top of page

Rehabilitating shelter dogs

by Keri Whitfield

This is the experience of one dog rescuer and rehabilitator - from the perspective of being a lifetime kennel worker and vet tech who married a lifetime trainer/rescuer/rehabilitator and together turned their home into a full time rescue/rehab and adoption central. We speak from a focus on handling victims of abuse and neglect that end up in animal shelters. Living immersed in the care and training of these animals 24/7 leaves you always seeking to repair bad behaviors developed from past handling and mistreatment.


The first - most crucial period of development in a dog’s life occurs in their first six weeks and so the people who abuse them through irresponsible and unethical breeding and handling whether in puppy mills or backyards or basement breeders - by far do the most damage to every dog in a shelter today.Some dogs are born into this world without the slightest chance of safety and humane treatment, let alone balance or stability. These dogs come into this world and suffer from the moment they are born. These dogs never know the kind side of a human's heart or the gentle side of their hands. These dogs end up dead or in shelters.


Mature adult dogs or elderly dogs that have had a lifetime of abuse and neglect will be very open and honest from the beginning with any human about what kind of emotional trauma they suffer and what behavioral issues are present. They will either want to be saved and live or being in the presence of humans wll be too much at every turn. I have never met an elderly dog - no matter what the degree of abuse - that did not want to be saved. Every single one has been grateful and loyal to the end.


All that being said - these products of irresponsible breeding practices – puppies as young as 5 weeks to adolescent dogs of 6 to 9 months to even budding adults at 1 or 2 years - continue to fill our shelters and few homes are informed about what they have to keep in mind when handling the behavioral issues that come along with them. Dogs that are still forming what their behaviors and temperaments will be - these young dogs will be a daily 'adventure' in tems of what kinds of decisions they will make. Every dog - no matter what the background will exhibit new behaviors at this stage in life that challenge the normal status quo that was formerly present. When there is a history of abuse and neglect - these adolescent dogs will make poor decisions based on past experiences. Due to a general lack of trust and respect in humans - these dogs will not easily follow and will need to make up for the time that they lacked the correct information.


It is the only guarantee in this kind of rescue - that there will always be challenges. With better information – we as responsible humans can make the right decisions from the first moment that we interact with these animals and in every moment, so that we can effectively guide them safely and entirely into our balanced life.


I’ve heard it proposed that we should cease and desist from labeling dogs in shelters with specific breeds and instead just call them ‘shelter dogs’. I do believe that there is some merit in this idea. Oftentimes – the dog is so mixed that it is truly difficult to guess at only one breed to label with. Sometimes it is even difficult to figure out what one predominant breed might be. You could have two strays – both having mixed breed parents produce puppies from generations of varying breeds. You can have a stray mother get impregnated by multiple male dogs in one litter. You do the math. You could have other species entirely like wild dingo dogs or coyotes or wolves mixed into the gene pool. And yet – we walk down a hallway in a packed animal shelter in some section of the country and try to be a geneticist – a scientist and tell people what kind of dog it is.


Most of the dogs in shelters have come from irresponsible breeding practices or puppy mills. These dogs will be a muted version of their former breed’s qualities. These dogs will inherently have genetic issues – deformities and inherent conditions that are life altering and could be life threatening. Bulldogs can’t breathe or swallow. Rottweilers and German Shepherds can’t walk. Pitbulls are human aggressive. Labradors can’t even focus on a game of fetch. This is not natural – none of it. Every one of these dogs has been wronged from birth – from before birth – from the day that the human decided to make himself god of a careless creation. Every dog that comes from a puppy mill, or a backyard breeder will not automatically enjoy the natural benefits in mind and body and purpose that every dog born into this world with care and consideration for nature does. This is unfair but we cannot make this up to them. From the beginning – the stakes are unfair – stacked against this unnatural temperament and physicality.


Dogs in shelters come with issues and people need to be realistic about this when adopting and learn how to handle these dogs in order to successfully rehabilitate them and offer them a chance at a balanced dog life.


I do believe that you would be hard pressed to find one mill bred, basement bred or backyard bred dog that did not have some issue – no matter how slight - of excitability and/or anxiety. Imagine the stress of being trapped in a small environment day after day and being in a structure with umpteen number of dogs in a frantic state – with little to no food or water and no sanitation. And if there was a dog that showed no excitement or anxiety after all of this – I would guarantee that – by reverse – they will be somewhat sullen or despondent due to having to shut themselves off to their environment – probably the quiet one on the bottom of the cage pile who was getting stepped on and attacked by the more frustrated dominant pack members - sitting and stewing and hanging onto what they know about the humans – mainly that they are to be feared. Dogs that are isolated in smaller numbers and suffer from neglect – not seeing humans or dogs – not being fed or watered – staying dirty etc. but without a lot of other energies around, would lead to this very detached, under socialized and often fearful dog and not to mention one that lacks all normal obedience and house manners that dogs gradually acquire. Their trust in us, respect for us and general need for us is obliterated. We as humans attempting to rehabilitate these dogs are constantly working from a position of either not existing at all or existing only for negative reinforcement in the dog’s perceptions.


People need to be realistic about this type of trauma and the subsequent behaviors. One single person with enough warm energy and affection and desire to change a dog may just be able to bring a sullen dog out of their shell and convince them to join you in affection. If – along the way – however – there remains in the dog a steadfast unwillingness to visibly release past trauma and so – lacks trust and respect for humans - this dog will never open their circle beyond that. In fact this mistrust of the world may only intensify if you do not also offer guidance, structure and continuing socialization with your encouragement and affection. There is a difference between rewarding a dog just for existing and rewarding a dog for joining you in the world in a balanced way. The former dog – if we blindly treat and wait to see what they decide to do when they have received enough to gain in confidence - may stay at its handler’s heel and never leave their sight – but may also growl warnings to the rest of the world – or even snap at others to keep them away. The latter dog who has been rewarded only for work and has always been taught to work for human – and has also had all negative behavior blocked by the human - will have learned their true place in a cooperative way with their human. You may challenge them more easily with other people and other environments and as long as you are comfortable, they will be secure in your presence and control. A balanced dog that understands their true place in nature and in the world never fears or dominates. There is no need for either if there is a leader to handle everything for them. Dogs that do not have this safety net but instead have just been rejoining society taking what they want and allowing a human to elicit excited and affectionate responses with them will react to new people and environments however they feel in the moment without consideration of anyone controlling their reactions. If a dog has not let go of their past – they will definitely not have good or even acceptable reactions to any environmental change (ie. new place, new people or new animals).


This is where their level of dominance comes into play. A more submissive dog will very quickly allow themselves to fall under the safety of their human and almost prompts their human to be the leader by proving outwardly to be a follower. If the human is confident and takes the dog under their wing – this dog will grow and progress and eventually be free of fear. However – if the owner is at all fearful or anxious themselves and/or they coddle the fearful behavior of the dog – then you will never get rid of these negative reactions to stress. If you crumble when your dog acts afraid – they will never gain the confidence to recover. If you share affection in word or action when they are in a fearful state – you are reinforcing this state of mind. You have to be both their leader and their model of confidence in order to affect change, but they want you to and if you do the homework – you will succeed in rehabilitation.


It is a test of our ability to revive their senses and their health. For god only knows how long, they have been simply waiting to die in their captivity. Once they do come back to us then we can work with their abilities and intentions in a balanced way to bring them peacefully into our world. We have to be their leader and their guide. We need patience and a willingness to allow these dogs to come out of their shell in their own time. We need to be sensitive to their hesitation and not push. We need to learn to sit and wait in that moment when everything is still and quiet for them to make a decision. We have to be calm and never frustrated, encouraging and never worrying or hesitant. These dogs will come around if we respect their nature, their body language and their instincts and give them the stability, predictability and balance that they need.


If the dog possesses dominance and instead of crumbling under the fear – it combats it with aggression – you have to also be a confident leader, but also more capable of blocking behaviors rather than just guiding along. In this case, the owner cannot dismiss aggression because they see it coming out of ‘fear’ of the person or situation in that moment or simply due to their residual past trauma either. In actuality, the dog will not adhere to any challenge to his environment, because he controls his environment, because he still has no true leader. Now that they live with a human - the dog knows enough not to fear every person. Every further point of stress due to behavioral issue is due to their unwillingness to open themselves up further because, in their dominance (often of a false nature too and coupled with insecurity) they guard their ‘resources’ ie. their human and do not share. People dismiss this as ‘she is afraid of you – she was abused’ – when – in reality – if that dog was still afraid of all people – they would not be on the end of your leash, in your house or in your arms. It is instead because you never informed the dog about anything when you were bringing them back to life. They only found other humans afterthey learned that they could do and have whatever they want, without us asking anything of them in return. Surely – their aggressive reactions are partially from STRESS due to past trauma – but it is the owner’s responsibility to remove this stress by providing a daily pack leader for them to look to and respond to. This option is a much better scenario for a rehabilitating shelter dog. Only with a true pack leader can a dog enjoy the freedom of their natural lifestyle.


The more dominant dogs from these horrid breeding practices have probably been forever fighting their captivity. The dogs that fight their fate undoubtedly get the most resentment, frustration, anger and hatred thrown at them from their human captor – not to mention the physical abuse. These interactions then teach this dog their relationship with humans. This dog learns our collective nature from one evil being that does the devil’s work and cares not for our species’ place or any other in nature. Even though it is only one human and the dog may be offered dozens once they are free – this one human was the mother – was the keeper – was the creator of the pack for these dogs. Their noses worked first to smell fear and filth and anger. As their ears and eyes opened – it was to hear screaming and crying and see torture and pain. These dogs were BORN into that world – a world that we can barely muster an image of in our head without cringing and feeling sick and losing our breath. We want to kill to stop this barbarism it is so sick and yet – these sentient beings survived it and are now accepted into a brighter world. However – so many of them that were born with the ambition and drive of a strong and dominant dog were confined and taunted and abused – leading to a dog with wrongly directed resentment and aggression. These scars run deep and too many people are ill equipped to handle the behaviors that correspond with this trauma.


Shelter dogs will essentially be ‘born again’ when you rescue and rehabilitate them – in that they are being given the chance that most dogs get at birth – life with a human as their capable and fair leader – but for the first time. However – although this is similar to birth in that they do not understand their place in this world – it is unlike birth because they are not empty of experience and information. They know that they are alone in this world because they have gradually shut down throughout their development due to the stressful environment. What could they think having been born into neglect and abuse? It is not natural. No creature in nature would be born into an oppressive and abusive environment run by another species. This situation does not exist in nature and so there is no real way for them to deal with it. The ONLY thing that you can guarantee will come out of this is imbalance for it goes against the fairness nature intended.


Imagine how crucial every minute of our interaction with these dogs are then. Imagine how much information they take in from us after being absent or heinous to them for life. Having only seen us from inside a cage – it is this scenario that they relate to in their either frustrated or their despondent way. The cage door is a boundary that has existed their whole life. When we finally do free them from this and introduce them to the free world – imagine how ill prepared they are for it. The only thing predictable about it is stress and issues. None of these poor dogs are pure – in heart, in spirit, in body. None of them have been untouched by the imbalance that we as humans can assault on smaller beings. Now – imagine the dog that has been fighting from day one – barking, biting, fighting, clawing, digging – being generally out of their mind with the frustration of their situation. When this dog finally gets out and we begin interacting with them – do you think that we should just follow behind passively and see what they do? Do you think that we should just give them everything – without boundary and see if they can handle it? Anyone who has tried this before – knows that it fails. Even if you spend 2 weeks in a honeymoon period of pure ecstasy – this trip will end and you will be left with more trouble than when you started. Sometimes it takes months to develop – but in time – with no information – all shelter dogs will misbehave…period!


If we are to help them with any of their issues we have to put ourselves in their place, in their head and under their skin. We have to be the ones who respect and adhere to their animal nature in order to ‘wake’ them up and begin to show them how to be a dog. If we do not – and instead leave them in another kennel and let them sit - we will get whatever that other irresponsible, often cruel bastard who bred them created – an animal that exists in our presence but not with us in the moment. Is that what we want? Is that the ideal scenario to get a dog from? From a sick money hungry half-human who sees these animals as tools, pawns and insignificant beings? No. We fight so vehemently against this practice and these people because we believe that dogs are more than that – are sentient beings – have spirits – have souls. Well – if we believe this so easily – than why not try to fully understand the animal that they are? Why not try in every second to figure out how they operate and then match our own actions and intentions to theirs? For – what could be more comforting to them after all of this trauma and confusion than to see that there ARE humans that understand them and want to show them how to survive? What could be better than to be able to feel – for the first time – what it is to be a DOG? We can kill their spirit, their purpose and their meaning by being human – but we can only save them by being dog.


Admitting the condition is the first step for us. Admitting that shelter dogs should all be called shelter dogs because no other dog that is born to balance and lives without cruelty and mayhem, has gone through what they have is a good first step. People need to take the responsibility of rescuing and rehabilitating shelter dogs seriously – for the dog’s sake. These dogs are bred for imbalance and instability and then we devote our lives to trying to turn this around. We have the responsibility of making up for genetic insufficiencies due to an irresponsible human’s carelessness in creation and then also of providing them with all of the information that they have lacked from birth to the day that they found us. We have to do this in order to even be close to succeeding in true rehabilitation. We have to be fully committed to this in order to be fair to this dog and offer them the possibility of becoming as purely ‘dog’ as they should have been promised when they were born.


We can ONLY do this if we sacrifice all of our own humanity to them and their rehabilitation. Only when we sacrifice our moments with the dogs wholly to what information they need from us and not think from one moment to the next about anything that we want and only live in the very moment that the dog is living and breathing in and reacting to – and participate with 100% of our willingness and skills – only then are we giving the dog a fair shot. This dog does not care about our moral or spiritual pursuit to change the lives of animals. They do not care about our sadness. They do not care about our anger or frustration at the people who have done this damage to a living breathing species. These dogs only care that they are living and breathing and beyond that – every moment is new. If we are fortunate enough that they are still looking to us for guidance – we should be taking advantage of every moment without fail.


Only when you envision the dog making progress can we inject our own image into the equation. And only when we witness this actual progress due to our pure and focused mission to change a dog through participating with their primal nature – can we become part of their life. Before that – you are as bad as the human they knew before because you still offer them no guidance or true balance.


It sounds harsh and when people physically remove a sick and dying dog from a horrid house of tortures that are some shelters – when they physically save them off of death row - they feel like they have done something good in the world. It can be the most rewarding feeling and just to think of what they went through wells up tears and causes your heart to ache. However – the dog does not care about this. The dog does not need this and actually and honestly – as hard as it is to take – this emotion may hinder the rehabilitation and negatively affect the future of the dog that you are trying to save. This emotion is weakness. Our vulnerability indicates to them that we are not their leader. It is that simple from day one with a new dog. Your introduction to this dog is that you are weaker than them and so they either ignore you and stay away from you or dominate and manipulate you. Neither of these options are desirable for the dogs rehabilitation.


Both issues can be avoided just by refraining from emotionally unleashing yourself on a new rescue dog. After all, we have just accepted the responsibility of the life of a suffering being and – prior to them being ours - they were neglected and abused and bred from generations of dogs that suffered the same. Is it responsible of us to allow this visceral emotion to penetrate into the animal? If the animal is scared and cowering and shaking – should we sob and ache and cry? No dog follows this weakness in nature – so again – you decide. Your human emotion vs. their natural perceptions. What is more important? If one of these dogs is snarling and lunging and biting – should we fear and sweat and worry and jump back? Again – your natural human frailty or the dog’s future? This is what they are asking of us. This is why they plead with us. It is not to wallow with us in the tragedy of it; it is not to remain coddled and sheltered; and least of all do any of these rescue dogs exist to service us in any way. Every dog rescued from a shelter is a small miracle of survival – but we need to respect the process of rehabilitation more than we just simply celebrate their freedom.


They are animals. They are primal beings. They feel in every moment and react accordingly. And for these dogs – they have been taking in trauma from day one and are without any positive image of a human - resorting to fear and aggression to survive. If we want to be there with them and lead them out of it – we cannot be there but for them. Whether for five minutes, an hour, or six months – every second of every interaction that you have with these dogs CREATES them. Be mindful of that.


We do not matter to them until we make them matter and the only way that we can do that is to bring them into our world 100%. They cannot go in front of us, should not in nature. They should follow and if we show them that we know what they need and can be their leader…they will.

bottom of page