Adopting a rescued animal that has survived abuse whether it was physical abuse or neglect can be a heart-wrenching difficult task that will require a great deal of patience and support from the animal’s new owner. The good news is given time and patience you will most likely create a very special lasting bond with your new pet.

First let’s talk about some of the common behaviors you might deal with when adopting a rescued dog or cat:

  • Cowering, fearful or aggressive behaviors toward other animals, people or new environments.
  • Nervous eating behaviors and food hiding.
  • Uncontrolled nervous defecation.
  • Fear of the veterinarians office
  • Fear of abandonment/separation anxiety
  • Fear of kennels/crates

Cowering, fearful or aggressive behaviors

Dealing with a fearful animal can be very challenging. When your new pet simply cowers at a loving hand it can make a new owner very upset and worried. Your job is to instill confidence so that your new pet can live a happy, confident life without fear. So, how do you accomplish this? Here are some helpful tips:

  • Observe your dog/cat when they become fearful and try to determine what is sparking their anxiety. If possible remove the catalyst causing the fearful behavior from their environment. It could be as simple as certain types of clothing:
    • For example, my rescued German Shepard mix, Heather, was very fearful of any man that wore heavy work boots and gloves. I observed this when I had hired some laborers to landscape my yard. Heather would go into the bathroom, crawl in the tub and refused to come out until the workers were gone. So, how did I deal with this once I observed this behavior? Well, it is easier to tell you what I didn’t do…I didn’t rush in the bathroom, try and drag her out or worse yet coddle her fearful behavior. The worse thing you can do for your pet is to reward fearful anxious behavior. What I did do, was go in the bathroom and tell her in a confident voice that it was okay, that she was safe and then I walked away. I went into the living room and started playing with my other dogs. On the second day, when the laborers came she initially went in the bathroom but came out a couple of hours later. Once she came out and joined the party, she was rewarded with love and treats.
    • The moral of this story is do not reward fearful anxious behavior. Instill confidence in your new pet by acting confident yourself. You are in control of the situation so they don’t have to be.

If your new dog is fearful of any human visitor, follow this tip:

  • Have the visitor sit on the floor or at your dog or cats level. Inform them to avoid looking your dog directly in the eye.
  • Have your visitor speak in a low reassuring tone of voice that exhibits calm to your pet. You can sit near your visitor (on the sofa or a nearby chair) and also speak in a low reassuring voice to your pet.
  • Spread some treats out near the visitor. When the dog or cat approaches the visitor just have them remain still and do not attempt to pet or touch the animal in any way.
  • Once the dog or cat takes a treat or starts sniffing/investigating the visitor, you and your visitor can begin talking softly with one another ignoring your dog or cat.

These actions will reassure your pet they are in a safe environment and you are in charge. Do not praise your pet for their fearful anxious behavior. Do not scold your pet for their fearful anxious behavior. The key is to exhibit calm behavior avoiding any aggressive actions from yourself or your visitor toward your pet. After about 20 minutes your visitor can get up and relocate to the sofa chair or move calmly and slowly about your home. Do not have any loud music, speak or sounds of any kind while introducing your pet to your visitor.

Just for the dogs…fearful behavior toward other dogs:

Do not dump your new pet in a dog park and expect them to just work it out. Bad idea! Initial socialization of your dog should be done in a controlled environment such as a dog obedience training class (the smaller the class size, the better). Commonly, adult rescue dogs with fearful behaviors are started in puppy classes so they feel less intimidated. After success in a puppy class, your dog can graduate to hanging out with other adult dogs and eventually onto dog parks and other social pet events and areas.

The key here is start off slow, be patient and talk to the dog trainer about your dog special needs before you start the training class. It is a good idea to invest in a couple of private sessions with the trainer of the puppy class to familiarize your dog with that person before starting the group training session.

Nervous behaviors relating to feeding times and treat rewards

If your new pet is a nervous eater it might be because food or treat rewards might have actually been used as weapons against them. This is a sad scenario, but not all that uncommon. The result is your new dog or cat is very nervous at feeding times and/or resorts to hiding food in various places in your home. My rescue dog hid kibble in between my box spring and my mattress for the first few months I had her. Here are some tips on how to handle this situation:

If you have a multi-dog or cat household give your new pet their own safe area to eat. Make sure you have your other animals quarantined off in other areas of the house initially.

  • Have breakfast and dinner with your dog. For example, when it is dinner time, make your pets dinner and set it in the same place every meal preferably around the same time.
  • Make sure your meal is ready as well, then calmly go over to your meal and start eating basically ignoring your pet.
  • After you are finished with your meal check your pets bowl and see how they did. If they ate anything at all, praise them and give them a treat. However, do not feed them off your plate when you are eating. This will just encourage begging and they will avoid eating their own food altogether.
  • Be sure to make your new pets meal tasty by include some boiled chicken or cheese as a food lure on top of their dry kibble. This will entice them to their own food bowl and not your dinner.
  • If you are a fast eater, make sure to give your pet at least 20 minutes to eat their meal. After that time pick up their bowl, give them praise and a tasty treat.
  • Make sure your pet has access to fresh clean water at all times.

Uncontrolled nervous defecation… 

If your new pet is so scared at the introduction to a visitor, animal or new environment to where they cannot control their bladder or bowel make sure all introductions are done in a fenced outdoor area or tiled inside area. Make sure the area is spacious and not cramped or too confining. Make sure to limit the number of people or animals to two. Make sure the other animal is leashed but your rescue animal is not (unless your animal is aggressive). You also have to be sure that the introduction animal is a sound/docile animal that will not attack you or your animal in any way.

If your rescue animal defecates, calmly move your animal to another area and wait. Have the person with the introduction animal calmly approach you and your dog. Give a brief introduction and allow them to sniff each other and then move away. Wait a few minutes and try again, all the while being calm. When your animal eventually interacts with the introduction animal without urination or defecation, calmly praise your pet and give them a treat.

Fear of the veterinarians office….

Nobody likes to get a shot, least of all your pet. So, with the first few visits to your veterinarians office, if possible, try to avoid painful veterinary procedures. Take your dog or cat in simply for a wellness check and allow your veterinarian and the staff to gently handle your dog. Bring your dog or cats favorite toy along with you and allow them to play with it while in the waiting room. Let the veterinarian or technician give your dog a treat after the visit. Mobile veterinary services are also a good idea. This allows your pet to be seen by a veterinarian in the comfort of their own home without the stress of being in a strange environment with other stressed animals.

Fear of abandonment and separation anxiety… 

One of my rescue dogs had the unfortunate experience of being abandoned on the side of the road by her previous owners. As a result, she would absolutely insist on getting in the car with me because she was afraid of being left behind, but when the car started to move, she cried and howled constantly because she was so nervous. What I did to help her with this issue was to calmly assure her that all was okay and make the car trips really short (less than 10 minutes). After a while, she learned that she was never left and always made it home okay and she became less nervous. Over time, I increased the length of the car trips and when she would stop whining I would reward her with a treat.


  • Separation anxiety can become a big issue. Pets can get very anxious while their owners are away causing damage to the home and injury to themselves. Here are some tips to calm your pet while you are away:
  • Separate really slowly by leaving for just a few minutes at a time. This can be accomplished by giving your pet a treat, leaving the room and then shutting the door behind you. Leaving your pet alone in another room for 5-10 minutes at a time is a good starting point.
  • After your pet gets used to being left in another room alone for a few minutes then it is time to graduate to actually leaving the house. Leave the house for brief periods of time (20-30 minutes). As time goes on, your pet should act less and less concerned as you leave the house for longer periods of time.
  • Don’t coddle or pamper your pets separation anxiety. Don’t make a big fuss when you leave and don’t coddle your pet as you leave.
  • A special chew toy given to your pet only when you leave the house will give them something to look forward too. That way your pet will look more forward to this special treat and less concerned about you leaving; it will also keep them busy while you are away.
  • Leave a light on and soft music playing. If you are leaving at night or know that you will not return home before nightfall; don’t leave your pet in the dark. Leaving a light or two on will ease your pets anxiety. Soft music can also drown out noises nearby that might cause your pet anxiety.

Fear of kennels or crates….

Some rescue dogs and cats have had their share of crate time and are fearful of crates or kennels. Some dogs see crates as a punishment because when they misbehaved, they got put in the crate. Here are some tips to turn fear of kennels/crates around so your dog or cat can view them as a place of safety and security.

  • Place some nice soft bedding in the kennel to make the space comfortable.
  • Make the sure the kennel is big enough for your pet to easily turn around in.
  • Leave the door open. Have the kennel placed in a high traffic area of the house like the family room. While you are home make sure the kennel door is left open and throw a chew toy or some treats inside. Your pet will go in and eat the treats or play with their chew toy but won’t feel trapped because the kennel door is open.
  • Putting a blanket over the kennel gives it more of a den feel. Make sure the crate is in a warm comfortable room. Having your pet crated or kenneled in a cold non-heated area like a garage can make them anxious because they are cold and uncomfortable.
  • When you do leave and you decide to crate your pet while you are away; follow the tips with separation anxiety and leave for only brief periods of time eventually graduating to longer periods of time.