By Lisa Maasen
“What makes HKRT different from other rescues?”
“Why do your dogs stay with you for so long?”
“You should really take in more desirable and easily adoptable dogs.”
These are the three most common questions and suggestions we receive. They come at us almost daily and are valid feedback from our supporters. Because of that, it makes sense that our first blog post answers those questions and addresses your concerns. We understand that our way of doing things is not how conventional rescues work. That is exactly our goal!
HKRT’s mission statement says, “With our individualized, respect-based training and decompression program, we will ensure more dogs find and keep loving homes. We will assist local shelters and rescues in rehabilitating abused and neglected dogs who are considered “unadoptable” due to anxiety triggered behavioral issues. We will provide training and resources for the entire community to promote safer interactions between dogs, their canine companions, and humans. In doing so, we will help reduce the number of dogs euthanized due to fear-based reactivity.”
We accomplish our mission in several ways. First, the dogs we typically take in are the ones other rescues and potential adopters have been passing over for a variety of reasons. We are looking for the forgotten and those deemed unworthy by others. Many have been in a shelter environment for months with no end in sight. We ask volunteers and shelter staff who needs some extra TLC and may not make it out. We also receive requests from facilities begging us to take a dog who will be euthanized otherwise. You know, the ones hiding in the corner of their kennel trying to make themselves as small as possible to avoid being seen because people are terrifying. Or, they are the ones barking and biting at the kennel from panic and frustration. We understand this isn’t ideal behavior, but we also understand there is a reason the dog may be lashing out. Our goal is to find those triggers and help them learn to trust and get past their fear so they can live the happy life they deserve.
Second, once we get the dog home, they are given a chance to decompress. They are walked outside to inspect the yard and go potty, then they are given a quiet place to acclimate away from all the hustle and bustle. Some dogs find a crate in a private room to be the most comforting, others prefer free run of their space. We keep the lighting low, provide a regular predictable schedule for feeding and outside time. Calming aids such as peaceful music, lavender essential oil, thunder shirts, and CBD oil are used as needed to help the dog settle in and feel safe. This process lasts two weeks on average; however, some dogs need more time and others need less. We pay attention to what they are telling us with their behavior and move at their pace. Our goal is to avoid pushing them too hard too fast so they will learn to trust us because we show them respect.
Third, we take all our dogs to the vet within the first couple of weeks of intake to ensure everything medically has been addressed. It is amazing how different a dog will behave when they feel healthy! We choose to repeat their heartworm test and get them preventatives, make sure their vaccinations are up to date, they are spayed/neutered, nails are trimmed, anal glands expressed, any infections or injuries are treated as well. Our initial vet visits for each dog costs around $200 but is money well spent. If anything shows up that may require surgery or if bloodwork is needed, we get that taken care of as well. Unless the dog is physically healthy, we have no way of knowing if their behavioral problems are more from pain or fear. Decompression lasts until all their physical needs have been taken care of.
During decompression we are assessing what the dog knows and begin basic obedience training. The dog is taught the commands “sit” and “watch me”. We ask them to do it for everything they want or need. This establishes a bond and builds trust between them and their new handlers. It also creates what we call a “reset button”, meaning those tasks become second nature to them which is essential to any future success with behavior adjustment training (BAT). Also, during this time, we are working to find out what is most upsetting to them, finding ways to manage it initially, and slowly begin to teach them better coping skills than biting and growling. They learn “leave it” and how to walk away rather than lash out aggressively. This happens naturally when the animal feels heard and respected rather than dominated. Until we have built a relationship with open communication, we do not introduce the new foster to anyone outside of the home or ANY animals (including their housemates).
When we take a dog into the HKRT family, we know they will be with us for a while in most cases. From our experience we can usually estimate fairly accurately how long their rehabilitation may take when we meet them. While we have a basic timeline in mind for their specialized program, we do not enforce it strictly. Our main concerns are: Can we manage and care for them in a safe manner for all involved? Are they making progress or at least maintaining their improved behaviors? As long as we all feel safe and the dog isn’t in distress or regressing, we will continue to care for them indefinitely.
Our motto is “Doing what’s right, not what’s easy.” To accomplish that, we must be patient, understanding, and leave our egos at the door. Working with these difficult to place dogs is rewarding, heartbreaking, frustrating, and exhilarating – sometimes all at once. We have been described as doing “intervention work”, meaning we are the ones called in when standard methods and protocols have failed. Creativity is important and not being rigid in our beliefs in key to our success. Our margin for error is small because of the dog’s history. We must be especially cautious about who adopts them to ensure they find a true forever home the first time (as often as possible) because they have already had more turmoil in their lives than most can imagine. We have learned through experience that every dog is different, just like every human. It is not easy or quick to find the hidden gem in some of these dogs but each one deserves a chance.
To date, HKRT has taken in 22 last chance dogs. We have had to euthanize two. We hate that there are two we couldn’t save, but the other 20 are here today because we took a chance on them and gave them time to come into their own. We are their cheerleaders, their caretakers, and their soft place to land. It is an honor and a privilege to gain their trust and respect, and it is time well spent.
Lisa Maasen, Jennifer Marbrey, and Nikki Hinsdale are Partners in Hard Knocks Rescue & Training, Inc. They have years of experience within the rescue and training community, and a drive to see its teamwork bring positive changes to the dogs in most need.