From having a routine to the right food: how to bond with a rescued dog

Little more evidence is needed to understand the joys of puppy adoption than witnessing one thrive in its new environment. “He’s just an absolute dream,” says Gareth McKeever as his springer spaniel Taco runs around, tennis ball in mouth, eager to play.

McKeever adopted Taco at just eight weeks old in the summer of 2022, hoping to alleviate a fear of dogs that one of his three young children had developed. But the initial weeks weren’t without their challenges – especially regarding the puppy’s diet.

“After a month, he started to have really runny poos and he lost a lot of weight. My wife and I tried various feeds and took him to the vet but even after tests they couldn’t see anything wrong,” says McKeever. “Then one day, we were in Morecambe at the seaside with the kids, and we were walking Taco along the Promenade. He had a really liquidy poo, and a couple came up to us and said they had a spaniel at home with exactly the same issue. They recommended Royal Canin Medium Puppy, so I bought it straight away. It’s been transformative – Taco’s problems cleared up in a few days.”

Taco is now a thoroughly happy dog, spending much of his time racing around the Cumbrian countryside. “He’s just got a really lovely nature,” says McKeever. “He’s very relaxed, great with the kids and very smart.”

Digestive issues are common with puppies, especially rescues who may have come from a stressful environment, says Clare Hemmings, scientific communications manager at pet food manufacturer Royal Canin. “The key thing nutritionally is to get them on to something that’s very high quality and highly digestible, which is why feeding Royal Canin is a good move. It basically means what you put in is used by the body, and you’re giving a properly balanced diet in which each nutrient is included for a purpose.”

  • Photographs: Robert Ormerod/The Guardian

Like McKeever, charity worker Emma Weir has had an extremely positive experience adopting her now seven-month-old labrador Skye, who she describes as “a very happy little dog”. There were, however, some similar challenges linked to food that quickly became noticeable.

“When we got her, there was something about her stomach,” says Weir. “She had some sort of worm. The amount of times that she went for a poo was quite extreme and it was always runny. So we had to work out what food to give her, making sure the treats she had during training were dog biscuits. Now, she might occasionally get a treat from someone else when we’re out for a walk, but we don’t ever give her too many in case it upsets her stomach.”

While McKeever was seeking a companion for his family, Weir was looking for a friend for her other dog, Eliza, who was heartbroken after the family’s elderly dog was put to sleep. “She was in mourning and was depressed and didn’t want to do anything,” says Weir. “We took Skye home and within 10 minutes of meeting Eliza, they were running around the sofa, chasing each other. I immediately thought: ‘This is a good match’. And they’re best pals now – Skye loves Eliza and Eliza loves Skye.”

Skye is energetic and fiercely intelligent, though Weir says her character is different from that of other dogs she has had. “She’s cuddly and quite quirky in her ways and absolutely loves water and a good puddle. I haven’t taken her to the beach yet because I think she would just lose her mind at all the water!”

While Weir believes that play, attention and setting boundaries are all important in forming a solid relationship with a new dog, she also highlights the importance of consistency in their food routine, which was key when Skye first arrived. “If you change just one tiny detail, that can throw them off. So finding the right food and stocking up is my advice.”

  • Photographs: Rebecca Lupton/The Guardian

Hemmings agrees that consistency is essential, particularly with rescue animals. “There can be this feeling that you have to make up for what they haven’t had, and then we can start projecting our human emotions on to them,” she says. “We often express love by feeding: feeding our family, our partners, our children – that’s how we do it in the human world. But if we do that with dogs, it can be really detrimental to their health. For example, a large dog has a very short digestive tract – less than 3% of body weight compared with a human’s digestive tract, which accounts for around 11% of overall weight. This is why feeding too many treats or human foods often leads to diarrhoea.

Related: From food scales to activity feeders: 10 things every new dog owner needs

“And adding supplements such as bone meal or milk to ‘make bones strong’ can actually cause bone deformities in puppies. Without wanting to state the obvious, dogs are not people and they have very different nutritional needs.”

Hemmings recommends finding other ways to bond with and show love to a puppy, such as grooming, stroking, playing and just generally giving them the time they deserve. “You don’t have to keep feeding them to tell them that you love them,” she says. “Instead, feed them more energy-dense food that has been tailored to their size or breed, because this takes into account their health needs and their physiology, so that their body can actually use the nutrients in the food. This means they can have smaller portions and start a routine, because one of the things that’s difficult for dogs is not knowing what’s happening. So form that routine, stick to it and don’t mistake food for love.”

Though Taco and Skye both bonded instantly with their new families, finding the right food was certainly a contributing factor in allowing that relationship to blossom naturally. “Like any relationship, you’ve got to invest into it,” says McKeever, as Taco stares up at him affectionately. “It can have its challenges but adopting is a lovely, beautiful thing – I can’t recommend it enough.”

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