In the US, approximately 2 million dogs are adopted or rescued, each year. The majority of these will likely follow the 3-3-3 rule. This refers to the stages that an adopted dog goes through in order to become a member of the family. The rule is 3 days, 3 weeks and 3 months. It is a general rule only, because all dogs are different, and will need whatever time it takes to settle in.
Of course, not all dogs up for adoption in shelters are traumatized. Dog shelters and rescues are full of happy, active, and healthy dogs, who will just need time to settle into a new family. Check out this comprehensive guide on dog adoption, for more information.
Since approximately 5 to 17% of dogs are affected with canine post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it stands to reason that a good many rescue dogs will make up many of these numbers. When you adopt, or rescue a dog, it takes time and patience to assess their stress levels, fear or panic triggers, and responses to certain situations.
Once you have worked with a traumatized dog, and witnessed the sheer joy of a trusting, and happy hound, it makes the weeks or months of work absolutely worth it.
The 3-3-3 rule
The First 3 Days
This is a critical time for you and your rescue dog. You will learn a lot about each other. It’s vital that your dog be given time to be quiet, in a space that is exclusively theirs, somewhere they feel safe.
In these early days, rescue dogs generally don’t want to be fussed over and crowded with new ‘friends’. They will be feeling nervous and overwhelmed, and now is definitely not the time to start any form of training.
After 3 weeks, your dog will be getting used to the daily routine. They will know when they are to be fed, walked and put to bed. Most dogs will know to go outside for toileting, and they will be comfortable in their quiet space.
You will start to see their personality, although it’s still early days. There is still a lot to learn about each other. You should, by now, be able to feel some ‘contact’ with your dog. This all depends on how fearful, or stressed they are. Just be patient, and don’t worry if you don’t feel a connection at this stage.
By this stage, most rescue dogs will realize that they are ‘here to stay’. Depending on their past history with humans, they will have started to trust you. They will likely seek you out, anticipating good things like playing and walking. They may come to you for reassurance and physical contact.
Your dog should be completely comfortable with the household routines. They will know who the human pack is, where everyone belongs in the house and what to expect from each person. There is still a lot to learn about your dog, and possible triggers of stress, but hopefully you will be starting to feel a bond with them.
What Traumatizes a Dog?
Just like humans, some dogs are born with a nervous disposition. This can be something to do with their breed, or their natural temperament. But, even a dog who hasn’t lived through major trauma can still have fears that cause anxiety or aggression. They may be triggered by fireworks, thunder, children, noisy cars or motorcycles, shadows, stairs. Many things that can be surprising, and catch you off-guard.
Unfortunately, some dogs have bad experiences which can leave them with feelings of distrust, fear and panic. Things such as being a bait or fighting dog, living in a puppy mill, severe abuse at the hands of humans, living as a stray after being abandoned, trauma from a disaster (flood, fire, earthquake, tornado, explosion), car accident, or being attacked by other dogs or animals.
What Are The Signs of a Traumatized Dog?
A dog with PTSD might show these signs of acute stress:
- Tucked tail
- Pinned back ears
- Licking into the air
- Sudden aggression
- Easily startled
- Won’t play, or participate
Things To Consider When Dealing With a Traumatized Dog
All dogs are purely reactive. They don’t have the same thought process as humans. They can’t rationalize situations, or plan ahead. This is what makes them such good companions. We don’t have to second-guess a dog. They are who they are.
Fearful and damaged dogs who have lived in survival mode, can take a long time to become who they naturally are. It’s important that you think on their behalf. Anticipate their needs, reactions and responses to stimuli. Remember they are probably used to being in fight or flight mode. Make sure they can’t get out of your property if something triggers their flight response.
- What is your dog’s back-story?
- Have they been neglected, or abused in any way?
- What is their age?
- Do they have a health condition?
- Do they have a name that they recognize?
- What is the ‘reward’ that motivates them? This could be treats, toys, verbal praise, physical praise.
Preparation is Key
When you know you’re going to be bringing a new and (possibly) traumatized dog into your house, it’s important to have everything in place so you’re ready to welcome them. They will need to be introduced to your home slowly, so they can begin to settle in. If they know where they can safely go, such as their bed, they’ll feel much more secure.
I recommend a big, soft calming bed that they can sink into, rather than a mat or a bed with no sides. Fearful dogs are much happier in a bed that feels more like a den. Put their bed somewhere quiet. Not in front of the TV, or in a walking area. They need to be calm, and not stimulated by noise and movement.
Other equipment to think about, includes:
- Collar, lead and harness
- Bowls for food and water
- Crates, carriers
- ID tag/microchip
- Poop bags
What Does a Traumatized Dog Need?
It’s vital to have your dog checked out as soon as possible. If they’ve had a hard life, their teeth and gums may need treatment. Your vet can do a full health check, to give your dog a great start with you. Microchip your dog. Consider de-sexing, if not already done.
After a week or two, you will have observed your dog as they walked, lay down, got up off the floor, and done many other things. Any physical difficulties or breathing problems should be reported to your vet.
This is possibly the most important and stabilizing element in the rehabilitation of a traumatized dog. Rescued dogs are so used to living in survival mode, they have made a habit of feeling unsafe, unloved and fearful. They will not rely on anyone else to take care of them, simply because that is not their experience.
Routines are the best way to restore a sense of safety for dogs. They allow for predictability and enable your dog to anticipate what is going to happen next.
Do the same things, at the same time every day, as much as possible.
- Walk your dog every day, preferably somewhere quiet, until they get used to you, and you can start to recognize their reactions to stimuli such as other dogs and people.
- Spend a few weeks getting to know what your dog reacts to, at home, on walks.
- Give your dog two smaller meals a day, rather than one. This helps them to feel confident that they will be fed, and looked after.
- I make a point of giving my dog a back massage every night. This can only be done if they are comfortable with that level of touch. Go slowly, lightly stroking and making sure they’re not anxious.
- Do some short training sessions, two minutes or so, two or three times a day. These should be games that your dog will always succeed at so you can lavishly praise them. It’s vital that your dog feels that they are succeeding, every day. It will grow their confidence and strengthen your bond with them.
- You should start by teaching them to come to their name. Every activity you will ever have with your dog, relies on fast recall. It keeps them safe, and means that you have complete control, something every dog owner should have. With successful training they can eventually be off-leash, and you always know they will come to you when called.
I recommend watching some training videos by Susan Garrett. Here is one which talks about growing your dog’s confidence.
The first few weeks are critical when it comes to setting your rescue dog up for success. You will learn how to ‘read’ your dog, and recognize what they are feeling. You will develop a communication with them, it may just take time.
One of the most important things to consider is, your dog has a past that you don’t know everything about. There are some experiences that can shape a dog for a long time, perhaps even their whole lives. As long as you’re aware, you can deal with it.
If they’ve been kept on a chain or in a cage for years, they may never be happy to be crated, or restrained in any way. Dogs who have been neglected, you need to know that you can’t leave food that they can get, at least until they’ve been trained, and maybe never. Physically abused dogs are usually hyper-vigilant. Don’t lunge at them. Don’t bend over them and stare at them from above. Watch children don’t overstep the dog’s personal boundaries.
As long as you take it quietly, and with patience, rescuing a dog is just about the most rewarding and loving experience you can have. And I promise, you will get to a day when your dog communicates their love and gratitude back to you.