How Guatemalan rescue Unidos para los Animales ensured a good fit for dogs’ new homes—and what you need to know if you’re considering adopting a dog from abroad.
By Kristi Benson, Special Correspondent
If you’re considering adopting a dog who started out life in a really different scenario—outside, kennelled, chained, the list goes on—you may have questions and concerns: will the dog fit in as well as a more socialized pet? Is there anything I can do to ease the process?
A few years ago, I spoke about this very topic with my friend and colleague Linda Green. Linda co-founded and directs the Guatemalan rescue Unidos para los Animales (“Guatemala United for Animals”). Before changing direction in 2022 to focus more intensely on spay/neuter and youth education, this rescue worked with Guatemalan strays and relinquished dogs and placed them in pet homes in both Guatemala and the United States. I spent a week with her getting to know the rescue, the beautiful dogs they work with, and the lovely city of Antigua, and I couldn’t help but admire how well-prepared these dogs are for the homes they’re destined for.
Many, many dogs live outside or otherwise in a non-pet scenario for part of their lives before moving inside to become a pet dog. These dogs may start out as strays but not necessarily… puppy mill puppies (i.e. those found advertised on buy-and-sell sites online and from many pet stores) and many types of sporting or working dogs all live in situations very different than what most pets in North America have.
Most of these dogs can move inside as pets at any stage of their lives, despite what seems like a massive change in scenery. Linda and I spoke about the transition that the dogs in her rescue went through on their way to pet homes. I ran a sled dog rescue for a decade (albeit on a much smaller scale than Linda), and we found some common threads in our experiences.
We both agreed that dogs, with a bit of help and training, can make this transition just fine. And for many adopters, there is something a bit special in the knowledge that the dog they brought into their homes and into their hearts had a rather circuitous journey en route.
|Linda and Kristi discuss two dogs which Linda and her crew have helped immeasurably. Both dogs were fearful and the Unidos approach gave them the time and space they needed to flower, as much as possible.|
Background: Unidos para los Animales
I asked Linda to give me a quick background on the rescue she ran with her partner, Terry Kovick Biskovich. In 2010, they opened their first shelter in the Guatemalan city of Antigua. Linda and Terry had been helping rescue dogs in Antigua for several years in a less formal way, but by 2010 they were ready to get organized.
Terry and her husband John had just bought an old, decrepit building in Antigua, and pending renovation, we decided we could house recovering street dogs there. It was full of rubble, but had walls and a roof, and we kind of jokingly dubbed it the “Puppy Palace”. Over the next several years we cared for many dogs and puppies pulled from another rescue group, as well as many dogs we brought in ourselves. We got them treated, socialized, sterilized, and sent them in adoption to the San Francisco Bay Area. Downtown Antigua is not an ideal place for an animal shelter for a multitude of reasons, so in 2012 when Terry and John bought their dream property on the mountain 8 km above Antigua, they generously sectioned off a piece of it. We moved up to Cerro del Perro in 2012.
Cerro del Perro (“Dog Hill”) had a number of runs, yards, and kennels for dogs, a cat sanctuary, and a kitchen for preparing dog food and staff use. It was a lovely spot—I spent many hours there training and playing with Unidos dogs.
|Terry, Phomolo Tshaka, Kristi, Linda, and Ronaldo Zamora at the Unidos para los Animales compound.|
Unidos Para Los Animales generally placed young dogs for adoption—puppies and juveniles. They got a lot of puppies for social and economic reasons. Many dogs roam freely in Guatemala either because owners don’t have fenced yards or the ability to keep their animals inside, or because of cultural differences in belief systems on how animals are kept. Affordable spay and neuter is isn’t readily available or in some cases even known about, so roaming dogs will do what roaming dogs do: breed.
Since many unwanted litters are born, many puppies came in to the rescue. Aside from the constant stream of sick and injured puppies, the majority of dogs received by the rescue were juvenile and young adults, between about six months and three years of age.
There are a few reasons for this: puppies are relatively easy and tend to be social, but when dogs start to mature, they can become behaviourally or medically frustrating for their owners. These dogs may be coming into heat, they may have developed skin issues or other health issues, or sadly, they may simply be behaving like adult dogs…but doing so in ways that don’t fit well with their human families. The rescue typically brought in about 60 puppies and 20 to 30 adults every year.
“They’re going to be pet dogs, so we need to set them up for success.”
Finding adoptive homes for these mixed breed dogs locally was (and continues to be) extremely difficult. There is little to no value placed on ‘street’ dogs”, and people acquiring dogs typically want small, fluffy white dogs, or pure-bred dogs. There seems to be some perceived social status associated with having a pure-bred dog. Any dog with any type of disability is also considered unadoptable by most families. And because homes are typically small, people assume that a larger dog won’t fit. Because of the scarcity of adoptive homes within Guatemala, Unidos placed most of their dogs in the US where mixed breed and disabled dogs were received enthusiastically.
The rescue initially sent dogs to the San Francisco Bay area for logistical reasons and existing contacts. For many years, they continued to focus on this area due to the fantastic network of people—both volunteers and adopters—that Unidos had drawn into its fold (many adopters have adopted multiple times). The Bay area is also progressive in its dog training culture and has many wonderful services for dogs and their owners.
Our “sleddie” rescue, Parkland Husky Rescue, was a much smaller deal. We took in retiring or unwanted sled dogs from the far north and also from the prairie provinces, trained them in our home, and rehomed them. The dogs ranged in ages from pups to mature adults–up to seven or eight years. We usually placed about five dogs a year, and like Linda, we focussed on a large urban area (Winnipeg, which was about six hours’ drive from our place). There was simply a bigger audience of potential adopters there. We needed as big a pool of adopters as we could find, since sled dogs aren’t like gorgeous Siberian huskies…they’re kind of random-looking, and often come with some behavioural baggage and proclivities that don’t suit many pet homes, such as bolting, escaping, predatory behaviour, and fearfulness.
|Moose. Some sled dogs like Moose need a few weeks of “cocooning” time, during which things are kept relatively quiet and easy. Once they have settled in, they blossom. Photo: Kristi Benson.|
Matching dogs and families
Unidos Para Los Animales pulled out all the stops to make really solid and appropriate matches between an adopter and their potential new dog. This is for several reasons: there was a lot of effort and expense involved in sending the animals to the United States, and poor matches meant returned dogs (an expensive and stressful thing, although relatively rare due to their diligence). They were also committed to a high-welfare experience for their dogs. This means the adopters had to be committed and willing owners.
In order to screen in the type of family they were seeking, the rescue volunteers and staff asked a lot of screening questions through an online form. They were looking for a sense of what these families were looking for in a dog, and who the adopting families were: their home and family set-up (alone time, other pets, children), their lifestyle, and their activity levels.
After receiving an application, it was reviewed and checked for flags. Flags do not necessarily mean that the family was deemed to be inappropriate and wouldn’t be approved—some flagged topics were simply topics about which Linda wanted to educate these families prior to adoption. After the application form was reviewed, Linda or another adoptions counsellor spent an hour or so on Skype with the applicant. These conversations were a wonderful opportunity for the adoptive family to ask questions, to meet the dog virtually, and for Linda or her colleagues to educate.
At Parkland Husky, we did not have a formal application process. Instead, we used whatever medium the applicant was most comfortable with—email, phone, or Skype—to see if a match was possible. We entered into every conversation from the starting point of “let’s see if we can make this work”. Although most applicants ended up not being a good match for a sled dog, many wonderful families added a sled dog to their lives and we felt like we were lucky to have been a part of the process (read more about my sled dog rescue here).
We always asked a few targeted questions of our potential adopters. These questions were, unsurprisingly, very close to those in the Unidos’ application form. All the questions were oriented towards finding out if the adopter was a good match for a sled dog. We asked what the applicant was looking for in a dog. We wanted to know the current make-up of their family, both humans and other pets. Getting an idea of their regular activity level was vital, as sled dogs can be energetic. Finally, we asked how many hours the dog be left alone during most days, and how the adopter would handle any behaviour issues that come up. These questions were seen as simply the beginning of a conversation.
I asked Linda what would constitute an immediate no for a potential family. Since the rescue’s resources were limited, they flagged certain mismatches early, so that those adopters who will likely be a good fit can receive time and consideration. Linda said that they used the filling out of the application form as a proxy for the type of commitment that a dog really needs: if someone can’t take the time to fill out a form, they might not have the time to learn about, let alone meet the needs of a new dog. Linda also looked for flags that might suggest a family is looking for a backyard dog. Backyard dogs, who spend all or most of their time alone, have a poor quality of life. Linda and her colleagues also simply avoided adopters who were wedded to aversive equipment or techniques, such as shock collars, prong collars, or other forms of punishment. Aversive techniques and equipment are correlated with aggression and can cause a reduced quality of life for the dogs they are used on.
Otherwise, the rescue was open to a broad variety of adopters: age, number of people in the home, children, other dogs, and so on. The most important thing was a good match, so a dog-friendly dog who loves kids was a good match for a home with another dog and kids. As the adoption milieu becomes more complex in any one match, Linda and her colleagues simply educated, and provided resources, to help create good adoption outcomes.
|Kristi with two Unidos alums, cruising around a finca (farm) on one of the fertile volcanic slopes around Antigua. Most Unidos dogs learn to come when called, which makes off-leash time much more safe and enjoyable.|
The top three ways to ease the transition for a new rescue dog
I asked Linda about the top three things they provided for the pups and dogs in her rescue, to ease the transition from relinquishment to pet. She readily came up with the big three: Medical needs, simple exposure to a home-like environment, and training.
Upon intake to Unidos Para Los Animales, all dogs needed deworming, vaccination, and routine medical care and sterilization. Some needed much more intensive medical assistance, for injuries or deprivation. Physical health and comfort was the first step for these dogs on their journey to a new home.
“After we meet their medical needs, we just give them time. Time to settle in, in a semi-home environment,” she said.
The rescue was located in a large and well-tended yard, and there were numerous people around during the day, including rescue staff and volunteers. The dogs took time to habituate to the sights and sounds of the rescue (read more about the process of habituation). Linda liked to give these dogs the time they need to decompress and get used to the rescue, as a stepping stone to a new home.
And finally, training. Linda is a credentialed dog trainer as a graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers. She also had a stable of competent volunteers and staff she had taken under her wing and mentored. Each dog that passed through their gates received some formal training from a trainer.
“They’re going to be pet dogs, so we need to set them up for success”, she said, and success means replacing some undesirable behaviours with more pet-home-compatible behaviours. “Many street behaviours that are successful for the dog are usually not acceptable in a home.”
Linda often had to replace “anything that’s worked for them for their whole lives, like toppling garbage”. The training also included getting them used to life in a home and with leashed walks.
“[We are] trying to expose them to as many different places as possible, so they can see different stuff. From pigeons in the park to kids to people with different skin tones to all kinds of vehicles.”
The sled dogs who we were lucky enough to work with were generally in good shape and didn’t need immediate vet care. In most cases, they needed the same decompression time that Linda spoke of, and time to habituate to an in-home environment. And most needed training: house-training all around, and a crash course in In-Home Manners. Sled dogs like to jump up on their houses to sun themselves, and they often merrily brought this behaviour inside with them. But (strangely) our adopters seemed to prefer dogs who didn’t jump up on the dining room table, or the kitchen counter, or the bathroom counter…or the coffee table. And finally, we trained the dogs to be comfortable walking around on leash, happy in their crates, and to come when called.
|Sled dogs like Oyster enjoy traction sports. Parkland Husky recommended a gear change (using a front-clip harness) for walks and didn’t have problems.|
The top three things we want adopters of rescue dogs to know
Linda had some wonderful advice for the adopters of both puppies and adult dogs moving into a new home. The first thing is house-training: do the work! House soiling is a nuisance, but it can also ruin more than your living-room carpets. Serious house-soiling can ruin the bond that humans form with their animals. This is why dog professionals and adoptions specialists are firm about this one. No freedom for newly adopted animals! Supervise, supervise, supervise. And don’t stop with supervision: head outside with your new dog and reinforce every single appropriate elimination, for at least a few weeks.
Linda took the time to explain what this will look like when she spoke with adopters: crating when left alone, cordoned-off areas of the home, leashes and treats kept by the door, and so on. She reminded the families who adopt from Unidos that “you can loosen that up after a couple of weeks”, but that it’s much easier to ease up on supervision after a few successful weeks than it is to fix an entrenched house-soiling problem.
Second, Linda advises adopters to be patient for the first few days.
“As tempting as it is, don’t invite people over for a big party. These dogs have dropped down a rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland–let them settle in for a few days before visitors and dog parks,” she said.
When we placed sled dogs with new families, we would offer the same advice. I call this practice cocooning and asked our adoptive families to cocoon their new adult dogs for a few weeks. We asked people to keep their worlds safe and small, and let the dog show them when they’re ready for more. (Note: This doesn’t apply in the same way to puppies. Puppies are very different, due to the sensitive and timely nature of their socialization period. With adult dogs, the socialization ship has sailed, and it’s safe to cocoon).
And finally, Linda is emphatic about support. Adopting a dog is hard stuff. There is so much information available about dogs that is outdated and outmoded. Finding a modern, humane, and evidence-based approach is almost impossible without good help. And for Unidos adopters, that help was Linda and her colleagues, who knew (and let their adopters know) that the best time to reach out for training help is the first time the dog does the worrisome behaviour. Trained and credentialed support is available at the touch of a button, and Unidos had built a wonderful community of adopters of Guatemalan rescues and excellent trainers to refer adopters to in the San Francisco area.
How long does it take for a newly adopted dog to settle in?
I asked Linda how long the dogs they placed would take to settle in. For puppies, it was no surprise to hear they settle in fast: generally within two or three days. Linda said that really shy puppies may take a bit longer, perhaps a week.
Linda did surprise me, though, by saying that even adults settle in fast. A few days or a week at most, she said, for the adults heading north from Guatemala.
“They settle in shockingly fast. They seem to know they’re home.”
The short settling-in time is due to the training provided and the good matches made between adopting families and dogs. Also, the rescue was careful not to send fearful dogs or dogs with behavioural issues to adoptive homes.
Linda often saw Unidos dogs a few weeks or months after they landed softly in their new homes, at her Guatemalan Street Dog Reunions. She was always delighted to see the dogs looking even better than when they were in rescue: glossy, happy, and healthy.
“I couldn’t help but admire how well-prepared these dogs are for the homes they’re destined for.”
For our sled dog-adopting families, we asked them to expect a few months for the dogs to settle in fully and blossom as pets. Sled dogs, unlike Guatemalan dogs, tend to be under-socialized. When I look at the Guatemalan dogs that end up in Linda’s rescue, they march up and down narrow streets filled with people of every age, shape, and size; vehicles of all makes and models…I was delighted and amazed. The dogs, generally, took it all in like casual dog champs. They were born to cities, to streetscapes, and to the hustle and bustle of modern life. A general rule is that what a dog experiences a lot of before they’re about 8-12 weeks old will not scare them in adulthood. These dogs were competent and confident!
Sled dogs, on the other hand, tend to be born in pens outside, on rural properties. They may get high quality food and vet care, including all their shots, deworming, and so on; but they are neglected in one of the most important ways: socialization. When puppies are served up a helping of social isolation on top of fearful genes, the resulting adult dogs can be fearful and anxious. Although fearful dogs can make huge leaps and bounds in overcoming their fears in pet homes, this simply won’t happen in a few days.
How can we help Guatemalan dogs?
Although Unidos Para Los Animales no longer has a rescue component, they do amazing work with underserved dog owners in the Antigua area, providing spay/neuter clinics along with some basic medical care, especially deworming and vaccination. They also have developed culturally appropriate, engaging and targeted educational materials on humane and responsible treatment and care of dogs and cats via activity books for children, the next generation of animal owners. These books are distributed free to clients at clinics, schools, and other animal welfare organizations. They need funds to continue and expand their spay/neuter services and the educational program.
Like all rescues, their long-term plan is to simply put themselves right out of business; however education takes time and access to low cost, mobile, high quality sterilization and vaccination services is critical to humanely controlling the dog and cat populations and keeping them healthy in Guatemala and other developing countries. There is much work to do, Unidos para los Animales depends on donations for its work, and with enough funding to keep their clinics running, they will be around for a long time to come.
To make a tax-deductible donation: Unidos para los Animales
is an honours graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers,
where she earned her Certificate in Training and Counseling (CTC). She
also has gained her PCBC-A credential from the Pet Professional
Accreditation Board. She
has recently moved to beautiful northern British Columbia, where
she will continue to help dog guardians through online teaching and
consultations. Kristi is on
staff at the Academy for Dog Trainers, helping to shape the next
generation of canine professionals. Kristi’s dogs are rescue sled dogs,
mostly retired and thoroughly enjoying a good snooze in front of the