How to help your rescue dog become more resilient


With the number of people who read and shared my post about trigger stacking, I know there are a lot of people out there who believe in making a difference to the lives of their rescue dogs. Having listened recently to the very excellent Dr Patricia McConnell’s talk for the ASPCA about building resilience in dogs, which you can listen to in full here, I thought I would share some of the ideas I found most interesting, as well as a few of my own comments.

If you work in a shelter, if you volunteer, if you adopt a dog who comes with a range of traumas and terrors, the webinar is a fabulous guide that will give you a better understanding, a lot of inspiration and plenty of practical ideas. I thought some of the ideas I found most interesting, and share with you the story of a resilient little soul named Lucky, and a family of not-so-resilient spaniels (namely Zakari, Zouzou, Zoe, Zelda, Suzette and Teddy) so that you can see some of these ideas in practice.

Why is resilience such an important quality for our dogs to have?

Resilience is the ability we have to bounce back from adversity, trauma or tragedy. It’s how we cope with stress, how quickly we deal with those flight, fight or freeze hormones.

With shelter dogs who come in having faced a range of traumatic and tragic events, you can see how important it is that they have that “bouce-back-ability”. Resilience can prevent stress and can help us cope with physical or psychological trauma. It can also help us heal more quickly. But it can be damaged by trauma. It can also be healed through careful training. Resilience is also how quickly we bounce back, be it seconds or minutes, or even months or years.

What does a traumatic event entail?

In short, it’s any event the animal deems it to be. Sometimes, dogs face enormous adversity without batting an eyelid. We call these dogs “bomb-proof”. For others, even the arrival of a familiar face can stir up feelings of unrest and agitation. For some “bomb-proof” dogs, they can have exposure to events from which they don’t bounce back. But we have common ones that we see more often in the shelter:

  • dogs who have been hurt in some way, physically or emotionally;
  • dogs who have been exposed to aversive training methods or who have been punished during their training;
  • dogs who have come in from “backyard breeders”, kept in squallid conditions;
  • dogs who have been kept in isolation from other animals;
  • dogs who have been kept in isolation from human beings;
  • dogs whose owners have been sick or ill for a long time;
  • dogs who have been neglected;
  • dogs who have come in from a puppy farm;
  • dogs whose owners have died.

In short, these are dogs who have had a situational stress. For Lucky, that was living in an abusive household where he was eventually thrown out of a second-floor window, breaking his back leg and fracturing his pelvis. For the seven spaniels, that was living in a barn with little light, with minimal contact from human beings except for food. Why then is Lucky a resilient little soul and Zakari a shadow of a dog?

What we know about resilience

Some of what we know is related to our studies of fear and anxiety. Resilience is, after all, how we cope with fear and anxiety, as well as the stress from trauma. Thus, for Lucky, his traumatic past has not made him a fearful or anxious dog. The opposite happened for Zakari and his family: trauma has resulted in a family of fearful, anxious dogs. Why do dogs have such different reactions to trauma? Why do some dogs bounce back and others don’t?

We should be clear here. It’s not just trauma that makes for a fearful, anxious dog, we’re talking about a dog who finds it hard to cope with traumatic events and harder still to bounce back.

Science tells us that much of how we deal with fear and trauma is inherited – either through genes or through how we are nurtured as we grow up. Our understanding of that comes from much post-war study of the intergenerational effects of the Holocaust on humans. Research on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has also given us insights into the effects of psychological stress. Many studies of the offspring of Holocaust victims showed that they were more likely to suffer from a lack of resilience: anxiety, depression, PTSD. What studies are telling us is that if you take a stressful event, it can affect generations to come.

You would expect their parents to be more likely to suffer anxiety or depression, but how does that affect their children?

Some of that is no doubt as a way the events affected parenting, how the children were nurtured. However, one small study pointed to something worth further consideration, that compared with a control group, there were epigenetic changes as well, suggesting that the effects of trauma on our parents and grand-parents can cause changes at an epigenetic level in us. We know that the environment can cause genetic changes in plants; what we don’t know is exactly how that functions in creatures. In other words, trauma may cause changes in our biology that we can pass on to our children.

Further studies in animals (Dias & Ressler, 2014) have shown that animals can inherit a fear of certain smells from their fathers. Epigenetic inheritance studies are trying to say more about this tendency, but it’s a new science and there is a lot to learn. For now it’s safe to say that qualities like fearfulness pass through the generations in more ways than just learned behaviours we’ve picked up from our parents.

That said, our early experiences are also important. Studies have also shown that animal offspring that are nurtured become less fearful than animal offspring who are not. This passes down the generations too (Weaver et al, 2004). This suggests that a mother dog who is not nurturing towards her puppies may pass on not only fearfulness to her puppies but also the lack of nurturing will pass forward down the years too. This has huge implications for puppies removed from their mothers, like my dog Heston who was found in a box at a day old. Without that nurturing, fearfulness is a likely consequence. Either through lack of contact with their mother or through poor mothering, a dog may become fearful – and therefore less resilient – as a consequence. That behaviour too is at a genetic level. Licking and nurturing literally makes a baby animal less likely to be stressed as an adult.

And that’s not all. Parenting and a nurturing infancy is vital for a resilient dog. It’s also necessary that mums have a pregnancy that is free from traumatic stress. There are many studies in animals (though none in dogs) that show that there are links between traumatic stress and the way offspring process cortisol, the stress hormone.

So, who a dog’s parents are, what they dog’s parents are afraid of, what stress their mother was subjected to during pregnancy and how the puppies were reared are all vital in giving a dog a solid genetic predisposition for handling stress.

Can you see how important it is then to choose a puppy that comes from great parents with a responsible breeder? And why cheap backyard breeder pups are a catastrophe for resilience? For Lucky, his bounce-back-ability is no doubt a result of his parents, his time in the womb and his puppyhood. Life has thrown all kinds of crap his way and he’s just his happy-go-lucky self. But for Suzette, Zakari and Teddy, as well as their various offspring… take a fearful mum, a stressful environment during pregnancy and you’re two-thirds of the way to creating a dog who has less resilience from birth.

We also saw this lack of resilience with the twenty-odd GSDs taken by another shelter, (three of whom came to us) or indeed the seventy mixed-breed cane corso/doberman that were seized last year, six of whom came to us. More work needs doing before we can fully understand this. It’d be interesting to see those genetic changes under the microscope, but I don’t need science to tell me that – for whatever reason, be it nature or nurture – change is passed on from parents and early experience.

What this tells us is that shelters would do well to work closely with good breeders (and that’s not necessarily a pedigree paperwork thing) to ensure that we think as much about the emotional state of the parents we choose for our puppies. Fearful parents breed fearful offspring.

As McConnell says, you can only work with what you’ve got. If you think of resilience on a scale of 1 – 10, with lack of resilience being 1 and ease of resilience being 10, some dogs don’t come to us having anything more than the ability to reach a 6. You are either bomb-proof from the base, or you are not. Not only that, there is a limit to just how bomb-proof a trainer or behaviorist can make a dog. For Heston, deprived of early parental nurture, he is never going to be a super-resilient bomb-proof dog. 10 is not in his range. For Suzette and her offspring, they are never going to be bomb-proof either. For Lucky, well, he’s a “bomb-proof from the base” kind of guy.

That has a big impact for shelter work and for you as rescuers. What you expect of your dog may be too much: you’ve got to respect your dog’s limits. Depending on how resilient your dog is also impacts upon how they can cope with new stimuli.

It doesn’t mean that we should give up hope though. Even if we have a dog who is genetically predisposed to be fearful and anxious, or less likely to have that bounce-back-ability, there is still a lot we can do.

And, let’s face it, if we didn’t believe that, every single one of us should give up our work in rescue right now.

There are four strategies McConnell says that we can use to help our dogs be more resilient: safety and security, social support, autonomy, and a healthy and balanced physionomy. Two of those are ones that I’d like to explore in a little more detail here.

Safety and security

One of the major things you can do to make your dog feel safe and secure is to remove sensory overload. When you are not resilient, every walk can be the equivalent of a PTSD sufferer walking through a warzone. This can be hard in a shelter. It’s why our least resilient dogs are in quieter enclosures, sometimes on the periphery of the shelter. McConnell talks about limiting exposure to noise, sights, smells to make it less overwhelming to a dog. Shelters can do much by removing novelty for fearful dogs, whether it’s new smells or new sights. The same is true for rescue dogs too, especially in those first moments out of the shelter.

For many of us, we take our new dogs home and subject them to an endless onslaught of new stimuli. We show them new beds, take them round our homes which are filled with new smells, give them new toys, new food, new water bowls.

New is not always good for dogs. Some dogs love new experiences. Neophilia – or the love of new things/novelty – is a key sign of an extrovert. For an extroverted dog who enjoys and thrives off novelty, new things are curious and interesting, not frightening. For an introverted or neophobic animal who is fearful of new experiences, the adoption process can be very hard, even though you think it is a great thing. The shelter, for all its faults, is predictable. It is familiar. It was new once and the dog has adapted. Routines are obvious. Smells are familiar. Sights have become expected. Don’t be upset if your newly rescued dog seems to be more terrified at first, not less.

The ASPCA rehabilitation centre has done some interesting initial work with dogs who come to their centre from animal hoarding situations. It’s only small scale, but it’s very promising and has implications for shelters and rescuers.

One group of their rescued dogs have been kept in kennels where the stimuli has been minimised but where they are quickly introduced to shelter routines: they can’t see other dogs, they have little human contact, routines are established after three days. They are counter-conditioned, desensitised to their fear, involved in active rehab programmes right away.

The other group have a very limited stimuli for three weeks. They have muted sound, few distractions, no sensory overload.

Guess what? The animals who bounce back quickest are those who have three weeks of limited exposure to sensory overload and who are just left to “be” for a little while in a quiet, unstimulating place with limited interaction.

For me, this is very promising. It ties in to what we know about cortisol, the stress hormone, and its “bodily shelf life”. Cortisol can take up to eight weeks to be completely reabsorbed (especially in those dogs who have a genetic glass ceiling on their resilience levels) and until then, it’s floating around in the body. What this shows is that our dogs need time for those cortisol levels to return to normal.

To help them do that, a stress-free, stimuli-free environment is crucial. You should think about how your dogs acclimatise to the noise of your home, and minimise unfamiliar noises. You can also think about keeping novelty to a minimum. Is taking them for a four-km walk every day through what is essentially a warzone for a stressed dog going to help them build resilience? Far better to keep those things to a minimum so a dog can feel safe and secure. Gradually reintroduce walks, new stimuli and new experiences and you’ll find your new rescue dog better able to cope.

McConnell suggests that we take each sense in turn and try to eliminate as much as we can control. Closing curtains or shutters in the home can help if the dog can see a lot of activity outside. Putting a screen up across French windows if you live on a road can also help. Likewise in the garden.

In shelters, there are also things we can do to help stressed dogs recover. Ensuring dogs aren’t facing other dogs’ enclosures in shelter situations is one way we can eliminate visual stimulus (or at least putting a screen up so they aren’t permanently faced with other dogs) and putting them in a low-traffic zone in the shelter can also help. If you have rescued a fearful or anxious dog, ask how you can remove as much visual stimulation from outside as possible so that they can acclimatise quickly to what there is, and not be bombarded with additional stuff to process. A quiet corner can help those who are aversive to noise. At the Refuge de l’Angoumois, we use our ‘satellite’ blocks for this, as the dogs aren’t facing one another in the same way across a corridor. Even in the main block where dogs are, we keep the corridor dim for the most part. Some of our enclosures are out of the way of all other dogs. It’s why Hagrid and Daluk, who find it harder to deal with stimuli, are in the outer parks. I don’t need to tell you the difference in Hagrid when a quiet, non-reactive GSD moved in next door and took the place of two dogs who would regularly run the length of the park barking and jumping up at the panels that separated them from Hagrid. Actually, it wasn’t good for me as a walker: Hagrid was more alert, more energetic, more his “normal self”. He was quite literally worn out from all the noise!

Aim for predictability and as little novelty as possible for a good three or four-week period, longer if necessary. If you must walk your dog, walk them in predictable, open spaces where there is little sensory stimulation from other humans or dogs. For Teddy and Zakari, adopted from our pack of spaniels, having regularity, stability and a lack of stimulation has been vital. Their progress has happened largely because Liliane, their owner, has made sure that everything is the same. They live in a quiet house with few visitors. They have an open, secure garden. Liliane has regular routines. The dogs have regular routines. Their progress has happened because Liliane has turned away visitors and has stuck to those routines. Safety and security has been her path forward and it has made a huge difference. She has also used her regular dog walk in a quiet, predictable space to ‘mop up’ some of those stress hormones.

As for Lucky, there’s a dog who thrives off novelty but has also come to appreciate regularity. Novelty does not frighten Lucky. Rat poison? I’m not going to sniff it – I’m going to scoff it right out. New shoes? Well I’m just going to run down the garden with them as they must be a marvellous new toy. A resilient dog is one who loves new experiences, or, at the very least isn’t frightened by them.

Once your dog has had a chance to reset its stress hormones, it’s time to reintroduce them gradually and carefully to some of those stimuli. Bear in mind too that exercise is a good way to use up adrenaline (and release endorphins) and that movement uses up adrenaline. Mental and physical exercise are vital for dogs to help them build resilience as they use up those stress hormones.

Social support

Social support helps us build resilience and overcome stress. This is also something that is true for dogs. Dogs are social creatures. Living in complete isolation can be stressful for them. Some dogs prefer other dogs, especially if they have not been socialised with people. For our hounds who arrive, many have had little handling. The presence of other dogs is critical. It’s why we refused to adopt our pack of seven spaniels to single-dog homes and why it is best for our scared hounds to go with other dogs. To cut them off from the only social support they have ever had would be akin to removing all connection with the rest of the world. When Zoe and Zouzou were adopted together, Teddy and Zakari went rapidly downhill. Sure, they made each other more fearful, but they also supported each other. Now Teddy and Zakari have been adopted, they need each other to make progress. If a dog comes from a hoarding situation or a pack group, they NEED other dogs. If they come from a home where it has been them and a treasured master, they NEED human contact. Dogs who have been completely isolated from both humans and dogs can take an awfully long time to build resilience with.

Even for our bomb-proof little Lucky, having a stable family home and owners with whom he can find support from has no doubt made that bomb-proof-ness even more rock solid rather than being passed from pillar to post in those first twelve months of his life.

Some final thoughts

Balancing a lack of stimuli to reduce stress, and then building in appropriate mental and physical stimulation to use up stress hormones is a challenge. It depends on each dog to tell you when they are ready for novelty and when they are ready to move on. There will be failures. There will be set-backs. There will be times that your Zakari comes in contact with something that really freaks him out and it may set him back for weeks. There may be times that your bomb-proof Lucky, who has lived through trauma after trauma, finally decides there IS something after all that he is afraid of. Resilience is easy to damage and hard to build.

For shelter workers and rescuers, there WILL be dogs you will fail. There will be dogs that you can never teach to be resilient. For every traumatised Kiki and Coco, eating out of my hand within two minutes, there are uncountable hounds who will never, ever be bomb-proof and for whom life is equivalent to living in a warzone.

We should remember too that learning curves peter out and level off, that learning and progress are not linear. Learning resilience can come in fits and starts. There will be days when there is a lot of progress, and days when there is very little. There will be setbacks.

As we set off on our mission to desensitise our rescue dogs to the stimuli around them, we should remember that the opposite of desensitisation is sensitisation. We can very easily, and accidentally, render our dogs more sensitive to stimuli, not less. Our daily walk may start with the intention of habituating our dog to the world beyond the fence, but can end up putting our dog on edge. Our attempts to introduce sounds and novelty can easily backfire.

But despite the fact that dogs are a result of their genes and their early experiences, we need to remember something. All dogs are more than their genes. Ask any geneticist. Genes are not our destiny. Or, should I say, they are not our only destiny. Nor do they have to be our destiny. Nor are they for a dog. The way we help them to be resilient is vital as well. We can teach our dogs to be resilient, through providing safe and secure environments that do not overwhelm them. I’d like to leave you with something that McConnell said that really resonated with me.

You don’t know how much difference you can make until you start