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Part 1: Psychological and behavioral characteristics of rescued hoarded dogs
Results of the study
Behavioral and psychological concerns
Increased attachment and attention-seeking behavior
Increase in undesired behaviors when left alone at home, such as house-soiling
Increase in compulsive and repetitive behaviors
Results of the follow-up study
Trust of humans
Coping with change
Animal hoarding occurs when individuals accumulate animals in numbers that exceed their ability to provide for the animals’ basic needs, resulting in a situation that causes harm to the animals. In some hoarding cases the animals are kept outside, but the most common environment is a house or other structure (e.g., barn, mobile home, old buses, cars) containing dozens to hundreds of animals running free and/or confined to cages or other enclosures.
The quality of the environment in cases of animal hoarding exists on a spectrum. Most typically, however, the conditions are extremely unsanitary. A large amount of feces and urine is usually present on the floors and the odor emanating from the waste material — predominantly ammonia — may be powerful enough to cause injury to the animals’ eyes, nasal passages and lungs. The animals may be forced to compete for food, which may be insufficient in quantity, of poor quality, contaminated or spoiled.
The duration of the time the animal lives in the hoarding situation ranges from months to the animal’s full life span. Conditions in many hoarding environments are so bad that many of the animals don’t survive. When police enter hoarding situations, there are deceased animals present in a majority of cases.
Many of the animals are born into the hoarding environment, which often means they are not adequately socialized to humans during their critical youth stages. Other animals in hoarding environments were formerly someone’s pet, ending up in the hoarding situation in a variety of ways.
It has been estimated that as many as 5,000 new cases of hoarding are reported each year in the U.S., which would mean that as many as 250,000 animals are in a hoarding situation each year.1
Hoarding is done with all types of animal species, including cats (most common), dogs, birds, horses, farm animals such as goats and pigs, small mammals such as rats, reptiles, and small and large exotic animals. We chose to study hoarded dogs because they are among the most numerous victims and the ones most adopted into homes.
Over the years, thousands of the animals held in hoarding situations have been fortunate enough to escape their confined existence and make their way into adoptive homes. Those who are involved in adopting these animals into homes have long been aware that many of the animals show evidence of psychological harm in their behaviors and emotional responses to normal life.
In a series of scientific studies undertaken by Best Friends in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and the Atlantic Veterinary College, we have made great headway in advancing our knowledge about formerly hoarded dogs. I have compiled all of this information below.
The information I present will be divided into three parts: “Part 1: Psychological and behavioral characteristics of rescued hoarded dogs”; “Part 2: Rehabilitation and treatment methods for rescued hoarded dogs”; and “Part 3: Outlook for recovery and long-term well-being.” The manual includes details about adopters’ experiences and satisfaction levels with having adopted a rescued hoarded dog.
1Patronek G. 2008. Animal hoarding: A third dimension of animal abuse. In: Ascione FR (Ed.), The International Handbook of Animal Abuse and Cruelty: Theory, Research, and Application. Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, Indiana, pp. 221-246.
Part 1: Psychological and behavioral characteristics of rescued hoarded dogs
To fully understand the psychological make-up and mental health of dogs removed from hoarding situations, we solicited adopters of these dogs to participate in a study consisting of an extensive online questionnaire about the behavioral and psychological characteristics of their dogs. The full study was published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
We compared the scores of these dogs with those of standard pet dogs. There were 408 formerly hoarded dogs included in the study, and these dogs had been living in their adoptive homes for an average of 2.2 years. Based on best estimates, the average age of the dogs was 5.5 years.
Results of the study
Physical health problems were reported at significantly higher rates by owners of formerly hoarded dogs than by owners of the control dogs. Because our study focused on psychological issues, we did not break down the physical health problems into specific medical conditions affecting the dogs. However, the physical problems are well-known and include mild to severe dental disease, hair coat and skin disorders, eye and ear infections, internal and external parasites, traumatic injuries, and malnutrition and starvation.
Behavioral and psychological concerns
The specific results of our study showed a broad range of abnormal behavioral and psychological findings in the rescued hoarded dogs. When compared to normal pet dogs, hoarded dogs had significantly higher rates of the following:
- Fear toward a wide variety of things, such as unfamiliar people (strangers), other dogs, and general life events such as noises, movements, and strange objects
- Not wanting to be touched, picked up, or held
- Attachment and attention-seeking behavior
- Undesired behaviors when left alone at home, such as house-soiling
- Compulsive and repetitive behaviors
The hoarded dogs showed significantly lower rates than pet dogs for these factors:
- Aggression toward strangers
- Aggression toward other dogs
- Chasing small animals
- Excitability (only during the first 2.5 years in a new home)
- Energy level
- Rivalry with other dogs over food, toys, beds, and human attention
- Persistent barking (if placed in a home with no other dogs)
It is essential to note that all of the factors evaluated above represent a composite of rescued hoarded dogs as a group. In other words, the increases or decreases in the different factors are an average for the group of hoarded dogs, compared to the average for the normal pet dog group. What this means is that for any increased value — fear of strangers, for example — there are some individual rescued hoarded dogs who show absolutely no fear at all of strangers, while others have astronomical increases, causing the average for that group of dogs to be higher than that reported in the normal pet dogs.
The same is true for all the decreased values. For example, while the group of hoarded dogs shows a lower level of trainability than the group of normal pet dogs, some hoarded dogs are highly trainable. On a similar note, in discussing the findings for hoarded dogs, when I make a statement like “Rescued hoarded dogs show a fear of virtually everything,” I’m referring to the dogs as a group, not indicating that every individual hoarded dog is fearful of everything.
The most dramatic and important difference we found between the rescued hoarded dogs and normal pet dogs was in their levels of fear. The fears involve everything a dog could be fearful of and the intensity ranges from mild fear (such as being startled a little more than a normal dog would be when hearing a loud sound) to being completely “shut down,” frozen with fear, and unable or unwilling to interact with anyone or anything.
Fear of strangers. Formerly hoarded dogs were much more likely than typical pet dogs to have a high level of fear of unfamiliar people. The causes of this fear of people could be due to a number of factors. The dogs who were born into the hoarding environment may not have received adequate socialization to humans in their puppyhood. Early positive interactions are critical for the developing brain to form the neural connections that promote positive social relationships throughout life. Another reason for this particular fear could be that the hoarded dogs had been separated from human interaction for such an extended period of time that their confidence in humans had eroded and they now feel that humans can’t be trusted. Irrespective of the precise cause of this fear, the level of the fear may range from a very mild shyness up to terrifying and debilitating fear.
Fear of other dogs. It might seem that dogs in a hoarding situation, who are often around many other dogs, would be comfortable around dogs when they are taken out of the hoarding environment. But our study showed that, as a group, rescued hoarded dogs were more fearful of other dogs than typical pet dogs are. This is likely due to the fact that many dog-to-dog interactions in the hoarding environment are unpleasant in nature (because of the stress and limited access to vital resources, such as food), so the dogs develop negative feelings about other dogs. In addition, some hoarding situations involve keeping dogs in small cages separate from other dogs, which means they are unable to socialize normally with fellow dogs, resulting in poor social skills.
Fear of general life events such as noises, movements, and strange objects. This fear involves everything in life other than living beings (humans, other dogs, cats, etc.), including such diverse things as a car driving by, a strong wind, wide open space (some of the dogs have never been outside of a house, or even outside of a cage), a door slamming shut, stairs, and so on. These fears are usually the result of the dogs not being exposed to these things during their hoarding experience, and so such objects and noises are frightening.
Not wanting to be touched, picked up, or held. Another prominent finding that would be classified somewhere in between a fear and a dislike is the hoarded dogs’ tendency to not want to be touched, picked up, or held. This almost certainly has a connection to the causes of fear of people — that is, a loss of confidence and trust in people. Once again, there are many rescued hoarded dogs who react normally to human contact, but as a group, the dogs exhibit more negative reactions to human touch than the normal pet dog group. Interestingly, the decreased desire for actual physical contact with humans is in contrast to an increased desire to be near humans, as seen in the next item.
Increased attachment and attention-seeking behavior
It is not surprising to see that dogs deprived of adequate human companionship show more desire to be close to humans. Many of these dogs were pets before they ended up in the hoarder’s possession, so they likely missed the human company they had during their previous time as a family pet.
Increase in undesired behaviors when left alone at home, such as house-soiling
Dogs in hoarding situations don’t have restrictions on where they may urinate and have bowel movements; they can go pretty much anywhere they want, anytime they want. Even the dogs who were formerly pets in someone’s home may have been in the hoarding environment so long that they forgot the “proper” place to “do their business.” And in fact, even those who didn’t forget and may have wanted to go in the proper place (i.e., outside) would likely have had no chance to do so if confined strictly inside a house and especially if kept in a cage. Therefore, it is no surprise that when they are rescued and adopted into homes, their elimination behavior isn’t a model of perfection.
Increase in compulsive and repetitive behaviors
In rescued hoarded dogs, behaviors that appear compulsive and occur in repetitive patterns include spinning in circles, licking themselves excessively, pacing, chewing and licking blankets and carpets, and (oddly enough) hoarding objects and toys themselves. Research has shown that dogs and other animals develop these types of behaviors when in stressful situations, and performing the behaviors is believed to be a method of coping with that stress. The stress can be composed of fear, anxiety, boredom, conflict, frustration, and other distressing emotional states. Many repetitive behaviors continue in animals removed from the stressful environment, perhaps because the behaviors have become ingrained as a habit.
A number of rescued hoarded dogs have been reported by rescuers and adopters to show aggressive tendencies, but as a group, overall the aggression level of these dogs toward unfamiliar people and toward other dogs was found to be significantly less than what is seen in typical pet dogs. We consider low aggression levels to be, in general, a good thing. However, if aggression is decreased due to the very high fear levels — such that a dog sensing a threat is paralyzed with fear rather than psychologically prepared to defend himself if need be — then what we have is a good thing but for a bad reason. This appears to be the case in many rescued hoarded dogs.
It was no surprise to find that rescued hoarded dogs are less responsive to training than typical pet dogs are. The most likely explanation for the decreased trainability is that fear levels are accompanied by a rise in stress levels, and elevated stress interferes with concentration, attention, and memory, thereby impairing the brain’s learning mechanisms. Fearful and stressed individuals exhibit shifts in focus, mental drifting, and an inability to solve problems or follow rules and directions. Poor trainability is exactly what we would expect to see with these psychological processes.
The crucial thing here is that for any animal (any person, too, for that matter) whose impaired learning is attributable to underlying fear or anxiety, any effort to push, exert more control, assume more power over, demand more compliance, force more obedience, or dominate the animal in any way will only be detrimental to the animal’s well-being. Fear-induced impairment of learning is not the fault of the animal, not a misbehavior or stubbornness. In fact, it’s not even within the animal’s power to control. Punishment or more forceful attempts to train will only heighten the frightened animal’s fear, leading to suffering and an even poorer ability to learn.
Results of the follow-up study
The results above came from the first part of the study, which made up the published report in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. After that part of the study was completed, I developed a second questionnaire that focused on many aspects of formerly hoarded dogs that weren’t adequately covered in the original study. I emailed all of the participants of the first questionnaire and invited them to fill out this follow-up questionnaire. The number of dogs entered into the second questionnaire was 296. What follows are the results of this second study. I’ve included the important questions just as they appeared in the questionnaire, followed by the results, including examples of written-in comments. All of the names of dogs and people, as well as any other identifying features, have been changed in order to preserve confidentiality.
One important point: This follow-up study was conducted only on the formerly hoarded dogs enrolled in the first study; no “normal” control group was used. Therefore, while the results of this second study give us a very good characterization of rescued hoarded dogs, we can’t determine whether the results differ from the normal dog population, where they differ, and by how much.
Many of the questions in the first questionnaire asked about fear as well as aggression toward people and dogs. As important as these traits are, however, they don’t evaluate all aspects of sociability. For example, there could be two dogs who are both nonfearful and nonaggressive toward humans, but one could be extremely sociable and friendly with people and the other could have no particular interest in being with people. The two dogs couldn’t be more different in that regard, yet they score identically on the fear and aggression levels. Therefore, to find out more about the dogs’ sociability, I asked this question:
Dogs, like people, have different desires and abilities to socialize with others. Please check the choice that comes closest to describing your dog’s current sociability.
The choices offered and the percentage of dogs with each of them are on the graph below.
A reminder: We asked about the dogs’ current sociability, which means we are seeing what these dogs are like after being in their adoptive homes for an average of 2.2 years. Therefore, this data represents the dogs’ level of sociability after becoming well-adapted to their current household — more than enough time for a dog’s true personality and demeanor to become evident.
These results tell us a number of things about the sociability of rescued hoarded dogs. Just over a quarter (27%) of the dogs are comfortable and friendly with everyone — people and other dogs. The largest percentage (38%) are friendly toward other dogs but selective about which people they are comfortable and friendly with. Overall, almost exactly half (38% + 11% = 49%) of rescued hoarded dogs show selectivity in the people with whom they prefer to form bonds. This is not surprising, since our other studies of dogs who have been through other types of hardships and adversity (such as abuse and confinement in puppy mills) also show this type of selectivity, which is likely due to the trust issues they have toward humans (the subject of the next question).
Here are some representative examples of the written-in comments on sociability:
- Minnie is very timid around people and dogs. She has never shown any aggression toward either, but clearly is very timid and frightened with anyone other than me.
- Crosby acts relatively “normal” with me. He is finally trusting of my husband. He has lived with both of us the entire time, but bonded very closely to me. He is still terrified of other people but tolerates being in the same room now with people that he sees on a regular basis. He will retreat to a different room in the house if people other than myself or my husband are there. He has never had a problem with other dogs or cats. He actually seems to rely on them for support. He will approach people he knows for a treat if he can stand behind the other dogs.
- Daphne has come a long way. She used to be very selective in who she liked, but as we have socialized her more, she has become loving and friendly toward all.
- She wants nothing to do with other dogs — very, very afraid.
- Loves my husband and me, but nobody else.
- Maya is very sweet, but scared of everyone. She hides or cowers around unfamiliar people, but is more relaxed once she gets to know them. It’s the same situation with other dogs.
- Daisy really has to get to know someone and see them many times before she will be sociable with them. She is not even particularly sociable with my sons, who live in the house and whom she sees most days.
- Starsky does not have issues with other dogs but rarely engages in play with them. Instead, he prefers to interact with people and play with people with a ball.
- Loves other dogs, was initially very fearful of all people, now shows excitement at people he knows and less timid toward strangers.
- Loves to play with the other dogs in the household but won’t dare come near me or any other person.
- She is sociable toward nearly all people (just a few she did not like) and selective toward dogs.
- Hesitant at first but not unfriendly. Warms up to both dogs and people, especially when Summer (her companion dog) does.
- Loves everyone — kids, dogs, squirrels, you name it.
Trust of humans
The fear of humans that showed up significantly elevated in the first questionnaire was often described by adopters in terms of trust, since trust is often regarded as the inverse of fear (one rises as the other falls). Technically speaking, however, lack of trust and fear aren’t quite the same thing. A dog could have a low trust and low fear level of a person at the same time. For example, a dog who does not fear you may come to trust you to behave in consistent ways — such as feeding and arriving home at particular times each day — and if these behaviors became less consistent and unpredictable, then your dog’s trust in you could go down but fear levels wouldn’t rise. This just means that the lack of trust isn’t necessarily related to anything threatening, like the fear of being punished. But having said that, for most of the dog’s emotional experiences, trust in humans and fear of humans are opposites: When one goes up, the other goes down, and vice versa. I specifically addressed trust of humans in the follow-up study with the following question:
Hoarded dogs show a wide range in their level of trust of humans. How would you rate your dog’s current trust of humans?
This selectivity of trust (41%) showed up in the previous question about bonding, and it is a prominent feature of rescued hoarded dogs. Many people involved with the rescue of these dogs had already seen this, but finding it to be so extensive as to be considered a part of the nature of these dogs was important to understand fully. It is very valuable to be able to provide such information to adopters and prospective adopters, in order to properly guide their expectations and thereby avert any disappointments after adoption.
Here are some of the comments on the dogs’ trust of humans and observations about how, in many cases, it improved over time:
- She was not trusting at all when I got her, and has developed greatly in the four years I have had her, but I still see remnants of that behavior. She has been given a lot of love and security to help her.
- Biscuit has always trusted me completely. It has taken quite some time but she will now trust my parents and brother, but most definitely not to the level she trusts me. I always say that the dog people get to see is not the Biscuit that I know.
- Once she finally trusts someone who has been around her for six months or so, she is wide open and responds like a normal dog with attention-seeking behaviors.
- She trusts me, but after three years is still terrified of my husband. Trusts a man at her daycare, and the dog walker and her husband. Only recently will she come in the room if my parents and/or son are there, but runs past them to the couch and gets up if they do. She is on anxiety meds that have allowed her to do this.
- Sometimes I think she only trusts me because she has to trust someone. But I have made a huge amount of progress!
- He has bonded with his adopted person very well but still is very wary of her husband four months after adoption. When I visited him in his new home, he was slow to come to me but did eventually allow me to pet him. With his new person, he is very happy and trusting, as he was with me. He seemed to transfer all his trust from me to her very quickly after he was adopted.
- He is not trusting if he thinks you may put your hand on him. He sort of trusts us because we respect his aversion for the most part, but he does need occasional handling and then he will revert to non-trusting for a short period of time.
- We have not been able to recognize a common factor in the people Brandy chooses to trust, but her reaction to different people ranges from immediately friendly to quite shy.
Many people who filled out the first questionnaire commented that their dog disliked all men or, the opposite, preferred men to women. Because this was something the first questionnaire didn’t ask about specifically, on the second questionnaire I asked the following:
In their interactions with people, some hoarded dogs respond differently toward one sex than they do toward the other. Does your dog show any difference in his/her response toward people based on the person’s sex?
The choices were:
A. No, in general he/she responds the same toward both sexes
B. Yes, he/she has shown more negative responses toward males than toward females
C. Yes, he/she has shown more negative responses toward females than toward males
What we had been presuming from all the personal reports is confirmed here, with some very precise percentages. There is a little less than 40% chance that a rescued hoarded dog will show any preferences based on a person’s sex, and one out of every three of these dogs will prefer females to males. Because studies show that most hoarders are women, the most likely explanation for the sex preferences in rescued hoarded dogs is that the low level of contact with male humans leads to greater fear responses toward males after removal from the hoarding environment and placement in an adoptive home.
Some comments about the more common preference, a preference for females:
- She is scared to death of men.
- While reactive to all strangers (shivering, corner hiding), with males she will add drooling, defecation.
- Kona has been very slow to warm up to my husband. She definitely shows extreme fear of tall males and will put herself in harm’s way to get away from a man.
- Not aggressive toward males, just fearful. Comes around after awhile but very wary. My neighbor is a female, and he likes to run around in her yard when she is outside, smelling new smells. My sister and my son’s girlfriend are females he has been around, and is still shy but less so than with males. We are trying to acclimate him to as many males as we can. Progress is slow.
- In time, he has learned to trust my husband almost as much as he trusts me.
- It wasn’t just negative. Faith was terrified of males. After two years, she would sit next to my husband, but never ever allowed him to touch her.
- Sweetpea was supposed to be my husband’s dog; he bathed her, took care of her, taught her to walk, etc., after we rescued her. But from the first time she could walk, she came to me. After over four years, she will finally sniff males’ hands, but always goes to females more easily.
- Hoarded by a woman. Bonded with female in household. More open to women approaching him than men, but distinction is less now than it was 10 months ago.
- Did not like any males until my husband won her over with treats over many weeks. Now she is his special friend.
- She has not warmed up to my husband yet. When he walks in the room, she moves away from him. She is curious, though, and will watch him from a distance. He has been able to hand-feed her, although she is quite unsure about him.
- know her hoarder was a woman and I don’t think she ever saw men until she was removed from the hoard. She runs from all men unless they have her leash in their hands or have treats for her.
And some typical comments for the less common preference, a preference for males:
- Prefers my husband and “tiptoes” around me.
- She more readily goes up to new males, but tends to be standoffish with new females.
- Mooshie is more comfortable with my husband than with me.
An issue that was not included in any question on the first questionnaire but has been observed by rescuers and adopters of hoarded dogs is that the dogs will often avoid making eye contact. I’ll explain the importance of this characteristic below, but first here is the question and the responses.
How frequently does your dog make eye contact with you and maintain it for at least a few seconds?
It’s important to understand why I included this question, as it seems like it might be a minor issue with only academic importance. It’s not. All social animals, including humans, view direct eye contact as a positive social message. (There is one exception, eye contact during aggressive confrontation, but that is accompanied by abundant other signs, such as growling, certain ear and body postures, and hair-coat erection.) What this means is that when another social animal refuses to make eye contact, it is perceived, consciously or subconsciously, as a social rejection. And what this readily translates into is a perception on an adopter’s part that the dog who is unwilling to make eye contact dislikes or is rejecting the adopter, which can be interpreted as a failed adoption and lead to a possible return of the dog to the rescue group.
So, it’s important for adopters to know ahead of time of the possibility that their dog may not make eye contact like non-hoarded dogs do, and to not consider it a rejection. This is one of the characteristics that show that these dogs have different mental make-ups (they’re “wired differently”) than typical pet dogs, and therefore we can’t use normal dog behavior, standards, or expectations with rescued hoarded dogs. The only expectation that adopters can have when adopting these dogs is that they will be taking into their care a very special one-of-a-kind member of the canine species. All the “normal dog stuff” is an added bonus.
Coping with change
One comment that showed up frequently on the first questionnaire is that many of these dogs were not good at dealing with changes in their routine — such as furniture being rearranged, a disruption in the timing of daily events like walks and feeding, or a move to a new house. To get more information, I asked the following question:
In general, how well does your dog adapt to or otherwise cope with change?
These numbers are in line with what we had expected, based on both the long-term experience of rescuers and adopters as well as how psychologically traumatized people cope with change. The lesson here is to try to maintain consistency in the dogs’ routines, and do any necessary changes gradually with any of these dogs who show signs of trouble coping with change.
Many people who have adopted a rescued hoarded dog use certain analogies to describe the animal’s psychological state. The goal of this question was to focus specifically on this topic:
Have you ever considered your dog’s current behavior or mental capabilities to resemble any of the following human conditions? (Check all that apply.)
Here are the responses people selected, ranked in the order of frequency of the choice.
One important note here: Neither the adopters nor I were making a “diagnosis” with the answer to this question. I just wanted to know, using human analogies, how people viewed their dog’s mental makeup and behavior. This sometimes makes it easier to get an idea of the dog’s psychological state as a whole, rather than trying to construct a cohesive picture out of a long list of abnormal behaviors.
Here are some of the comments offered by adopters:
- Senility: Moby sometimes forgets he just went outside and goes out a second time to potty. His thinking is a little slow — it takes him a minute to get out of the way of other dogs, for example.
- PTSD: Any noise (it doesn’t necessarily have to be loud) causes her to startle and cower. She feels safe backed into a corner and uncomfortable standing in the open.
- Total ADHD! He is very easily distracted, so training sessions can only last 2-3 minutes at a time before he just can’t stand it anymore. During a simple stay/recall, he can’t simply trot back to me. He has to bound toward me as fast as a racehorse. He’s over-the-moon thrilled about absolutely everything, no matter how often he’s done it. For example, every time he sees the leash or his food bowl or gets in the car (e.g., normal, daily activities), you’d think he’d won the lottery. Every. Single. Time. He received the Most Enthusiastic Award in his basic obedience class.
- Autism: Diva is very intelligent in certain scenarios. She also does certain repetitive motions compulsively, which seem to comfort her. (She circles the house counter-clockwise. If she doesn’t go out the back door the first time but needs to use the yard, she will make the loop before exiting the house.) PTSD: We know Diva was not fed well during the hoarding. After two years with us, regular meals and a regular routine, she is still extremely nervous about eating. She is easily startled with the slightest noises. She is terrified of small children and basketballs. She is generally “shell-shocked.”
- Classic symptoms of PTSD: Exaggerated startle response, hiding in dark places, fear of the unknown and, most notably, learned helplessness. For instance, if something (such as the doggy gate) fell on top of him, he would not even move out from under it, but would lie there passively under it. This changed over the time he was in foster care and he had more normal responses by the time he was adopted, although his default mode if frightened was still to hide or become very passive.
- ADHD? Maybe. He gets into frenzies of licking his blanket, or licking anything he can. It’s like he gets in a trance over it and I can’t get him to break his focus on the licking. He has several obsessions like that. PTSD: He has severe food issues from being deprived of food. Also, he cannot be put into a carrier, kennel at the vet or any confined space. If so, he will start a real shallow breathing (almost not breathing), gums and tongue start to turn blue, eyes get glazed over. He has distorted reactions to very small things. He will become terrified of his food dish for weeks at a time and I have to hand-feed him. Then, just as suddenly, he will get over it and eat normally again.
- ADHD: Distracted easily, anxious, overactive at times in a nervous way, cannot concentrate, overstimulated from outside stimulus.
- Autism: Repetitive spinning when nervous. Wanting to be social but somewhat unsure how to do that.
- ADHD and PTSD: Extreme anxiety and excitement in new situations, an inability to calm down, panic attacks in which he needs to be held by me to calm him down, a “zoning out” with repetitive behavior (e.g., jumping, head-butting), loses focus in situations.
- PTSD: She will become shy and clingy with her parents if loud noises occur. She will run and hide from things like vacuums, hangers, tape measures. She is scared of foil or things that have a shiny surface and she avoids her reflection in the mirror even if we are holding her. She will flinch and sometimes run if she is eating and someone walks by. And she looks for encouragement to go potty if you are with her when she does it, as if she isn’t sure if she’s going to get into trouble. Sometimes she will seem confident and great, and then something triggers her “run” and she loses that confidence.
- PTSD: He sometimes stares off at nothing very intently, has over-reactions to small things (wind, a noise outside), sometimes acts very stressed out, has bouts of extreme hyperactivity followed by a very mellow calm, barks incessantly at a small movement or a well-known person.
- Autism and PTSD: Stares at walls, stays in corners and stares at corners, hugs the side of the house when he goes out. Does not venture into the open yard. Hates loud noise, voices, thunder. Any kind of commotion, he runs and hides. Hides in closets and laundry room. Always likes to have his face near an air vent. His nose was a little flattened — it looks like by living in a crate. Never socialized with the rest of the dogs and family when they were all together. Would hang alone in another room. You could try and get him to come and join everyone but he always preferred to be alone.
- PTSD: Picasso exhibits fearful and jumpy behavior whenever a movement or noise occurs that she was not expecting or is unfamiliar with. Also, I would describe her fear at times as hitting the level of sheer terror. In addition, Picasso struggles with how to play with humans. When we try to engage in any type of traditional human/ dog games, she appears confused and won’t engage.
- PTSD: Mitzi will be fine and acting normal, then all of a sudden without warning, she’ll get fearful and shy and bolt. I can’t figure out what I did or said that might have caused it. She’ll be fearful for a while, go off to her bed and “chill out,” I guess, then later she’ll let me approach her and start to warm up again. She’s an enigma at times.
- Autism: OCD-like compulsion surrounding her toys and other possessions.
- PTSD: He is over-responsive to loud noises, things falling unexpectedly (even a pillow falling from a couch will send him running), change in routine, raised voices, knocks at doors or doorbells. Often looks worried, hides frequently, finds it difficult to relax, will be stiff when I lie next to him. Yet despite all of this terror-like behavior, he seeks out love and affection. And seeks out my company.
- PTSD: Jasper was very fearful, hyper-vigilant, responded quickly and fearfully to the point of panic at loud noises. He was almost constantly anxious. All that has been significantly reduced. He still runs from bangs, bumps, or unusual noise.
- PTSD: Initially, for the first few years, she seemed to show PTSD-like behavior. Now that we have had an opportunity to safely socialize her, I don’t notice any of that behavior.
- PTSD: She can be acting her comfortable “normal” and all of a sudden it is like a switch is thrown and she is in “duck and hide, slink away” mode. The trigger for that switch is not consistent.
One aspect of psychological trauma that is well known in people, especially in the case of PTSD, but has not been examined in dogs is disturbances of one’s sleep. There are many ways that someone’s sleep may be disturbed, and I wanted to know how that might manifest in rescued hoarded dogs, so I asked this question:
Does your dog show any of the following sleeping disturbances once a month or more frequently? (Check all that apply.)
This graph shows the responses, ranked in the order of frequency of the choice.
We are hampered in interpreting these results, since we have no idea what the “normal” occurrence is of each of these factors in the general dog population. Also, of course, the scoring of bad dreams or nightmares is based on our presumptions and cannot be confirmed. It is relatively reassuring that 45% of the dogs show no signs of having disturbances to their sleep (again, not knowing how normal dogs would score), but that does mean that 55% of rescued hoarded dogs — a slight majority — do experience sleep disturbances of one type or another.
Here are some of the descriptions we received:
- When we first adopted him, he had terrible dreams, during which he would whimper and howl and growl and flinch like he was being struck—not the ordinary, happy, chasing, excitement dreams I’ve seen in my other Scotties. He was clearly being threatened and hurt in these. (I would wake him up; sometimes he’d go straight back into the dream and I’d have to wake him again.)
- He is vocalizing much less now in his sleep than he did the first few months. He still wakes up in the middle of the night and comes over to me. He sleeps on the bed with my other two dogs. Wants physical contact with me.
- Ramona is hyper-vigilant with noises when sleeping (and anytime). She is much better in sleeping longer periods now than when we first got her. She sometimes goes all night without waking me for attention. She is also more likely to sleep on the bed with us now, which has resulted in less disrupted sleep.
- She moves her feet and yelps, and makes what seems like a bark but with her mouth closed. Frequently when we got her, but less frequently now, she makes sounds like she’s screaming or trying to get away. We think it’s a nightmare.
- She cries in her sleep and it’s so disturbing to me that I wake her and talk to her and pet her till she settles. The nightmares seem to be getting more infrequent; the first six months, it was 3-4 times a week. The noise she makes breaks my heart. I hope I’m doing the right thing by waking her.
- She will wake in a startle, then come snuggle on my head and paw at me for attention, then she insists on staying in physical contact with me.
- Wakes up every time anything in the house moves (people, dogs, cats, anything). I have NEVER seen him sleeping; he’s always awake if I’m in the house.
- He starts to move his legs and then starts crying. Within less than a minute, he spasms frequently and then he wakes up. He runs in his sleep but he is also crying and his head sometimes comes up while he is doing that. He runs so hard that he literally kicks me multiple times and can bruise me.
- It doesn’t occur as frequently as it used to, but she still occasionally has “bad dreams,” with muffled barks, whimpering, crying and “running” legs. I wake her by gently saying her name and lightly stroking her. She seems relieved to see that it’s me and will usually go back to sleep afterward.
- Nearly nightly, Tanner cries out, growls, woofs, shakes his body, and seemingly remains asleep.
- She frequently whimpers, shakes, jerks, twitches, paddles and kicks while sleeping. She often jumps awake and looks around fearfully. When she realizes where she is, she becomes dramatically more comfortable.
Outside observers often notice things that a dog’s people do not. I approached this issue using the following question:
Is there anything about your dog that has caused a visitor to your household to comment on as being unusual?
Sixty-two percent of people responded “yes.” Here are some of the specific comments:
- They have said he doesn’t like to be looked at in the eyes by them.
- His shyness and cowering or barking and hiding.
- Most people ask me how can you live with an animal that is basically wild. Unfortunately, that is the only side of Elton that people get to see. They see a dog that hides and shakes or runs away.
- They are amazed at how far she has come since we got her.
- Everyone comments on how easygoing, affectionate, and trusting she is with people. She will sleep with complete strangers on the guest bed with them when friends come to stay.
- Her begging for attention.
- His continued fearfulness, and the fact that when I have company he completely glues himself to my lap or side. Seriously, not kidding.
- Some visitors never see her, or sometimes she does what we call “drive-by glarings.”
- Friends that visit frequently finally were able to walk by her in the living room without her bolting away. They commented that finally, after two years, she was allowing them to get close and told her, “See, we won’t hurt you.”
- Just that they feel bad or a little hurt that when Nellie sees them she runs and hides (especially people who consider themselves “dog people” that most dogs usually love).
- Said Buffy is a very “happy go lucky” dog.
- Barking at strangers, even after they’ve been in the house for several hours.
- He stares at me and never breaks eye contact. I’ve gotten used to it, but anyone coming over will always ask, “Is that dog staring at you?” He will even fall asleep staring at me, wake up, continue to stare and then fall asleep staring at me again.
- Visitors have never seen him. He is always under the bed if there is anyone other than myself in the house. He is beside the bed when I am home but ready to bolt under the bed.
- Well, yes. He is such a cute little guy and so very, very aggressive.
- Everyone comments on how friendly and sweet he is.
- He acts like they are there to capture and kill him.
- Linus hides under the couch and barks when company is over. My daughter-in-law once stated that she doesn’t believe that I really have a dog, only a tape recorder under my couch, because she’s never really seen Linus.
- He looks very sad.
- People often comment that they feel bad for how scared she appears.
- She has NEVER BARKED since we’ve had her and has taken people by surprise when she shyly peeks around a corner to see who’s here. “Oh, I didn’t know you had a dog!”
- Oh, yeah. Everyone who meets Luke knows that he is not normal. He stiffens when he is petted, will run from eye contact, will watch visitors but will not approach a visitor, will run and hide if startled or sees anything he doesn’t like. (And he doesn’t like a lot of things.) Watches visitors from a distance (a room away). He has a wide-eyed look on his face around visitors. Visitors have said they are afraid of him, though he NEVER growls.
- They can see how afraid she is and how she shakes, and they know it’s sad for her to be scared.
- Those who know her see how her confidence is growing.
- How normal she is after the hoarding situation she lived in, and how warm and friendly she is to guests.
Part 2: Rehabilitation and treatment methods for rescued hoarded dogs
When rescued hoarded dogs were first being adopted into homes, very little was known about their psychological make-up and there were no specific techniques known to be particularly effective in helping them to adjust to their new lives. Many different methods were tried — some helped and some did not. When I decided to put together a guide for caring for rescued hoarded dogs, I knew that the best way to determine the most and least effective methods for rehabilitation was to ask the adopters themselves. Therefore, I wrote some very specific questions for the follow-up questionnaire in order to fully benefit from the wealth of knowledge held by the people who had worked most closely with these dogs.
Most effective methods of rehabilitation
The graph below shows the results for what worked best with rescued hoarded dogs, ranked from the answers mentioned the most number of times to those mentioned the least. Keep in mind that even those mentioned least were, for some dogs, the most effective method in helping them to heal emotionally.
Below are the answers, accompanied by selected adopters’ comments that best represent and describe each of the rehabilitation methods.
Of all the things you have done to help your dog to overcome any difficulties he/she was showing upon arrival to your household, what do you feel was the MOST helpful or effective?
Patience, give them time, don’t push them, let them go at their own pace
- PATIENCE. LOTS of patience.
- Letting Scout take everything at his own pace. We didn’t rush anything, from meeting other dogs to accepting our petting.
- I just try to ignore him and let him come around on his own. When I go in the bedroom where he always stays, I make a point not to look at him and will even back in so I don’t “see” him. I don’t push him to be more than he can be and I let him choose how much interaction he wants to have with me, which means how much he feels comfortable walking past me while I am on the couch. I don’t make a big deal out of it.
- Mainly just giving him time to get used to his new life, not pushing him or forcing him to face things that terrify him.
- Never forcing her to do anything she did not want to do.
- Patience, welcoming her into our pack, letting her be to adjust to life in a home. We put no pressure on her to adapt. Never got mad at her, never yelled at her, ignored her when she needed ignoring, loved her when she wanted attention.
- I quit trying to make her do new things. I let her decide when/what advancements she was going to make.
- Having a calm, accepting and nurturing dog already in residence helped tremendously.
- I think the most helpful thing was the other dogs; namely my female Doberman and my male German shepherd taught her how the house works. They taught her how to urinate outside, how to go through the door, how to navigate walking on carpet, how to go up and down stairs, etc. She watched them intently all the time.
- After two years, we were able to get another dog for her. We got a slightly smaller, younger, male dog (Shane). Lexi’s improvement was immediate. Now, when my husband is not home, Lexi runs around playfully, picks up toys, wags her tail in circles, comes up to me for petting, and comes into the house without being chased. Shane also taught her to chase squirrels and sit on the couch. Before Shane, she would only use the big backyard to sit in one spot; now she runs around with him and barks at squirrels.
- Six months [after adopting Holly] I got her a dog, a Siberian husky [Laguna] who was a couple of years older and full of confidence. I worked with Laguna to let Holly see that it is OK to come for a treat, to get the leash on for a walk, to get in the van to go for a drive. When Laguna comes to be petted, now Holly comes also.
- Introducing him to our two dogs. He loved having a pack. He thrived and was very happy with his friends.
- Having another dog helped bring her out of her shell.
- When we go on group walks, the other dogs respond well to my husband and Zeke is learning that it is OK to trust him.
- We did a lot of things, but we saw the biggest change after we adopted a second dog. We allowed Sheba to pick this dog. We introduced her to several dogs, and when we introduced her to a dog that she practically ignored, we knew that was the right one. (With other dogs, she showed some aggressive posture and growling.) By the way, Sheba and her sister are now the closest of friends.
- I feel when we brought in a rescued puppy (about one year after Madonna) she started to come around and became more trusting of us. She will greet people alone with Winnie (her best friend now). I feel her being able to see the love and attention we gave Winnie showed Madonna that she was in a safe and loving home now. I would do it all over again.
- She has become very close to one of our other dogs who has a huge personality and is very confident. At times, we will take this dog along with us, which seems to help Olive feel more comfortable and more willing to take a risk.
Love, affection, TLC
- Showing her affection.
- Just giving him love till he trusted us. When he arrived, he sat on the steps of our house for two weeks and wouldn’t come near us. Now he will leap into our laps. We just gave him a lot of treats and love!
- Lots and lots of love and affection, particularly on his own.
- Being consistent with love and caring.
- Agility training. He has developed a lot of confidence and overcome his fear of riding in a car from going to play with me once a week. He loves to learn new things and he now plays tug with me in class.
- Training — obedience classes, one-on-one work with a trainer, daily training sessions.
- We were given free obedience classes, which we chose to attend. My husband and I attended with her and were given instructions on which behaviors to ignore and what to expect of her. We would not have gotten as far as we have without the trainer and shelter staff.
- A mid-level obedience class got his confidence up to start.
- Lola attends once-weekly agility lessons, and she has been in several trials. I feel that exposure to other people and dogs in this venue has increased her comfort level, given her a “job” and reduced her fear behaviors.
- Positive reinforcement training. Maggie is clicker trained — and since she is deaf, I use a thumbs-up sign in place of an audible click. I never use any kind of punishment with her at all, and I never tease her at all either — nothing negative at all. She has responded beautifully to the 100% love and understanding that she receives.
- We did obedience training for the better part of two years with Toby. Being around other dogs and people helped him and also helped with some of his separation anxiety. It also helped that he would get attention from all sorts of people; he enjoyed that. He currently does agility and that has helped his confidence immensely.
- I wish I had known about K9 Nosework then, as it is helping him gain confidence now.
- Training and exercise.
- I think the [obedience and shy dog] classes helped to some degree.
- Clicker training: He liked it and looked forward to it. It helped stimulate his mind and keep him focused on behaviors and treats instead of possible fearful surroundings or situations.
- During ongoing adjustment, having him complete basic obedience strategies and/or drills for confidence and security seemed to ease his anxiety.
Regular routine, consistency, predictability, repetition
- Predictable environment.
- Repetition, repetition, repetition!
- Routine is important: trying to do the same things at the same times every day. When I break routine, even small things, like holding him for 10 minutes in the same chair when I come home from work, before going for a walk, are very important to him. He gets confused when we change routines, however slight. I think it’s important to him to know he can trust what is going to happen next at any given time.
- Consistency in feeding routines plus treats to make him realize that food was going to be available.
- Establishing routines has helped a lot. When she learned her schedule, she was able to start blossoming.
- The most helpful has been socialization and guidance for him around any new things.
- Getting him out and socializing with people in different places; taking him on animal/people retreats and having people and their pets over to the house.
- Lots of socialization. I took him to Home Depot, the paint store, tile store, dog park, everywhere that I could. His new foster parent is taking him on regular hikes with other people, etc.
- Got him out to events where other dogs were around (e.g., Yappy Hours).
- (1) I take him to doggy play dates put together with a local shelter that allows 10-15 dogs and owners to be off-leash and socialize for an hour. At first he would never leave my side. Now he will follow his sister Abby around. (2) I take him to my neighbor’s house and we sit and visit together. Although he is still afraid of both of them, he willingly goes into their house and lays down on their dog bed with their dog. (3) Exposing him to different things (like parks and new walk trails, taking car rides, etc.) helps him get more sure of himself.
- He is very leery of other, larger dogs and people. We have brought in other dogs and people on a weekly basis. Some are familiar and some are not. Some stay and some leave. It has helped him to overcome some of the fear.
Praise, reassurance, encouragement, positive reinforcement
- Positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors.
- Exposing her to new experiences in small doses and providing constant positive reinforcement that redirects her from the focus of her fear.
- Letting her do things on her own terms with positive reinforcement of good behavior.
Attention and spending time with
- Having the time for her, and focusing on the tiniest improvements.
- Paying a lot of attention to her; she is very needy.
- We went through a period of what I would call extreme bonding; allowing her constant access to me seemed to take away a lot of her nervousness.
Petting, touching, holding
- Lots of holding, touching, and talking to him.
- Comforting physical contact.
- He was skittish at first, so I would hold him on my lap and speak in a soothing voice while I petted him. He seemed to settle down after that rather well.
- Simply spending time holding her (at first she resisted but she got more and more fond of it over time) and talking to her gently over a period of years has seemed to make the most impact.
- Physical contact. I had to go very, very slowly with touching her. But I’ve made a point of letting her smell my hands and being aware when she comes up behind me to smell me to stay calm and let her take her time. Gradually, it’s been almost two years with her, our routine has become after each meal, she gets up onto her favorite bed, I give her a doggie treat, which she eats out of my hand, and then I pet her. In the past several months, she seems to actually enjoy being petted.
- Just keep touching her and loving her.
Reassurance that he was safe, and minimizing stress
- Making her feel safe.
- Constant reassurance that he is safe.
- Teaching her that she is very safe and secure.
- Our efforts to ensure her [that] she’s exposed to as little stress as possible are paying off.
- Limited the amount of activity and noise around him and introduced things slowly to him.
- I tried to provide as much of a calm environment that I could.
- Exposure to situations gradually. Some things will never be easy for her, no matter what strategy I try, so I limit her exposure to them.
- My husband and I make sure to comfort and help Murphy when he does not feel safe. He’s come to realize that we will strive to help him always feel safe and not expose him to situations he doesn’t yet have the skills or confidence to handle. When in doubt, we pick him up and create distance between him and whatever makes him anxious. If Murphy is not too agitated, we lead him away from what’s making him anxious and stand between him and that thing if it is passing by (e.g., people or dog on the street when we have Murphy out for a walk).
- Leash walks, leash walks, leash walks. Walking through her fears and obstacles is most absolutely what increases her confidence.
- Winning her with treats and taking walks, which she loves. She is much less shy when in her walking harness and loves to go to the park.
- Finally getting him to accept the leash and walking on leash with pack.
- Daily extended walks.
- Most recently we go for long, long walks and we see lots of people, cars, dogs. This has really helped. She’s much happier.
- We taught her to walk and took