Often times in sprawling country areas, such as the one I’m writing from now, the overall majority of dogs (and cats) brought into shelters and rescues are what I typically describe as “rural.” Not exactly social and not exactly feral, the “rural dog” falls somewhere along that spectrum.
My colleagues and I work with a lot of rural dogs. If you’re a behavior professional working in an urban area, you still might come across these dogs from time to time. Rescue organizations will sometimes arrange transports for dogs that are affected by natural disasters, for example, and many of these will be rural dogs that need significant behavioral and medical help before they’re ready to go to adoptive homes. Not all rescues provide this help before they place dogs, however, so the urban behavior consultant may also encounter rural dogs that have been adopted “as is.”
Rural dogs can pose specific challenges for their adopters, but knowing more about them can help their families understand why they act the way they do, and therefore help them thrive in their new homes.
Characteristic behaviors of rural dogs and how to address them
These particular dogs often display a specific set of personality traits and behaviors that make it easy to identify them as rural dogs as soon as you meet them.
Rural dogs often have a complete lack of knowledge about how to walk on a leash. They may lock up and brace, erratically zigzag, or even hit the end of the leash as if completely oblivious that it exists. They’re not used to needing a person in order to walk around and so don’t see them as a relevant part of the environment. Work with your clients on handler focus first of all—once these dogs recognize their human as an important part of walking outside, teaching them leash manners will be easier.
If the dog is older than 8-10 months and shows anxiety—behaviors like shaking, refusing to move forward, pressing themselves flat on the ground—when introduced to walking upstairs, you likely have a “rural rescue” who has never been walked up steps before. Teach your clients to go slowly, encourage their dog for each step, and backtrack when necessary—starting over can be a huge confidence boost for a dog who’s trying to learn through their fear.
Some rural dogs lock up or shut down completely when coming indoors. More extreme cases will keep themselves as close to the exit as possible, even showing anxious displays of wanting to go back outside. Consider it a form of canine claustrophobia. The best thing to do is take the dog back outside into their comfort zone and begin building value by bringing them inside for short periods of time and countercondition them to being indoors. During these sessions, expect to coach your client to work the dog through the door in increments. Thresholds can often be an invisible barrier for the rural rescue as they perceive their environmental shift from a familiar reality (outside) to an unfamiliar reality (inside). A lot of times, for the more extreme cases, your clients will need to focus just on going back and forth through the doorway before working their way up to actually closing the door behind the dog. This helps remove the anxiety of feeling “trapped” or understanding the inside as having “no way out” that the dog naturally experiences when their only known exit is no longer accessible. In the most extreme cases, normally found in adult dogs who have spent most of their lives wandering freely, these dogs may need medical support from a licensed veterinary behaviorist.
Rural dogs look up a lot (more than most dogs)—and no, it’s not for squirrels. It’s for a way out. A lot of times these rural rescues end up being escape artists that may have been left out in their back yard unsupervised for prolonged periods of time. Once a dog seeks stimulation outside of the back yard, and is successful at escaping once or twice, wanderlust can become a real factor for many dogs that have learned to self-soothe and entertain themselves out of necessity.
Looking up frequently (and not for squirrels, birds, etc.) is often an indication that jumping barriers has worked for a dog in the past. This is a behavior to flag for your clients and instruct them to keep careful watch over the dog, lest the cycle repeat itself. Too often, the landing over a fence can cause serious injury to a dog’s back, legs, and joints. “Coyote Rollers” are an excellent installation to recommend for the top of your client’s fence if they worry about the Houdini pacing their yard’s perimeter.
The alternative escape artist is the Burrower —the dogs that tunnel their way out under fencing. A lot of times these are smaller, terrier-type breeds that were bred to dig as part of their intended purpose. These tricky customers take a special touch of vigilance (often due to size), and it never hurts to sink an extra length of chicken wire about 6-8 inches into the ground at the bottom of a fence to prevent any accidental slips through new gaps that can emerge almost every day. Collars and harnesses easily catch on fencing in these situations and worse than a dog getting lost is coming home to a dog caught by the collar with a broken neck. If a dog is a known digger, maintenance is a paramount strategy to start circumnavigating this potentially harmful means of escape.
Some common medical issues
If you’re working with clients who have adopted from a rescue or shelter, they are usually cleared medically before they can be adopted. If your clients have picked up their own rural dog, however, be alert for medical issues that might be causing or contributing to behavior problems. Medically speaking, expect the unexpected.
Eating inappropriate “food”
A lot of rural rescues have had to survive on what they could find while scavenging for food. Unfortunately, what smells good to them is not always food. This can lead to serious medical complications such as bowel obstruction, allergic reaction, and even poisoning. Case in point, my most recent rural foster dog gave me quite the scare when his lethargy lasted longer than 24 hours after the first few days he came home. He would strain to poop frequently, and nothing would pass, so I took him back to be seen by the shelter veterinarian. In typical fashion, the shelter was convinced it was the tapeworms and other intestinal parasites we were treating (despite there being blood in his stool) and sent us back home empty handed with instructions to “wait it out.”
Two days later, he passed an entire fly strip (then tried to eat it again!). He immediately returned to his normal self and went on to be adopted by a lovely family in Illinois.
It is important to note there are two kinds of mange, one being noncontagious (demodectic) and one being highly contagious (sarcoptic). Demodex is a huge problem for dogs brought into animal shelters as strays and can lead to death, mostly due to a lack of resources within animal shelters that do not have the budget for treatment or access to a medical foster home. These dogs pose no risk to other animals or people and are often healed within 60-90 days of treatment. While sarcoptic mange must be handled with extreme care to prevent contagion, demodectic mange is an easily treated disease. With advances in veterinary medicine happening every day, we are now years ahead of where we once were when treating dogs with diseases we previously misunderstood. When I work with shelters, I always ask them to please pay special attention to any dog with demodex who needs a foster home, as they are too often overlooked. Sometimes it just takes a little love, consistency, and antibiotics, and then suddenly you’ve got a brand new dog sitting in front of you.
Which leads me to my next point: The spectrum of medical issues that can come with a rural rescue can truly surprise you. Adult parvovirus, distemper, upper respiratory infection, and even infectious parasites that can be transferred to humans: ringworm, tapeworm, coccidia, and even (though rare) giardia are the first ones that come to mind. If your clients have adopted a rural dog without involving a rescue organization, or if you’re working with a rescue that is new to setting up transports of rural dogs, make sure all dogs have seen a veterinarian and are cleared of all medical issues that might be affecting their physical or emotional state.
What to tell your clients
Sometimes clients find themselves with a rural dog that they have almost no idea how to relate to. Perhaps they’ve adopted one sight unseen from overseas, or maybe they wanted to help a dog transported from a disaster-hit area of the country. They might have fallen in love with a dog on vacation and couldn’t bear to leave him as they loaded up the car to drive home. Whatever the story, they’re now faced with a kind of dog they’ve probably never encountered before. As a behavior consultant, one of your most important jobs is to reassure your clients that they’re not alone. “You’ve got yourselves a rural rescue” can be a good way to explain a set of behaviors and challenges without sounding judgmental or hopeless.
Sometimes, of course, the rural rescue dog has more to overcome than their new family has resources to help them, and they need to find an alternative placement. Sometimes rescue organization take on dogs from far-flung places that are not as well-adjusted as described, and as a behavior professional you can only do so much. But I know that many rural dogs can thrive as family pets, and even country bumpkins like my last foster, naked with demodectic mange with a yearning to snack on fly strips, can be shined up into a new penny!
Mallory Robinson runs OAK9 Academy Canine Behavior Center in Conroe, Texas, where she provides training and behavioral support to owners, fosters families, and area rescues and animal shelters. Find out more at www.OAK9training.com.