All About Rescue Dogs with Special Needs

Many new pet owners choose to rescue dogs.  Rescue dogs exist in all breeds, colors, sizes, and ages.  But when rescuing a dog with special needs, many factors affect your long-term success with your rescue dog.

Types of Special Needs Rescue Dogs

Many rescue dogs do not have special needs or issues.  Those that do fall into three primary categories.  Each category of special needs has different needs from the family.

Dogs with Disabilities

These dogs have permanent, life-altering disabilities.  Most disabled dogs don’t realize they can’t do everything other dogs do, which is pretty cool to watch.

Dogs with permanent disabilities might:

  • Be blind or have difficulty seeing
  • Be deaf in one or both ears
  • Miss one or more legs
  • Have an injury that makes them unable to walk or run
  • Elderly dogs that might also have health conditions or behavior issues.

Dogs with disabilities typically don’t have long-term issues that require constant vet attention, surgeries, or new therapies.

Rescue Dogs With Health Conditions

Some rescue dogs have on-going health conditions.  While a dog with a disability has a relatively consistent problem, a dog with a health problem could go through periods of poor health, only to partially recover, then become ill again.  These dogs require frequent veterinary attention, and their condition can disrupt the household routine more frequently.

Common health conditions include:

  • Diabetes and metabolic disorders
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Allergies
  • Kidney or liver issues
  • Hip dysplasia or other orthopedic issues
  • Cardiac issues
  • Neurological Disorders

Not all ongoing health issues are genetic.  Many can result from poor nutrition as a puppy, accidents, or lack of nutrients to the mother while in the womb.

Rescue Dogs with Behavior Issues

While most don’t think of behavior issues as “special needs,” behavior issues and mental disorders in humans can create a significant disability.  This is no different in dogs, especially considering that dogs with behavior issues often have the most trouble finding quality homes.

These types of dogs, especially, can prove challenging to live with:

  • Dogs that are not housebroken or have disorders that prevent housebreaking
  • Extremely fearful dogs.
  • Dogs that react aggressively to everyday situations, such as food aggression or resource guarding
  • Anxious dogs that destroy the house or are sick from stress.
  • Dogs that self-mutilate

These dogs are especially challenging.  Traditional training techniques can make the problems worse.  It also can prove difficult to find trainers and behaviorists with the skill necessary to correct the dog’s problems permanently.



Things to Consider Before Adopting Rescue Dogs with Special Needs

Vet Bills are Expensive

Rescue dogs with special needs usually require higher-than-normal vet bills.

Rescue dogs with disabilities might need initial vet care in the thousands.  They may need a custom-fit wheelchair, or surgery to improve a pre-existing disability.  For example, dogs with certain vision issues might benefit from having surgery to remove their eyes.  They then often need a bit of extra care throughout their life to maintain a pain-free existence.

Rescue dogs with permanent medical conditions require ongoing expense to maintain quality of life.  Initial proper diagnosis can be expensive, then they often need prescription foods or ongoing medications.  Dogs with diabetes or metabolic disorders need constant medication to stay healthy.  Dogs with gastrointestinal disorders often need medications, prescription foods, and additional assistance to reduce flare-ups.

While dogs with behavior issues often don’t have much of a medical cause, medical treatment is often necessary.  These dogs often suffer from extreme stress and benefit from anxiety medications.  They also may harm themselves while acting out their behavior issues.  Dogs with behavior issues may ingest toxic substances, or have intestinal blockages.  They may also injure themselves when trying to escape.

Increased Training Expenses

Special need rescue dogs often require additional professional training.  A loving owner can perform a lot of training work, but some dogs need specialized training.

A dog with a disability may need special training to avoid unsafe situations, like staying away from the family pool.  They also may need help learning to use a mobility device or prosthetic.  Normal training equipment, like an invisible fence, might not fit or work properly around other equipment.

Dogs with chronic health conditions may have difficulty with tasks like housebreaking, especially if their condition causes vomiting or diarrhea.  A dog that sometimes can’t control when they defecate may have trouble understanding the concept of housebreaking, because they make too many mistakes.  Because they feel ill, they also may be more prone to aggression or fear responses, and need help working through those issues.  Just like we would think a person might need help, so do dogs.

Dogs with behavior problems may show heavily reinforced habits.  A dog from the streets will learn to fight for their food, or there won’t be any, and they will have stronger instincts to fight than a dog that has never had a reason to be aggressive.  They may need extensive professional help to feel relaxed in your home.

All dogs deserve to live a life with as little stress as possible, and some dogs require extensive retraining to reduce stress.  Dogs must learn that bad things won’t happen when in a new home, and sometimes they have to learn that something isn’t actually “bad,” like dropping a bowl on the floor or people walking past them.

Reduced Quality of Life

Any dog with special needs will have a different quality of life from a dog without special needs.

They will have more situations where they will be in pain or will be anxious.  Fact of life for special needs pets.  They do not have the body or the tools to go through life without issues.

This is often very difficult for their caregivers.  Friends take their dogs everywhere, or play Frisbee, or do dog sports.  Your dog would have fun but must sit on the sidelines.  Owners find this difficult. You also will have to deal with a pet that may be in chronic pain, knowing there isn’t anything more you can do to help.

Your quality of life will be different, too.  You may have more stress because you never know if you are going to return to a mess, or how your pet will react to a situation.

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Early Death

Unfortunately, many dogs with special needs do pass away sooner.

Those with physical disabilities may develop arthritis from compensating.  Their quality of life may drop earlier as a result.  They may also develop other medical issues due to increased stress on the heart or lungs, or develop kidney or liver problems from long-term maintenance medications.

This doesn’t mean that maintenance medications should be disregarded.  A shorter, high quality life is certainly a better existence than a long but painful life.

Dogs with aggression may not be safely kept.  A dog that reacts in aggression should not be rehomed again.  If a dog bites someone, it may be forced by law to be put down.  It also may become unsafe in your home.  Perhaps you have children, and they are no longer safe living with your aggressive dog.  A dog should be put down rather than placed in a new home.

Benefits of Adopting a Special Needs Dog

While a special needs dog has unique challenges, they also have unique benefits as well.


All dogs love their families.  But a special needs dog has more intimate moments in which to bond.  No matter the type of disability, they will require additional one-on-one training.  They will be taught different ways of behaving to accommodate their need.

They will also understand that you have given them a second chance.  Rescue dogs always understand that they have lost a family, and will know that their new family has opened their heart.


A special needs dog creates compassion in the home.  Children, especially, can learn compassion and love for their peers.  People learn, from dogs, that while everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, all life has value, and we only need a different perspective.


Because special needs dogs require more care than other dogs, you may occasionally feel like throwing in the towel.  You’ll learn to push through and care for the life that depends on you, and so will your children.

Considering rescuing a special needs dog?

While special needs dogs provide unique challenges, they will certainly provide love, and deserve a second chance at life.  Don’t adopt a special needs dog if you can’t provide the services the pet needs.  However, if you can, consider adopting a dog with unique needs.  

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