Dig lying in couch
Sirius Black, looking bored

“What if he has no personality?”
“He has a personality.”
“How do you know?”
We both stared at the dog, who was lying unmoving on the floor of the living room, in the same spot where he had lain down upon entering the room. No personality was in evidence.

Six years of experience has proven me right: Sirius Black is full of personality. However, it is equally true that he demonstrated little of this personality during the first days and even weeks in our home. In fact, confident as i was that he had a personality somewhere, i anxiously questioned the trainer about the fact that he wasn’t accepting trrats from us and other similar concerns.

While not always as extreme as what we observed during our first days with Sirius, it is common to observe a reduced behavior in dogs both in the shelter and in the immediate post-adoption period. This period is sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon” period, because adopters may observe few problematic behaviors, such as chewing and barking.

However, it is important to note that it results from an overall decrease in activity, including a decrease in both positively and negatively perceived behaviors. For example, Sirius’s refusal to accept treats could be considered a positive behavior that was being suppressed.

What causes behavior suppression?

I usually identify two major contibutors to this phenomenon. While not entirely unrelated, I think they are worth discussing separately.

Dog behind fence
Dog waits in a shelter. (Photo: Neon Tommy on Flickr CC-BY-SA)

The first contributor is the psychological phenomenon known as Learned Helplessness. Learned helplessness is reduced behavior that results when animals (or people) experience an inability to influence their environment. Once they perceive thattheir actions or inaction do not effect what happens, they become less likely to act at all, even if the situation changes.

It isn’t much of a stretch to see the experience of dogs in a rescue, and especially in a shelter environment, in this light. Their daily experience in this environment is governed by the schedule of the facility, and, even with the best of intentions, shelter staff are typically unable to significantly alter their routines based on the behavior of an individual dog.

While this explanation may be less apropos for dogs in foster environments, small rescues, or moving directly from one home to another, it is still unavoidable that the dog’s routines and environment have been completely changed without respect to his or her actions.

The second contributor is stress. Helplessness, as described above, certainly contributes to stress. However, disruption in environment, changes in routine, breaking of relationships, medical interventions (vaccination, testing, spay and neuter), and more also represent stressors.

What should adopters do?

In general, behavior levels gradually increase as stress decreases and dogs adapt to their new environment. The length of time this process takes, and how quickly or gradually it occurs, will differ from dog to dog. Adopters can help their dogs by establishing a routine early on, and also by being alert to stress signals from their new dog. Many of these may be subtle and easily overlooked or misinterpreted, especially as adopters get to know their dogs.

Some dogs, especially puppies, may benefit from early enrollment in a group training class, which helps owners and dogs bond, promotes socialization, and provides owners with professional and peer resources for dealing with “puppy issues.” For other dogs, home training, possibly with the assistance of a professional trainer, may be more appropriate, while particularly fearful and anxious dogs msy benefit more from an emphasis on stress reduction than active training.

Have more advice (or questions) about helping newly adopted dogs? Share in the comments.

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