Archives for posts with tag: rescue dogs

Dexter was nearly a blank slate when he came home to live with me so many years ago.  Of course he had inherited traits from his parents, but because he was dumped at the side of a busy road, along with four litter mates, at three weeks of age, he didn’t have his mother with him to teach him the important lessons he needed to learn in order to live a good, happy and productive life.  And because he was at the ASPCA for the next three weeks, it’s unlikely anyone had the time to work with him, to carry him around, to roll a ball for him to pounce on, to give him a name.  While other dogs his age, luckier dogs, were getting enrichment, he wasn’t getting much.  But fortunately, he wasn’t alone.  He had his litter mates with him.  And unfortunately, someone had given the pups even more company.  Another litter was in the same cage, and they were all sick.

Once Dexter came home with me, initially as a foster dog because he was too young to adopt, and once we got rid of the infection he has picked up from the other puppies, two things happened.  First, my German Shepherd, Scarlet, decided that she must have given birth, because, lo and behold, there was a puppy in the house.  Scarlet began to take care of Dexter and to teach him the things his mother would have taught him, to pay attention to his elders, both human and canine, to play gently, to follow her wherever she went and, of course, to worship and adore her.  And second, I had Dexter in a safe area in my office and would stop writing whenever he woke up and work and play with him.  At first, he couldn’t track a ball rolled five inches.  But then he could.  And then if I rolled it under something or tossed it over something, Dexter would know how to find it.  He learned his name quickly and learned to follow me as I called Puppy, Puppy, Puppy and walked around the house.  He learned to sit before I put down his bowl and to lie down when I patted the floor.  He learned to listen to words.  He began to learn to think.

When we went out, I put him in my jacket and zipped it up so that only his face was showing and that way, with Dexter listening to the beat of my heart, we went everywhere.  He was too young to put down for the first couple of weeks, but at an arts and crafts fair, a nice lady put down a section of The Times for him – which he made good use of – and then took off her lovely bracelet and gave it to him to play with.  From the safety of my jacket, Dexter saw and heard the world.  And so when it was time for his tiny feet to hit the pavement, he was a city dog, raring to go.

The nice folks at the A, as it is called, said he was part Jack Russell or part Smooth Fox Terrier and that he’d grow up to be a 15 pound dog.  All my dog trainer friends agreed, 15 pounds, maybe 18 pounds.  He gained two pounds a week, growing bigger and stronger and smarter every day.  In the end, he weighed 84 pounds and though we were surprised, we loved every single one of them.

As he matured, I continued teaching him, new words, new games, some tricks, all the basics and then some.  But he has some tricks of his own up his sleeve.  Dexter knew when I was in pain, something that happened too frequently because I have Crohn’s disease, and he knew exactly what to do when that happened.  He would lie next to me, pressing tight against me, the furnace-like heat of those 84 pounds soothing the pain away and his presence helping me to release the good chemistry that chases away pain.  Eventually, Dexter became my service dog, the first ever for Crohn’s disease.

As I continued to teach Dexter new things, some for fun, some because we needed them for his job, he became more and more capable of learning, a far cry from the nearly blank little puppy I’d adopted.  Teaching a dog gently and slowly, adding activities, games, commands, words for everything, hand signals, whistle signals, anything interesting you can think of will expand his mind and make him a better companion and a more interesting friend.  And paying attention to what he knows on his own and to what he is doing, will do the same for you.  Beyond that, the message is clear.  If you rescue a dog, he will rescue you right back.  And amen to that.


You’d be surprised to know how often I am asked what that tall building is, seen here from the last and as yet unfinished section of the High Line.  To me, it’s not only one of the most familiar icons in the world, but it’s also the tallest building in the world.  Of course I know that that’s no longer so.  But it’s very difficult to re-write the lessons learned in childhood, a problem not only for me, but for many rescue dogs.

One of the problems for rescue dogs, those adopted when they are half or fully grown, is that the things they learned, sometimes by omission, sometimes the hard way, sometimes by accident, were absorbed at the time of a dog’s life when new things are most easily learned.  Yes, you can teach an old dog – or a rescue dog – new tricks.  Actually, that’s often the easy part.  The hard part is helping them to re-learn the things they learned that stand no one in good stead – to expect the worst, to bark at the drop of a hat, to fear strangers, to have a poor ability to read body language in both dogs and humans, to fail to understand  the cues they are given that let them know which behavior you want repeated and which should be dropped and sometimes, the difference between the socks that their person wears and the knotted up ones they are given to play with.  (I know.  I know.  But Sky knows the difference.)

Another problem some rescue dogs have is that during what might be the most important month of their lives, they were in a shelter with limited attention from humans.  During the time when they should have been seeing the world and judging it to be fairly interesting if not totally wonderful, they were in a pen or a cage.  They weren’t carried around in an adoring person’s jacket.  They weren’t walked around their new neighborhood.  They weren’t called to follow their person or being followed themselves, playing an important game that teaches focus and becomes a gentle, effective beginning of the training process.  They didn’t have to sit before getting dinner.  They didn’t have to be quiet (and feel safe) when the lights went off at bedtime.  And they spent a lot of this precious learning period alone.

It’s easier to write history than to re-write it.  True, a baby puppy is a lot of work and some rescue dogs come already house trained and pretty happy-go-lucky about everything else.  But for the rescue dog that needs editing help, patience is the key.  Daily training helps, too, even just five or ten minutes.  Socializing is a must and may take time as well.  But as you work as the editor of your dog’s life story, don’t forget to notice the special gifts that come with every rescue dog.  These happy surprises may not emerge right away, but they’re there and they will.  Because despite the hard work of having to change history, every rescue dog knows he’s been rescued and will find a special and often surprising way to show his gratitude.

Because sometimes, after you rescue them, they rescue you right back.


We spent the weekend in the country with our friends, Richard and Polly, and their dogs, Nellie and Mabel.  Nellie is a German Shorthair and Mabel, like our dog, Monk, is a random-bred rescue.  We find it fascinating that Sky and Nellie, the two well-bred, pure-breed dogs, are like two peas in a pod.  Nellie has taught Sky to play “the game,” in which you “hide” a ball or Kong and then hide yourself and wait for someone to throw it.  Best of all is when they wait in the pond, hidden in the reeds.








Monk and Mabel form the other best friend forever pair.  Sometimes they seem to whisper in each other’s ears.  Sometimes after playing, they lie on the couch licking each other’s faces.  Monk and Mabel have an understanding but unfortunately I don’t have a good picture of them to post.  Mabel has no interest in posing for the camera.  She has more important things to do.  As for Monk, he is absolutely camera shy and will turn away if he sees the camera.

But this all made me wonder if dogs are more like us than we realize.  They enjoy a nice, relaxing weekend in the country.  They appreciate a good meal, eaten with friends.  When it’s pouring out, they like a nice nap.  And sometimes, at least, they choose to bond with friends who have a similar background, where mutual understanding comes naturally because of a similar history.

Can a rescue dog become a service dog?

Absolutely.  My first service dog was adopted from the ASPCA.  As dogs will do, he saw a need and filled it.  He did this unobtrusively and without coaxing because, hey, we’re family and taking care of each other is what we do.

Does a service dog get time off to exercise, play with other dogs and act as ridiculous as he wishes to?

Yes, yes and yes.

How much is that doggy in the window?

Do service dogs enjoy their jobs?

Yes.  They love putting on their capes and going out in the world with their partners.  Dogs love to work and they know when they are doing something needed and important and even when they are doing it well.
Can someone else train a service dog for me?
That depends upon what your disability is.  If the dog is doing a mechanical task – alerting his partner to a ringing doorbell, picking up a dropped item, opening a door, leading someone who cannot see – then, yes, these dogs can be trained at special schools that train service dogs.  However, if a dog has to alert seizures, help with pain, detect low blood sugar or respond in any way to his partner’s symptoms, then at least part of his training has to be done alongside his partner, either by the partner or with the help of a trainer.
Does a service dog have to be with his partner all the time?
Yes and no.  No law says that you need to be with your dog all the time.  However, when you leave the dog, the message is “I don’t need you now.”  That is not a message I wish to give my service dog.  In order to have her take responsibility for helping me, I try to keep her with me all the time.

Because our rescue dog, Monk, still looks sad to me some of the time, I always try to tell him cheery things.  Sometimes I cuddle with him and tell him the story of how I fell in love with him on line and went upstate to adopt him.  Sometimes I talk to him about things we did on vacations we have already taken with him, about visiting the zoo in Memphis and seeing wolves and monkeys, about the boat ride in New Orleans where he got to smell a baby alligator or about the time in Nova Scotia where he found fox poop and got so excited I thought he’d never calm down. 

 Lately I’ve been talking to Monk about the trip we are planning for this summer.  I tell him we’ll be where we might see whales, where he’ll be outdoors for hours and hours every day and smell the ocean and feel the bigness of the sky.  All the things we talk about are true things, things we’ve done together, things we’re going to do.  But there’s one thing I tell him that isn’t true, or so I thought until this morning. 

 Because I so want Monk to be happy, whenever I give him a treat, something that I am eating that I know he’d love to taste, I say, “Here.  It’s your favorite.”  And then I am filled with guilt for lying to my dog.  But just this morning, feeding Monk a piece of matzo, I realized that like the stories of our adventures, this, too, was true.  Monk loves to eat and his favorite food, truth be told,  is food.   Good boy, Monk.  Come on into the kitchen.  I have a treat for you.  It’s your favorite!

With patience.  With sticktuitiveness.  With lots and lots of hope and affection. 

Do not assume that every rescue dog has been abused.  Most have been neglected, neglected when it was their best time to adapt to a new environment, neglected when it was the perfect time to bond with their person.  Their diets were often wanting.  Their muscles may be underdeveloped from lack of exercise and lack of play with other dogs.  Even in the best case scenario, rescue is not a forever home and the dog waiting for his person to show up may take a long time to believe he’s not just someplace temporarily.

Many people are fearful of training a rescue, believing most of them have a history of abuse.  But it is training that makes them feel secure.  It’s training that makes the world begin to make sense to them.  Here’s how to begin:

No matter the age of your rescue, begin by teaching him to follow you.  You can start in the house without a leash, attracting him with your gentlest voice or a favorite toy.  As you go from room to room, he can hop on the bed, go around the living room chairs, make a swing through the kitchen and end up back on the bed for hugs and kisses.  There’s more on this exercise in Dog Training in Ten Minutes (> )  Don’t work for more than a few minutes.  Keep the tone light.

Once your dog enjoys this follow-me-game, which not so incidentally sets the stage for further training, you can “play” it out of doors.  With your dog on leash, take a walk.  After a few minutes, during which your dog is free to relieve himself, change directions, attracting your dog to follow you.  If there’s a bench for him to jump on, great.  If there’s a something low he can jump over, fine.  But all along, he’s following you.  The pace can be fast or slow, but the mood is always pleasant and his attention to you should merit warm praise.

As you slowly add each of the basic commands, continue to work for short periods of time.  As your dog becomes more  and more comfortable learning new things, plan a longer lesson once or twice a week.  Keep your goals high, but your pace slow.  End your training session with something relaxing, a long walk, a good brushing, a favorite game.  Repeat every day, even if all the time you have is five or ten minutes.

Rescue dogs, particularly those neglected at crucial periods in their development, can have a long road to rehabilitation.  No matter.  For all dogs, learning can and should be a life-long project, one that keeps both mind and rescuebody active and offers satisfaction to both partners, human and dog alike. 

Monk, Sky, Steve

Sure, rescue dogs often require a ton of patience and lots of gentle training to teach them what they never learned and unteach what they did.  But they often come with special skills, things they learned on their own or were just born knowing. 

Our rescue dog, Monk, demonstrates his wondrous ability to speak dog.

The play bow:  Rescue dogs often seem younger than they actually are because many were neglected and are lacking in experience.  Here Monk invites the dogs at the left to play despite the fact that they are already engaged in another activity.


Hiding:  Some rescue dogs have bouts of shyness, also from their lack of socialization and experience.  Here is Monk hiding behind a blade of grass.

The double handshake:  As you know, dogs assess each other by scent.  Most dogs do a single “handshake.”  Having spent a lot of time doing not much of anything, Monk is not big on wasting time.  Here he demonstrates the very efficient double “handshake.” 

And finally, the body language that every rescue dog knows by heart, the thank you for rescuing me.

Thank you, Monk.  And the rest of you.  Come back soon.

When we adopted our dog, Monk, he seemed sad sometimes and from sad, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to anxious.  An anxious dog, left to his own devices, will find some way to reduce anxiety and it’s usually not a way his humans will be happy about.   The best way to help a dog feel more comfortable in his environment and in his own skin is to train him (Monk had not been trained), to teach boundaries, what’s his to chew and what’s not (Monk had not been taught this), to give lots and lots of exercise (He’d had very little in his first home but happily lots and lots at Sweet Border Collie Rescue) and to crate him when he has to be left alone.  But how would we do that with a 19 month old dog who had never been crated?  The answer?  Slowly.  Very, very slowly.

We started by feeding Monk in his crate with the door ajar.  The moment he finished eating, he left the crate and we praised him like crazy.  After a couple of weeks of doing this, we would tell him “Crate,” put in the food dish and shut but not lock the crate door.  I always sat right next to the crate while he ate, and then called him out when he finished.  So far, so good.  About a month after he came to us, during which time Monk was getting used to being a city dog and was learning the basic commands with lots of praise, I began to ask him to go into his crate after putting a few dog biscuits in it.  I would close and lock the door, but sit right next to the crate.  The first few times I did this, Monk just waited to come out.  He wouldn’t even eat the biscuits.  But over time, with lots of patience, he began to relax.  I remember how great I felt when he began to lie down in the crate and when I could leave the room, starting with five minutes at a time.

Now Monk will go to the crate from anywhere in the house if we ask him to and the crate is, as it is for most pups who are crate trained, his den.  It’s a place of calm for him, which is just what we wanted.  Because being left alone still makes him unhappy, we do not leave him loose if we have to leave without him.  But this is a rare occasion, so he is only in his crate once or twice a week, for about an hour at a time.

Not everyone is able to crate train as slowly as we did.  But here’s the basic formula.  Give the rescue dog as much exercise as possible, especially before he has to be crated.  Introduce a gentle training program at the same time, teaching one command at a time, with lots and lots of praise for everything he gets right.  Use the crate several times a day, for very short periods, feeding your dog in the crate and making sure there’s always something appealing for him to chew on.  When the time comes for your dog to be left in the crate, make sure it’s not for more than a couple of hours.  If you have to be gone all day for work, leave the dog in the kitchen with the crate open and hire a dog walker to come in at mid-day and take him for a nice, long walk.

Rehabilitating a rescue dog takes a lot of patience and a fair amount of work, but the results can be so rewarding.  Dogs seem to know that they’ve been rescued – you can see it in their eyes – and no matter what a less than ideal situation inspired them to do in a previous life, they are dogs, they are capable of mending their ways, they have forgiving souls and the kindest of hearts and they will do their best to rescue you right back.  “Tis the season, folks, and there are dogs waiting to be loved.