I’ve had my rescue dog for six months, here are six things I’ve learned

Woman lying with her lurcher rescue dog on her bed
(Image credit: Getty Images)

No matter how prepared you are, every new dog that enters your life will challenge you and teach you more than you could have expected. I picked up my five-year-old lurcher six months ago and when we started our journey together, I thought I knew a thing or two about dogs. It turns out, she was about to take me on a roller coaster ride of discovery, with a few tears along the way and plenty of goofy antics to keep us both entertained. 

There are several things you should know before you get a rescue dog and things you can do to help a nervous rescue dog settle in, but here are my main takeaways from the first six months. 

1. It took her longer to settle than I expected

Her personality was always there under the surface, but it took a while for the playful, happy dog I now know Dixie to be to replace the nervous lurcher I first brought home. However, the process ended up being sort of like peeling layers off an onion: every time I thought “to myself: “Oh she’s settled in now, she’s so comfortable,” another facet of her personality would reveal itself. She’s a sensitive soul, on her third home, so the shock of being uprooted from everything she knew and taken somewhere totally different with a new routine must have been terrible for her.

It turns out that Dixie is quite goofy and loves to play with her friends, but those initial six months involved working through a lot of fear. She barked at every dog she saw, refused to go into certain buildings if the floor looked funny to her, and would stop dead on our walks if something freaked her out. Thankfully I never considered returning her

2. Slow and steady wins the race

From the beginning, I was committed to not pushing Dixie any further or faster than she was comfortable. She had what seemed to be some fairly irrational fears (zebra crossings, tape measures, linoleum flooring), but I took them very seriously and we overcame them a little bit at a time, with lots of positive reinforcement in the form of the best dog treats, praise and toys.

I had a chat with Barking Heads dog behaviorist Adem Fehmi, who reinforced this choice, saying that forcing my dog into situations that scare her or make her uncomfortable will only show her that she can’t trust me. 

It took a while, but now, when we see something that makes Dixie feel uncertain or scared, she turns to me for reassurance, instead of falling back on her fight/flight instinct. If I say, “It’s ok, kid, I’ve got your back,” she seems to know this to be true.

3. Dog people are supportive and understanding

I’ve grown up with dogs but was surprised to find out how little I knew about supporting my dog when she began displaying fear-based behavior, especially when leashed. After speaking to Adem, I understood that because Dixie relies on her speed to get her out of situations she doesn’t like, by leashing her I was taking away her ability to do that, so she turned to the next card in the deck: barking. 

From Dixie’s perspective, she was just telling other dogs that she wasn’t comfortable and to go away when barking or growling at them. She still pulls out a snarl if a younger dog crosses a boundary or plays too roughly, but mostly she’s pleasant, even when leashed, due to lots of positive reinforcement and working on building a bond of trust between us. 

When she was in her “barky phase” however, I felt embarrassed and upset that I couldn’t seem to reassure her and that she was reacting poorly to other dogs. Other dog owners, however, were wonderfully understanding. They saw that we were working on it, they saw that Dixie was afraid, and they gave us the grace to continue working on the problem, instead of being angry or further highlighting the issue. 

Had Dixie been genuinely aggressive, I would have taken a different approach, but thankfully, while rude, the barking was where her problems started and ended and I could encourage her through every encounter as needed, rewarding her when she was polite.

Golden retriever lying on its back in the grass

(Image credit: Getty Images)

4. She keeps surprising me

Even now, I’m brought to tears when Dixie faces a fear. She hates going to the vet and I usually have to carry her into the building out of necessity (which I hate doing as it removes her autonomy). Just a week ago, however, given time, and the right motivation (pet shop sausages), Dixie took her quivering bottom into the vet herself and even accepted a treat from the receptionist and the vet nurse. 

We go to the surgery monthly to get her nails trimmed, as I wanted to build up some familiarity with the vet and for it to not just be a place Dixie goes to when she’s hurt or unwell. While it has taken the full six months, lots of praise, and ungodly amounts of sausage, she’s finally reached a place where, if asked, she will walk in on her own. I was so proud, I sobbed the whole way home.

5. As her confidence has grown, so has her comfort zone

When we first started, lino flooring might as well have been lava, and Dixie wouldn’t set foot inside any shop, pub, or cafe that had anything other than carpet. But again, given the right motivation, she’s now happy to give it a shot. The other day, of her own accord, she took me to the pet shop in our village, waited for me to open the door, and then very tentatively stepped onto the lino floor and crept in to have a look around. 

She’s always been pretty clear about where she wants to go for her walk (something we sometimes disagree on) and has favorite places that we visit on our walks. However, the longer we’ve spent together, the more confident she is in going somewhere new. Having worked so hard on building a strong foundation of trust, I think she knows that I won’t take her anywhere bad, and so she’s far happier to go somewhere new and smell unfamiliar smells.

6. We had a couple of difficult spells where boundaries were tested

As she grew more settled and confident in herself and her space, Dixie decided that she could go it alone and started running off mid-walk to explore (I’m told this is a “lurcher thing,” but it’s definitely not desirable behavior, so I had to try to nip it in the bud). 

Although I never punished Dixie, I would leash her and take her home immediately once I caught up to her. She remained on a long line for several days after such an incident, until we had worked more on her recall, using high-value treats (the trusty pet shop sausages again) to ensure that she knew when I called her I meant right now. Eventually, the behavior disappeared again and it’s been several months since she’s had a “flight of fancy”. Adem suggests “fading the long line out” as her recall becomes more reliable, as time on the line is not a punishment, but a tool for training and improving the bond of trust. 

Enjoyed this? Check out Lou’s other content, including; ‘I tried everything to help my nervous rescue dog settle, here’s what actually worked’. 

 Adem Fehmi
Adem Fehmi

Owner and founder of Dog-ease, Adem’s passion and fascination with dogs started as a young child and since then he has studied, observed, worked, lived with, and breathed these amazing creatures. Lucky enough to get his first dog at the age of nine (raising the money himself by washing cars and running errands in the local neighbourhood!), he soon learnt two important lessons: 1) That owning a dog was extremely important to him when life got tough and 2) that owning a dog was not always easy and that there was a need to develop a common language between human and dog so that each clearly understood the other.

Lou is an experienced writer and keen dog lover who works at PetRadar's sister site, LiveScience. When Lou isn't covering health and fitness, she's busy spending time with her family dogs or growing all kinds of veggies and flowers on her allotment.