Getting a rescue dog

Wednesday, 7 June 2017  |  Kate

The day my rescue dog, Nikita, came to live with me I spent the morning pacing around the house and nervously flicking channels on TV, waiting for her to turn up. I remember it was the 22nd July because Prince George was born that day and it’s all anyone was talking about.

I knew adopting a dog was a big deal, I understood that I was tethering myself to a sentient creature with the mental age of a toddler who would (hopefully) bond with me, meaning she would come to rely on me for everything. That’s not a responsibility you take on lightly so I’d waited years until I had enough space and time in my life to give a rescue dog a home. I had no inkling that she would be the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

I adopted Nikita from K9 Rescue a charity that rescues dogs from Eastern Europe, nurses them back to health then rehomes them in Northern Europe. I put in an application after seeing her on their website, half dead but still, incredibly, her personality shining out of her. I didn’t choose her. She was demanding to be rehomed. Someone locally came and did my home check and then it was a case of waiting for her to arrive.

Nikita was abandoned, probably tied up and left judging by her uncontrollable shaking when I tied her up outside the pharmacy one time. She was in a parlous state, starving, half eaten by mange and seriously underweight. I’m amazed she found it within her to trust another human being ever again. But that’s the magical nature of dogs. She’s feisty, whip sharp and very playful, definitely one of life’s survivors.

So this collie, papillon cross (we think), turned up on my doorstep, wagging her hairless tail for all she was worth, ran around the house for a moment then found the garden, where she ingratiated herself by doing an unmentionable on the patio and chasing the cat. Atta girl! The lady from K9Rescue left after a cuppa and that was it, I was now the proud owner of a scrawny, underweight, smelly dog, who had bad breath and a rash all down one side. She was half hysterical with fear and delight, and so was I. I was also completely clueless.

I spent the next week doing it all wrong. That first day I took her to the beach. It was quickly apparent Nikita had never seen a beach before as she proceeded to drink seawater out of rock pools before I could stop her. I walked her too often and for too long, in the wrong places. She was tired and needed to heal. I thought I knew what I was doing, but in reality I was nervous and ill prepared.

Now it’s almost four years later and this is what I’ve learned along the way.

The first few days

Allow your new furry friend find their own way about the place. Smell is everything to a dog and they map out a new home differently to the way we do. When I’m away, Nikita sleeps on my bed, but not just on it, she sleeps where my head and shoulders normally rest, it’s where she feels safest. 

Let them sniff out the lay of the land, give them a place to feel safe and secure; their own bed, in a quiet nook, but not somewhere they may feel trapped.

Make sure they know where the outdoor space is, and where to find food and water. Allow them to eat and drink undisturbed. You may be taking on a dog whose had to fight for food in the recent past, so leave them be until they’ve worked out that you’re not interested in what’s in their bowl.

Let them come and find you and your family in their own time, don’t smother them as it can frighten them easily. Remember you feel comfortable in your own home but it’s not your new dog’s home just yet and won’t be for a while.

Learn your dog’s body language

You can learn a lot about what your dog is trying to tell you, and how they’re feeling, by learning their body language.

Illustrator Lili Chin has some very simple drawings on understanding a dog’s body language. They are free to download and reproduce (with credit) and make a lot of sense. This one on how to greet a dog is very helpful,

If the whole family learns what a dog is telling them by how their ears and tails lie (flat and down, scared; sticking up, all’s good), if they yawn or lick their lips a lot (stressed and anxious) then everyone will settle down far more quickly, with less misunderstanding.

I’ve heard of many dogs going back into rescue because the new dog growled at a child. If body language had been taken into account they would have recognised the three or four signals that came before it escalated into a growl and known to leave the dog alone. So a dog that could have made a super family pet is now back in a kennel.

So everyone relax and take a breath. Put yourself in your new dog’s position. You would want to be left to find your own way too, no?

You don’t need loads of stuff

There is no point in buying things you think your dog will need, before they arrive. I bought a crate for Nikita thinking it would be a good space for her to have, somewhere quiet and away from the cats. It turned out she was very calm and sweet natured, the cats ignored her, and she was more than happy to sleep in her bed. That was a £60 refund and an unnecessary trip to Argos. Just have the basics in: water and food bowls, food and treats, an inexpensive bed and a blanket, a collar and lead, and a tag with your name and number on it. Any rescue dog should come micro-chipped now but always check.

Anything else you or your dog needs will become clear later on. If you want to buy them an expensive collar and lead ( - hands down the best collars ever) wait until you know what suits them.

Your dog has a personality, taste and her own routine.

Yes, really. It’s a new relationship for you both, each other’s likes and dislikes take time to emerge, everyone is on their best behaviour for the first few months. Any behavioural issues – digging up the garden for instance – generally become apparent after you’ve been living together for a while, once they start to feel secure in your company. So it’s not a case of your new relationship breaking down, more that it’s moving to the next level.

Dogs are very much creatures of habit, they like a routine. After a couple of months your days will fall into a pattern which now includes the dog and what she needs. I swear Nikita knows what time it is. She comes and sits in front of me to stare into my eyes at dinner time, and when it’s time for her last outing to the loo before bed.

As you have gone the adoption route the rescue centre you applied to will have taken your routine into account when matching a dog to you: how long you’re out at work for, if you’re home most of the time, how much exercise you like to get etc. So adapting your routine to incorporate a dog into your life hopefully won’t be too much of a stretch.

Nikita loves meat, can’t stand fish, likes veg but doesn’t do fruit. She hates having a bath but loves to roll in fox poo so cleaning is non-negotiable. She prefers my bed but not if I’m in it as I clearly take up too much room for her liking (she’s a 10kg small fry, how much room does she need?) She has her side of sofa, I have mine, also non negotiable. She likes walking on the Downs but not on pavements. These are our preferences, it’s how we rub along, but I’d say it was a good year before we got to this point.

Relax, take your time, watch and learn.

Getting on with other pets

When Nikita came to live with me there were two rescue cats (Pearl and Dave) living with me. I’d had them for 12 years by this point and they were set in their ways but everyone got on from day one. This is because the rescue had cat tested Nikita as much as they could when she was waiting to come over to the UK. Everyone essentially ignored each other.

Sadly Dave passed away a year later and Nikita started to encroach a bit on Pearl’s patch. I simply left them to work it out for themselves. One day I arrived home to find quite a bit of fur on the hallway floor. Something had definitely gone down while I was out. Both dog and cat seemed ok though but it was months before Nikita dared to venture upstairs again. Pearl had stuck up for herself and order was restored.

Always be upfront with the rescue you hope to adopt your dog from. The more information they have about the other pets in your household the better suited your new companion will be.

Diet and Exercise

This is a big one. To be honest, if you’ve adopted a starving dog they will inhale whatever you put in front of them until they come to realise that meals are forthcoming at regular intervals and start to slow down a bit.

Don’t over feed your new charge. Small, regular meals are the order of the day. Depending on how underweight they are aim to feed 3-4% of their bodyweight per day to get weight on. Incorporate their treats into this allowance too. For example, a 20kg dog that should be 30kg can easily eat 800g of food per day. Once they are at the correct weight reduce the amount to 2-3% of bodyweight then monitor weight gain or loss and adjust accordingly.

As for what food to feed I’m all about the quality. I’d never feed kibble ever it’s often far too high in cheap carbohydrates. I prefer very good wet food, home cooked food or raw feeding. You may not know your dog’s history, in which case it’s going to be trial and error for a while. Then it will depend on their preferences combined with how much spare time and disposable income you have. Whatever you choose go for quality over quantity.


I put Nikita on a few good supplements to get her back to health too. It was easy as she ate anything. She was on (and still is to this day) Dorwest Keepers Mix, a blend of herbs to improve and maintain overall condition. Keepers Mix is packed with vitamins and minerals good for the heart, digestion, skin, coat, eyes and ears. Dorwest make the only licensed veterinary herbal medicines in the world.

I also added CSJ's Seaweed & Parsley mix to get to work on cleaning her teeth, which were abysmal.

I treated her skin with CSJ's Skinny Cream every day, and their Skinny Shampoo once a week for a couple of months. The neem, coconut and essential oil content finished off any lingering mange, put paid to her fungal rash and moisturised her skin. I have to say that rubbing Skinny Cream all down one side of her body every day really did help to get the trust going between us. I was making her feel better, feeding her, and being gentle, things she may never have encountered before she was found.

As for exercise, that really does depend on the breed, age and previous history of the dog you have adopted. For some reason I was hell bent on walking Nikita four times a day, three short walks and a long one. She really didn’t need so much, she was tired and weak, but eager to please so went along with it. After a couple of weeks I realised it was too much and shortened it to three walks a day of 20 minutes each. I made sure they were around the block, to the local park, and the beach. That way she got to know where she lived and got a good sniff on the other local dogs.

Now she can do four miles and that’s about enough for her. Remember to let them sniff too. Smell is everything to a dog so if you’re going for a walk be sure to factor in time for meandering.

Pet insurance

Every pet insurance company that I know of will insure rescue dogs. They’d be missing out on a massive chunk of business if they didn’t! Make sure you shop around though and read the small print. Many insurance companies will only insure a pet for the first year of any condition they have. So if your dog is diagnosed with a chronic condition, diabetes for instance, you’re only covered for the first year of treatment.

In the end I went with PetPlan and got Nikita covered for lifetime conditions. If she develops something lingering in the future I know she’s covered at least.

Alternatively you can choose to put money by each month specifically to cover vet bills. If you do that though make sure your dog has third party insurance against any damage they may do to other people or their property. Check your household insurance to see if your dog’s misdemeanours are covered under it. Whichever route you take make sure they’re covered for third party liability.

Where we are now

In the nearly four years since Nikita came into my life we are both much improved. She has put on some decent weight, the rash has healed and she now sports a full fur coat. She is no longer scared of small boys in school uniform, doesn’t shy away from strangers and has learned what play is. I still haven’t got her to actually bring the ball back yet but she does love to chase it down.

For my part, I would be lost without her. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t live on a croft in the Outer Hebrides, I live on the south coast near to family and friends. But she is my constant companion, recognised and greeted by my friends long before they see me! I am fitter for having her and I get out into nature every day because I have her.

There is a great deal to be said for nurturing a creature back to a state of good health, and enabling them to trust again. And there is nothing better, and I do mean nothing, when you’ve had a hard day than to be greeted at the door by your dog, who is always happy to see you without exception.