Woman holding and kissing a scared dog

How to Comfort and Heal a Rescue Dog

Your rescue dog is now in a loving home, and you want nothing more than to comfort and care for her. She is safe now and has a bright future and a good life ahead of her. But she will most likely carry some emotional scars, which will take time to heal.

The best way you can provide comfort and begin the healing process for your rescue dog is to make her feel safe by giving her space and some control; be patient; stay home with her during the first week; have a consistent schedule for meals and bedtime. Speak to her using positive tones and words of praise; provide a calm and quiet environment; and lavish her with treats and kindness.

Dogs who have been subjected to cruelty do not usually feel trustful toward humans. Even rescues who have not been physically abused may not have had an opportunity to socialize and develop positive bonds with people or other dogs. As a result, they may hide, cower, or be aggressive due to deep-seated fear. Let’s take a look at how dogs from different situations can be comforted and healed pending their particular situations.

Immediate Actions to Help Comfort and Heal Your Recue Dog

Shy New Rescue Dog

The healing process will take some time, but you can start the process by following the tips below:

  • Create a sense of security and safety
  • Give your dog lots of space and some control
  • Provide a safe place for your dog to rest and sleep
  • Expect to do some training, even if you think your dog is house-broken
  • Keep your expectations low–it may be hard for your dog to focus initally
  • Establish a consistent routine for meals, walks, sleeping
  • Redirect unwanted behavior gently
  • Reward good behavior
  • Do not scold, speak harshly, or try to dominate
  • Talk to your dog in reassuring tones
  • Lavish your dog with treats to build trust

Go slowly and always be positive, kind, and patient with your new dog. She has a lot to get used to!

Why Dog’s End Up in Shelters

stray dog howling in woods
Stray dog howling in the woods

When you adopt a dog from a shelter or a rescue organization, be sure to learn as much as you can about their past. Different situations can cause different types of trauma which will elicit unique memories for each rescued dog. Some dogs in shelters are strays, so their backgrounds may be unknown. However, you can ask the staff about the dog’s behavior which may give some clues regarding their past.

Below are some of the most common reasons a dog ends up in a shelter or being rescued:

  • Rescued from an unscrupulous back-yard breeder or puppy mill
  • Placed in a shelter by animal control due to neglect or abuse
  • Abandonded by owner
  • Stray or lost dog
  • Re-homed by owner
  • Death of their owner
  • Retired race or show dog

Each Dog’s Experience is Unique

Gather as much information as you can so you can better understand your dog’s background and past challenges, needs, and behavior. You can adjust your dog’s environment to help promote comfort and healing when you have knowledge of her past.

As an example, dogs who were isolated in dark barns or cages for breeding purposes or chained in a backyard as guard dogs may be frightened of people and other animals. In fact, they will most likely be frightened of most things due to their lack of socialization and connection to the rest of the world. So, introduce her slowly to your family and friends.

Whereas, dogs who come from hoarding situations may be friendly because they were used to being around a lot of dogs and some people. But hoarded dogs can also become very aggressive, especially around food. Most hoarded dogs are underfed and have to compete with other animals at mealtime. In this case, give your dog a separate place to eat where he will not be disturbed.

Dogs who have lost their owners due to death, re-homing, or abandonment may be very sad, and even depressed. They are probably anxious as well since they now have so much uncertainty in their lives. A grieving dog needs time, space, and a new loving owner who deeply cares. Eventually, your love will provide healing and comfort for your dog’s broken heart.

The Act of Being Rescued Can Also Be Traumatic for a Dog

Try to imagine a dog that has been kept isolated in a dark barn or room to breed puppies for several months or years. She is given food twice a day but has little interaction or socialization with humans or other animals. Then she is rescued, suddenly handled by strangers, put into a crate, and shipped off to a shelter or foster home. For sure her new situation will ultimately be 100 times better, but she does not know that.

Additionally, shelter life can be very intimidating. It is noisy and full of frightened, barking, whimpering dogs. Even though shelters try very hard to care for dogs, they are more like county jails than homes. Dogs are kept in runs and cages, sleep on cots, and have limited access to the outside. Even so, they are better off as they are fed, medically treated, and have positive interactions with caring staff and volunteers.

Just know that the transition of being rescued is yet another stressful event that can add to any past trauma a dog may already have. Therefore, it is important that your new rescue dog’s first day in your home be a calm, reassuring experience without too much stimulation in the beginning.

Your Dog’s First Day Should be Welcoming, Positive, and Calm

White and brown rescue  dog on a welcome mat at his new home
Rescue dog being welcomed to his new home

Your Dog’s First Day

The first day your dog enters your home is the most critical. As they say, first impressions are everything!

Make your home seem like a happy place. Warm some hot beef broth on the stove and put fresh dog food in the pantry. When your new dog first arrives, let her check out your yard and the rooms of your house with you by her side. Have a warm, comfy bed in a protected corner ready for her to curl up in after an exciting and exhausting first day.

Think about the things that realtors do when showing a new home. The home has usually been arranged to appear bright, sunny, and cheerful. The realtor usually offers to walk you through the home as well as let you linger and look around a bit. Sometimes visitors are offered hot apple cider from the stove or cookies from the oven.

Like us, a dog pays attention to smells, sights, and sounds when checking out a new place. So make sure your home feels welcoming to her. This will go a long way to help comfort and heal your rescue dog.

Decompression

When humans undergo trauma, we usually tense up and pull into ourselves for protection. We may become guarded and be on the defensive. This is a stressful state to live in and can feel much like being a coiled-up spring that has been pushed into a box.

The same is true for traumatized animals. A newly adopted rescue dog needs to unwind, relax, and let go of some of that past tension.

This process is called decompression. And it will take a little time–several days to months with the first 3-4 days being the most critical. To help your new dog relax, keep the TV low or even off and avoid other loud noises if possible. Stay home with him for several days and don’t leave him alone if possible. Give him his own bed and a place where he can feel safe.

Give Your Dog Clear Direction and Space

Your dog will need both space and gentle direction. If he knows what is expected of him, he will feel calmer. Again, he has had a lot of uncertainty in his life. Routine, clear communication and reassurance will go a long way to help him adjust.

Stay close enough to him to let him know where he can and cannot go in your house and yard. You may want to keep him on a leash with you as you move from room to room to keep him out of mischief. But you should also give him some personal space. Do not smother him with hugs or invite people over to meet him. Don’t give him a lot of toys and expect him to play with you right away. He will need time to take in his new environment, learn what the rules are, and know that he is in a safe place.

Here are some basic pointers when you first bring your rescue dog home:

  • Show him the back yard and where he can potty
  • Keep him on a leash with you when in the house for the first 3 days as he learns the boundries
  • Give him personal space
  • Give your dog choice and freedom as much as possible
  • Don’t force him to do anything that seems frightening to him
  • Give him a comfy bed in a protected area near your bed
  • Stay with your new dog for the first several days so he does not beome anxious
  • Feed him on a regular schedule
  • Be generous with treats
  • Let your new pooch know that you are the source of good things for him

Determine What Your Rescue Dog Needs Most to be Healed and Comforted

Small brown rescue puppy hiding under furniture
A scared puppy

Resist Smothering Your New Pooch with Hugs and Too Many New Things

Adopting a new dog is heartwarming and we often want to hug and squeeze him to let him know he has been saved. But your dog does not know that he has been rescued and that this is his new forever home. He just knows that he is in a new place that may or may not be good for him.

So, approach your dog slowly with open hands and be generous with treats. Pat him on his chest or under his chin, never on top of his head in the beginning. If he seems afraid of you, place treats on the floor and move away so he can pick them up. Eventually, you can stay closer to where you put the treats until he trusts that it is ok to be next to you. Do the same thing with any new toys you introduce to him, but I would go slowly with the toys to avoid too much stimulus.

Each Rescue Dog Will Have their Own Specific Needs

Some dogs may be very active and energetic or even a bit frantic when they first come home with you. If your new dog is okay connecting with you, take him for a walk each day to help release this energy as long as it does not overwhelm him.

Other dogs may be shy, cower, or back away from you. Some dogs may even hide under a bed or behind a plant initially. In these cases, don’t force unnecessary contact. Let him stay where he is while you sit quietly in the same room. Speak reassuringly to him and let him get used to you and the sound of your voice. Eventually, he will come out of hiding.

Trainers have a saying, “See the dog, not the story.” Regardless of his past life situation, pay attention to your new dog’s behavior now. Rather than make assumptions about what he needs, observe how he responds to his new home. Introduce him to new things slowly including household noises like the washing machine or vacuum cleaner. If anything seems too frightening, don’t subject him to it. Some dogs have never lived in a home before, and everything will seem new and different. Be sure to visit Podtotherescue.com for some wonderful podcasts regarding rescued dog insights and training.

Pay Attention to Triggers that Can Cause Flashbacks

Like people, dogs can have memory flashbacks which are a form of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). Certain noises, rooms, smells, and certain types of people could be possible triggers that remind them of a fearful event. Slamming doors, harsh voices, or certain words can make a dog jump as it takes him back in time. If you can identify these triggers, do your best to avoid them.

A friend of mine who adopted a very sweet adult dog from a city shelter noticed that he always backed away from bathrooms that had just been cleaned. She did not know a lot about his background but knew he had been in the shelter for a long time. She assumed it was his association with the shelter where staff periodically disinfected their kennel runs with cleaning solutions. So, they avoided public bathrooms and used a natural, pleasant-smelling cleaning solution at home.

Emotional Scars of Rescue Dogs

Tan rescue dog looking worried
Don’t leave me!

The most common types of emotional scars that dogs have from past trauma are:

  • Severe depression
  • Anger and deep-seated fear leading to aggression and resource guarding
  • General distrust of people and other animals
  • Feeling terrified to the point of extreme submissiveness
  • Separation anxiety
  • Closed down emotionally, apathetic
  • Hyperness and easily startled

The good news is that most of these emotional wounds can be healed over time, or at least the impact can be lessened if not completely healed. PetCareRX has a helpful article outlining the basic steps to nurse a traumatized dog back to health. In some cases, anti-anxiety or other medication may be necessary to help with the healing process.

How to Comfort and Heal Your Rescue Dog From Past Trauma

Woman comforting small rescue dog
Rescue dog being comforted

Read your dog’s body language and notice if he flinches when you try to pet him or walk toward him. He may be afraid of getting hit. So move toward him slowly and don’t pet him until he seems relaxed.

If his appetite is poor, just leave some food in his bowl until he feels safe enough to come out and eat. When his appetite improves, lavish him with treats. It is not a bribe, it is a way to build trust. To most dogs, food is gold!

If your dog shakes a lot, he is probably frightened. If he sleeps a lot he may be depressed or shut down. In both cases give him time to get used to you and your home. Over time he will see you as the giver of good things–food, walks, praise, treats, and kindness. His past trauma will be replaced with positive experiences. His sadness will dissipate as he begins to bond with you and past memories become less painful.

Develop a plan of care based on your dog’s specific needs and make sure that each family member is consistent in their handling of him. Bring in a professional medical provider or trainer if his trauma seems extreme, or get some help and resources from the shelter or rescue group.

How Long Does it Take for a Rescue Dog to Adjust?

Generally, it takes a minimum of 3 months or more for a dog to start adjusting to his new home. The 3-3-3 Rule often referred to by trainers and rescue facilities, breaks the phases down to 3 days, 3 weeks, and 3 months.

First 3 Days — During the first 3 days, your new dog will be overwhelmed and will be trying to take in his new home.

Three Weeks — At the 3-week point, he will begin to understand the rules and routines and start to relax.

Three Months — By 3 months his true personality will start to emerge and he will begin to trust and bond with you.

However, some dogs may take longer than 3 months to truly settle in and some may never heal completely. Even so, they can still make great family pets and will be much happier in their new home.

Will My Rescue Dog Ever Recover?

Happy white rescue dog
Happy rescue dog

The good news is that dogs are incredibly resilient. Dogs also live much more in the present than humans, which means they often adapt better than we do to new situations. Just be patient and don’t expect your dog to recover overnight. It will take a minimum of three months for your dog to get over his fears and start to adjust.

When I first adopted my mixed breed dogs from a shelter, one of them peed on the carpet a few times They were adult dogs who had been re-homed and were housebroken. So, I did not understand what was going on. Both dogs were very high-energy (Cattle Dog & Pug mix). They could get very hyper at times, so I just assumed they were very anxious.

But I discovered two things: first, they did not know how to tell me they had to go outside and pee and they drank a lot of water when they were more wound up. Second, one of my dogs had been struggling with a minor GI infection which put pressure on her bladder. After a month of antibiotics, the infection cleared up and so did the accidents. And just to be safe, I installed a doggie door.

If you need help please reach out to the place where you adopted your dog and get support. Be sure to take your dog to your vet for a health checkup. Bring in the certified behavioralist or vet psychologist (yes, they have them for dogs) if your dog’s problems seem severe.

Just don’t give up too soon! Get help if needed. The majority of rescue dogs can and do adjust.

Final Thoughts

Good for you for adopting a dog who really needs a home! Many shelter dogs only have minor emotional and behavioral issues to deal with. Others will require more time and effort. Just be prepared for this adjustment period, and think about where your new rescue dog would be without you and your loving support!

Your rescued pup may not have realized at the time that she was being rescued, but she will eventually grow to trust and appreciate her new home. Your rescue dog will even be grateful, even if she can’t tell you!

Just know that your work and effort to comfort and heal your rescue dog will pay off. Within a few months, you will see your new pooch blossom and transform into a very happy, well-integrated, and much-beloved member of your family.