No, it isn’t about the classic novel of which I barely remember. I’m talking about the illusions we have when adopting an adult shelter dog.
I sit here now watching my newly adopted 3 or so year old girl as she lies in front of the window barking softly in her sleep and twitching her feet. I wonder what is in her dreams? I wonder what she thinks of me? Of her new life here? I wonder what her previous life was like? I wonder what life together will look like 6 months from now? I have a thousand questions that will remain unanswered. What I do know is I must forever stop and remind myself that our relationship is much like the garden planted not too long ago. Seeds full of possible potential that will need careful tending to germinate and flourish. And some of the hopes like some seeds may never see daylight. Or may take years to germinate! I tend our relationship with time; building trust; management; play; and training.
I don’t do it purposefully or consciously—none of us do—but yet I can’t help but notice the stark contrast between my new shelter dog and the dog I lost to cancer. Or maybe it is a current dog you have that you unconsciously compare. I have to remind myself constantly that Winny doesn’t understand well—pretty much none of what I say. We’ve lived together 4 weeks so training has been minimal. Yet, I am conditioned after more than a decade of being able to communicate with a mere glance or tiny gesture that my dear Pumpkin would understand. Things that are meaningless to Winny. Yes, I admit I sometimes feel frustrated. Friends and family seem to have the same failing I do. And as a trainer I KNOW BETTER. But knowing and feeling and over a decade of conditioning are very different things. Habits are hard to break. She comes with luggage and so do I. Patience in discovering the great space between us as we unpack will bring us together. We are learning to live together.
It is also much more difficult for us as humans with an adult dog. As humans, we are somewhat hardwired to melt at an infantile face. The puppy breath gives us an oxytocin rush. We expect puppies to pee, poop, bite, and generally misbehave. While we may know better, it is harder to accept such things from an adult.
So what can you expect?
Expect Nothing. Expect absolutely nothing. I respect shelters and rescues who do temperament testing. But in the end, behavior is context dependent. There are no guarantees. Do you act the same in the office as you do at a game? There is a wonderful booklet out called “Love Has No Age Limits” by Patricia McConnel and Karen Overall. Check it out and read it. She talks of the rule of 3’s. For most dogs, their behavior will be very suppressed in a new environment for the first 3 days. You will have a different dog in about 3 weeks as their confidence grows. And it 3 months maybe another entirely different dog..and likely one who has adjusted to your routine. Treat adult dogs like you would a puppy. Expect he knows nothing & build good behaviors—taking nothing for granted.
Observe everything. While you cannot predict the future, you can make educated guesses about what’s to come if you carefully observe your dog’s body language. I assume the dog has every possible issue and work proactively training for it. Write down what you see. It will be valuable information later on for you. Don’t wait as I did when memory starts to fail! Know it is normal to feel panic or regret. The “what did I get myself into??” This isn’t a foster where there is hope your life may resume to normal. You panic at the thought of 10-15 years of your life upside down forever ahead. I still question it. I imagine I will for months to come. Forgive yourself. Change is hard! It is hard for us too. But let’s remember we KNOW what’s going on. The dog doesn’t. So try to remember as difficult as it is for you, it’s probably 10x so for your dog.
Know it will likely get better! You will have more success than you know. It may not seem so in comparison to your currently trained dog or past dog, but remember everyone starts at the beginning. Track accomplishments and watch them grow!
Adopting an adult dog is new adventure offering much to learn . Enjoy your journey!