Rescue pets tend to be a lot more sensitive to their environment than shelter or store-bought animals. Something as mundane as a ringing doorbell can send your furry friend into a frenzy that’s deeply rooted in abuse and neglect. Pet parents can never fully understand what an animal has been through. All that matters moving forward is learning to recognize their triggers and responding in the most effective ways.
Below is some helpful advice on how to help your rescue pet work through the most common triggers in everyday life.
1. Sudden bursts of loud noise
Loud noises can easily startle a traumatized animal. A car horn, barking dog, alarm clock or clap of thunder could trigger your rescue pet’s fight-or-flight response. Many rescue cats and dogs have encountered abusive living situations in the past and have learned to associate sudden noises with violence. They may run and hide or display aggressive body language toward the source of noise with flattened ears, a swishing tail or bared teeth.
Pet parents can’t plan to avoid every startling noise. You might drop something on the floor, or a motorcycle could rev through your neighborhood. What you can do, though, is provide easy access to a quiet corner of the home, preferably blankets draped over a crate. You could also try turning on the TV, radio or calming music to mask recurring sounds like a thunderstorm.
2. Approaching the pet too quickly
Rescue pets are often wary of sudden movement, especially when they’re still acclimating to their new homes. Children that rush in for a hug could remind the animal of past abusive owners. Likewise, dogs view steady eye contact, approaching head on and towering overhead as aggressive behaviors—and they certainly don’t like it when strangers invade their personal space!
Visitors and household members should all learn the proper way to approach a fearful rescue pet. Shy cats might keep their distance no matter what you do, but dogs are more receptive to body language that demonstrates you’re not a threat. Slowly approach from the side and kneel a safe distance away from the dog. Speak in a calm, reassuring voice and let the dog cover the rest of that distance on their own terms.
3. Time spent at home alone
Separation anxiety is a common issue among rescue pets who were abandoned or returned to the shelter. The animal’s anxiety is at its worst when they’re left alone for a long time or when there’s a drastic change in the household schedule. Separation anxiety in pets is often characterized by chewing your possessions, excessive vocalization, inappropriate elimination and scratching at the door.
The best way for rescues to cope with time spent alone is by reassuring them you’re always going to come back. Practice communicating a key phrase or gesture, then leave for a few minutes at a time. Your cat or dog will learn to associate that phrase or gesture with the knowledge that you’ll be home soon. Teach the rescue pet that leaving is no big deal by keeping goodbyes calm and affection before leaving to a minimum.
4. Harsh punishment for bad behavior
Abusive owners dole out undue punishment to their poor pets. An indoor potty accident or chewed-up pair of sneakers might have been met with shouting and excessive force. Punishment doesn’t teach pets anything—it only reinforces their fear of people. Pets don’t know how to associate punishment with their bad behavior and will continue to exhibit problems. As a result, any amount of yelling could trigger fear in rescue pets, regardless of whether or not it’s directed at them.
Pet parents should start off by creating a peaceful home environment for the cat or dog. Any credible rescue organization won’t allow someone to adopt unless they can prove they have a healthy home life. An owner could act respectful toward their pet, but if household members don’t get along, the rescue will feed off that negative energy. Make sure everyone at home is on the same page about keeping the peace.
As you train your rescue pet, reward them for good behavior instead of punishing bad behavior. Praise, treats and toys are effective motivators for getting pets to behave well. After a lifetime of abuse, pets need you to lay the foundation for trust and positivity. Besides, a happy pet is easier to train!
Remember that all rescue pets come from slightly different backgrounds and may not respond to triggers the same way. Ask your rescue organization for a list of the pet’s specific triggers and which methods work best for reducing their fear, aggression and anxiety. With your help, one lucky pet can heal from a painful past and overcome their triggers.