How to Care for a New Dog Rescued From Cruelty or Neglect

Dogs from puppy mills or other animal cruelty circumstances have unique emotional needs

What to Know

  • Your rescue dog is in a loving home now, but lives with emotional needs from a traumatic past. This advice will help you serve those needs.
  • Most dogs rescued from animal cruelty haven't been exposed to the world, so they can be timid, a Washington Humane Society official said.
  • It is important that you are patient with your dog and make your dog feel safe in your home, a Washington Humane Society official said.

Adopting a rescue dog who has suffered abuse or neglect isn't always easy. Your new pet is safe now, but your dog may still be dealing with emotional trauma from the past.

Beau Archer, director of strategic operations for the Washington Humane Society-Washington Animal Rescue League (WHS-WARL), said his shelter receives 50 to 300 dogs rescued from puppy mills across the country each year.

The shelter's Law Enforcement Department also rescues local dogs who have experienced animal cruelty, responding to more than 1,400 complaints per year. Archer said typically those animals were strays or were neglected.

Because of their difficult pasts, dogs who have been rescued from puppy mills or other inhumane environments require some extra care. Here's some advice for new owners who want to make their rescue dog feel comfortable and loved.

Be Patient With Your Pet


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For a dog rescued from a puppy mill, the world can be overwhelming. After being stuck in inhumane living conditions for so long, your dog has a lot of catching up to do.

Puppies are socialized when they are between three and 20 weeks old, according to the Animal Humane Society. Socialization entails introducing the dog to other people, animals and other things the dog will find in the outside world.

Archer said most dogs rescued from neglectful circumstances have not been properly socialized. As a result, he said, they can be timid. He said dogs rescued from puppy mills sometimes engage in behavior like eating feces or marking, but it depends on the dog. He said they probably don't arrive house-trained, either.

You should introduce your new dog to everything gradually, at a pace with which your pet is comfortable. Archer said if your dog is fearful of something, try giving him or her treats as you work on overcoming that fear. Food can also strengthen your bond with your pet, according to the Humane Society.

Do not rush your dog into anything, Archer said.

If your dog tenses up, looks uncomfortable or starts looking out of the corner of his eye, Archer said to back away and give your dog space.

Dogs prefer to escape or flee when they are in a fearful situation, but if a dog feels cornered and believes escape isn't possible, the dog may act aggressive and even bite out of fear, according to the ASPCA. Don't turn your back on a frightened dog, the ASPCA advises, because the dog might bite you while you aren't looking before running away.

How to Make Your Dog Feel Safe

Since many puppy mill dogs spend most of their lives in cages, they might feel safe having a crate available to retreat to when they are overwhelmed, Archer said. He said you can put blankets and pillows in a crate and leave the door open.

Along with giving them a safe space, avoid making loud or sudden noises that will scare your dog, particularly yelling. Instead, speak softly in soothing tones around your dog, the Humane Society advises.

Archer said while you shouldn't "tip-toe around the dog," you should introduce the dog to unfamiliar noises, like the television and the vacuum, gradually. It might be a good idea to keep the house quiet for the first couple of weeks, he said.

Make sure not to spend too much time with your dog, Archer said, because that can put your dog at risk for developing separation anxiety.

If your dog develops separation anxiety, you can try giving him or her a toy with food inside to occupy your dog and give him or her something good when you leave, said the ASPCA. If your dog has a more severe case of separation anxiety, the ASPCA suggests a more complex desensitization treatment.

Do Not Discipline

WHS-WARL strongly advises against disciplining your dog, Archer said.

When you punish your dog for misbehaving, he or she won't understand that the punishment is related to the bad behavior, Archer said. He said disciplining will make the dog fear you, which is the last thing you want from a rescue dog.

Instead, ignore your dog's misbehavior, and reward your pet for obeying you, he said.

If you catch your dog misbehaving, you can say something to interrupt the behavior and reward your dog for stopping, according to the Humane Society.

Archer said rewarding your dog with treats and attention will be much more effective at improving your dog's behavior.

Be Prepared for Possibility of Health Problems

Dogs rescued from puppy mills may suffer from medical problems, including heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, deafness, eye problems and other issues, according to the ASPCA. Along with these health problems, dogs may have contracted illnesses and parasites from living in unsanitary conditions.

However, most of the dog's medical issues will be treated at the shelter, Archer said. He said dogs are groomed and spayed or neutered before adoption at most shelters, and dogs suffering from severe medical problems will have already started treatment before adoption.

Archer advised new owners to prepare for the possibility of having to finance treatment for health problems, but he said this likely will not be a major issue for most rescue dogs. Rather, Archer said owners should focus on filling the pet's emotional needs.

Other Dogs May Help Your Dog Adjust

Having another friendly dog in the house may help your rescue dog adjust, according to the Best Friends Animal Society. This other dog can serve as a role model, showing your rescue dog the ropes -- playing is fun, the bathroom is outside and humans can be trusted.

Archer said this can be a very helpful tactic for some dogs to gain confidence, but it depends on both pets' personalities. Dogs who are comfortable around other dogs can find success in this method, and fearful dogs can build confidence by interacting with a dog that is confident, but not controlling, Archer said.

If you are trying to introduce your rescue dog to your other dog, WHS-WARL recommends introducing them gradually, with the first meeting in neutral territory. Start with short interactions and work your way up. When the dogs meet in your home for the first time, make sure the new dog is in the house first.

If your dogs don't get along right away, don't punish them for the initial hostility, because that can worsen their relationship, the shelter advises.

Use Available Resources

It's important to learn as much about your dog's history and behavior as possible, Archer said.

He said the shelter can provide background information for where your dog came from. Even if the shelter does not know your dog's history, he said people at the shelter can provide valuable information about your dog's health and behavior.

For more advice on how to care for your pet, Archer said the ASPCA and the Best Friends Animal Society both have useful tips for new owners of dogs who suffered from animal cruelty.

If you're struggling to socialize or house-train your dog, you can bring your dog to a training class, which WHS-WARL offers with its behavior and training team. The classes are open to anyone in the community, and private appointments are available. You can also contact local dog trainers for lessons.

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