What Happened to the Dog I Adopted??…Shelter Syndrome and How to Help

Shelter syndrome a/k/a kennel syndrome.  You  may have heard this phrase while talking about puppy mill dogs where it is extremely common, but sadly it is a problem seen throughout shelters everywhere, and even more unfortunate, most people do not understand it. 

Dogs are brought to the shelter for many reasons, ranging from surrender to neglect and abuse.  No matter what the situation was that brought them there, going from a home with a family, whether they are treated well or not, to a cold concrete floor surrounded by a cage, day in and day out, is a shock to any system especially innocent ones.   Landing in a shelter is very overwhelming, stressful and confusing for any dog, no matter what personality or home life they had on the “outside”.  Let’s just say it takes the only life that they know and it violently FLIPS it upside down.  Whether a loved pet, a wandering stray or neglected and beaten, when they are brought into the shelter they are confused by the unknown and go into survival mode.

In the next couple entries, I would like to shed a little light on a subject that sometimes gets swept under the rug, and thought I’d discuss a few symptoms/indications of shelter syndrome and a few ways you can help make the transition from shelter to home a little easier.  Because this is such an important issue, I’ll be breaking it into 2 parts, separating them by the 2 main responses directly related to shelter syndrome, Fight or Flight.  

For this entry, I’ll talk about Flight.  The shy, timid, scared dog that you had such a connection with at the shelter and who you believed would come out of their shell as soon as you brought them home and loved them, but now find yourself questioning if she/he ever had a “personality”. 

Flight is an emotional shut-off, and dogs that have this response weren’t always beaten or hit, but its their particular way of dealing with their new situation.  Some of the symptoms of Flight are tail between the legs, unresponsive to food/toys, hunched over, head down or cowering, and just all around scared.  This mentality of a dog shares a very fine line with the Fight mentality because fear can push a dog to defend himself even if there is no need, but for right now I’d like to talk about how to cope with the introvert(ed) dog. 

Time, time, time, time time, calm patience, positive experiences and socialization are the keys to helping your new family member find his/her true self once again or even for the first time.  It really does not take a lot of energy to help turn on the emotions in your sacred friend, however, it takes plenty of TIME.  You can’t sprint your way through this transition, it’s a slow, gradual marathon.  Direct interaction may take longer than you wish, but patience is crucial for them to gain the trust and confidence they so desperately need to blossom.

It may be easier to say then to do, but you should never take the fact that your new dog hides or runs personally.  It is not YOU they are afraid of, but their situation.  Once they gain their confidence and learn that they are secure, safe and loved they will begin to come around.  Baby steps. The result of your patience will be worth every extra minute, hour or month. 

So how exactly do you gain their trust? Positive interaction within their personal boundaries.  Every dog has personal space and you as the owner have to read their body language (cowering, stiffness, ears back, hair on back of neck stands up, otherwise known as hackles).  If Max will lie by you but won’t let you pet him without cowering, sit by him and every once in a while, if he takes treats, throw him one (make them really tasty like sausage, chicken or hotdogs). Baby steps.  After he begins to move closer, try petting him (calmly and slowly) and give him some good treats.  Read his body language if he jumps, scares or cowers don’t push him, he will regress. Baby steps.  After successful petting, you can move forward to playing, then to walking, then to socializing.

You know as a person that trusting someone can be very difficult sometimes, it takes time and good interaction for you to really be confident you’re not gonna get screwed, same with dogs.  Step by step, little by little, they will get there.  Remember it’s not your fault, they don’t hate you, they’re confused and overwhelmed.  It’s a process, but your committment will be more rewarding than you understand for both you and your dog.

I’d like to end this entry with 2 really positive follow-up stories of dogs that had the Flight response.  First there is Max, the runner.  Max ran from his new home and was gone for I believe 9 days (correction 12 days!).  Completely socialized with people, Max freaked and took off anytime someone can near.  Finally returning home by way of food trap, Max recently has become accustomed to his new home, is no longer hiding in one room and plays chase with his new brother every night.  It took time and patience, but Max is on his way. 

Then there’s Annie a/k/a Trixie.  Annie came from the same place Max did, a horrible situation of hording and absolutely no people socialization.  She was adopted not very long after she was brought to the shelter and she also ran the first couple days home, but came back quicker than Max.  Annie had a terrible time on car rides and hid all the time, but I recently learned that after some time, she is much better in the car and even though they don’t see her all that often she is beginning to come out of her shell.

These are extreme cases of Flight, but they are examples of what a little time, patience and love can accomplish.  Don’t be discouraged, you learn to give them time, and they will learn to trust you. Soon you will have the best friend you were looking for, with an even sweeter result because you were a part of them becoming the best dog ever.

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