Adopting an Older Ex Stud or Shelter Dog

Updated June 30, 2021

Not long ago I saw two adult dogs in a row that had just been adopted from their breeder. The first one was not perfectly normal, but he would be OK. However, the second one, Jethro was in real trouble.

Right now, he is frightened of many things in an unpredictable way. He is frequently frozen and unwilling to move, difficult to walk, wary of strangers and not interested in food. At night he wanders the house unsettled. But we can also see signs of the lovely dog within.

Recently I told you that the best age to get a puppy is 7 to 8 weeks old. But there are plenty of dogs and puppies over 16 weeks old needing homes. Here are some examples:

So what happens if you get them? The answer is that they still make great pets, but not all of them and not always in the same way.

Here, for example, is one of their most commonly searched questions, and its answer:

Why Are Ex Breeding Dogs So Scared?

Dogs and puppies older than 16 weeks have passed the sensitive period. This is when they have learned to tolerate and hopefully enjoy what their environment contains. After this, new experiences often cause a fear response, at least initially.

How much this matters depends on three things:

  1. The age of the puppy: the older they are the worse it is
  2. Their personality: some dogs are more resilient to change than others
  3. How much socialisation has been done in their first home

The third point is by far the most important. When I see older dogs that have lived in a good home, been taken for outings, and met a variety of people, these dogs are nearly normal. They fit in well and go on to make great family pets.

The Impoverished Dog

When I see dogs like Jethro who was kept in a shed in concrete runs and had limited outside contact, they are always in trouble. He’s from a good, resilient breed not normally known for anxiety, but there’s a lot of damage to undo.

These dogs cope poorly with change. They have been kept in a sterile, featureless place and have missed out on experiencing the normal parts of life. Their social and environmental deprivation creates a dog that can only be described as institutionalised.

To the breeder or greyhound trainer, they are happy dogs, no doubt celebrating with joy every time the cage door is opened. No one ever thinks, “yes, but what are they like when I’m not watching?

And how will they cope when they have to go anywhere else? Because breeders and trainers rarely keep dogs for life. They often hold dogs back to see how they will develop, before homing the ones they choose not to show or race. The dogs they keep are usually adopted out at the end of their useful life.

Getting A Puppy vs An Older Dog

Many people choose an older dog to avoid the difficult puppy period: the toilet training, the socialisation, the problem behaviours like jumping up. But that assumes that someone else has done it! Most of the time there’s no-one better than you to put the time in to create your perfect family dog.

That’s because good socialisation is exposing a young puppy to everything they can expect to meet in their adult life. You can use my checklist of puppy experiences but nothing beats raising the puppy in the same environment they will live in later.

This is especially important if you might have children. Very few ex-breeder dogs or greyhounds have had sufficient exposure to cope with the unpredictability of toddlers*. They have also rarely had anyone play with them in the way children will.

But it’s not all negative. There are some potential benefits of these older dogs too:

  • they often have quiet temperaments
  • many have already been desexed and vaccinated
  • most health problems should be evident by now
  • they are usually good with other dogs*

* Good rescue shelters will attempt to screen dogs for their suitability with other dogs and children

Introducing An Older Dog

If you plan on getting an older puppy, a shelter dog, a greyhound or a retired breeding dog, the most important skill is patience. Despite my warnings, they usually settle in well, but take more time than younger dogs. Many things that are normal to other dogs can be terrifying to begin with.

When you come home, he or she will often be quite scared. This may not be obvious; most show it just by inactivity, a stiff, frozen posture or not eating.

Settle them down in as similar a place as possible to where they just came from, but inside the house. This could even be a crate with the door open if they are used to being caged. Your new dog will need very high levels of consistency and understanding from everyone involved, and zero punishment.

If you don’t force the issue, you should find that over the next few days your dog gradually starts to show relaxed body language and begins to explore. After a few more days, you should be able to venture outside for short walks.

If this isn’t happening, contact your vet as soon as you can. They will probably recommend a force free dog trainer combined with short-term anxiety medication. While no one wants to drug a dog, reducing fear allows a dog to explore and learn. It can also be a welfare issue to treat these dogs’ anxiety.

Please don’t think that buying an Adaptil collar or a Thundershirt is a reasonable alternative. Time is of the essence here.

Is It A Bad Idea To Get An Older Dog Then?

No, not at all. Imagine what would happen if no-one took these dogs. And not only that, most of them do extremely well. Even Jethro will be OK.

If you’re looking at getting any puppy over 16 weeks of age, here are some things to think about:

  • how rich and varied was the puppy’s home environment?
  • how do they react when you or your kids handle them?
  • are they toilet trained to live inside a house?

However, you won’t be able to tell how much a poorly socialised or trained dog can improve with your care. That’s why I’m in two minds about ‘taking a dog on trial’. While some dogs settle in quickly, helping others requires a long-term commitment.

Older puppies, greyhounds, rescues and retired breeding dogs are perfect pets for the right person. I just want you to go in with your eyes open, to have realistic expectations of how older dogs differ, and to recognise when a dog needs help.

And to get a checkup with your trusted vet. Jethro didn’t just have anxiety. He also had untreated ear infections and diarrhoea that only added to my low opinion of his original home.

Update 2021: Jethro now looks almost like any other happy dog. He spent some time on anxiety medication, and his ear infections and giardia took a while to fix, but they’re all in the past now. His bad start is but a distant memory thanks to the commitment of his new owners.

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

22 Replies to “Adopting an Older Ex Stud or Shelter Dog”

  1. Hi!
    I have a 2 year old golden cocker spaniel mix that came from a terrible breeder situation in Missouri. She made the long trek to California with 12 of her siblings and was the last to get adopted. It’s been three weeks and she’s made some great strides in some areas like exploring her space (when I’m not around) and letting me join her on the couch rather than running off (sometimes). Now that you have some backstory the two things I’m inquiring about is when can I begin attempting to take her on a walk? And do you have any tips for potty training and getting her to use the balcony rather than pee pads/my floor? She only sometimes takes treats out of my hand and typically will only eat once I’ve left the room. Unfortunately I don’t have another dog for her to learn from, it’s just the two
    Of us.

    1. Hi Sara. Regarding went to start walking, it’s there’s no right answer and it will depend very much on your dog’s confidence. You can make a start even now, but the important thing is to watch very closely for signs of anxiety. The best thing is to stay very close to home and be ready to put off the experiment repeatedly until confidence is high enough.
      As for potty training, that’s extremely difficult with these dogs, given the time they have spent doing it the wrong way. It will just take tremendous levels of time, patience and supervision.

  2. We recently rescued a 5 yr old ex breed lab. We fell in love with her instantly. She lets the male members of the family pet her but not the rest of us. She follows me but doesn’t want me to touch her. She has no trouble eating and will take a treat from our hand. She’s had quite a few accidents in the house but is improving. She loves being with our other lab. As much as I would love to pet and hold her, I am happy knowing she has a better life now. We have had her for two months now and can’t imagine what it would be like without her. She wags her tail when we talk to her and that’s good enough for me. I’m sure things will slowly get better. Just be patient folks.

  3. I’ve adopted a 5 yr old breeder surrender Toy Aussie doodle 6 weeks ago. She is sweet and smart but goes back and forth into fear mode. We have her eating well and body language is trusting most of the time. Potty training going very well. She is less trusting of my husband but improving. My dilemma is getting her to let me put a harness on without a traumatic fear experience. So far I am taking it very slow. When I put a leash on her with her collar, she freezes and refuses to move. Appreciate any tips. I have made a vet appointment to find out about anxiety meds after reading your post. Thank you.

    1. Hi Linda. She’s probably never worn a leash or harness before so it will be extremely frightening. Like always, the commonsense approach is to do it in slow stages which you’re probably already doing. If there’s a way that you can break it up into steps then do so, but under no circumstances put the lead on and let her run around with it, as it will get caught on something and give her a far worse fright than if you were holding it. Regarding harnesses, the one I sell called Perfect Fit allows you to assemble it around the dog instead of having to put it over their head or through their arms which is really useful for anxious dogs. You may be able to find something similar

  4. I have adopted a puppy mill stud standard poodle,,He is 5years and 8months old I don’t know if mill was shut down or he was surrendered He is doing well considering his life in a puppy mill. I am retired and want him to have a happy life now. He is very afraid of my husband, He likes women and younger men. My husband is retired also and wants him to not be afraid of him My vet neutered him and gave me anxiety pills he wont eat unless it is in front of him at his family room bed, goes outside after 1 day, but won,t come in if my husband is home Any suggestions? We love him after adopting him 7 weeks ago.

    1. Hi Linda. This is all very typical for a dog with such a history. The advice in the article should be all you need to know, but stay in touch with your vet and get a behaviourist involved if necessary. Good luck.

  5. Help please, we have rehomed a 4yr old gun dog LAB RETREVER who has never been toilet trained, never been in a home ect all ways lived in kennels outside with all the other dogs, breeder did not want to keep her as she is so so nervous,
    we love her already after only 10 days, only doing 10 mins walks at moment as she never seen cars bus’s children, so very nervous, please any tips on turning her into a happy family pet. Many thanks

    1. Hi Elizabeth. You’re exactly the sort of person this article is for, and there are plenty of tips in it. The main ones of course are to not try and do it alone, and to be patient as things do get better if you persist.

  6. Hi
    I adopted an ex breeding 6 1/2 year old Cavoodle from a Rescue over 5 weeks ago. She had no lead experience, did not know what a dinner dish was and is very wary of people but not dogs. With the help of my 12 year old Basenji she has learnt to enjoy rolling in grass, walks and car rides without any drama except other people. She is slowly bonding in this manner with me but as soon as we come home she races to her bed (safe place) and does not leave except to toilet outside. Now have problem as she won’t eat unless it is in her bed. Have tried tying her up outside next to dish but she won’t eat. She has been on anxiety tabs for 4 weeks and does sleep a bit. Is it just a matter of patience or any suggestions would be appreciated.

    1. Hi Sue. It sounds like it’s something that should resolve with time, especially since you have another dog as a role model. You’re doing the right thing and not trying to go it alone, so I would be reasonably confident that things will slowly improve.

  7. I really enjoyed your article and it helped me understand my recently adopted breeder released dog. He is a 9 year old shitzu named
    Toby. After two weeks he’s able to eat from a dish instead of me spoon feeding him. Still not potty trained but usually uses a pee pad. He enjoys being around our other dogs who are much bigger than him. Still barks at new people especially men. He’s so sweet definitely a keeper

  8. I have a rescue cat and am wanting to add a little Shitzu x to my family. Would a breeder sell me a older dog that has finished breeding and would it be suitable to be with my cat

    1. Hi Lesley. It’s quite possible if you contact the breeders that they may have dogs they no longer require that need good homes. However, whether your cat will cope is entirely down to their personality and you have to proceed carefully. It’s a good idea to get a dog which you can return if things don’t work out.

  9. Hi Andrew. I just adopted a 5 year old golden retriever who is an ex breeder. She is extremely shy and scared but has definitely warmed up to us in the few days we’ve had her. I was wondering though if you had any tips on feeding. I have to bring her food and water to her in order for her to eat and that’s if she even will. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi Abby. That’s really sad to hear. With time, patience and kindness she should improve, but in the meantime I don’t have any tips other than to seek help if it’s a problem and especially if she’s not improving. Medication can make a very big difference in the first few months just like it did for Jethro. He’s quite normal now by the way.

  10. This is such a helpful article. Thank you! Ive found a retired breeding dam. A 4 -3/4 y.o Golden Retriever. (After losing my 11 y.o.Golden to cancer 5 mos ago, I’m so ready for another Golden Girl to love).
    I thought an older GR would be a good option, I don’t think i have puppy energy! But this article is an eye opener for sure. I think i still want to go this way. The breeder is definitely NOTa puppy mill set up. I visited it. He’s out in the country. His dogs have big outdoor grassy paddocks, wander in &out of their “stalls” freely, not caged. She’s had 3 litters, started breeding at 2- 1/2y, retired cuz last litter, she had difficulty. He’s had her spayed, after last litter was weaned. She’ll be available once staples are out, vet re- checks. Ill have my vet check her too. Breeder doesnt “sell ” his retirees, just wants them to go to good homes. She’s grown up on his ranch tho, not “in a family home” , he has Kids &grand kids, chickens, etc milling around. When we went to meet her, we met in the “puppy interview room). Me, my sis and my 5y.o grandson. She was nervous, shaky, at first but very friendly then more than eager to take lots of biscuits, loved petting from all of us. She let me lead her on her leash. When we went outside the breeder also walked up w/ a pup to show me. (Not one of this mama’s). Ofcourse who can resist a cuddly pup, so as we were all gaga-ing over the pup, all of a sudden she got upset whimpered jumped up on my and then piddled. Almost like she was saying”No, you want me!! ” I truly hope she’ll adapt to my much more suburban home! I have grand kids *(2&5) I babysit, they’ve grown up w/& love dogs,. I am so used to that wonderful golden ret family dog demeanor. I realize I will have to allow her to acclimate slowly. Any suggestions, tips etc are greatly appreciated. I’m praying we can have a smooth and loving transition and I can provide her a loving happy furever home. Thank you

    1. Thanks Cyd. This article might be a touch on the negative side because we always think of the bad examples. However, most transitions of our dogs from the breeder go well as long as people have realistic expectations that it’s not going to be instantaneous. Good luck.

  11. Hi Andrew. This is a great article. I now have my second ex breeder/show dog reject. It is definitely about patience and a calm environment. Lucy came to me at 8 months old an ex showring girl rejected because she had a crooked tooth. Lucy had to be toilet trained and it really was a challenge as she was trained to urinate as she walked along which meant not just a patch of pee to clean up but a long trail for many weeks. Lucy was not nervous or anxious thankfully. I believe that having lived in kennels she found it necessary to get in quick and hoover down her food before another dog got it. She still eats this way and will snatch food if another dog is present.
    Luca is 18 months old and has been with me just 3 weeks after being put in the show ring and rejected because he had a testicular problem. He was homed for a few months but returned to the breeder as his anxiety was too much for that owner. He is a nervous little boy but he has settled so well over the past 3 weeks through love, patience and my understanding of his former sheltered life.
    I am so grateful that both of these dogs are mine and that they can lead normal, contented and happy lives.

  12. I have adopted a chuahua retired breeding dog 9 yrs old it is a lovely dog but it doesn’t drink much water and I have to mix cooked chicken into any other food because it won’t eat it otherwise and it is timid likes to be near me but gets jumpy or quiet if you say no to it how can I settle it down and let it know I won’t hurt her at all the owner won’t tell us anything about her at all can you help me to understand her am trying to get her desexed but owner will not answer texts so what do I do please help me

    1. Hi Norah. Most ex-breeder dogs that start out timid or anxious will come around slowly if they are in a stable and caring environment, once they start to trust you. Sometimes short-term anxiety medication will help. As for feeding, again it’s a matter of patience and slowly weaning them on to the correct diet. Regarding desexing, ask your vets to look for evidence but it’s likely that this still needs to be done.

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