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Why did my sweet, shy rescue dog turn into a growly, barky, bitey dog?

People are often surprised when the timid, shy and friendly dog they brought home from the shelter, suddenly changes character for no apparent reason. There is actually a very valid reason, but not many people know about it.

The Honeymoon Period It’s such an exciting time when we bring that special dog home to come and live with us. The first few days and weeks can be a little unsettling to begin with as everyone gets used to new routines, and gets to know each other, but generally this is a very happy time for everyone. This is why it is often referred to as the ‘Honeymoon Period’. A shelter environment can be a noisy and stressful place for dogs though, and many dogs adopted from a shelter or rescue facility will be quite anxious at first. Adapting to their new home (even if it's much better than the one they had before), can be difficult for them. Settling in with their new family is not always as straightforward as expected.

These dogs may seem friendly, obliging and cooperative, or even a little timid and submissive. But, underneath this gentleness, there may be deeper emotions that we can’t see, such as loss, grief, stress, fear and anxiety.

Some dogs may be more obviously traumatized, and will be very shut down and fearful in the beginning. They may avoid physical and social contact, and just want to be in their own space. These dogs need a lot of time to decompress before they can begin to feel safe in their new home. Patience is key for these individuals.

When the Honeymoon is Over

After a few weeks, usually around the 4-6 week period, most dogs will start to feel safer and more settled, and have thankfully found their happy and forever family.

However, for some dogs the period after the so-called ‘Honeymoon Period’, is more challenging. You might notice different behaviours begin to emerge. Your dog might start barking when strangers or visitors come to the house, whereas before they didn’t seem bothered by this. They may no longer be friendly or submissive when meeting other dogs or people out on walks. Perhaps they bark, growl or lunge at other dogs when they come too close, or even at a distance.

Possessive behaviour, sometimes called guarding or resource guarding, can occur. This is when a dog shows an unwillingness to give up their toys, food, chew items or even a favourite sleeping place, and may growl or snap at another dog or person who comes too close or tries to take the item away from them.

Other signs that your dog has now entered this phase are increased sensitivity to noises or they are easily stressed by everyday events.

These behaviour changes are often mistaken as ‘their true personality’ coming out. Or, people might tell you that your dog is trying to take control and dominate you.

Both of these are simply not the truth.

But sadly, it's often during this time that the new adoptive family feels totally overwhelmed by the situation and may wish to return the dog to the shelter.

There is an explanation for this change in behaviour.

There is however an important biological reason for this change in behaviour, that can be explained by the neuroscience model presented by Dr. Stephen Porges: The Polyvagal Theory, which applies to both humans and other mammals, including our dogs. I will do my best to explain this in a very simplified way.

When a person or animal feels unsafe in their environment, or they perceive that their life may be in danger, a part of the nervous system (the dorsal vagal nerve) is activated. When this happens the animal may appear to be fairly calm, reserved or shut down, but it’s not always reflective of the stress that the animal is experiencing internally.

Take a moment and try to imagine what it’s like to be in your dog’s paws. Imagine that you were suddenly taken to live in a new home, with people you didn’t know. A new environment, where nobody could speak your language and explain what’s going on, why you are there or what might happen to you in the future. It’s pretty scary, right?

I think most of us would agree: A good strategy would be to keep quiet, do as we are told and stay out of trouble - until we feel safe and familiar with our new life?

It’s the job of the nervous system and the brain to keep us safe, and it does this by triggering behaviours that signal to others that we mean no harm. This is the shy, timid and appeasing behaviour that we see from our dogs, although underneath this behaviour is also a ton of stress chemicals circulating in their bodies.

We are not designed to stay in this stressed state for long periods of time, and our nervous system is programmed to move into a more naturally balanced state as soon as we begin to feel safe again.

There is a slight catch, though. The way the nervous system operates, a person or animal cannot simply move from the shut down / survival state and enter a more balanced, happy and social state, without first going through a transition phase.

During this transition phase the sympathetic branch of the nervous system (also known as the fight / flight state) is activated, and the purpose of this is to release any built up stress and trauma. Behaviours often seen during this phase, usually involve intense movement and outward expression of the stress that they are feeling internally. For dogs this can include barking, growling, snapping, biting, lunging, excessive mouthing and chewing, guarding and reactive behaviours.

What can we do about these behaviours? Although these behaviours can be quite disturbing, this is not a time when your dog needs discipline and training. On the contrary. This is a time when your dog needs your support, patience and understanding, and suitable activities to help them decompress and release their stress and trauma in a safe way. They need good nutrition, balanced exercise, walks in nature allowing free movement (or a long line), sniffing activities to engage their mind and body, calming activities and lots of good rest and sleep. There are many wonderful holistic modalities that can help your dog during this time: TT-touch, massage, sound therapy, Flower Essences, Essential Oils, herbs and plant extracts, Homeopathy, Animal Communication and many more. It’s a good idea to find a specialist therapist who can guide you through the process of helping your dog to safely and gently release stress and trauma.

Management is important during this time so that your dog, your family and others all feel safe. Learn to read your dog's body language so that you can identify signs that your dog is feeling anxious, overwhelmed or vulnerable, as these are times when they may feel the need to protect themselves. Reach out for assistance from a qualified force-free trainer or behaviourist who has experience with these behaviours. Someone who will help you and your dog to transition safely through this phase, and how to respond to their challenging behaviours, correctly.

How long does this period last? It depends on the dog and their situation. If we support them during this time, it can be over within a couple of weeks. For some dogs it may take longer. But, if we put pressure on the dog during this time or put them in situations which cause them to express these behaviours repeatedly, then this could become a habit - an unhealthy way of dealing with stress, and this is something we want to avoid. Can we avoid this period? Some dogs are able to deal with stress, past trauma and rehoming more easily than others. However, as a rule, it’s a good idea to keep things quiet and calm and introduce simple routines during the first 2- 4weeks after bringing your dog home. Take it slow, don’t rush them into socializing with lots of other dogs, people or taking them to new places. Group training classes are usually not suitable environments during this time. Dogs are not able to learn when they are stressed or shut down, and when they don’t feel safe. Rather spend this time bonding with your dog, getting to know each other better, and helping them to feel safe and loved. Learn to understand their body language and how to clearly and calmly communicate with them. Physical touch, which can include gentle stroking and cuddling (only if your dog enjoys it), is a wonderful way of bonding, and building a trusting connection during the early weeks. This transition phase can be a challenging time, but it's also a time when you and your dog can build a relationship based on mutual trust, unconditional love and cooperation. Allow your relationship to unfold slowly and gently, as you begin this new chapter of your lives together. Don't rush. Take it slowly. Your dog needs your support and understanding more than ever.


Join us over the 'Paws Reflect Connect' Facebook group where I host regular live chats and discussions with like-hearted dog folk who are on a journey to support their dogs and themselves to live their best life! We will explore the concepts of Aligned Dog Parenting, and you will gain the knowledge, skills and tools to become an expert in your dog - allowing you to make aligned choices and take inspired action that will lead to a balanced and happy life with your dog. Get in touch for more info: Passionately, Your coach

Sue x


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