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Rehabilitating Chained or Confined Dogs
By Debby Dobson

It is heartwarming to see a dog who has been confined most of its life be allowed to finally explore the world with all its sights, sounds and smells. However all too often, the effects of extensive confinement render a dog fearful and often terrified of what they are not familiar with. Sometimes this fear can manifest itself in aggressive behavior in a dog who knows of no other way in which to cope with the overwhelming stimuli he or she is now receiving. Many of these dogs need a patient person to work with them over a period of time to help them adjust.

There are several main points I cannot stress enough when working with a dog who needs to be socialized. One is patience, another is consistency and a third is balance.

I believe that dogs have the same range and depth of emotions as humans and that those who have been neglected seem to display heightened or exaggerated feelings to various stimuli. For example, while a loud noise will certainly startle a “normal” dog (one who has been raised with the comings and goings of people), that same loud noise will often terrify a dog who is not used to hearing a cacophony of sounds. The overly frightened dog will display a variety of reactions in the form of body language such as cowering, growling, snapping, hiding, putting their ears back or their tail between their legs. It is important that the person who is working with this type of dog understand how overwhelming the world seems. For a dog like this, the world is not a comfortable, safe place – it is terrifying. I would advise anyone trying to rehabilitate a chained or confined dog to first put themselves in the dog’s place emotionally and understand the level of fear with which this dog faces his or her new environment. At first glance, it would seem that a newly freed dog would welcome this change, but that small area in which they were living became their security, especially when the confinement started at puppyhood and was extended through the period of time when a growing dog normally becomes familiar with the larger world.

Another important point when rehabilitating a dog who is afraid of the world is to be consistent. I have found that it helps, especially in the beginning, to have regularly scheduled events a dog can count on and look forward to. If you walk your dog in the afternoon, make sure that you give him or her a favorite treat when you return. Daily “rituals” help calm a frightened dog, and add consistency to their day. Another suggestion is to use soothing touch on a regular basis. Before bed tummy rubs or hugs while walking are great experiences and will help your dog feel loved and comforted.

While you are offering regular doses of affection, you must also be consistent in your corrections. For example, although it may be tempting to ignore unacceptable behavior in a dog who tugs at your heart because of the horrific life they’ve led, this won’t help in the long run. It’s similar to training a puppy and teaching them good manners – the goal is to ultimately be able to bring your dog into any situation and know that he or she will be well behaved. Far better to say “NO!” every now and again than to have a dog who doesn't understand acceptable boundaries and behavior.

The next area is balance – how much and when? It is often difficult for a dog who has little or no worldly experience to go out! I would suggest that when you first start rehabilitating your dog, simply focus on getting him or her used to walking with you on leash. Don’t try to combine this with any other socializing initially. When your new friend becomes comfortable on a leash, you can then begin to take him or her to places where they can meet new people and other dogs. In other words, take it step by step. Don’t expect to be able to put your dog on a leash and go to a noisy soccer game the first week after they have been released! Start by taking time to get to know your new friend, allowing them to get to know you one-on-one and letting them explore the world they have been separated from. Then over a period of several months, begin taking your dog out for short periods initially and allowing your dog to meet new people and other dogs.

A special note about introducing your dog to other dogs: because a dog who spent much of their life in confinement often became frustrated when they saw another dog, they may not view all new dogs as potential friends! If you can work with a friend who has a calm, relaxed dog this will help. Take both dogs to a “neutral” area such as a park. Keep both dogs on leash initially. Let them meet in an open, non confined area and watch carefully. I usually start with a nose to nose contact and during that time I say, ”Good dog!” as they sniff each other to reinforce the positive outcome of this encounter. This simple phrase has helped diffuse many a tense situation for me over the years – I believe that if you convey the idea of being a good dog, so shall the dog respond! If however, there is any sign of aggression, pull the dogs apart. Depending on the situation, you may want to wait a few minutes and try again or wait a day or so.

I have mixed feelings about having dogs on leash when they meet. The obvious benefit is that if there is a problem, the dogs can be separated. However, to a confined dog meeting another dog for the first time, the leash may signal confinement and may then trigger aggression. I would suggest that if your previously confined dog has had a number of positive experiences meeting other dogs on leash over a period of months and has not exhibited aggressive behavior, you can probably safely let your dog off leash to play with another dog. Observe him or her closely, however, for any signs of fear or aggression.

The process of socializing and rehabilitating a dog who has been confined requires a tremendous commitment – it may take a year or more to see real progress*. It is a process that at times may seem futile, but don’t give up! It is often a fine line between giving enormous amounts of love and setting boundaries if your dog displays aggression or other unacceptable behavior. Because their emotional growth was “stunted”, these dogs vacillate between fear/aggression and a huge outpouring of affection which can sometimes border on neediness.

The goal is twofold: to help them overcome their fears and to simultaneously boost their confidence, which means putting them in initially stressful situations. It sometimes seems like a Catch 22 – the only way to help them is to subject them to stress. Yet, if done gradually and in small steps, this type of systematic desensitization can be very effective.

And I can think of no greater reward than seeing that huge doggy grin on your friend’s face as he or she strides confidently down the street with you — a journey that had once been filled with terror before you came along to help.

—Debby Dobson has been working with dogs for over 20 years and she is the owner of "Good Dog!" Animal Behavior.

Disclaimer: The author of this article cannot be held responsible for the actions of any dog or dogs and wishes to make it clear that the advice of a professional trainer or animal behaviorist should be sought in cases where a dog or dogs may be exhibiting aggessive behavior.

*Tammy's note: Although this is sometimes true, please realize that most often a dog can be housetrained within one-two weeks. Here Debby is talking about other behaviors, fear and aggression issues that will still be in place. Many dogs can readily live with the pack quickly.

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