You have planned, prepared, and dreamed about adding a dog to your life and today is the day they come home with you. You are so excited! On the other hand, your new dog has no idea who you are. All they know is that they have left their last “home” (whether it’s the breeder, a shelter, or a foster, it was still “home” to them), and now everything they know is gone.
Homecoming can be pretty stressful for everyone in the family, most of all the dog. This is especially true if the dog comes from a shelter or rescue situation. What can you do to help your dog handle the stress of this transition? Utilize these ten tips to help them ease into their new life with you.
1. Let them decompress
Younger dogs, especially puppies, will take less time to decompress than adult dogs. Adult dogs from a shelter can exhibit fear, occasional aggression, or completely shut down. Your primary job is to allow the dog to settle into their new surroundings and explore their new home on their terms at their own pace. This does NOT mean leaving them unsupervised in your home – if you do, accidents will happen, things will get chewed on, and mistakes will be made. I recommend allowing your dog to explore the home while you hang back, following them to guide them.
2. Manage expectations
Don’t expect them to understand the rules of your home. Don’t expect them to know where the toilet is or how to signal they have to go potty. If your dog is a puppy, don’t expect them to sleep through the night. Expect them to have an accident in the house. Expect them to chew on stuff if you haven’t dog-proofed the home. Don’t expect them to love you right away. Relationships take time to build, and you might think it’s “love at first sight,” they may not feel the same way. High expectations are a sure-fire way to get disappointed. Give it some time.
3. Keep it calm and low key
A new dog needs a calm environment to acclimate. Keep things quiet and peaceful in your home as much as possible. Every sound, movement, and smell will be new to them. This is especially challenging with kids in the house. Yes, your dog needs to adapt to a busy household, but perhaps you can give them some time to settle in before the kids are jumping on the couch and running around screaming?
4. Give them space
Imagine going on vacation to a place you have never been with people you don’t know, and as soon as you get there, someone keeps hugging you or touching you. Would you feel comfortable? Probably not – especially if you just met the person. Your new dog probably feels the same way. Give them some space! Resist the urge to shower them with affection. Allow them to solicit engagement from you. This doesn’t mean you can’t pet them but keep your sessions short and stay out of their face.
5. Slow introductions
For the first week, keep your dog at home and limit visitors. When it comes time to make introductions to people and other pets, do it slowly. If you have other animals, it's best to let them get acquainted with the new dog outside your home. Take them on a walk and let them meet on the neutral territory if possible; an established dog may feel more territorial in the house. If that isn’t possible, have them meet outside in a safe enclosed area on long leashes that don’t have tension. I know you want to show your new dog to all your friends and family, but there is plenty of time for that later. Let your dog start to build a relationship with you, so they know they have a safe person to go to if they get overwhelmed. When they meet people and dogs, let them go to them and pay close attention to how they communicate comfort or discomfort.
6. Update their identification immediately
If your dog gets spooked and runs out the door or jumps a fence and doesn’t have identification, it makes it much harder for them to get back home safely. The best tags are Red Dingo tags because they are guaranteed for life, but they take a week to arrive, so stop at the pet store and get a cheap tag until your permanent identification arrives.
7. Crate train
Some new dog owners are not fans of using a crate. For puppies, they are a must for housetraining and sleep training. For adult dogs, they can be a tool that is familiar to them, and everyday things can be comforting. You (as a human) might not like them, but many cautious dogs view them as a safe place to process all the changes that are happening daily.
8. Become a detective
Watch your dog for clues about their personality and what skills they may already know. You are looking for deficiencies and strengths, and this requires you to see what they do naturally with no influence from you. For instance, if you are walking in the backyard (fully fenced), pay attention to see if they follow you or do their own thing. If they follow you, that is a clue that teaching recall might be fairly easy. If they are busy doing their own thing and rarely look up to see where you are in relation to them, that is also a clue. This isn’t about judging your new dog as “good” or “bad”; this is simply a tool to see how they respond when given a CHOICE. Those choices will influence how you will train certain behaviors and will provide you with greater insight into how they see the world and how that will ultimately affect their responses to the world.
9. Establish a routine
Dogs, like us, are creatures of habit. The more predictable aspects of their new lives are, the faster they will acclimate to their new home. Feeding, walking, playing, sleeping, and other daily activities can all be a part of your dog's regularly scheduled routine. Routines can change, and some people have jobs that prevent a set routine, but the more predictable life can be, especially at the beginning, the easier the transition to your home will be for the dog.
10. Start teaching them life skills
Give them a week or two to begin settling into your home and do your detective work before starting any training program. Giving them some time allows you to assess them to formulate a training plan. Do they know any basic obedience? Do you need to start at square one or somewhere in the middle? Regardless of what they already know, I encourage you to start teaching them basic obedience – especially patience games! When you teach (training), you are building a relationship, and the more positive experiences you share, the stronger your bond. So, have fun with it, use tasty treats, and show your new dog that you are a fun human!
If you follow these tips, it shouldn’t take long for your dog to realize that your home is now his home, and it’s safe to let his guard down. Sometimes this results in a dramatic behavior change – both good and bad so be prepared that you might have a very different dog on day forty than you did on day two. That’s ok! You will figure it out but don’t hesitate to contact a professional for help, especially if you see fearful behaviors that don’t lessen in two or three weeks. It could be transitional stress, or it could be more deep-seated fear behaviors. When you work with a professional, they can help you avoid common misconceptions and pitfalls and help your dog feel safer faster than if you go it alone.
If you are trustworthy, patient, and open to hearing your new dog’s communication, you will lay the foundation of a lasting relationship with your new friend. A dog to walk WITH you through life because they WANT to be with you.
I have been working with dogs for over 15 years-soon to be over 20. I have two dogs currently - Stanley and Walter and two dogs waiting for me at the rainbow bridge - Maverick & Jasper. My dogs have been profound teachers and I want to share what I have learned with you.