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Stability, routine, and a calm environment will help your new family member settle in.
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My husband and I fostered more than 400 dogs in need from central Texas shelters over the course of a decade. They gave me a lifetime’s worth of canine education, teaching me about the health and emotional needs of homeless dogs. In fact, I became a professional dog trainer so I could help stem the tide of unwanted pets being dumped at shelters because of behavioral issues.
As an adopter of a shelter or rescue dog, you are meeting his most important need by providing a loving, forever home. So, what else does your new family member require after walking through your door and into the new life you have so kindly given? Based on decades of foster work, I believe these dogs need stability, routine, and a calm environment in which to get their footing. Here are tips on how to help your new dog ease into a new life with you.
We don’t always know the history of surrendered and homeless dogs. We can only make educated guesses based on their behavior, so the first order of business is to observe the dog in your home. Is he shy and trying to hide behind furniture? Or does she seem overly excited and perhaps hyper? Both of these behaviors can be demonstrations of anxiety. Start your dog’s new life with the understanding that his former world has evaporated and he is starting anew with new humans, ones who have their own expectations as to how dogs should behave. It’s okay if your dog is apprehensive in the brand-new environment.
If the dog is comfortable enough to eat, use high-quality meat or cheese treats and walk room to room to see if she will follow you. Reinforce exploration with a bit of food in each new room and in your fenced yard (if you have one). I do this with the dog off-leash so I can observe his comfort level in exploring new spaces.
This is really important, because some dogs might panic and try to get out of a new enclosure. Be sure, too, that you have put on dog ID tags with your contact information on his collar.
Dogs gain confidence when they are allowed to make choices in their environment. Obviously, this doesn’t mean you allow the dog to growl and snarl at the mailman or the UPS delivery person. It does mean that you look for opportunities to allow her to make choices throughout the day to build confidence, resiliency, and contentedness.
Resist the urge to take your new dog everywhere to show friends and family how cute she is. Think about how you might feel in a space where every single thing and person is new to you. Wouldn’t you appreciate some quiet time to adjust? Look to your dog’s behavior to determine when he is ready to explore beyond the safety of your home. If she is panting, hyperactive, or hiding under furniture, allow more time and work to build confidence. Please never force any dog to meet and greet anything or anyone who scares him. The dog will gain confidence if allowed to say hello when he feels comfortable doing so.
Understand that your new family member was not given a “how to be a dog in a human-run world” course while at the shelter. She might have gained some valuable understanding of human house rules if she lived as a foster dog for a time, but that’s not the same thing as learning to not jump on house guests or how to walk nicely on leash. These are things that fall on you to teach using positive reinforcement methods and never using force or fear. Again, give the dog a few days just to explore and learn to relax before moving into more formal obedience training.
Do look for opportunities to begin “life training” as soon as the dog shows he is comfortable with his new surroundings. Start by reinforcing the “sit” as often as you can. You want “sit” to become a default behavior, meaning that your dog offers it a lot and is richly rewarded for doing so. For one thing, a dog cannot both jump and sit at the same time, and most of us would rather the dog sit to greet us or others instead of jumping up to say hello (which is a natural way to greet two-legged friends and family in the dog’s canine behavioral repertoire).
Some dogs are more resilient than others, just as some people are more resilient than others. If you observe severe behavioral concerns, please don’t delay calling in a certified, force-free professional trainer or behaviorist to help you help your new dog. Dogs can suffer from PTSD, for example, and it’s wise to get help immediately so that these behaviors do not worsen.
I have shared my life with countless foster dogs, some foster failures, and many adopted, formerly homeless dogs. They have given me a lifetime of joy and gratitude. Most dogs can fit nicely into your world, even if they have had a rough start. It’s up to you to guide them into the new, wonderful life you have provided.
Top photo: Dog and couple by Shutterstock.
Annie Phenix is a Colorado-based professional writer and dog trainer. She is the Trainer in Residence for Dogster.com and she writes a column for Dogster Magazine and other publications. She is the author of a Spring 2016 book, titled The Midnight Dog Walkers (I-5 Publishing).
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