Some Rescued Dogs Need a Role Model to Thrive

Some Rescued Dogs Need a Role Model to Thrive

Some dogs who come into RAGOM’s care have the “Another dog REQUIRED” stipulation on their dog bio page, and many potential adopters have asked for additional information regarding this policy.

Another Dog requiredAnother dog REQUIRED

Examples of RAGOM dogs who require another larger, confident resident dog include former commercial breeder dogs (referenced in the information shared below as “puppy mill dogs”), dogs who lack socialization, dogs who have been abused or neglected, and dogs with separation anxiety.

RAGOM, as well as many other rescue organizations, has learned through years of experience with these dogs that they require a “dog role model.” The role-model dog can teach rescued dogs things they cannot learn from a human, such as socialization, not to fear loud or unfamiliar noises, and most importantly, that humans can be trusted to love and care for them.

The following information is excerpted from a Best Friends Animal Society publication written by Franklin D. McMillan, DVM, titled Understanding and Caring for Rescued Puppy Mill Dogs. This research provides strong evidence that for some RAGOM dogs, having another dog in the adoptive home does indeed warrant enforcement because it is so effective.

From Understanding and Caring for Rescued Puppy Mill Dogs as researched by Best Friends Animal Society in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and written by Dr. McMillan:

Having other dogs in the home

The recommendation to have another dog or dogs in the puppy mill dog’s adoptive household is so important that I want to look at it in some depth here.

First, because item number one (having patience) on the above list [see link to download complete PDF at the end of this article] of most effective rehabilitation methods is not really doing something as much as it is simply maintaining a particular attitude (and, in fact, not doing something), I regard this second item on the list as the most appropriate answer to the question, “What is the best thing to do to help puppy mill dogs get better?”

The answer: “Have or get another dog as a companion and role model for the puppy mill dog.”

This method has come to be known as so beneficial to the emotional recovery of puppy mill dogs that some rescue groups involved with the adoption of these dogs have made it their policy that puppy mill dogs will only be adopted into homes with other dogs.

This questionnaire actually collected even more detailed information about the other dogs, as many adopters who reported this as a most effective rehabilitation measure provided additional specifics about the other dogs. In order of most frequently mentioned to least, the other dog(s) should be:

  1. Socialized, outgoing, friendly, happy, gentle, calm, well-behaved (grouped together because of the similarities)
  2. Well-adjusted
  3. “Normal”
  4. Rescued
  5. A specific sex
  6. Older
  7. A puppy
  8. A puppy mill dog
  9. A non–puppy mill dog
  10. House-trained

The single most important characteristic of the other dogs in the household—compatibility—was almost entirely omitted from adopters’ comments, most likely because it is considered so obvious that it is merely assumed. “Friendly” comes close to “compatibility” but indicates a slightly higher level of relationship and, while certainly beneficial, is not as essential as compatibility.

In other words, the absolutely necessary feature of the other dog(s) in the house is that they are compatible—or get along—with the puppy mill dog. If they are out-and-out friendly toward the puppy mill dog, that is certainly an added bonus.

How does the presence of other dogs help the puppy mill dog? There are at least four ways that puppy mill dogs may benefit by having another dog around. The first is the one people think of most often: that the puppy mill dog learns from and models his/her behavior on the normal-acting pet dog.

The canine species is imitative in some of its behavior and hence would be, if not severely inhibited by negative emotions like fear, receptive to following the lead of the behavior of the other dogs in the house. Here are some adopters’ comments in which this appears to be happening:

  • She learned how to play by watching our two other dogs. Then she learned by interacting with them. She now plays with other dogs and with toys.
  • She is more willing to go along with things as she follows my other Bichon; however, Roxie needs to have her main caretaker with her as well. Seeing her sister (normal Bichon) and being with her helps Roxie a great deal! She has learned so much from being with a naturally socialized dog.
  • He will seem to get overstimulated in large open areas like the off-leash dog parks, where there are lots of people, lots of dogs, lots of action, and then tends to get confused. He very much looks to my other dog(s) for direction.
  • She was always watching [the other dogs] and doing what they did.

The second way that the presence of other dogs may help the emotionally struggling puppy mill dog is through a psychological phenomenon termed “social buffering.” Social buffering is an effect whereby the presence of companions can reduce the intensity of—or buffer—the emotional reaction to something frightening or stressful.

For example, one study showed that monkeys who are fearful of snakes when they are alone do not have a fearful response if they have monkey companions with them when they encounter a snake.

The effect is seen even in rodents. When rats were placed in an unfamiliar environment, their fear response was significantly lower when they had a familiar companion with them than when they were alone. But there is even more about social buffering that may be helpful to puppy mill dogs.

The scientific evidence also shows that the emotional response of the companion is key for the social buffering to work. A study with rats showed that when the rat being studied was accompanied by a fearful rat companion, the benefit was much less than when the companion rat was unafraid.

What this means for puppy mill dogs is that the presence of confident and calm companion dogs would offer the greatest benefit to the puppy mill dogs’ emotional state in situations when they are fearful.

In a more anthropomorphic view, when the dog fearful of people sees over and over how the other dogs in the house never express the slightest fear as humans approach, talk to, and physically interact with them, the learning is subtle but persistent and repetitive: “No one else is troubled by this thing that I see as such a threat — so why am I the only one?”

The dog’s thinking is obviously unlikely to be this analytical, but the emotional message is clear: “Nothing to worry about here.” Here are some adopters’ comments that appear to describe precisely this effect:

  • Dakota was frightened of everything on her arrival here: new sounds, new people, dogs we met on walks, any movement we made here at home she felt was directed at her, even if all we did was cross legs or turn a page in a book. Now, she looks to her pack, and sometimes even to me, when in a new situation. She checks how the other dogs are reacting; she looks to me for a command (touch, with me, go home, etc.).
  • He still doesn’t like a quick change, but he’s so much more secure with my husband, myself and the other dogs, so he looks to us and them to make sure things are OK.
  • Gracie was terrified of everything when she first arrived. She slowly learned the routine, but if anything was different, she would run back to her crate for safety. Now, she will observe how the other dogs handle something new and take her cue from that. She is no longer terrified; she is willing to investigate and be in new situations as long as she feels safe with a person she knows.

The third way the puppy mill dog benefits from having other dogs around is that it takes the one-on-one intensity, or pressure, off. When the puppy mill dog is the only dog in the house, all of the human-dog interaction involves the puppy mill dog, which can be too intense for a shy or fearful dog.

A rough analogy is the elementary school student in a classroom. Being surrounded by fellow students greatly diminishes the pressure of the teacher-student interaction on any one student. But if only one of the students comes to school one day, it’s a whole different story.

Everything this student does or says, every move he makes, the teacher watches. This student would be unable to relax the entire time he’s in the classroom. The puppy mill dog would likely have a similar sense of unease when the humans in the house, even in their attempts to be loving and caring, are focused only on her.

The fourth way that puppy mill dogs benefit is more indirect than the other three ways. When adopters have only one dog in their house and that dog fears them, won’t make eye contact with them, and won’t let them touch her, it’s difficult and frustrating for even the strongest, most loving and most patient of humans.

And because we now know that puppy mill dogs can show these reactions and behaviors for months and even years before improving, the patience this requires when the puppy mill dog is a person’s only dog would need to be almost superhuman.

However, contrast that to the adopter who has a couple of other pet dogs who interact with that person in a normal way. This person—let’s say a woman—receives all the love and positive feedback she could want from her “normal” pet dogs, making it much, much easier for her to give the puppy mill dog all the time he needs to emotionally recover from the mill experience.

And this is exactly what the puppy mill dog needs: patience and time. So, the fourth benefit of having other dogs around is that those dogs give adopters all the “dog love” they need while the puppy mill dogs heal at whatever pace they need.

We see, then, that the presence of other dogs is an enormous benefit for the adopted puppy mill dog. However, as with virtually all psychological issues, there are a few minor possible negative effects of having other dogs around.

One is that because dogs learn by imitation, they can just as easily learn bad habits as good. If the other dogs dig in the garden or urinate in the house or bark excessively, the puppy mill dog could do the same things.

The other potential down side is that it seems on occasion the dog fearful of humans may become overly dependent upon her dog companions and use them as a security blanket. If the fearful dog is always able to gain a sense of security from her dog companions, she may have little or no motivation to overcome her fear of humans.

[It has been RAGOM’s experience, as Dr. McMillan’s research confirms, that the benefits of another confident dog in the home far outweigh any potential downfalls.]

RAGOM thanks Best Friends Animal Society and Franklin D. McMillan, DVM for their permission to publish this information on our website. To read the entire PDF, download Understanding and Caring for Rescued Puppy Mill Dogs (PDF 4MB).