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.”
Over time, you can gradually acclimate the dogs to living in the same space by using management to allow the dogs to slowly start integrating into each other’s daily routine. Some examples of this include:
If crates are used, crating the dogs in the same room with each other, and letting one dog out at a time to free roam (while supervised). If either dog shows any issue with barrier frustration while crated, discontinue and seek the advice of a professional.
Set up baby gates around the home so that the dogs can coexist on separate sides, while simulating being together
Continue to occasionally take walks together to promote cohesiveness and give the dogs an alternate activity to do together that doesn't involve direct interaction
Promote the idea to both dogs of doing low-arousal activities while in the presence of the other, like relaxing on their beds, or working on a food enrichment toy like a stuffed Kong (separated by a barrier).
Manage Their Environment to Keep Them Safe
It will be helpful to the acclimation process to use management wherever you can to make sure your new dog is both staying safe and also making appropriate choices. Aside from some circumstances, we do not often know our new dog’s history and therefore what kind of training (if any) they have received. So, it’s best to assume your dog needs to be shown how to live in your home from step one. Set your dog’s environment up for success by doing the following:
Restrict their access to the whole house, and try to keep them in sight at all times. Use baby gates, Xpens, and closing doors to make sure your new dog stays nearby where you can supervise what they are doing. (Video tutorial on introduction)
Keep any inappropriate items to chew on or destroy picked up, and provide appropriate chewing items instead.
Keep your counters and surfaces cleared of anything you don’t want your dog to have access to in order to reduce and prevent any possible counter surfing.
Block off access to exterior doors, especially if your new dog is fearful or an escape risk.
By managing their environment, not only are you reducing opportunities for your new dog to practice behavior you don’t want them to pick up on, you are also keeping them safe by preventing an unexpected escape or accident from happening.
Focus on Routine and Relationship First Over Outings
People commonly adopt a new dog and then want to take them everywhere on all of their outings right out of the gate. For dogs, going on large, overstimulating outings while acclimating to a new home and routine can slow the process and bring added stress. Big outings and taking your dog out to socialize with friends can come later. For now, your priorities should be to keep your dog on a predictable daily routine, and build a positive, trusting relationship with them. Keeping your dog on a consistent schedule for the first few weeks will not only help them learn about your home’s day-to-day routine, but it will give them consistency and predictability which they likely haven’t experienced for some time at the shelter (and where they were before). It will also help with potty training to keep your dog on a consistent schedule to go outside, which is a common first step in training a new dog to live in your new home. The more stability and consistency you provide in the first few weeks, the faster your dog’s real personality will come out!
On top of keeping to a routine, these first few weeks will be a great time to build a relationship based on positive associations and trust between you and your new dog. A dog who is comfortable with and trusts their person will make better progress when it comes to training and building a cooperative life together. One of the best ways to set good foundations for a positive relationship is to allow your dog to have choices and consent to interactions with you. Learning about different stress signals and more subtle ways that dogs communicate with us will set you up for success to read your dog’s body language while you interact, and adjust depending on what they are telling you. The more you listen when your dog says “no,” the stronger their trust will become in you! Additionally, learn about your dog’s preferences and find activities they love doing in the first few weeks. Dogs all have different play styles and preferred activities (some like to chew things, some like to run in the backyard), and doing different activities at home to find what your dog likes will help strengthen your bond.
Start Rewarding Desirable Behaviors Right Away
Getting an early start on building up behaviors you like from your new dog will get you started on the right foot! While your dog is still navigating how everything works in this new place and routine they’ve found themselves in, encouraging them in the direction of desirable behavior will give them the extra nudge towards successful acclimation that you need. Try setting up seal-able “treat jars” around your house full of shelf stable treats or kibble so you have a reward for your new dog nearby when needed. Any time you see your dog behaving in a way you find desirable or making an appropriate choice, mark that behavior with a “yes” and give them a treat! Reinforced behaviors are more likely to continue to occur, so if you consistently reinforce your dog’s good choices, they will be more likely to continue to make good choices on their own accord in the future! Some examples of behaviors to reinforce:
Greeting people with four on the floor instead of jumping (video tutorial)
Any settling behavior or choice to go relax in their bed or “safe zone” (video tutorial)
Chewing on an appropriate item
Any time they potty successfully outside
Quiet instead of barking (video podcast)
Keeping four on the floor in the kitchen instead of counter surfing (video tutorial)
Looking at or “checking in” with you while out on walks (video tutorial)
Running Into Trouble? Time for a Pro.
Bringing home a new dog can be a very exciting experience, but may also be very stressful at times. That’s totally normal, but you don’t have to do it alone! If you’re ever not sure on how to proceed with your new dog or are seeing behavior that you find concerning, that’s a great time to call up a professional to guide you through your next steps in the process. You will be so much better off hiring a professional to work with you at the first sign of trouble over trying to “undo” problems down the road after your dog has had months or years of practice with the undesirable behavior. Additionally, be sure to look out for a credentialed pro that uses rewards-based methods and focuses on building you and your dog up together over suppressing unwanted behavior with punishment, which can cause negative behavioral fall out down the road. All of the trainers at Pawsitive Futures hold certifications and are well-versed in helping you get your new dog safely and happily integrated into their new lifestyle with you. Ever need any help with a dog you just brought home? Contact us!
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