You’ve decided it’s time to get a dog for your homestead. You know what you expect your new dog to do for you, be it companionship, security, herding, or vermin control; and, most likely, you know what breed of dog you want. But before you start looking for a breeder or visiting pet stores, there’s another option to consider: You can give a dog a second chance, a new home, a new job, and a new pack to call its own. You can adopt a rescue dog.
Finding the Right Dog
America’s animal shelters are full of good dogs in need of good homes. Before you buy a puppy, visit a shelter or two and see who’s waiting to meet you.
Financially speaking, adopting a shelter or rescue dog usually costs a good deal less than a pet store or breeder-supplied puppy. Adoption fees typically run from $75 to $350, and often include vaccinations, a veterinary checkup at the shelter, and spaying or neutering. That’s a fraction of the cost of “that puppy in the window,” which may set you back $1,000 or more.
When you visit the shelter, be open and frank about your expectations in a dog. Tell the shelter attendants about your homestead, what needs you expect the dog to fulfill, and the accommodations you plan to provide. Paint a picture of your family and pets, your livestock and poultry, and the landscape of your property. Is your land fenced in? Will your dog be an inside dog or an outside dog? Who will be working with the dog, and how often? Tell them what breeds you’re interested in. (One in every four shelter dogs is purebred, and most mixed breeds have easily recognizable parent breeds.)
“While it’s OK to have an idea of what kind of dog you’re looking for, you should also keep an open mind, as you never know what kind of dogs will be available. Maybe you’ll come across something that you either don’t know about or never thought was for you,” says Kim Siar, former interim shelter operations manager at the Humane Society of Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.
Ask the attendants about the dog’s medical history. Most dogs available for adoption have already been spayed or neutered, and if not, many shelters will either help defray the cost or pay for it outright.
This is also a good time to ask about restrictions or issues. Some dogs need a one-dog home, or don’t do well with children. Others may have separation or food anxiety.
“To avoid problems down the road, it’s important to adopt a dog with the same energy level as you. If the dog will be out working on the homestead with you, I’d suggest an active working or herding dog. These dogs were bred for work and are happiest when they have a job to do,” says Amy Shepler, director of Beulah Land Dog Rescue. She recommends visiting www.PetFinder.com to help locate a good match for your specific needs.
And while everyone loves a puppy, take a good look at what adult dogs bring to the table: They’re already fully grown, and their scatterbrained puppy energy has been burned off, so they’re ready to learn. And behavioral issues, if any, have already shown themselves and can be dealt with, assuming they haven’t already been remedied by the shelter volunteers or foster families.
Another thing to remember when you meet the dogs at the shelter for the first time is they’re in a high-stress situation. Shelters are loud, chaotic places for a dog, full of barks, howls, and strange noises. Don’t be surprised when a dog that’s supposed to be friendly comes across as timid, standoffish, or scared. The animal may even ignore you, clinging to the attendant. It’s been through a lot lately, so give it a little time and a chance to calm down and get to know you.
Don’t expect to take a dog home on your first visit, either. You may need to visit a dog several times before the animal shows you its true personality.
Transitioning to Farm Life
Once you’ve found your dog, there are a few things you should have on hand to ease the transition. Have a few of its favorite treats ready, and be sure to ask the attendants what food they use at the shelter. Bring an appropriately sized nylon collar and strong leash, a dog crate large enough to allow your new dog to stand and lie down comfortably, and an old blanket or towels for padding.
Now the real work begins. You must make the new dog a member of your pack, a family member, and a valuable asset to your homestead. Remember, you’d be doing this with a “store-bought” puppy as well.
Be prepared to give your new dog some space for a while; that’s what it needs most. Its world has just been turned upside down, so allow time for readjustment. Its crate will become its refuge, especially if the dog has already been crate-trained.
If your dog will have house privileges, set up the crate and dog bed in a quiet room where it has access to food and water. Allow it to enter and leave the crate as it pleases, but restrict the dog to that room for a day or so, until it acclimates to the noises and smells of your home. Check on your new dog every now and then for bathroom breaks, and be prepared to forgive an accident or two at first.
Enforce house rules from the very beginning, and be consistent. If dogs aren’t allowed on the furniture, don’t allow them “just this once.” If you don’t want your dog jumping up on people to say hello, don’t let it — not even once. Be firm and be patient. Be generous with praise and reward it with a treat whenever it behaves properly. Your new dog wants to please you; it just needs to be shown what’s expected of it.
The same principles apply to outside-only dogs. Provide a quiet, secluded spot, such as a kennel or an empty box stall. Give them plenty of warm, dry, clean bedding, and fresh food and water. Check on them frequently and give them attention — when they’re ready for it.
Don’t let your new dog roam unattended for the first few weeks, especially if you have livestock. Chickens look an awful lot like chew toys. The dog has probably never met a cow, or a sheep, or maybe even a cat before. You need to teach it that these other animals aren’t threats, prey, or playthings.
Keep your new dog on a short leash for its first introduction to the rest of your animals, and for a few weeks afterward. Pay attention to its reactions. Does it seem timid or frightened, curious, aggressive, or bored? Does it strain to greet the other animals, or strain to avoid them? Is it tense or relaxed around them? Allow the dog to sniff its new barn mates if they seem interested. Keep the leash short, and the dog under control.
Don’t rush the process; socializing any dog to other animals takes time. Impatience can result in injured or dead animals. Plan on giving your dog frequent periods of leash time each day for at least a few weeks, until you’re confident it will remain calm among your other animals, especially birds. Reward your dog with praise and treats for good behavior, and return it to the enclosure whenever it gets too excited or shows aggression or fear. When you finally let the dog off its leash, stick around to make sure everyone stays friendly.
Use this leash time to work on obedience and verbal commands. Your dog needs to recognize and instantly obey your commands without question. Keep those treats handy, and always praise and reward it for properly obeying you. After the dog starts getting the hang of it, you can begin skipping the treats, but never the praise. You want the results of obedience to be enjoyable, so don’t use “come” to call it in for a bath, or a trip to the vet, or for punishment. If you do, the dog will soon learn to ignore you. Nothing confuses a dog more than getting tricked when it expects a treat.
This is also a good time to work with your dog on boundaries. Take frequent walks with the canine along its boundary lines. Use a retractable leash to give it a little freedom to roam. Whenever it comes close to crossing the boundary line, call the dog back and use the leash to reel it in. Remember to reward the dog for returning, especially when it does so on its own.
Take your time training and socializing your new dog. In an ideal situation, new becomes normal in two to three weeks. A dog with a difficult past may need a few months to adjust fully, and extreme cases may take years. Few dogs are irredeemable; it just takes time, consistency, and patience.
So what do you do if you simply cannot connect with your shelter dog? First, give it another chance. Review your routine: Have you given the dog enough socializing time? Are you consistent in your commands and rewards? Are your expectations clear and reasonable? If the answer to any of these questions is no, reassess your relationship and make the necessary adjustments.
Second, seek professional help. Talk to an animal trainer, shelter worker, or your veterinarian. They can offer invaluable advice. Don’t forget the internet; there’s a wealth of information available online. Visit shelter and rescue sites, as well as dog trainer pages. Many feature contact links as well as FAQs.
Third, do what’s best for the dog. On the rare occasion, a dog simply cannot make the adjustment to join your pack. If you’ve tried everything else with no success, the only thing you can do is return the animal to the shelter. It may be tempting to offer it “free to a good home,” but unless you know the people personally and trust them to provide a good home, your would-be rescue dog may find itself in a far worse situation. The shelter staff already knows the dog, and vice versa; they represent the dog’s best chance at a forever home. Thankfully, you aren’t likely to have to return your rescue dog to the shelter.
Good dogs deserve a good home, and your homestead deserves a good dog. America’s animal shelters are filled with quality canines in need of a pack and a chance. Take a chance on a good dog, invest some time and energy, and you may discover that your new favorite breed is “rescue.”
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, with his dogs, Sophie and Scamp. Sophie came from the pet store, and Scamp is a rescue; Andrew wouldn’t trade either dog for any other animal.