I have been using any little spare time I have to read a book with a topic dear to my heart: Animal Psychology. I want to learn what is going on in those mysterious minds and teach others how to help when there is an animal in need. This book compares every animal from elephants to rodents, cats to dogs, and chimpanzees to birds. Inside these minds are complex processes that, in critical developmental periods, can be destroyed by humans. I created this post to reflect on the information I have absorbed in hopes I can pass along enlightening research that can help all of those reading this. Whether it be a shelter or rescue animal you'd like to adopt or already adopted, a dog you've raised from a pup, or to simply inform others.
Between volunteering at our local shelter and operating a dog rescue, I hear all too often that a dog is being returned for a multitude of reasons. Some of which being that the dog became aggressive, withdrawn, or had fears and other mental distresses the owners didn't want to or couldn't deal with.
In the book written by Laurel Braitman, PhD, there are many research findings that relay critical information on why animals are the way they are. To begin, synapses develop between neurons in the brain that lead to the ability to have emotion, make decisions, and remember past experiences among other things. When some of these "neuronal pathways" are not used enough or are exposed to high stressors or "stress hormones", this can cause damage and regression in an animal's development as it matures. For example, if a puppy is abused or is sheltered from enriching activities, this can cause their brain to be underdeveloped. This puppy is less likely to grow up to be outgoing and confident and more likely to show signs of aggression, fear, or instability.
This detriment can also occur when a puppy or dog is exposed to more stressful exposures that it can mentally handle. It is great to socialize and desensitize. Things like exposure to a variety of dogs and cats to create a well rounded animal that can read other animal personalities, exposure to a pan dropping in a kitchen, a lawnmower, or a vacuum cleaner are all good things to expose dogs to. However, not done at the pace the dog is comfortable or being exposed to too many things at once can do more harm than good.
To continue my puppy example, whether it be too much exposure in too short of a time, stress, or abuse, this puppy grows into an unconfident adult. Let's say this dog develops some fear aggression due to having the insecurities from puppyhood. The owner can't deal with a full grown dog with the behavioral problems and they surrender to the local shelter. Volunteers walk the dog daily for potty breaks and playtime until a good home is found. It very well could be that these behaviors don't come out in the shelter environment. With the dogs barking in metal cages and strange people walking by, the dogs personality and lack of neurological development is masked by fear of the unknown.
If and when this dog is adopted, the adopter is given a lecture on decompression, a critical time period for a dog to de-stress from what they have endured. This should consist of quiet time alone (possibly in a crate), structured eating times, potty breaks, and no over-the-top "OMG A NEW DOG!! I MUST HUG AND KISS AND TALK LIKE A BABY!!" This is to give your dog its best shot at a successful life in your home. However, like the dog with developmental issues in my example, its results may vary from dog to dog. Days go by, and the dog begins to change. The new adopter sees issues arising, possibly aggression or over-arousal to certain stimuli or it could be withdrawn behavior accompanied by a strong, uncomfortable fear. The dog's true character is too much for the new adopter and is sadly returned to the shelter. This dog has now been raised in a home with abusive owners or a stressful environment, surrendered to a shelter, adopted to a family, and placed back into a shelter.
This vicious cycle for a dog, damaged from a young age, is a result of human error. This animal's life is a timeline of stressful events, but no one looked at it from the psychological perspective. My goal here wasn't to scare my reader's, but to enlighten. Golden Gate Rescue saves dogs that need us, even if that means dogs that have developmental problems like I used in my example. Our hope with damaged dogs like this is that we can try to get inside of that complex brain, gain the trust, and reverse as much negative exposure as possible. This is not easy, and it takes time, money, and an army of animal behaviorists, veterinarians, and trainers. Sometimes the work we do helps and a celebration can take place, but sometimes it doesn't and a celebration must take place, of a life who had the best treatment it ever received was in our care.
The success stories will hopefully bring people to realize that resources are out there. These dogs aren't all hopeless. These "problem dogs" are more than just "bad dogs". Lot's of times, they are just products of their environment and need guidance. Enrich your pet's life to make them well rounded both physically and mentally, but at their own pace. I will always be an advocate for misunderstood animals, be it cats, dogs, or elephants. Let professionals be a resource and time be a healer. Our rescue is here as a resource to aid in animal success with animals in our own care, and to keep your family pets in your comfy home.