Shelter Puppy Syndrome.  Ok, we made that term up as there isn’t a lot of info on the topic.  Perhaps it isn’t a universal issue. But – it is an issue facing our rescue organization.

We have amazing rescue partners, and like anything in rescue, funds and resources are limited.  The phrase “we are doing the best we can” is one that is way underused in the world of rescue.

Our Problem

We get dogs from our rescue partners in Mexico of varying ages.  The older pups seem to have quirks of their own, but it’s all personality traits or issues that are more universal and defined.

Our issue specifically relates to puppies.  They are rescued as babies with their mom – young, adorable, nursing.  They are quarantined, vetted, fed, and loved by their shelter staff.  They get to know these individuals as their world, but that’s it.  The rescue partners we work with in Mexico are amazing: the facilities are like an oasis – calm, beautiful, and quiet with the exception of dog noises.  Really lovely places for our pups to grow up, but unfortunately, it does not prepare them for the real world.  Canada Customs requires dogs to be 8 months old when they enter the country.  This age is based on vetting requirements, and I’m sure there is some reason that this is the chosen age.  However, waiting until this age is a detriment to their socialization, as key development happens at a younger age (reports vary from 2 to 4 months).  There is an interesting perspective in this article on socialization.  In Canada, we have fosters and adopters assuming that these dogs have been abused by people, and this has affected their behaviour.  For the most part, this is not the case, and when we hear the word “abuse” or “scared of men” in relation to these dogs, it crushes our souls a bit, as the front line rescue people have taken amazing care of them, and we trust that no physical abuse has occurred.  But, have we abused them by not setting them up for success?

Once the dogs get to be 8 months of age, they are ready to travel to Canada.  It’s a good thing, even though people worry about the stress of travel or the noise of the plane, but most dogs (like 98%) of them, come bounding out of their travel crate and enjoy a pee, some food and water, and a good poop!  While there are other issues we will get to in a moment, the travel itself seems to be something they are willing to put behind them quite quickly.

Once the dog gets into their foster home, life gets real!  Remember, these dogs have lived in an oasis for their entire lives:  they are socially immature.  Sometimes the first sight of a television, stairs, or other everyday real-life things, can cause a lot of anxiety in a rescued dog, as they have not developed coping skills.  According to this article on, a puppy needs socialization at a younger age, and beyond 4-5 months, some behaviours are instilled in them.  Remember that Canada Customs timeline of 8 months?  So, how do we do better by these pups?  We’ve rescued them, we want homes for them. How do we get them ready for the real world?

Front Line Rescues
Mental development in a dog between 2-4 months is where a lot of life-long perceptions are developed. Since this occurs while the dogs are in their shelter, maximum exposure to life during this time frame is key.  They need to know that shelter life is not the norm, and that real life will have a lot more day to day stimulation.  The article listed above mentions several things to expose the pups to.  We read it and scoffed at “skateboards” but then, once you think about it, why not?  Whatever it takes to desensitize these pups to the “stresses” that they will experience in real life.  We’d love to see “stairs” as a part of everyday life, that dogs could run up and down in regular play, as it is such an issue in the foster homes and can hinder success with potty training and it creates such anxiety about entering and exiting the home.
Our shelters are on limited staff, so it’s hard to change up the routine and put everyone on puppy duty (especially when basic puppy duty is time consuming).  What is the solution?  Do we ask the workers to holler on occasion?  Turn up the music and have a dance party? Ride a bike around the pups?  Stage things to make their walks more adventurous?  Somehow, we need to find a way to add a bit of real-life Canadian chaos to their day to day lives.

Foster Families
There is a fine line between allowing for decompression and reassuring these dogs of their fears.  We do suggest that fosters ignore a dog for the first bit (could be hours or days depending on the dog), and not do too much too soon.  Kids should be kept at a distance, tell the cats to back off.  Show the dog their space – bed, crate, food, water – and give them time to take in all the changes that have just come at them.  We do ask our fosters to not tip-toe around the pup as their new reality is now a part of life.  No baby talk allowed, but instead take on the emotion of “your fears are nonsense.” Try to be matter of fact with your dog, even when all we want to do is console them and tell them life will be amazing (because it will be).  Too much soothing of your foster dog during this time can actually send the message that their fears are valid.  Work with your dog to be brave – socialize, go for walks, visit the pet store, canine play dates – get them out to see the world!  Working with our trainer, we have put a few steps in place, to help with these rescues that seem to suffer from “shelter puppy syndrome”.

Another very important factor is a canine mentor. Even if the foster pup doesn’t seem engaged, they are taking in their environment in full – the adults, the kids, the cats and the dogs.  They take clues from family pets in terms of acceptable behaviour, and they can learn how to better interact with people.

Adoptive Families
With one of these shelter pups, we want to select a home with an existing dog.  This isn’t mandatory, and we expect there will be exceptions, however in all the cases we have seen to date, it makes all the difference in the new dog’s success. And, our goal is always to set these dogs up for success!
Once in the home, the biggest mistake an adoptive family can do is not setting up structure and boundaries for their new pup.  We get it, they are cute, you just want to love them and make them feel secure, however “too much, too soon” can have a negative effect on your dog.  Ideally, you want to welcome them to your home, but you need to take it slow.  Once that dog is on your couch, they’ve been shown that anything goes, and there is no need to work to earn privileges or even try to behave.

  • Read more on setting boundaries here.
  • Read more on working with your dog on socialization here 
  • Google “nothing in life is free dog training” to help set your dog up for success.

As of now, we don’t have the answer.  But, what we do have is a group of smart, dedicated and compassionate people who will give their all to give these pups the best opportunity at their best life.