Adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue can be a great way to find a new companion. There are often many different sizes, ages, and breed types of dogs to choose from to find the right fit for your lifestyle. Plus, it’s always a good feeling to know you gave a pet in need a new home! While you’re likely completely prepared to provide your new dog all the love in the world when they come home, it’s really important to set yourself up for success, as the acclimation process can set the tone for your long-term relationship with your new addition.
Give Them Time and Space to Decompress
The day you bring home your new dog from the shelter can be a very exciting one, especially if you have a large family and everyone is ready to welcome your new dog with open arms! However, it’s important that we look at the adjustment through the dog’s eyes and see what they see. They don’t know what is happening, where they are, or who you are just yet. So, it’s really important when they first come home to give them some time and space to take a deep breath and relax a little before they are ready for a full welcoming party. The adjustment from a shelter kennel to your home means your dog is likely tired, stressed, and confused, meaning they may need some time to recuperate before wanting to fully jump into your daily routine. Make sure that initial greetings with the whole family happen on the dog’s terms to avoid any negative first interactions.
Allow your dog to explore their surroundings with as little interference from you as possible. Give them a “safe zone” to rest in and retreat to, like an open crate, an Xpen with a bed inside, or a quiet room away from the hustle and bustle of the household. When they go into their “safe zone,” make sure everyone in the household knows not to bother them and let them be until they decide to come back out. In the beginning, any interactions should be initiated by the dog over the person, meaning the dog comes to you to solicit attention over you going to them or getting in their space.
Foster a Calm and Quiet Environment
It will be a good idea in the first few days and weeks of bringing your new dog home to ensure that household activities are quiet and calm. Exciting events like having friends over or working on home renovation projects should be kept to a minimum until your dog is fully acclimated, and until you learn more about their preferences and personality. Especially while your dog is in this stage of acclimating and learning about your home, they may be much more prone to responding fearfully or getting overwhelmed with too much activity happening in the home. This can potentially lead to unwanted behavior, an escape risk with a flighty dog, or even a bite if your dog feels cornered and threatened. While your dog is still working through the stress of adjustment to a new environment and routine, make sure that you promote an environment of calm.
While reducing exciting activity in your home is a great way to keep stress levels low, there are also different ways that you can actively promote relaxation and decompression for your new dog as well. Many dogs respond well to calming music, and there are even plenty of playlists on streaming apps or platforms like YouTube that are curated specifically to promote relaxation for dogs. When you do take your first walks with your new dog, focus less on getting “obedience” from them (good leash walking skills can come later) and take them on some “choice walks” at first. This means the dog chooses where to go, granted it is safe, is allowed to sniff anything for as long as they like, and is free to fully take in their surroundings. The more opportunities you give your new dog to express natural behavior, the more relaxed they are likely to be in the home. Encouraging your dog to retreat to their “safe zone” when stressed and being sure to provide them with outlets to use their mind can also have a decompressing effect on your new dog. Make sure that you provide them with enrichment items like stuffed Kongs, edible chews, and Lick mats to use in their “safe zone” to promote relaxation in the space and occupy their mind in a proactive way.
Introduce to Other Pets Slowly and Over Time
If you have other pets at home already, it’s normal to want your current pets to meet your new dog ASAP and hit it off as best friends from the start. While in some cases this may happen if you are lucky, in most others it is likely not to be the case if the introduction is rushed. When introducing a new dog to your other pets, following a “it’s better to be safe than sorry” mindset will help ensure that your pets will have a healthy, positive, and uneventful integration. For at least the first week (or multiple weeks if your new dog is taking a while to adjust), it’s important to let your new dog acclimate while separated from the rest of the pets in the house. Your new dog is coming home to you confused and likely with high levels of cortisol in their system, meaning they are not in the best mindset for an introduction to other animals just yet.
For introducing dogs to each other, it’s important for their first meeting to be somewhere neutral, not actually in the home or the yard. A nearby park or going down the street in your neighborhood will be your best bet for first time introductions.
Going on a “parallel” walk together will be a great first step, where each dog is on leash and handled by a person, walking parallel to each other at a distance that they are not overly struggling to get to each other. Have rewards on hand for both dogs to reinforce disengaging from the other dog, checking in with their handler, or any calm behavior.
After walking for a few minutes, you should see both dogs start to acclimate and more easily pay attention to other things in the environment like checking in with their handler, sniffing, or looking at other stimuli besides the other dog. From here, the dogs can “cross paths” while still keeping a distance so that they cannot meet, but the dogs are able to smell each other where the other dog has walked.
From here, you can let the dogs meet briefly by allowing them to sniff each other for 3 seconds, being sure to keep slack in the leashes, then moving away back to a parallel walk. Granted this initial interaction goes well and you do not see overly stressed body language from both dogs, you can repeat a couple more times and continue on your walk.
If at any point in this process you see concerning body language (stiffness, reactivity, intense focus on the other dog) or see inappropriate interaction between the two dogs, discontinue the walk and reach out to your local rewards-based certified trainer for assistance on moving forward. If the walk does go well, it’s recommended to end their first interaction on a positive note and go back to continuing to keep them separated in the home so as not to “push your luck.”