Understanding Your "Adopted" Dog

... A Dog With A Past

Deb Duncan
COME, SIT, STAY...Canine Etiquette
Behavior & Training Consultations

Many people bring a pup/dog into their homes who have had previous life experiences. They may have lived with another family, pack, or had to fend for themselves as a stray. The life this pup/dog lived before coming to your family has a major impact on the mental, emotional, & sometimes physical dog you find yourself facing. Consequently, it is important to understand "why" they exhibit certain behaviors & "how" to deal with these behaviors.

You may never know the specifics of these dogs' previous lives, but if you are observant you can make some valid assumptions. Note that even if you take in a dog from an individual, the information they provide may not be complete or accurate.This may be deliberate OR the previous owners may truly not have a clue about what really went on with their dog as it impacted the ultimate development of the dog. Even owners who try to provide a complete picture may not have a clear perception of what was happening. Therefore, I recommend that you take any information provided, take it under advisement, & file it away. But, rely on your OWN observations for a true assessment & decisions on how to handle the new dog.

Dogs tell us everything we need to know. They are among the most communicative of all species....especially, in speaking the truth & being real in their emotions, reactions, & behaviors. It falls to us to be open, vigilant, observant, compassionate, understanding, & responsive to ALL they tell us.

Dogs provide a clear picture of their life experiences, IF we will only listen. They are so adaptable to whatever they are faced with in their life. Dogs are a reflection of their environments & experiences. Just as with people, the dogs are creatures of habit & behavioral patterns. This means, whatever they confront in life is mirrored in their reactions, responses, reflexes, & behavior patterns. Additionally, dogs' behaviors & their coping skills are in part governed by their basic innate personalities.

Consider a family who raises three children EXACTLY the same in every way (if that were possible). The manner each of these children reacts & copes with life will reflect their individualism. One child may be quiet & introspective, one may be a little hellion, one may be gregarious & outgoing....and yet, their rearing would be exactly the same. However, the ways they "cope with, react to, & are affected by" their experiences will be as different as their innate personalities.

In the early months of a dog's life, they are very impressionable. This is called the "imprinting" stage. During this phase, whatever they experience is imprinted on them for life. Moreover, their fundamental "coping skills & reaction patterns" are fairly well established. With children, it is said that by age 6-7, they are "set" in the way they will deal with, cope with, & react to different situations throughout their lives. The same is true of the dogs by 9 mos. to 1 yr. of age. Dogs are every bit as resilient, responsive, & adaptable to future experiences & environments as people. The difference seems to be that the dogs are able to adapt & adjust... less emotionally encumbered than people. This is why dogs can be severely abused, with every reason to NEVER trust a human...and yet, when provided with a loving, compassionate, & understanding environment, they seem to be able to work through their issues/baggage faster & easier.

Don't get me wrong, the process of working a dog through their mental, emotional, & physical issues/ baggage does not happen overnight. It takes much work & often, much time. But, they seem to put their hearts "back on the line" easier than people. Even when they have opened their hearts to you, they will still have habits, patterns, reflexes, "triggers" to things that are reminiscent of their previous life for a period of time. What I mean is, they can fully accept you, their new life, & be so very grateful for the wonderful life they now have.....and yet, still have their "triggers" that can be set off inadvertently by you or their environment. Please know that even these "triggers" can eventually fall by the wayside/extinguish themselves.What we have to do is to help the dog separate themselves from these reactions & reflexes...while at the same time, building a new set of reactions, reflexes, & behaviors.

Let's look at some examples. If a dog lives with a loud, yelling, boisterous, physical, &/or bullying family, and this is the way the family interacts on a daily basis with each other & the dog... this will dramatically affect the dog. This type environment may make the dog a "nervous nellie", or the dog may learn to live & interact with similar reactions & behaviors. They will either "crater" emotionally or they will learn to interact with the same loud, physical, or bullying type behaviors they experience & they have come to believe are necessary for them to "survive" in this pack & environment .

If a dog lives in an environment that frequently forces the dog to react/reflex in a self protection/survival mode, they will develop patterns of warning growls & ultimately snapping & biting behaviors. Initially, the dog's previous family may have witnessed this behavior during a family fracas & decided this was cute. These people may, in another setting, want to show a friend this "behavior" in the dog. Consequently, they will deliberately "elicit" these same reactions in the dog for the sake of entertainment. Whether this is done with deliberate maliciousness or innocent, misguided perceptions, the people expect the dog to know WHEN they can do these behaviors & when they cannot. This is no different from giving a dog a "shoe" of their OWN to play with & chew on. Then, expecting the dog to know WHICH shoe they are "allowed" to chew on & which shoes are "off-limits! This creates a NO WIN situation for the dogs.

Aggressive behaviors (for the most part) are "conditioned/trained" into the dog & are actually contrary to the basic nature of the dog. They are "pack animals"! This means they innately & instinctually KNOW they must behave in certain ways to be "allowed" to co-exist peacefully within their pack. Dogs are born knowing they must live within a pack & by pack rules. It is up to the pack members to teach the pups the "pack rules" of that particular pack. Just as the dynamics of people "groups" are different & diverse, so are the pack rules from one dog pack to another.

If a dog in the wild has been separated from or lost their pack & happen upon another pack, they will "ask" to join. They need a pack. These dogs will quickly learn / be taught the rules of the new pack. If they do not learn, adapt, & adhere to the new pack rules, they will be killed or they will be expelled from this new pack & forced to once again live on their own. This is very scary & saddening for the dogs. They KNOW they will only survive with the protection of a pack. And, being innately pack animals, they emotionally need the help, support, & interaction of a pack environment. It may take many confrontations for the dog to learn that the behaviors of their previous pack are NOT ACCEPTABLE with their new pack. But, they will learn & adjust their behaviors because of instinctual emotional & basic survival pack needs.

It is up to us to understand the mental & emotional processes of the instinctual nature of the dog. We must know that the family we bring the dog into constitutes a "new pack" with new rules, structure, & hierarchy. Initially, the dog only knows how to interact & react by the rules of their previous pack. They will make many mistakes by the new pack rules. They will exhibit reactions that are inappropriate within the new "pack" dynamics, even though these same behaviors had been crucial for survival in their previous pack. Do we banish the "new dog" or do we take the time, patience, & insight to acclimate the new dog to OUR pack dynamics.

Many experts will tell us NOT to anthropomorphize the dogs' behaviors....put too much of a human element to them. I agree & I disagree. What I mean is, the dogs have emotional reactions that are much more similar to human emotions & reactions than many experts accept. They feel & react much like we do in many situations. The "gap" in understanding this is that while the dogs experience many of the same emotions we humans do, they are relegated to REACTING in the only ways dogs have at their disposal to communicate in given situations. We, humans, can ask other people to NOT do something. We can yell. When we are pushed too far, we can slap out at the other person. The dogs have only their voices (growls), their body language, & ultimately...if pushed too far, they can slap out by snapping or biting. The dogs SAY/COMMUNICATE the very same things we do. The difference is their mode of communication & our perceptions of & reactions to their "dogspeak" communicators.

When in an uncomfortable situation, you can put your hands on your hip, you can slam a door, you can put your finger in someone's face, you can say...stop, or else!!! All the dogs can do is to try to remove themselves from the offending situation (find an away place) , or growl, or raise upper lip, or stiffen posture (use their body language), or snap the air, or finally BITE!!!!

When dogs are repeatedly exposed to specific reactive situations, they learn to "communicate", to respond with conditioned behaviors. It is up to us to modify their behaviors, their communications. This does not happen overnight, because these behaviors have become habits & patterns. These behaviors have become what the dog believes is needed, required to survive. Reconditioning these habits/patterns is no different than with people. It takes time, patience, & consistency. We all know how hard it is to modify/change an ingrained habit pattern WE have developed!!!

So, if a dog has had to fight for their food...they will be food aggressive. Food is basic & essential for survival. Therefore, they will develop a mechanism to ensure they get enough food to survive. YOU know they will have enough food, but they do not know this based on their previous experiences! We would want to recondition them to understand they will always have enough food & we (as pack leader) control their food. Note that some dogs are extremely food driven, food motivated. Even if they have always had enough food, by nature... these dogs may exhibit the same food aggressive behaviors. Again, you have to be the "alpha" & be in complete control of their food which translates in dogspeak to you determining their survival.

This leads us to a discussion of the ALPHA (pack leader) role. All pups start out mouthy. This is normal dog/dog behavior. When in a dog/dog pack, the older dogs in the pack teach the youngsters "bite inhibition" & appropriate use of their mouths as governed by that particular pack's rules. These rules are determined by the "alpha/lead" dog of that pack. When we bring pups into our people/dog pack, we MUST assume the role of "alpha". This means setting the pack rules, teaching bite inhibition, puppy manners, appropriate inter pack behaviors.

If we DO NOT provide this guidance, the results will be governed by the basic nature of the dogs. The pups will grow up using their mouths as they always have. The mouthiness of a 12 week old pup may seem inconsequential. However, this very same puppy mouthiness exhibited by a one year old dog is significantly different. If we DO NOT assume the "alpha" role & set rules, guidelines, & pack structure, the pup will eventually assume this role. When they do this, the dogs are just following their basic instincts which tell them that "every" pack must have an alpha/ pack leader. If one is not in place, the maturing pup will be driven to assume this role themselves. Their instincts tell them that for their "pack" to survive, there must be a leader.

The dog you have brought into your family may have been thrust into this alpha/lead position in their previous environment. They will come into your "pack" expecting to be the pack leader because they have never experienced anything else. They do not know what it is to be governed by another pack leader. These dogs will exhibit behaviors reflective of the alpha role they had assumed in their previous environment. It will be up to you to assume the role as pack leader. The dog will learn there is a member of their current pack who is "over" them. Again, their instincts will accommodate this change in the pecking order. You must assume the alpha/lead role in every way or the dog will assume the door is open for them to "retain or reclaim" the alpha role they have always known.

I recommend you read my Alpha article. It will provide guidance for securing & maintaining your alpha position, being fully accepted & respected by the dog. Additionally, you may find my Bites, Nips, & Bite Inhibition article helpful.

If a dog has been kicked, hit, mauled, yanked, strung up by their leash, etc., they will likely have developed reactions that "warn back" the offensive stimulus & protect the dogs from what they perceive as "threatening" situations. In these instances, the dogs have to be handled with all due compassion to prove to them & help them understand they can "trust" humans to not always inflict harm, pain, & injury.

When a dog has lived in an aggressive environment & consequently, have learned to react in a reflexive "self protective/survival" manner, IF you attempt to deal with their reactions/behaviors in an aggressive manner...you are only VALIDATING their reactions. Many people perceive a dog's seemingly aggressive behaviors as needing to be dealt with in a like manner. Meaning, the people react themselves with..."that is not acceptable, I must teach this dog WHO is boss!". This is absolutely the reverse of what this type dog needs. Remember the saying, aggression breeds aggression!!!! Therefore, reacting to a dog in a manner reflective of their reactions will only serve to INCITE & INFUSE the very behavior you are wanting to stop.

When dogs react with behaviors we see as aggressive, they are in a highly reactive, highly stimulated, & over-adrenalized state. Therefore, if you respond to them in an aggressive manner....YOU are throwing gasoline on a fire. You will want to respond in a reverse manner, in a way the "diffuses" the situation. Don't FUEL the flames!!! Talk the dog down!!! Be calm, cool, collected. Be in charge...but, not threatening. Be compassionate... but, not harsh. Be firm & stern....but, understanding. All of these will serve you well. Think "dogspeak"!! Don't threaten them, don't yell at them, don't "posture" yourself in a threatening way (yelling at them, hands on hips, leaning over them, getting in their face, roughly grabbing at them, etc). Understand when the dog is "triggered" into this mode and you respond in inappropriate ways, you will only INFUSE, FEED the situation. When you do this, the only possible result is that the situation is guaranteed to escalate the dog's reaction processes!!!.

Moreover, what you want to do is to examine closely the situation(s) that "set the dog off". Determine the stimulus or trigger that elicited this reaction in the dog. Once you have a grasp of what triggers the dog, you will want to AVOID triggering the reactions, setting off those behavioral mechanisms. This is NOT "giving in" to unacceptable behaviors. Rather, this keeps the dogs from experiencing/reinforcing the very reactions & behaviors you want to extinguish/remove from the dog. Note that every time the dog experiences/revisits these types of reactions & behaviors, this is reinforcing these very reactions & behaviors. The longer a dog can be prevented from experiencing these behaviors.....the further removed the dog will be from those reactions & behaviors..

One of the fundamental aspects of "operant conditioning" is: any behavior that is NOT reinforced, positively or negatively, WILL be extinguished! And, this is exactly what we want.

There is another crucial aspect to this process. We must help the dog develop more appropriate pack manners & behaviors as relate to their "new" pack structure & rules. We must help the dog develop NEW coping skills & acceptable behaviors to replace the old behaviors we are extinguishing. The dogs need to learn they can live & interact with their new pack, but they must learn HOW to do this. They must learn they can live their everyday life without reacting to the triggers & behaviors that were warranted for survival in their old pack. The key here is to make the new pack rules, the new behaviors really great & rewarding for them.

Take something as simple as the leash. The dog may have horrible memories from their experiences with a leash. You would NOT want to force the leash on them, because they have established/conditioned reactions to a leash...FEAR...PAIN...SURVIVAL. Therefore, you would want to "desensitize" the dog to the leash. Let them get used to the fact that the leash does NOT signal fear, pain, a bad situation about to happen!! Then work to make their experience with the leash very rewarding & even, FUN. Recondition them to recognize the leash means a "great" thing is about to happen!!!! If possible, make a game out of the leash. All dogs love games.

The same concept applies to many different behavioral scenarios. Think about a dog that has been kicked repeatedly. They will have horrific reactions to ANY feet or shoes. This reaction may be cratering/cowering. OR, their reaction may be to "attack" ANY feet. shoes "before" those feet & shoes can inflict pain, harm, & injury! You would go slow & desensitize the dog to ALL feet & shoes. You can desensitize the behaviors by sitting on the floor or in a chair & feed the dog between your feet. Any treats given during the day, put your hand with the treat between your feet. This allows the dog to have GREAT experiences when around feet & shoes. Remember "food" is basic & essential to survival. Therefore, they will eventually associate feet & shoes with something that is so important to their being. After you have successfully gotten the dog to readily eat when in the presence of feet & shoes, you can take it a step further. You can make a game of being around feet & shoes. Teach the dog to do a movement in & around the feet (like a figure 8), a weaving in & out of the legs. This allows the dog to associate feet & shoes not only with the basic essential of life (food), but also they will come to associate feet & shoes with a game, with fun, with rewarding behaviors.

All "desensitizing" processes take time & a lot of patience. Think about if you had a bad injury to your arm. Many months after the injury has healed, you will still "flinch" if someone comes close to the arm or makes a move toward your arm. However, if you were desensitized to movement toward your arm....and, maybe given a piece of chocolate or a dollar bill everytime some one moved toward the arm....you would be desensitized & reconditioned to a different reflex much faster. The reason is there was a NEW, REWARDING stimulus occurring that replaces the behavioral reflex you were experiencing previously!!!

This process requires tremendous patience, understanding, insight, & creativity to find ways to teach NEW, FUN, REWARDING behaviors. When faced with an aberrant behavior from the dog, try to look at it from the dog's perspective. Consider what may have happened previously & how they are relating that experience to what is happening now. When you can view a situation through their eyes, you will find the solution.

You cannot find the solution to any problem in life, without first understanding the reason/catalyst/trigger behind the problem. Knowledge is power. When you have insight into a behavioral reaction, you will be able to find an offsetting solution. You may never truly know what caused a particular behavior or reaction in the dog, but your understanding of the behavior as it has manifested itself in the dog will provide the answers...the solutions.

While the dogs adapt phenomenally to the human/dog world, they are innately governed by the instinctual nature of being a dog. They have far more advanced thought processes than many people give them credit for. However, they are not capable of "deductive reasoning". The dogs are unencumbered by these analyzations. Rather, they are governed by the basic "cause & effect" process. One thing causes another thing to occur...cause & effect. Moreover, they are incapable of the more advanced human thought processes of "revenge, pay back, etc". All they want is to live, to love, to please, to be loved, to be an accepted & viable member of their pack. If they do something we perceive as "getting back at us or being stubborn", this is NOT what is happening! They are being true to their emotions. And, the basis of those emotions is to love you & to be allowed to stay in their pack. Therefore, you must examine the dog's behavior & reactions to determine the "cause & effect" process that triggers those reactions & behaviors.

If we look & listen, it is easy to see their cause & effect reactions. But, we must look deeper. Don't just see the "effect" of their behaviors, rather examine the "cause" of their behaviors. While many people have a sixth sense, I believe the dogs have a 7th, 8th, 9th sense!!!! They know & sense more than we ever could. More importantly, the dogs are true to themselves & to us. Dogs DO NOT have the capacity to feel one way & react another way. Whatever the dogs are communicating to us is REAL & TRUE. No strings attached, no ulterior motives. When we learn to hear what they tell us, the dogs have much to tell us & to teach us. Listen to your dog, hear what they are telling you. Then, find a way to help them overcome their "past"!! You & your dog will reap the rewards.


Any information contained on this site relating to training and behavior of Westies is for informational purposes only. The WHWTCA recommends that Westies undergo obedience training. For assistance in locating an obedience training club in your area, please consult the American Kennel Club's website at www.akc.org/events/obedience/getting-started/

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