy-go-lucky, screwball pup at intake was turned into a wreck long before adoption.  After a couple more meetings with the owner and trying what she could to help Chester, the dog was sent to me.

Annie’s owners had a long history with her breed.  They had once shown that type of dog but now wanted a pet.  They decided to go the rescue route and worked carefully with the regional breed rescue.  What they were looking for was not common in rescue: an adult female.  However, one board member knew of a breeder who was retiring a show dog who was about six years old.  Annie’s owners interviewed the breeder and finally met the dog.  They fell in love with her.  She was outgoing, great with the other dogs and had lovely leash manners when gaited by the breeder.  However, once off the property and away from the show ring, Annie fell apart.

When I met Annie, she could not be safely walked on lead.  Once away from the show ring and the breeder’s, she had absolutely no manners.   She had no self-control, would lunge at other dogs, traffic, humans, etc.  Though very familiar with the breed, her owners were not prepared for this individual dog.  Her excitement level and lack of tolerance for many things were out of control.  Annie was a nightmare.

Maggie’s owner had a lot of time to devote to a dog due to a wonderful working schedule.  However, she really wanted a younger, adult dog instead of a pup.  Maggie’s owner was familiar with the breed and researched the source for her new dog exceptionally well.  The woman even went as far as to visit Maggie several times before committing to her.

Maggie came across as confident and friendly when viewed.  It was instant love.  Maggie and her potential owner struck it off beautifully.   However, upon delivery to her new home and within moments of the breeder leaving, it was all over. Maggie was socially delayed to the point of extreme fear.  Every little thing scared her.  Ceiling fans, doorbells, telephone rings, cars, people, microwaves, you name it, and Maggie would run and hide from it.  She refused to leave one bedroom unless it was to race downstairs to her crate for eating or to panic and relieve herself near her crate when she forgot to ask how to signal to go out. Maggie’s owner, through a vet recommendation, contacted me. 

Maggie was stunning.  She had a lot of potential for the show ring as a pup.  When it was determined that Maggie was not going to live up to that puppy promise, the breeder decided to place her.  Maggie was now a young adolescent.  The owner knew this breed should be wary of strange things until the dog becomes accustomed to them.  Good socializing is vital to prevent serious issues.  Fear is not the norm for the breed and especially not for this particular line.

Maggie’s owner made a couple calls to the breeder to inquire further about where Maggie spent her time before coming to her. Maggie spent almost three years in a large yard with other dogs.  When not there, she was kennel in an out building. She came into the house when being shown to prospective buyers.  The breeder lives in a rural area at the end of a country lane. There is limited traffic aside from her vehicles or those of the few people who come to see dogs.  The kennels are far from the driveway. Maggie never experienced anything that a “normal” dog would.  She never even saw a dog show.  So far, Maggie is the worst case of social neglect I have ever dealt with.

Not one of these dogs was prepared for life outside that source at the time of placement.  It is vital to remember that dogs often develop a “comfort zone.”  When out of that zone, many dogs react adversely: fearful and low confidence or out of control and wild.  Unlike the average dog owner who may inadvertently cause social problems with their dogs through insufficient or improper socializing, these owners all acquired dogs that came to them with these issues in place.  Even worse, the extent of the issues was either not known because the dogs acted opposite when in their comfort zone, or issues were masked in the desire to place a dog as in the case of Chester.  He was shut down and that was passed off as chill and relaxed.

Cases of social neglect can result in dangerous dogs, especially if the owner is not capable of managing the problem properly. Remember, each of these dogs entered a home with an experienced owner with more than adequate time and resources to work with each dog.  I can only imagine what would have happened if these dogs had wound up in the average home! Sadly, with a little effort on the behalf of those who charge themselves with the responsibility of placing lives, each of these situations was avoidable.

These are just three of many similar cases I have dealt with.  Question to those of you placing dogs as either breeders or rescuers: what can be done to help prevent socially inept dogs from going into homes?  I would like people to reflect on this.  Next installment, I will give ideas on what the breeder and rescue can do to help better prepare dogs for their new homes.

Be Prepared!

The Zone

Part 2:  Am I In or Out?

Last installment, I covered two cases of serious social and one of social and physical neglect in dogs I have worked with.  Each dog was owned by well above average dog owners who were quite experienced with the breed chosen prior to acquiring these dogs.  Each did extensive research into the source of the dog.  Remember, these dogs came to the new owners with the issues in place: the owners did not cause the issues.   The owners were not aware of the issues as they were not visible at the time the dogs were met.  Chester’s physical condition was lied about. The owner was led to believe he came to the rescue recently and his quietness was called laid back.

Why did the problems happen?  Those who charged themselves with the awesome responsibility of finding homes for dogs they bred or fostered did not take the time to ensure the dogs being placed could cope with new environments.

I believe that there are several main causes for social issues with dogs being placed: lack of understanding how to prepare dogs for new homes, lack of time due to schedules (work, show, managing many dogs in the kennel) or just sheer laziness and genetics.  If the reason given is lack of time (as I have heard some breeders and rescuers state over the years), then the number of dogs and time management needs to be addressed, it just may be too much for dogs to be given what they need to survive out of the zone.  If the reason given is you just will not make the time to prepare dogs, maybe you should reconsider your position in the world of dogs.  Harsh, yes, but walk a mile in the shoes of any trainer or behaviorist with the preventable issues many of us have helped owners manage, and you may change your perspective.  It is more frustrating when these dogs have come from sources supposedly educated in dogs but were placed with preventable problems in place.  What can those placing grown out show pups, adult, retiring dogs or rescues do to better prepare the critters for life outside the place to which the dog has grown accustomed?  First, we need to understand comfort zones.

Dogs develop a comfort zone or zones: an area or areas where they are at ease, relaxed and appear fine.  The scope of The Zone will vary dog to dog.  Some may be fine at the home/kennel, dog shows, in the neighborhood, adoption fairs, etc. This may lead the person placing the dog to feel that it is well adjusted and fine. The issue now becomes can the dog cope sanely outside that zone?

The average or above average dog-seeking person will not think to ask to take the dog out of The Zone for a “test run.”  Unless you remove the dog from The Zone multiple times before placing, you will never know if the dog is ready for the average home.  This could lead to an ill-prepared dog going into a home that is not prepared for canine social issues.  The less a dog can cope in the average home, the greater the chance he will be returned, placed in rescue, relegated to a life of worse neglect or even become a legal liability (biter).

A good rule of thumb is that if there is ANY chance this dog will not be living out his natural life with you, it is imperative the dog is prepared for life outside the kennel and show environment or foster home and adoption fairs. If a dog is not properly socialized prepared, apprehensions and even serious fears of the unknown can develop.   It is amazing what I have dealt with for fears in dogs: shadows, ceiling fans, light traffic, dog toys, humans of all ages, men with beards, people with glasses, hats, bags being carried, sirens, airplanes, etc.  Know what it is like to have a dog scared of the microwave or doorbell? When in his comfort zone, the dog can cope with many things, but when out of that zone, it may be a whole other ball of wax!  An extreme case of “comfort zone” came to me summer of 2004.

The dog was the case of social isolation by the owner.  He was good at the house, fine in the neighborhood, but when taken to a training class, he fell apart and began balking at the leash.  The instructors (a program I am familiar with first hand) told the owner when he balked to tug the lead and get him back in line.  The owner is an above average owner and a rescue foster home.  However, she did not understand basic dog fears and managing certain behaviors.  She did not understand how to manage fear. She assumed the trainers knew what they were doing and popped the leash.  When the dog balked again even worse, the trainers said he was belligerent.  They told the owner to get him next to her and not put up with his nonsense. Show him who was in control and pop that leash harder.

Let us look at this from another perspective: the dog’s.  I am out of my element.  I am unsure of things.  It is loud here and lots of dogs.  I am showing I am scared and instead of helping me, I am yanked about.  I am really scared now.  The dog shut down.  Within one night, the damage was done.  The owner left the other program after less than an hour of work as her dog froze.

Back at home, the dog would walk on lead as long as he was following the same route as he was used to.  However, if his owner even so much as tried to cross the street to avoid something, the dog panicked and shut down.  It took us six weeks of serious effort to get this dog able to walk across a twenty-foot area away from his comfort zone with any level of comfort.  This is how much damage was done in a short time.  Again, in his zone, the dog was still fine even after the damage done by the first training program.  It was when taken off his zone that the problems happened.  What if this had been a foster dog due for placing?  If the owner had not recognized the dog could not manage outside the zone, what could a new home have ended up with?  A serious problem is what.

What are a few things that the breeder or foster home can do to help prepare dogs for life outside the Zone?

In the home, it is up to you to begin to get any dog you may place at any point in its life ready for normal house sights and sounds.  Sadly, many breeders and even rescues have a dog areas in their home but the dogs do not get into the heart of the house.  Dogs must be able to handle even seemingly mundane things like ceiling fans, television sounds, oven timers, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, etc.  They need to get used to seeing people carrying grocery bags, wearing hats, long coats, sunglasses, different shoe sounds, etc.

Outside the home dogs must get used to walking on different surfaces such as gravel, pavement, and grass, grating, various rough and smooth surfaces.  You can set up areas on your property where dogs can get used to different surfaces, sounds etc.; however, it is not enough.  The dogs must experience the world outside of dog shows or adoption fairs.  This means work.  The more isolated you are, the harder you have to work to get the dogs comfortable with traffic sounds, people milling about, etc.  Failing to do this can create a dog that is not ready for the average home.

A few specific things you can do to get the dog used to every day experiences he will have to endure in the average home include:

  • have well-behaved neighborhood kids come and help you with the dogs (great program for scouts working towards animal care badges);
  • when you go to the supply store or vet, bring an extra dog or two and talk a walk before or after the visit in different areas around the store or clinic;
  • call in help if you fear the dog lacks too much to be sanely and humanely placed in the average home.

However, is it wise to drag a dog everywhere you go and shove him into the word?  Of course not, this is old school and the concept of saturating dogs with stimuli is dangerous.  Too much too fast can be just as if not more detrimental for some dogs than not enough for others.  Next installment I will discuss developing an ISP (Individual Socializing Plan) for the needs of the individual dog.

Be Prepared!

An Ounce of Prevention

Part 3:  ISP for dogs


Preparing dogs for life outside the breeder or rescue is one of the most important jobs those charging themselves with placing dogs will undertake. You create the foundation for the new owner and those they work with.  If you do not do your job well enough, you could be placing a dog that is doomed to fail and become a serious issue for the owner.  If the owner does not find suitable people to help them resolve issues the dogs came with, the results can be devastating.   As I draft this, I am working with a family who was given a lovely, well-bred dog from a coworker.  The dog is a year old, was never taught manners, never fully taught to signal when she has to go out, not leash trained, socially neglected, etc.  The couple now owning her is well versed in general dog care and management, but this girl became more than they could handle.  Luckily, they sought help within two weeks after bringing her home.

Now, I expect things like this when the average owner or less than average person places a dog as with this adolescent dog, but not when the dog comes from a supposedly reputable and knowledgeable source.

One problem I run into a lot is that the new owners are told to get the dog out everywhere they can to get it socialized by those placing the dogs, trainers, veterinarians, etc.  Alternatively, that those placing the dogs may do the same thing: saturate the dog trying to quickly prepare it for a new home.  This can be very risky.  Why?  Let us look at two common types of general behavior: the lower confidence dog and the overexcited goofball.

Neither the lower confidence (LC) nor overexcited goofball (OG) may have the ability to manage higher levels of stimuli and stress.  The LC dog stresses out and begins to develop fears.  Often the owner feels they are not doing enough and up the level of stress under which the dog is placed.  Alternatively, they totally stop bringing the dog out and develop a dog that never learns the world is not that scary.

The LC dog is a greater risk of becoming a fear-biter.  He is terrified of things and may respond trying to get scaries to go away.  The OG dog has no self-control.  A stimulus sets him into a frenzy of excited leash pulling, barking and jumping.  The owner often reacts by yanking at the leash, dragging the dog around and yelling.  The dog becomes even more frustrated and often gets worse.  Alternatively, the dog stops responding but for the wrong reasons: forced to comply or he gets a negative from the owner, and he has no idea why.  So he shuts down.

If the behaviors persist, the owner often responds by not taking the dog out anymore.  Not being able to learn good manners and self-control in a humane way created a dog that is just wild when confronted with even minor stimuli.  This dog can become a risk as well.  An out of control dog can badly injure someone even if he is just trying to be friendly.

Sometimes these dogs start to associate excited greetings with pain or negativity from what should be the leader.  The dog may view the source of his excitement as the cause of his discomfort and stress.  Then what can happen?  The dog may develop negative responses to people (or other animals) as opposed to the previous excited greetings. This dog could also become a biter.

Getting either of these dogs out everywhere could result in more harm being done than good.  So what do we do?  How do we determine how to best socialize a dog in preparation for a new home or give a new home advice on how to further the work started?  We develop an Individual Socializing Plan based on the needs of the specific dog.

This is done through observation of the dog and gradual testing of limits as each new milestone is reached.  This is also something that needs to be done before the dog leaves for its new home and something the new owner needs to be taught how to do to continue what was started.  The average owner will saturate the dog and could do damage.

With a LC or OG dog, I want to limit the amount of stressful stimuli to which the dog is exposed.  This is done for different reasons for each type of dog.  The LC dog needs to build up confidence slowly.  With the OG dog, he needs to learn self-control in a humane manner. Too much stimuli or stress too fast can cause either dog to react negatively.

A negative response can be defined as any response not desired by the human. By submerging a dog into a situation he is not ready for, I can do a lot of damage behaviorally.  With some dogs, the average owner may not be able to bring the dog about and the dog may end up being given up or even euthanized.

With a LC or OG dog, I will start slow.  I will try to get the dog to a quiet area with limited stimuli.  Remember, even walking to a new street without anyone about is socializing.  For some dogs, even walking one or two houses past their comfort zone is a lot of stress! Any new experience regardless of how calm or chaotic is a social experience.  In the beginning if I have a dog not ready for various situations, I will keep the stress level and stimuli low.  Once the dog is calm with that level, I will gradually increase it.  Remember, too much too fast for some dogs can be as bad as not enough socializing for others.  However, how much is too much and how can this be determined?

With a LC dog, I may start by going to a quiet park when no one is there.  I will work on getting the dog to enjoy the new surroundings and relax.  When he is relaxed, I will then try the same location when there may be a few people walking about.  If the dog begins to show any minor negative reaction, I will walk the dog away from the stimuli until the dog is showing interest but not fear.  I will get the dog to accept that level and then slowly progress forward.  I will always end a socializing session with the dog calm and relaxed so he does not associate giving a negative reaction with getting out of a stress.  I am building up his confidence that I will not put him in a situation he cannot manage and that he can relax when stress is increased at a reasonable level.

With the OG dog, I will also start with a low stress, low stimuli environment.  This dog is just not ready for a lot of action and will lose control when over stimulated.  It is important to remember that self-control is not taught through leash yanks and corrections.  This can backfire and create a worse situation.  Leash yanks and harsh management can increase stress in a dog.  This stress can result in a dog stopping responding to you, developing aggressions or fears and in extreme cases, even trying to stop the source of the annoyance – the handler.   You never know how the dog will respond until the damage is done.  Self-control is taught through gentle guiding and when the dog behaves as desired, he can get a bit closer and get a reward of some sort to reinforce the desired response.   If he cannot behave, he is calmly removed from the situation, settled and attempted again at a lower level of stimuli than just used.

When setting up an ISP, it is important to break down each setting into various elements.  If I am taking a dog to go to a new place, a new distraction, I will go when other stimuli will be lower.  For example, if I have a dog I think is ready to begin going to pet supply stores and dealing with the scents, sights and sounds there, I will take the dog during off-peak hours.  A local supply store on a Saturday when there are adoption fairs, loads of customers, training classes, etc. going on is not fair for a dog just getting the confidence or control to enter the store.  Therefore, I will go when there are very few to no customers and ask people to give the dog space as he adapts.  I will go in with treats and fun, keep the trip short and walk out while the dog is acting positively and not too stressed.

Though I do not want to set a dog up to fail, to begin acting negatively and be hard to regain management of, I do have to test the dog to see if he is ready for the next step.  How is this done?  Watch the body language.  If the dog is showing signs he is about to react negatively but is just showing the bare beginnings of body language indicating this, stop and see if you can calmly settle the dog and redirect back to you.  This is called keeping a dog below threshold.  Observation is critical!

When the dog goes from indicating he is thinking of reacting to reacting, you are no longer training but fighting against an undesired behavior.  You should stop everything and walk the dog away gently and calmly.  Getting excited and stressed yourself has a negative impact in the dog.

Now what about the dog that seems to be able to handle everything, what do I do with him?  This dog I will take out to many situations with varying stress and stimuli levels. I am going to closely observe him for signs of stress so I can begin seeing how I can progress with developing an ISP.

Sometimes, I get a dog that manages things well and is cool with anything I can throw at him.  This dog is a blessing and makes working with much easier in many respects!   However, all dogs have limits and I should never fall into a false sense of security that this dog can manage the world.  If I assume he is fine in any situation I can put him in, I may set myself up for ignoring warning signs that the dog is stressing.  Any dog can react negatively and this must never be forgotten!

When setting up an ISP for dogs, it is vital to remember that not all dogs are the same – even within the same breed, you will have varying levels of confidence, control, etc.  When rescuers, breeders, owners, veterinarians, trainers and even behaviorists assume that all dogs should be managed the same, disaster can happen.

What is suitable for one dog could mentally destroy another.  Look at the individual dog to be socialized, try to determine the extent of his fears or over excitedness before he has crossed that threshold.  Create a plan for the individual dog based upon the daily needs, progressed and regressions the dog shows.  Test gently and progress when the dog seems ready for more.  Regress when the dog needs it.

Remain calm, cool, and collected.  When the handler stresses or revs up, the dog will respond to our behavior.  When we can maintain ourselves while creating a fair ISP for the dog, it is amazing how much can be accomplished.

If you can get a dog ready for the outside world, the bond between new owner and canine is far better!  The chances of a successful placement increases.  The less a dog is prepared for that new home, the greater the chances of disaster.

I hope that you have seen the importance of making sure any dog placed is capable of managing life in the average pet home.  It is vital for the safety of the family, public and well-being of the dog to test and ensure the dog can manage life outside his comfort zone.  I also hope you have developed a few ideas of your own how to make this happen.  If breeders and rescues ensure all dogs leaving are prepared to handle the outside world, it makes life far easier for those acquiring the dogs – and for those of us who are called to aid if the need arises!

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