New pet parent? How to help a rescue dog adapt

Published: Jan. 19, 2021 at 8:35 PM EST
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They say adopt; don’t shop, but when it comes to training a rescue animal, there can be some obstacles.

More than 3 million Americans took home new pets in 2020. I was one of them, and I am delighted to be a new dog mom to a little black lab mix named Annie.

When we hit the hiking trails around the Roanoke Valley, she proves herself to be adventurous and athletic. New items, like a birthday balloon, get her very curious. And Annie’s energy is endless, especially when a squeaky ball is in play.

Nowadays whenever she goes to see her trainer, Dr. Jackson Savage of Alpha K9, there’s a joyous greeting and plenty of kisses. But that love fest was not always the dynamic.

“The very first day I met Annie, she was scared to death,” Savage said.

I can attest. Annie’s fur was raised, her body language tentative, and she was persistently barking. Savage did not pet her or work with her on that first day, giving Annie space to get accustomed to him.

“A lot of these dogs come with a history that we might not know anything about,” he said.

I do not know much at all about Annie’s year-and-a-half-long life before I met her at the Lynchburg Humane Society in October.

“When she was first transferred to us from another shelter she had one puppy,” Syndee Tram, an adoptions counselor, told me.

Like many shelters in Virginia, the Lynchburg Humane Society is seeing more people interested in taking home pets during the pandemic.

“Our foster numbers skyrocketed,” Laura Murphy, the adoption center and volunteer manager, said. “People really wanted to help. They wanted companions to have at home with them while they’re quarantining. A lot of those actually did end up as adoptions.”

Murphy says more than 3,200 pets from the shelter were fostered in 2020, an increase from the previous year. Their adoption rate swelled to 93 percent.

“What ended up happening was they fell in love, and they ended up keeping them,” Tram said.

You didn’t have to hound me to join the trend. After Annie batted her brown eyes at me one autumn afternoon, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Shortly after I went back to finalize the adoption.

Murphy says as pets make the transition from the shelter to a new home, there are several measures owners can take to help them adapt.

“It’s definitely a common thing to have some shyness, some nervousness,” she said.

She recommends ensuring a new pet has a safe place where they can retreat, whether that is a crate or a spare room. Murphy also says dishing out lots of treats and positive reinforcement helps the dog create good associations with a new place or new people.

“Another thing that we really like to encourage is to do some training with your pet. Training creates a bond like no other. It’s exciting for you and your pet, and also of course encourages good behaviors,” Murphy said.

Between hikes, ball games, belly rubs and long cuddles on the couch, Annie created so much joy from the moment she joined my household.

However, I have to admit, bringing home a new rescue had moments that were rough.

It was nerve-wracking when Annie showed extreme anxiety toward strangers and other dogs—on hiking trails, near our house, even sometimes from the car.

Before I let myself think I was barking up the wrong tree, I took her to Dr. Savage to join his Alpha K9 training program.

“Number one we need to figure out why the dog is aggressive,” he said.

Savage assessed Annie as a reactive dog, meaning she is not naturally aggressive, but something in her past makes her defensive.

“The anxiety can manifest itself into other types of misbehaviors like aggression, which is a dangerous thing, and could actually cost the dog their life,” he said.

He has seen very broken dogs rehabilitated, including one rescued from a meth lab in Southwest Virginia.

“The dog became aggressive. The dog would not let people into the home, and the first time that I went there I couldn’t get within 50 feet of the dog because the dog would try to attack me,” Savage said.

“Eventually we had to muzzle up and work, and do the same type of training we’ve done with Annie. Getting him to accept that, I think they had eight good years with him.”

The Alpha K9 foundations program emphasizes building the human-animal bond. It is not about control, but instead focuses on fostering mutual respect and growing a dog’s self-confidence.

That is done through walking drills and trust exercises. It allows the owner to communicate with their dog in her own language, and lets the pup feel a sense of pride in completing a task.

“Most problem behaviors stem from dogs being misunderstood, and a lot of times, depending on the problem behavior, those behaviors just fall away,” Savage said.

Annie and I completed seven weeks of one-on-one training with Savage together.

“Each time she has improved greatly, and pretty soon she will never remember that she was anxious,” Savage said.

He also offers an accelerated two-week program, where he works individually with the dog, as well as group classes.

Now Annie is dabbling in dog day care at Aspen Grove Bed & Breakfast Boarding. The staff there specializes in helping unsocialized dogs meet other fur friends.

“We’re going to take steps to gradually integrate her,” Savage said. “We want to gently nudge the dog out of her comfort zone but we don’t want to shove them. If we shove them they don’t trust us, and trust is what we’re after.”

After three months in my home, with the help of weekly training and socialization, Annie certainly has a “new leash” on life.

“When dogs come to us with the behaviors that they have, you don’t have to live with them, they can be fixed,” Savage said. “I’m not saying every dog can be rehabbed, but most of them can.”

In light of the pandemic, Savage is also working with pet owners who see behavioral problems in their dogs due to the change in the home dynamic, with more people staying at home.

This month the Lynchburg Humane Society also teamed up with the organization GoodPup. Now anyone who adopts a pet is eligible for a week of free virtual training. On top of that, GoodPup will donate $50 dollars to the shelter for each adoption.

The staff at the Lynchburg Humane Society offers the reminder that when you foster or adopt, you free up space in the shelter.

“Not only are you finding happiness, but you’re saving a life and giving them happiness,” Tram said. “You’re not only helping the dog you adopted or the cat you adopted, but you’re making more space for other cats and dogs to come in as well, so you’re actually saving multiple lives.”


Alpha K9

Jackson Savage, PhD,

Behaviorist Specializing in Anxiety, Fear & Aggression Issues


Aspen Grove Bed & Breakfast Boarding

7373 Franklin Rd., Boones Mill


The Lynchburg Humane Society

1211 Old Graves Mill Rd., Lynchburg



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