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Setting the Foundation: Bonding with your Rescue Dog

You've taken the plunge and welcomed your newcomer into your home. It's all exciting and you can't wait to get to know them, play with them, take those long, leisurely walks with them, and even introduce them to friends and family. But before you get started, there are a few things to think about in supporting your newcomer, in their transition from rescue to a "fur-ever" home.

Whether you know your rescue dog's background or not, it is safe to say that their relinquishment would most likely have had a huge impact on them. Losing their home and their comforts, as well as the people they loved, can be very traumatic. So, it's important to be aware of how this emotional toll can affect them, their emotions and their behaviour when transitioning into their new forever home, with you. When your newcomer arrives, they may be shut down. I remember when we adopted our first St Bernard; Chubbs... A beautiful boy, with very little background information, arrived, took to his bed and would remain there for the most part of the day. Largely uninterested in the goings on, unless there was some food on offer. Our latest rescue boy, Bungle, was the complete opposite, hyper-aroused, he was on full-alert, running around the garden, pulling toys out, digging, barking, and just generally very excitable. Two very different manifestations of the emotional struggles they were working through. Adopting these two boys taught me just how important it was to work, first and foremost, on developing a trusting, secure bond.

You may have heard of the 3-3-3 rule for how long it can take a dog to transition to their new home:

  • 3 days to figure out their new environment and the people in it

  • 3 weeks to realise they may be in their new home, and;

  • 3 months to become established within the family.

While helpful, the rule may not be steadfast for all dogs and, often, it can take a lot longer for a dog to fully transition. I know with all of our male rescues in particular, it has been more like a rule of 9-9-9. While it is easy to jump into all the exciting stuff with your newcomer, taking the time to bond, during those first few weeks, can really aid this transitional process and set the foundation for a long and successful adoption.

The Science Behind Emotional Bonds and Attachments

A concept originally theorised (by Bowlby and others) in relation to parent-child relationships, 'attachment' is considered a behaviour-controlling system that aims to keep a child close to their parent, serving a survival function. As part of this attachment, they are able to recognise the importance of their parent, use their parent as a safe base for exploring the world and seek safety with that parent in threatening situations. While it is important to be aware that there are differences, researchers have agreed that our understanding of attachment can be applied to the human-canine emotional bond, and can actually influence the social behaviour of dogs.

For example, the Strange Situation Test (developed by Mary Ainsworth) was a set of situations that provided evidence for human-child attachments and has been applied to dog-guardian bonding. Topal and colleagues were one of the first to apply this test to dog-guardian relationships and found that, in general, dogs displayed behaviours consistent with those identified in young infants. In the presence of strangers, dogs were likely to:

  • Seek and maintain eye contact with their guardians when in the presence of strangers,

  • Prefer to play with their guardian over a stranger (actually decreasing or refusing play in the absence of their guardian),

  • Display 'safe base' behaviours such as exploring the environment and strangers when their guardian was present (and ignoring them when they were not), and;

  • Seek comfort from their guardian in threatening situations.

As well as this, researchers have found that a successful emotional bond between a dog and their guardian can lead to lowered stress hormones and increased well-being for the dog.

So why is all this important when thinking about your rescue dog?

It is very likely that your rescue dog has previously developed these emotional bonds with their previous guardian (even dogs who have been abused can experience emotional difficulties with the loss of their attached human). It is, therefore, important to acknowledge that they may well be experiencing distress at the loss of that bond. As well as this, the formation of a new, good-quality emotional bond can decrease stress and anxiety and increase a dog's social competence, enthusiasm and cooperation. All of these can support their transition into their new home, and the potential for a successful long term adoption. And the benefits don't end there, a good quality emotional bond can become a key strength in tackling any behavioural issues that might arise during or following the transitional period. A key part of a dogs emotional needs, taking the time to focus on developing a bond with your rescue dog slowly and steadily, can set you all up for success in the long run.

How do I Start Bonding with my Rescue Dog?

The bonding process is not as straightforward as it may first seem. We can't just expect our newcomer to accept us and their new home without some hard work on our part. And to complicate matters, dogs are individuals. What one dog finds helpful, another may firmly dislike. Nonetheless, here are some things to consider.

  1. Keep activities to a minimum. Your rescue dog may have had an eventful few weeks going from place to place, or even just getting used to the new kennels they had been placed in. This uncertainty can be highly stressful. For the first few weeks, keep their world small. No guests, no adventures out to the groomers or vet. Just the family home and those within it. Even keep walks to a minimum, or scope out a secure field that they can have some stress-free time in.

  2. Use this time to learn about them. Their likes, their dislikes. Work out if they're a lover of chasing, digging, or maybe they've always got their nose to the ground. Learning their likes and dislikes can help you choose activities they'll love, and learn to love you for offering them.

  3. Don't smother them with love and affection, learn what type of affection they favour. Work out the green and red zones for petting (places they like to have touched and placed they don't). Give them a safe space where they can go and know that they will be undisturbed. And don't be too disheartened if they choose that over cuddles on the sofa with you. Respect their choices and they'll come to love you for it.

  4. Keep requests to a minimum. If a stranger came up to you and started asking you to sit, roll-over or give kisses, you'd find it a bit rude to say the least. While we often think training is something to get started on right away, it can often be counterproductive without first developing some bond. On the flip side, don't go offering them opportunities that you wouldn't usually. Keep your routine as close to normal as possible.

  5. If there are other animals in the home, keep them separated to begin with. Working on bonds, includes bonds with other animal-family members. If you can, let them have a couple of days apart in different rooms, where they're able to smell each other without any pressure to interact. If you can't separate them by room, use gates or pens to allow them to be separated by some physical barrier.

  6. Learn to listen to them. While dogs are pretty good at reading us, we can often forget to learn simple dog body language. Dogs communicate exceptionally well and some research on simple signals can ensure you don't push them into anything too soon as well as allow you to monitor their interaction with others. They haven't got a voice, so it is our job to learn to listen and support them when others don't. Some simple signals of distress to look out for are the whale eye, nose lick, yawning, shake off, or panting while not hot.

  7. Learn to be cooperative with them. We live in a society that continues to be surrounded by myths of alphas and dominance. Rather, dogs are cooperative animals and thrive when forming relationships that have mutual respect. Honestly, they're not trying to be 'top dog'! So, rather than attempting to force them to do something, follow their lead and watch how they communicate. For example, when we first adopted Bungle, I attempted to bath him by basically picking him up and putting him in the bath. It was an absolute disaster and very distressing. Later, I decided to actually ask him to get into the bathing tub himself, rewarding him every time for offering those behaviours. Yes, it took longer, but the bath was successful and our relationship was the better for it. He was learning to trust me.

  8. Use positive based and fear-free methods for training. There is a tonne of research (Google scholar is at most peoples' fingertips these days) that has demonstrated the negative impact of adopting punishment or aversive training techniques. Telling your

dog "no" or punishing them for doing something you dislike will work in reducing that behaviour, but at the cost of damaging your relationship with them and potentially causing bigger issues down the line. Rather than punishing them for chewing the remote or urinating inside the house, ensure you manage the environment so that they don't have the opportunity to repeat those behaviours. Give them more appropriate things to chew while removing the remote from their access. Check whether they need to toilet more frequently and reward them well when they go outside.

Simply working to establish that bond in the early days, taking things slow while attempting to learn about your newcomer, can not only aid the transition from rescue to home, but also set the foundation for developing confidence, enthusiasm and resilience - in you and your dog!

Sources informing this blog post:

  • Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1969). Individual Differences in Strange-Situational Behaviour of One-Year-Olds.

  • Bowlby, J. (1978). Attachment theory and its therapeutic implications. Adolescent psychiatry.

  • de Castro, A. C. V., Fuchs, D., Morello, G. M., Pastur, S., de Sousa, L., & Olsson, I. A. S. (2020). Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. PloS one, 15(12), e0225023.

  • Solomon, J., Beetz, A., Schöberl, I., Gee, N., & Kotrschal, K. (2019). Attachment security in companion dogs: Adaptation of Ainsworth’s strange situation and classification procedures to dogs and their human caregivers. Attachment & human development, 21(4), 389-417.

  • Topál, J., Miklósi, Á., Csányi, V., & Dóka, A. (1998). Attachment behavior in dogs (Canis familiaris): a new application of Ainsworth's (1969) Strange Situation Test. Journal of comparative psychology, 112(3), 219.

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