Lessons From the First Year With My Rescue Dog

Meet Pippin. She’s a goofy border collie mix who loves chasing squirrels, getting her head scratched and tossing around her big yellow ball. But she wasn’t always this way.

When I adopted Pippin, she came with some ghosts of a rough past. But she’s grown leaps and bounds since then and is barely recognizable compared to that fearful shelter dog I first met. Here are some lessons about animal adoption she exemplified throughout her first year with me.

Day 1

dog in animal shelterPippin in the animal shelter post-shave

  • Lesson: Don’t judge a book by its cover (and don’t judge an animal by its shelter persona).

The day I brought Pippin home was supposed to be all about cats. My litter of five foster kittens was finally headed to the animal shelter to find forever homes. And after witnessing their births and being there every step of the way as they grew into frisky 2-month-old kittens, I was distraught to say the least. Enter: an extremely timid border collie mix with a respiratory infection.

Now, I’ve always been a sucker for border collies (or mixed breeds with some of their traits — always adopted). I love their mannerisms, athleticism and intelligence. My childhood dog probably had some border collie in her, and consequently I feel like it’s the type of canine I understand best.

So when the shelter staff showed me Pippin, I was smitten. At that point, she was a new transplant at my humane society from a rural, high-kill shelter. She lacked a name and history. We only knew she had been found as a stray, and no one claimed her. She was scared of everything and incredibly neglected — dirty and matted to the point where the only thing my shelter could do was shave her (and bring out a ridiculous amount of hidden Dalmatian-like spots).

I immediately offered to foster her, so she could get over her virus in a calmer space. But of course both the shelter staff and I knew I had my sights on keeping her if she got along with my other two dogs (also foster fails). I hadn’t been expecting to trade five kittens for a dog that day, so I didn’t have a space set up for her. (If you’re bringing home a new dog, follow these tips from the Humane Society of the United States to prepare for your new arrival.) Luckily I already had a solid game plan from fostering other dogs.

When Pippin came home, she was happy to have her own quiet space. I quickly realized she was more than just an unlucky stray. She was extremely submissive and nervous, flinching like she would be hit every time anyone moved their hands too quickly. She didn’t know any commands, acted like she had never seen toys and even was afraid of wearing a collar. She preferred to wedge herself in a corner and attempt to go unnoticed anytime something spooked her (which was often).

It was clear her past life wasn’t all that great, and people probably passed her over in the animal shelter because she had such a fearful facade. But after she got her bearings a bit on that first day home, she wouldn’t stop putting her head on my knee, meekly asking for petting. She also cracked her first of many smiles. There was a happy dog somewhere in there.

The first 3 months

rescue dog in grassPippin learning (sort of) how to play fetch

  • Lesson: Patience is a virtue.

The first few months with Pippin seemed to drag by — and not just because I couldn’t wait to see her fur all grown in. It was primarily because I had to take baby steps to acclimate her to this new life. Every rescue dog is different. Some seem to fall into a household like they’d been there all along, while others take more training, socialization and patience before they’re comfortable. Pippin was the latter.

Much of her first few months with me was establishing a routine and getting her healthy. I also officially adopted her during that time — which was a surprise to no one. We worked on housebreaking, basic obedience, walking on a leash and trying to stay calm during thunderstorms. It took several weeks before I heard her bark even once. And though she enjoyed petting, she didn’t solicit a true belly rub (which now she can’t get enough of) until about a month in.

She tried so hard to act correctly, but I could tell it was out of her fear of negative repercussions if she misbehaved. (If you’re working on rehabilitating a dog with some baggage, there are many resources — such as this guide from Best Friends Animal Society — that can help.) So I had to be extra gentle and calm during our training sessions to prevent her from shutting down and slinking off into a corner.

Also during this time, I slowly introduced her to my other dogs — two small, energetic terrier mixes. (HSUS offers some helpful tips on this process.) All three dogs have very different personalities, and it certainly wasn’t love at first sniff. But with my trusty dog gate to allow them to safely acclimate to each other’s presence, lots of positive reinforcement (treats all around!) and plenty of patience, they’ve all learned they’re part of the same pack.

It’s been half a year already?

rescue dogs sitting togetherPippin and her adopted brother bonding

  • Lesson: A good support system is everything.

After the major hurdles of the first few months, life with Pippin in the family became the new normal. And the days started cruising by faster as we all mastered the routine. There still were some training issues to sort out, but all of the concerns about her fitting in were in the past.

During this time, her true colors started showing more and more. She was out of the corners (for the most part) and right in the center of the action. I learned her happy place is rolling around in the snow, and she learned to get over her fear of toys that squeak. She also went from rarely barking to full-on howling — though I think it sounds more like mooing.

Although I’d love to take all the credit for bringing her out of her shell, a lot of it has to go to everyone who offered her positive reinforcement when she needed it most — including my other two dogs. According to the Best Friends guide for rehabilitating abused animals, in some situations having other dogs serve as role models can do wonders to make the new dog feel more relaxed. “Often, new dogs will start to mimic the behavior of your current dogs, and will just be more comfortable in general,” Best Friends says.

Such was the case with Pippin. They taught her how to ask to go outside, how to play with toys and which tree the squirrels like to run up. They probably even showed her how great it can be to hang out with humans. And it was my smallest, most fearless dog who wouldn’t give up on coaxing her to leave her corner and chase him. I wouldn’t say my dogs are the magical best friends you see in animal YouTube videos, but they do form a support system for each other that I believe leads to a more fulfilling life.

A year with Pippin

three rescue dogsThe three foster fails

  • Lesson: There’s a puppy buried in all of us.

You never know where your journey will take you. That’s especially true of rescue animals. They never expect to wake up one day and find themselves homeless in an animal shelter. And they certainly aren’t sure what’s going on when they head off to their forever homes. But the amazing thing about rescue animals is no matter what has happened to them, they always seem to appreciate the good things life throws their way.

Pippin definitely felt the scars of her past when she came to me. She still has some fears, but they don’t shatter her confidence like they once did. Some people think rescue dogs are damaged goods, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. As soon as she realized her life had changed for the better, she finally let her inner puppy come out to play. And I’m lucky to be the human she’s sharing it with.

Photos by Mary Daly

52 comments

Thomas M
Thomas M5 days ago

thank you

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Emma L
Ellie Labout a month ago

tyfs

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danii p
danii p3 months ago

Thanks

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danii p
danii p3 months ago

Thanks

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Jessica C
Jessica C3 months ago

Yay- rescues !! Take good care of them!

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Leo C
Leo C3 months ago

Thank you for posting!

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Ruth S
Ruth S3 months ago

Thanks.

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Ruth S
Ruth S3 months ago

Thanks.

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Leo C
Leo C3 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Carol S
Carol S3 months ago

Patience, Patience and Patience!

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