How To Acclimatize a Foreign Rescue Dog

It’s useful to know what to expect when a dog is scheduled to arrive from overseas, whether you’re fostering or adopting. If you’re prepared to be understanding and patient, this can help your dog to settle in and can lay the foundation for a rewarding relationship.

If you’re about to become the first-time guardian of an imported dog you should have received as much information as possible from the rescue that has the dog in its care. However, very few overseas rescues, especially those whose dogs are kept in large shelters, are able to perform an accurate assessment of how a dog will respond in a domestic environment, and usually, testing a dog’s responses to the presence of children, cats and other species of animal isn’t possible. By preparing yourself and your home for the dog’s arrival well beforehand, you’ll be setting yourself and your dog up for a smoother settling in period.

Know the Background: Street Dogs and Feral Dogs

The majority of imported rescue dogs are street dogs, but some feral dogs are also sent over for homing. Street dogs are used to the presence of people and traffic, and may be friendly and keen to interact, whereas feral dogs are unfamiliar with having humans in close proximity and tend to be extremely fearful during the first weeks or months. Whether a dog is from the streets or the wild, though, he will have to make major adjustments to adapt to life in a home.

Free ranging dogs may have never lived indoors. Some may have been born in a home and then dumped or abandoned. Others are born on the streets or in the surrounding countryside. Some are born on property but are kept outside as ‘chain dogs’. It’s important to take the dog’s perspective and consider the impact of capture and homing and how this can affect behaviour.

Neck sensitivity

Capture is a traumatic and often painful process, especially when a catch pole is used. Because of this, many street dogs are very sensitive about being touched around the neck and head area. Your dog may become very anxious about wearing a collar and lead; even more so if the lead is attached to the collar.

It’s kinder and more comfortable for your dog if you use a harness, and a harness such as Perfect Fit can have an extra D ring fitted at the front as well as having the D ring, as usual, on the back. This avoids the risk of any pressure on the neck area, and your dog can sleep in the harness initially so that you don’t have to worry him by taking it off and putting it back on periodically.

Further Reading: A Buyers Guide to Dog Harnesses 

Arrival

A new environment is likely to be very scary for your dog. Bear in mind that he may have been in a cage in a moving van for several days, in a cramped space surrounded by other unfamiliar dogs. Dogs are often handed over at specified venues, usually a car park or service station, either to a UK rescue representative or directly to the fosterer or adopter. Sadly, it’s common for dogs to escape at this time, because they’re in shock, afraid, and desperate, and have no idea that the strangers who have arrived for them only have the best of intentions. Taking along a well-fitting harness and double lead is the most effective way to ensure that your dog can be safely moved into your vehicle.

Once you arrive home, take extra precautions to ensure your dog cannot escape when you open the car door. Have someone with you who can hold the lead (or the dog) throughout the journey, and who can ensure that your dog doesn’t bolt as soon as the door cracks open a little. Once your dog is indoors, remind the rest of the household to be very careful when entering and leaving your home. Keep accessible windows closed. If necessary, put the dog in a separate room when the doorbell rings, to ensure he stays safely inside. Keep a check on outdoor boundaries; make sure the boundary fencing is adequate to contain a potential escape artist, and check that gates are kept securely bolted.

Introduction to Resident Dogs

Many street dogs are more comfortable around other dogs, especially in the early days, and a calm, confident resident dog can boost a new dog’s confidence and help him settle in more easily.

If you already have a dog, or dogs, it’s best to introduce them to your new family member in a neutral place outside, to avoid any risk of territorial behaviour. You’ll need to have a person for each dog, and you can go for a short walk if your new dog is coping with being on lead.

It can help to take it in turns for the dogs to follow each other, as this gives them the opportunity to catch whiffs of the other dog’s scent. Have the dogs on the outside and humans on the inside, so that they feel safer. Watch for body language that shows any of the dogs are stressed: low body, low or tucked tail, avoidance behaviours, tucked back ears, lunging, barking, showing the whites of the eyes, raised hackles, and flattening to the ground are just some of the things to look for. If the dogs seem to be relaxed you can allow them to move closer if they choose to, but don’t force them to interact.

The three second rule is very useful for all dog introductions. If they show signs of wanting to greet each other, allow them to move close enough to sniff for three seconds and then gently move them apart. Repeat this for as long as you feel is necessary.

Once indoors, having them in separate rooms or areas with a safety gate between them can help each dog adjust to the others presence without feeling threatened, and allows them to see and hear each other and get accustomed to their new companions while reducing stress.

Adjusting to the Challenges of Domestic Life

The restrictions of four walls, closed doors, enclosed gardens, collars and leads, set mealtimes, human rules and regulations, and sights, smells and sounds that we take for granted are all likely to be extremely frightening to your new dog, who will most likely have never experienced anything like it. Imagine you’ve been transported to a country where you don’t understand the language and customs, no-one speaks your language, and you’re then left to figure everything out on your own. That’s just a tiny fraction of what your street dog will be experiencing.

His previous life will most likely have been spent roaming the streets, scavenging, resting, hanging out with dog friends, and being in control of where he goes and what he does. That sense of control is lost when he is confined indoors or to a garden, and he suddenly finds himself dependent on you for absolutely everything. You choose when he eats, where he rests, who he interacts with – and there is no escape route if he feels scared, threatened or under pressure.

Add to this the confusion of people coming and going, conversations in close proximity, doors opening and closing, the sounds of the television, music, washing machine, the whirring of the fridge, lights being turned on and off, electricity buzzing through wires in the walls, humans and traffic passing by the windows and garden, plus strange smells that he will not have been exposed to, such as detergents.

Understanding what a culture shock your dog is experiencing will enable you to find ways in which to reduce the pressure and help him learn to feel safe.

Settling in

The most important thing you can do is to take steps to reduce the stress your dog is experiencing. A comfy dog bed that’s tucked away in a quiet area provides a safe retreat and resting place. He’ll be exhausted after his long journey, so make sure he has plenty of water close by, offer him a light meal, and leave him to rest. If he’s nervous of a metal food bowl at first, you could use a non-metal eco bowl, or even scatter his food close by so that he can forage for it – after all, this may be how he is accustomed to getting his meals.

Your family and friends may be keen to visit and meet him, but it’s best to make your home a visitor free zone for at least a week (preferably two weeks) to give your dog some time to become familiar with your home and immediate family.

It’s tempting to want to make a fuss of a new dog, to show affection and help him or her feel loved. However, this can be intimidating for many street dogs, so be guided by your dog. Speak softly, use his name when you call him and when food is involved, so that he quickly learns his new name and begins to associate it with good things happening. Move slowly. Glance sideways at him instead of looking directly at him, so that he understands your intentions are friendly. Keep your voice soft. Touch him gently on the chest or flanks if he approaches you, but ask everyone in the home not to approach him, and to only stroke him if he asks for that by moving close and showing inviting body language such as nudging or leaning in, soft eyes, an open mouth with a lolling tongue, a wiggly body and tail.

Toilet training is no harder with a street dog than with a home-bred dog. Your dog just needs to learn the difference between indoors and outdoors, and to be richly rewarded every time he ‘goes’ outside. To teach good toilet habits it’s important that you go outside with your dog, and ensure you have a pocketful of treats at all times so that you can reward him by praising him softly and dropping a treat on the ground right in front of him every time he eliminates.

Exercise

Walks aren’t essential during the first few weeks. In fact, keeping your dog at home gives him chance to become used to his new environment without additional stress being placed on him.

Sindhoor Pangal’s studies on The Lives of Streeties in India reveals that, in fact, they take far less exercise than our home-bred dogs. Street dogs spend much of their time napping, observing the world going by, chilling out with dog friends, playing, and finding food. 

Your dog may not be used to wearing a collar, harness and lead, and may find it overwhelming to be taken out for walks during the early weeks. You won’t want to add to his stress, so short practices in loose lead walking in the garden each day (with lots of smelly treats on hand to teach him that good things come his way when he walks by your side) will get him used to the strange sensations of being attached to you. It won’t take long for him to learn that this is fun, and you can then start with very short walks (just a few yards) and increase the time spent outside your garden according to how comfortable he seems. If he’s anxious please bring him straight home, so that he understands that you’re his champion and protector. You can try again the next day – there’s no need to rush.

The relationship that develops between a previously homeless dog and his new guardian can be an extraordinary gift on both sides. Being sensitive to your dog’s feeling and needs, and being patient and gentle while you teach him that indoor life can be good, are the keys to building a lasting loving relationship.

About the Author

Lisa Tenzin-Dolma is an ABTC Accredited Animal Behaviourist, INTODogs Certified Canine Behaviourist and author. She is the principal of The International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour, co-chair of The Association of INTODogs, which she represents for The Animal Behaviour & Training Council, and is founder of The Dog Welfare Alliance.

Lisa has had 33 books published, including “Charlie, the Dog Who Came in from the Wild,” a book about how she taught a Romanian feral dog to enjoy domestic life.

42 thoughts on “How To Acclimatize a Foreign Rescue Dog

  • May 24, 2017 at 8:57 am
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    This has been so much help thank you .

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    • May 24, 2017 at 9:07 am
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      No problem! Thanks for commenting

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  • May 24, 2017 at 11:58 am
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    Shared on Give a Dog a Home UK Facebook page and would like to put on our website, if that’s ok?

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    • May 24, 2017 at 11:03 pm
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      Thanks for sharing Lynne. You’re welcome to put a link on your website. Thanks again!

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  • May 24, 2017 at 2:06 pm
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    My dog is from Crete . Totally agree with all that has been written . Although the dog was skin and bones on arrival and willing to devour anything – feeding was a big issue as his gut was intolerant of different food . Once on the right food he started to thrive . He has trained up with the cues from my elderly dog . Language was a problem as he didn’t understand anything . Big emphasis on patience and avoiding traffic e.g. walking later in evening or early morning. Adjusting to another , colder climate in which he needed extra warmth . Small steps have slow improvement – he’s now I tune with everything

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    • May 24, 2017 at 11:05 pm
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      Thanks for sharing your experiences Violet. If you haven’t read Lisa’s book Charlie then it might be worth a read. It sounds like you could relate to it a lot!

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  • May 24, 2017 at 3:33 pm
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    An excellent article, thank you. I wish I had read it BEFORE I got my rescue dog, however all has gone very well, I pretty much followed all these steps but it is reassuring to read it.

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    • May 24, 2017 at 11:05 pm
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      Thanks John! Do share with anyone new to owning a rescue or thinking of doing so.

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      • May 26, 2017 at 2:12 pm
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        Totally agree! Wish I’d read this before we got our boy, though pleased to say he’s settled in well. A year on, we still can’t get a lead on his collar though, or make him go anywhere he doesn’t want to go!!
        A great article, thank you!

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        • May 27, 2017 at 1:47 pm
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          Something like Chirag Patel’s Bucket Game might be useful for getting the lead on. He has some materials on Youtube and his Workshops have an incredible reputation.

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  • May 24, 2017 at 3:51 pm
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    Great article, especially the safe guarding new arrival. Have worked with several overseas dogs and protecting them from escape is very often overlooked. Will share your article with a few of the organizations I work with.

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    • May 24, 2017 at 11:05 pm
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      I would really appreciate that. Thanks Mark!

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  • May 24, 2017 at 11:42 pm
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    We have 2 rescues form Cyprus and they are totally different. The first loves everyone, has recall and slotted in in a few days. She’s been confident and wonderful. Everyone loves her and I could ‘re-home’ her dozens of times. I take her with me on home checks and I am constantly asked if she is available. The second has fear in her eyes most of the time, especially when anyone moves fast. We originally fostered her and she failed her adoption so came back to us for some training and to build her confidence. Once back we felt it would be unfair to move her again so here she has stayed. It took months to get any recall even in the garden. She fears leads, fast movement, other dogs barking, (copes with our own dogs – we have 6 now in total) and is a fussy eater. She will eat a meal one day and suffer no ill effects and throw it up the next. We see very little progress but there IS progress so we will continues to support her knowing that we will get there eventually. We feel lucky to have her despite the issues she has and the restrictions it places on where we can take all 6 dogs because of her.

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    • May 27, 2017 at 1:54 pm
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      Keep persevering Gillian! It sounds like you might benefit from getting in touch with Lisa, I’m sure she could offer you some advice.

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  • May 25, 2017 at 9:39 am
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    Ours came from Cyprus. She’s not been difficult at all but it would have been very useful to have had more information. She is, however, a little hesitant when putting her lead on (have tried harness and collar, she’s slightly better with the collar).

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    • May 27, 2017 at 1:52 pm
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      Dogs are individuals and every one is different! It might be worth looking into Chirag Patel’s bucket game for issues like having the lead put on. He has some great youtube videos and his workshops are very highly rated.

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  • May 25, 2017 at 10:16 am
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    Great article. I ran a boarding kennels and cattery in an old part of natural Spain years ago, until it became over run with the ex pats settling there.Your article summed up the struggle these dogs have being shut in our kennels, (however caring and great the kennels were) Designer kennels included fitted metal turn round water bowls, I had my doubts , the fitter assured me they last- we had one entire set at the end. Also the rescues were making mistakes especially at the beginning. Run by the english, they advertised dogs as labrador or GSD crosses. They weren’t. They were indigenous spanish breeds with innate instincts and not how the english would expect a dog to behave , so they would leave them shut in while they went shopping and expect the sofa to be entire when they returned!

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    • May 27, 2017 at 1:50 pm
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      Thanks for sharing your experiences Steph. I did some work over in Spain myself and have worked with some of the Spanish dogs. It can be hard work and it’s a shame there isn’t more written on them which is why I was so glad when Lisa agreed to write this article.

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  • May 25, 2017 at 5:11 pm
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    This should be required reading for anyone contemplating adopting a foreign feral/street dog. We have 4; 1 from St. Croix USVI (adopted at 4 months) and 3 from Provo, Turks & Caicos that were all young adults when rescued. The work is ongoing but extremely rewarding as these 4 goofs are the best friends my wife and I have. Thank you.

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    • May 27, 2017 at 1:48 pm
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      Thank you for the lovely comment! And well done for changing the lives of four dogs!

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  • May 26, 2017 at 3:09 pm
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    Thanks this was so much help as I work with a rescue that rescues dogs that come from other countries to Canada and this is very helpful both to our fosters and our adopters we will definitely use this information.

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    • May 27, 2017 at 1:46 pm
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      Thanks Lori! I really appreciate the comment. Good luck with your rescue!

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  • May 27, 2017 at 4:40 pm
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    Excellent advice. Anyone thinking of adopting a dog from abroad should read this in advance – and be tested on it! There was one thing that worried me and that is the advice about a harness. I understand why you would not want to put a tight collar on a frightened dog but I would nevertheless advocate a slip lead until at least the dog is safely home and then in the garden for a while. Dogs can get out of most harnesses. My wayward Salukis could get out of a martingale collar and harness in one backward lunge. That is why I now use escape-proof harnesses for them and for my Romanian street dogs. They can be seen on Facebook at the One Stop Harness Shop. I don’t have any commercial links to the business. But the maker of these harnesses has saved my sanity and possibly the lives of my feral dogs.

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    • May 28, 2017 at 8:25 pm
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      A slip lead can be useful for temporary use in moving a dog from car to car for example. The concern is the neck sensitivity that Lisa mentioned. Slip leads also tighten and can make dogs more tense or more likely to fight the lead. If there is concern about escape then a double ended lead can be attached to a harness and collar. Then you can concentrate on keeping any tension from pulling on the harness but have the safety of an attached collar if the dog manages to slip it. I will admit the sighthounds are more likely to be able to slip harnesses due to their slight build. It can be worked around though! I’ve used T-Touch harnesses with them before.

      Thanks for the comment though, I really appreciate the feedback.

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  • May 27, 2017 at 5:02 pm
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    Have just ordered ‘Charlie’ as have had a Rommie rescue for 18 months who was probably a street dog. He has issues so hoping to get some ideas from the book.

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    • May 28, 2017 at 8:20 pm
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      Thank you Julie! I’m sure Lisa will really appreciate that and I’m sure you will find it very relatable and a great help.

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  • May 28, 2017 at 12:02 pm
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    Really well written. As a rescue we take dogs and cats from Romania, getting through to people that want to adopt them can be challenging !! I am saddened to read how many animals escape withing days or hours of arriving at their new homes, we keep ours at the rescue for at least 2 weeks to assess them and let them chill out. This explains beautifully how THE DOG feels. So many get dunked in the bath within an hour of arriving then its off to the park. Not surprising the poor dog is a nervous wreck.

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    • May 28, 2017 at 8:17 pm
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      Thanks Jill. I agree, the first few weeks should be an adjustment period with very little going on. There is no need to take them for walks or stress them out more than is necessary.

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  • May 28, 2017 at 1:23 pm
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    I got my dog from Romania. Very little history apart from being attacked in shelter and nearly died. I had huge support from snoopy rescue UK who were there at the end of a phone and gave me advice. He was not straight forward at all and very clever. My rescue is 4 in 1 mixture mainly terrier but also beligum mali and he had a huge amount of issues. He doesn’t like certain dogs or ones in his face. We have been training since Nov 2015. He has been a semi finalist on scruffts. Appeared on channel 4 scruffts show. He has won best in show and got his bronze kennel club. Going for silver and gold next. For us training was the key element and having the tools to understand him and learn together along with a huge amount of love and patience. I am still careful around other dogs although he loves my other 2 and the cat. He has fear aggression, but slowly that is now coming down and I don’t put him in situations he can’t handle. He is brillant in class and has manners around his fellow class mates which chop and change from month to month. He has tackled agility and loves it. We train on a long line, it’s just certain dogs he doesn’t like, just like us you are not always keen on other human beings. He faces each challenge with me and we are a partnership. I love him unconditionally, but I never under estimate that there are things I will always learn from him and about him.

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    • May 28, 2017 at 8:16 pm
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      It sounds like you’re doing a great job developing a beautiful partnership. Keep it up!

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  • May 28, 2017 at 2:30 pm
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    I would love to be able to give this to all adopters of our rescue dogs. Is this okay with you?
    Wendy Bruty
    Saving Pound Dogs Cyprus

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    • May 28, 2017 at 8:15 pm
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      Absolutely! I would love that.

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  • May 28, 2017 at 6:50 pm
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    Brilliant! Brilliant!! Article stop on making awareness of our special rescues, I’m still finding out things about my wee man nearly two years after getting him from Spain . Not long started barking!! And moving further away from me on beach with his bestie!! I love all the changes as he becomes more relaxed, but still a bit of separation anxiety not as bad as it was at first.
    Thank you
    Regards Maureen

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    • May 28, 2017 at 8:14 pm
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      Thank you Maureen! It sounds like your boy is finding his confidence. All the best.

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  • May 29, 2017 at 3:24 pm
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    Thanks for posting this! Have just been recommended to read this as our rescue from Cyprus arrived just over a week ago and everything in this article makes sense and is very helpful!

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    • May 29, 2017 at 10:31 pm
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      Excellent! Thank you Jane! Good luck with your new arrival.

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  • May 29, 2017 at 4:05 pm
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    I am on my 2nd Romanian rescue, the only problems I have had is they get rather protective after a few weeks and tend to nip anyone coming near my house and the first one house trained in 24 hrs, now the 2nd one has been here 3 weeks now and still isn’t house trained. He always goes on the same deep piled Chinese carpet (Arhghhhh) but I just wish he would go outside. He has access to outside most of the day and goes out at 9pm and again at 11:30pm but can still manage to have two poo’s during the night. Any advice please?

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    • May 29, 2017 at 10:35 pm
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      A lot of dogs may start to display that kind of nipping behaviour as they start to settle in and the fear starts to manifest itself. Initially they may be so frightened that they shut down and do little at all. I would rule this out if I was you but you may need a behaviourists help to do this. I’m sure Lisa won’t mind you contacting her on facebook (Lisa Tenzin-Dolma) to ask for recommendations.

      As for the toilet training letting them outdoors all day is a trap many fall into. If you leave the door open then you won’t be around to supervise them when they go which means you miss most of your chances to reward what you want (toileting outdoors). I would suggest until you’ve toilet trained them letting them out as often as possible and going outside with them making sure to reward with a treat when they go to the toilet outside.

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  • June 5, 2017 at 3:38 pm
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    Just read this after having adopted 3 dog’s 1 from the UK and 2 from Cyprus. The only comment I would make is don’t restrict this book to dog’s adopted from overseas. My UK girl needed all the above advice as they have likely been kept in stressful noisy kennels and whilst these provide safety they are very stressful environments. Excellent advice.

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    • June 9, 2017 at 9:30 pm
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      That is true. I’ve found myself sending this to UK rescue dog owners too.

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  • June 8, 2017 at 10:38 pm
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    I rescue a lovely dog from Greese 4 months ago I wish I’d read your artical when I first got him found it very helpfull ,he is still not house trained really doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of relieving himself outside, so its work in progress frustrating at times ,when I first got him he was frightened of everything but that is slowly getting better he is very wary of children and some men.
    Tends to nip at times but not aggressive I found your advise reassuring thankyou for publishing it

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    • June 9, 2017 at 9:29 pm
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      Thanks for the lovely comment Jackie. Keep persevering! If I can help you any more shoot me an email on any of the platforms I’m on Insta/Facebook/Twitter etc.

      Reply

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