Has your family fallen in love with a hurricane rescue dog who arrived in your area a few weeks ago? Or perhaps you’ve been haunting the SPCA and your heart simply melted at the sweet, dark-brown eyes of that hound with the backstory. Or the chippy Chihuahua, or the herding dog, or…heck that blisteringly white Samoyed; we all have our types. Whether you plan to adopt, foster-to-adopt, or are simply–and quite wonderfully–going to help out by fostering, some easy preparations and minor modifications in the first few weeks can make all the difference.
In fact, the first few weeks with a new dog can be anywhere on the continuum from special and lovely on the one side, to harried and stressful–and possibly expensive–on the other. Sometimes circumstances intervene, and stressful situations are unavoidable. I promise, if that’s the case, it almost always gets better–especially if you can hire a trainer when needed. But if you have the time and space to prepare before your new dog arrives, or even just make some simple changes to your routine once he shows up, the likelihood is that the first few weeks will be much easier on you, your family, and your newest addition. More snuggles, fewer struggles.
Before Your Rescue Arrives
If you have the chance to prepare for your new dog’s arrival, set aside time for both house prep and shopping. The shopping can happen on the way to the shelter, of course. But the shopping is the fun part, so why not set aside a day?
There are two normal dog functions that you will want to prepare for very carefully: the house-training function, and the chewing function. For both of these, you’ll want to ensure your new dog is first prevented from making mistakes, and second gently coaxed into making the right call. Dogs who make mistakes are practising mistakes, getting better at mistakes…and most people don’t want dogs who are champions at chewing chair legs.
Many dogs will arrive house-trained, although certainly not all; and we can expect that even very well house-trained dogs might have lapses during the almost unimaginable stress of re-homing. So we want to prevent emptying in undesirable locations, and prompt emptying where we’d rather see it happen (i.e. outside). For dogs who are comfortable in a crate, this means crating them whenever you can’t have eyes on them in the first few days. If your new dog is not comfortable in a crate, section off a part of a room using gates, and add a big bed. Most dogs will not soil a bed.
When it comes to chewing, many dogs simply haven’t learned that there are two categories of “stuff”: stuff that humans want them to chew in one miniscule pile, and stuff that humans don’t want them to chew in another, much larger, pile. It’s all just “stuff to chew” to an uninitiated dog. So it behooves us as humans to help dogs out here, especially when bringing a dog who was previously kept outside into your home. The dog-proofed space you’ve created to help along the remedial house-training is ideal here. So cast an eye around this space and pick up anything that might fit in your dog’s mouth. I’m talking about chair legs, table legs, kid’s toys, shoes, clothes, drapes, decorations, books, electronics, essentially anything. Anything. The only thing available should be dog toys, and quite a few of those. This room can be a laundry room or closet, but it can also be made in a corner of another room using baby gates or other temporary fencing. Check for indoor fencing, gates and pens on sites like Amazon or other online retailers, or at your local pet store.
Finally, take a good peek around your home for items that might be dangerous to dogs, that are currently stored at dog level. This includes medications, chemicals, plants, and so on. Remember our credo: set him up for success. Emergency vet trips are scary, expensive, and stressful.
If you have a day or two before your new addition arrives, get thee to the pet store, anon! The more prepared you are, the more you’ll enjoy your first few weeks together.
Your Shopping List:
- Some food toys. These toys can be stuffed or filled with kibble or other treats. You’ll want to replace one meal per day with a food toy, if you can swing it. (Caveat: select appropriate chew toys for your dog’s size and chew style, and monitor the first few times with any new toy. If you’re lucky enough to have brought home a power-chewer, they’ll need some special toys made just for them.)
- Water dish.
- Beds. Get a couple of options if you have the means, as dogs (like us) enjoy options, and you’ll probably want a bed in a few locations.
- Crate (you may want to beg, borrow, or…appeal to friends for a loaner, as you’ll want to get a better sense of your dog before investing.)
- “Consumable” chewies, like bully sticks.
- A few non-food toys. You’ll have delirious fun auditioning toys later with your dog in tow; but for now get at least one tug toy, a squeaky toy, and a ball.
- A bag of treats. Although home-made treats (see recipes here) are inexpensive and high-value, having a few bags of commercial treats on hand will be useful if your new dog has preferences.
- Grooming tools. All dogs need their nails trimmed, and most dogs need a semi-regular brush. Some dogs, with more intensive coats, need more intensive interventions, so ask at your pet store for more information.
- A flat buckle collar for tags, and a front-clip harness for walks. And of course, a leash!
The First Few Days: Shy Dogs
The first few days with a new rescue are usually both heady and exhausting. Your friends and family will want to come over and meet him, and you’ll want to show him off and do everything and anything dog-related you can: walks, training, soulful gazing, shopping, earnest movie-watching sessions, you name it. And with some dogs, that’s perfectly fine! Some dogs are sociable enough and confident enough that hanging out with new people and going to new places is actually enjoyable. If that’s the case, then feel free to do the big happy show-off. In many cases, however, dogs are a bit (or a lot) anxious in their new homes. If that’s true for your new dog, it makes sense to protect them for a few weeks, to ensure that your new family addition can settle in feeling protected, safe, and rested.
How can you tell if you have an anxious Annie or a confident Caleb? The best way is to read your dog’s body language: look for ears down; tail tucked; and panting, yawning, or lip-licking out of context. You can see some examples of anxious body language on this poster. Keeping your new dog feeling safe and secure for the first few days or weeks will allow him to come out of his shell much more quickly than forcing him to interact before he’s ready. It’s one of the great, and sad, ironies of life with dogs: forcing scared dogs to move quickly can slow things down considerably.
So, what does “take it slowly” mean? For the first few weeks with a shy dog, keep your new dog cocooned. Avoid parties or group meet-ups–introduce your friends one at a time, and always have treats around. Each new person should be a fountain of delicious treats.
The easiest rule for guests in your home is Let The Dog Approach You. If your dog approaches on their own steam to investigate or get pats or treats from guests, he’s telling you he’s comfortable. If your dog does not approach your guests, he’s almost certainly feeling intimidated. Dogs, unlike your snobbish elderly auntie, are not discerning about people. And unlike your Canadian friends, they’re not polite with people. If they don’t approach, they’re a bit scared.
Keep your walks short and tire your new dog out using food toys and backyard ball or tug games. Build on success: if he’s excited and dancing around happily for your walk by day four, feel free to walk a bit further on day five. If he’s approaching your guests directly and leaning on them for patting and treats by week three, feel free to organize a small dinner party by week four. Let your dog tell you what he’s ready for. Always, always, let a scared dog hide if they need to, and allow them to approach anyone and anything at their own pace.
If your dog hides from you even after a few days or shows any signs of aggression, find a trainer who can help (see this article about finding a good trainer).
Prevent the Heartbreak of Lost Dogs
Be extra cautious about safety if your new dog is the type to bolt (the rescue will let you know). Put two notes on the door: one on the inside reminding everyone to be aware of the dog’s location before opening the door, and one on the outside asking guests to ring the bell and wait for you to leash up your dog. Get tags for the dog and attach them to a collar, and if the dog isn’t micro-chipped, do that as soon as humanly possible. You may also want to add a GPS collar. Double-leash your dog when heading outside (one on the collar, one on the harness) as many dogs can back out of harnesses. And beware of typical bolting scenarios: out of car doors into busy traffic, out of car windows when left alone, by pulling leashes out of hands when loud noises occur, and so on. For safety, never let a new rescue off-leash in an unfenced area until he’s trained to reliably come when called. A good dog class will be a great help for training a recall. Unfortunately, a few shy, fearful, or anxious dogs are not good candidates for being off-leash in unfenced areas at all. These shy guys do well with leashed hikes and lots of safe exercise, like tug, fetch, ball, and so on. If, even after several months with you, your dog is anxious about the normal happenings in your environment, contact a dog trainer. Training, often with the addition of medication, can really improve these dogs’ lives.
The First Few Days: All Dogs
For all dogs, and especially for dogs with less experience as an indoor pet, it makes sense to carefully control the access they have to chewable stuff, and to potty locations. And when they’re out and about in your house, active supervision is the name of the game, especially with young kids.
To ensure good house-training etiquette, you really only have two rules. First up: for the first few days or weeks, ensure your dog has simply no opportunity to empty inside. Keep him in the crate or pen you made at all times when you’re not watching, unless he’s just loosed his belt outside (both functions, if you please). Second: you’ll want to reinforce every empty outside. So put a container of treats on a shelf by the door and whenever he is let out, go out with him. Wait patiently until it’s empty time, and then give him a treat. This is money in the bank, or insurance, or whatever you want to call it: reinforcing him for using the giant toilet outside helps him learn exactly where you want him to go.
Keeping your new dog’s teeth off your furniture is an easier operation. Your dog should have access to all the new chew toys you bought during your shopping extravaganza, and nothing else chew-able. Encourage chewing of these options by congratulating your dog when he picks one up. And use Kongs and other food toys very freely. It’s a bit counter-intuitive, but making your dog chew for his supper will make him less likely to chew otherwise, not more likely. It’s a bit of a waxing/waning desire. Once you know the kind of chewie your new dog prefers, stock up. Trust me: meeting his needs this way is much better than letting him hone and perfect his chair-leg chewing habit.
If you have young kids, you must institute a policy of 100% active supervision. Young kids just do not have the ability to understand that their actions might be misinterpreted by dogs, and they need help being polite and safe. Dogs may be pets but they are still carnivores, and when mistakes happen, kids get scared or hurt, and dogs get euthanized. Before your new pup arrives, check out the information and videos on this page, and call in a trainer if you are at all concerned.
Prepare for a Rescue Dog Success Story
Choosing to adopt or foster a dog from a rescue or shelter is a big, wonderful, exhilarating thing. A bit of preparation and some changes to your routine and house will set you and your new dog up for success, so you can focus on things that really matter. The things you wanted a dog for in the first place: taking pictures of him looking adorable while he sleeps or chewing on the squeaky squirrel toy, eating popcorn together on the couch watching Netflix, or kicking leaves in the park. So take a day for some house prep, and an afternoon for a gleeful shopping extravaganza, and get ready for the good times ahead.
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