Last updated on November 21st, 2023 at 08:35 pm
You may wonder what your rescue dog’s life was like prior to adoption. Do rescue dogs remember their stay at a shelter? Were they traumatized by the experience or do they feel abandoned?
Considering the dog’s journey, from being with previous owners to adjusting to an animal shelter, can be a journey filled with various memories, both good and bad. Understanding these experiences, such as the impact of their past owners or the transition to a new environment, is crucial for new pet parents.
Studies show that rescue dogs, like all dogs, do remember past events, but not exactly like humans. They are not able to analyze situations and come to conclusions based on their past experiences like we do. But dogs do have positive or negative associations with their past experiences and will react accordingly to similar situations after you bring them home.
The good news is that dogs are very adaptable and tend to live a lot more in the present moment than their human companions. Over time dogs can be re-trained and re-conditioned. Negative associations can be replaced with positive ones.
How Dogs Remember Their Past
How Dogs Learn
Dogs remember things mostly through associative memory with attached triggers or cues. This associative memory might recall their time spent in a foster home or the first time they encountered a new family. For an adopted dog, these memories can shape their behavior in their new life, making it important for dog owners to create a safe space filled with positive reinforcement.
We often think of Pavlov’s dog and how this Russian scientist trained dogs to respond to sounds and other stimuli. As an example, if a bell is rung and then a dog gets a tasty treat, he will associate the bell with a happy event! On the other hand, a raised hand or the growl of a larger dog may be a frightening cue.
Therefore, the memory of living in a shelter may be similar. A shelter dog may not exactly remember his shelter experience in every detail. But he will recall the associations of being called to dinner when the food bowl was plopped down. Or, he may remember the clanging sound of a gate opening when it was time to run out into the play area.
Dogs and their human companions also have semantic memory. Humans rely extensively on semantic memory from childhood into maturity. Semantic memory helps humans learn about the world and build a knowledge base. Children use their semantic memory at school to learn how to read, write, do math, and gain knowledge about complex subjects.
To a more limited extent, dogs use semantic memory to learn how to survive. Through semantic memory, dogs can also be trained to learn words and commands to sit, stand, stay, or go outside to potty, for example. These are objective kinds of learnings for the most part and do not usually have emotional meanings attached. Although, commands with positive rewards will also create a pleasant association.
Recent Discovery About Long Term Dog Memory
Another type of long term memory in humans is called episodic memory. This is something like re-watching a movie of our life and reviewing snippets of our past. It is another way we learn based on past experiences. This type of memory does not take any effort on our part like semantic memory, which requires some work. Our episodic recall can be quite spontaneous and is often triggered by a word, smell, sound, or situation that reminds us of a past event. We often relive these past events as both cognitive and emotional experiences.
Now, there is evidence that dogs and other animals may also have some limited form of episodic memory. A recent study in 2016 by animal psychologist Claudia Fugazzahas suggested that dogs may also recall past experiences beyond simple associations with triggers. Scientific American recently featured this interesting article, by Karinna Hurley on January 10, 2017. If this is true, then dogs may very well remember living in a shelter in a more complex, emotional way than we have previously imaged.
This finding suggests that a rescue dog might remember different types of experiences from their previous life, potentially including episodic-like memories of their first weeks in a new place or the emotional connections they formed there.
So, it does seem that dogs can remember their stay at a shelter, since they may actually remember in a way that can be relived in their minds. This may also bring up some emotions. This might be especially true if a dog was there for a long time and has stored a variety of experiences from his stay.
What Shelter Life is Like
Even the best of shelters and kennels can be a stressful place for a dog. Shelters are usually noisy and chaotic compared to a home setting. Every aspect of a dog’s life is controlled. It can also be a very lonely time for a dog. Regardless of whether a dog lived with a family or was a stray living on the streets, dogs are not used to being in confined spaces alone. They are pack animals and either live with other dogs or their human families.
The impact of living in an animal shelter varies for each dog, with some retaining memories of their previous owners, while others focus on adapting to their new surroundings. For a fearful dog, the shelter experience might be more challenging, underscoring the importance of providing a loving home.
Dogs, like humans are social beings and do not thrive well if they spend too much time in a confined run without interaction. Dogs also have a lot of energy and need to run and exercise. Otherwise, their pent up energy can turn into emotional stress.
Shelter staff do interact with the animals they protect as much as possible. And, volunteers often take dogs out for walks to offer social time and exercise. Some kennels and shelters have play areas that offer some interaction with other dogs. But not all dogs play well together and a shy dog can be intimated by a more aggressive dog.
A shelter certainly cannot offer the same environment as a loving home. A dog may sleep poorly due to the howling or whining of other dogs. The longer they stay, the more stressed, fearful, and hyped up they may become.
Dealing with Common Behavioral Issues After Life in a Shelter
Some of the more common issues that arise after long stays in a shelter are:
- Food aggression
- Resource guarding
- Housebreaking accidents
- Antisocial behavior around other dogs
These behaviors can be reflections of their past experiences, whether it’s missing their old dog park adventures or adjusting to a new family dynamic. Paying close attention to a dog’s behavior from the first day can offer insights into their past and help new owners foster a happy life for their new furry friend
Dogs who have been in a shelter for several weeks or months, may become more possessive with food or toys as a way to better control their lives and resources. Shelters can be intimidating places, which can cause a dog to become more fearful or anxious. ( See Separation Anxiety–Mine and My Dog’s for more information.) They may respond by hiding or becoming overly aggressive.
Shelter Dogs Need to be Reoriented and Reminded of Past Training
A dog who has lived in a dog run for an extended period of time may forget what it means to be house broken. So, he may have a few accidents when you first bring him home. See About Us and Preparing to Meet My New Dogs for my experience with Charlotte and Georgia.
My two rescue dogs had spent nine months in a kennel/day care facility and were very hyped up when I first adopted them. They also had a few accidents like peeing on the carpet during the first few weeks. But with a little bit of effort, I quickly reoriented them to the backyard for their potty breaks and they responded well.
They are also sisters who had been together their entire lives (6 years when I adopted them.) Resource guarding was a bit of a problem for a while when it came to their favorite chew toys. But I was able to step in to stop fights and redirect them. Now, I only hear an occasional growl or two but no serious fighting.
Of course, we cannot always know if the behavior is due to past experience, their breed mix, or the shelter stay. But in general, long shelter stays will amplify pre-existing problems and create new issues.
The good news is that with patience, love, and training, behavioral problems can be corrected in most cases.
How to Create New, Positive Memories
Even if your new rescue dog remembers her stay at the shelter, there is a lot you can do to calm her and welcome her to your new home. Creating a positive environment is the best way to help your new best friend adjust. Simple acts like learning the dog’s name quickly, introducing them to new people gently, or spending a little time each day teaching them basic commands can make a huge difference in their adjustment to a new life.
Make sure that her first few days are peaceful and calm. Clear your schedule to be home with her for the first several days. Designate a place close to you to sleep at night. Feed her on a regular schedule and make sure no one interrupts her meal. Make sure she has her own bed and her own toys.
When you leave, don’t make a big deal out of it and keep it short for the first few times. Always say the same thing when you leave like, “I will be back” and give her a treat when you leave and come back. You may need to put her in a crate the first few times. This will prevent accidents and excessive chewing and may make her feel more secure. Be sure to line the crate with comfy blankets, a safe toy, and maybe an old sock with your scent.
Correct all behavioral problems in a positive way. Scolding, spanking, or yelling will only reinforce negative behavior which are often born out of anxiety and fear. Training classes will help a lot. Your local American Kennel Club often lists schedules of classes facilitated by qualified trainers. Training increases the bond between the two of you and helps to refocus your new dog’s impulsive or reactive behaviors.
Remember, each dog’s journey is unique, whether they come from a dog rescue or had a previous life with different owners. By offering consistent love and understanding, you can help your rescue dog transition into a happy and well-adjusted companion.
Don’t over coddle your dog, but do provide a loving, warm environment. The initial adjustment may take a few weeks to a few months, but in time you will have a wonderful new friend and family member. It will be worth the effort!
Deanna Euritt is a dedicated dog enthusiast with over three decades of experience in raising and training a diverse range of dogs, including many rescue pups. Her practical expertise is rooted in real-life experiences, where she has successfully navigated the challenges of nurturing rescue dogs into confident, well-adjusted companions. Residing in Northern California, Deanna’s days are filled with adventures along trails and beaches with her beloved dogs, Charlotte and Georgia. In her writing, she offers insightful, compassionate advice to fellow dog lovers, leveraging her extensive personal journey in the world of dog care and training. See About Us.