We're almost at the end of Adopt A Shelter Dog Month! I hope these blog posts have given you some information on what adopting from a shelter is like and how to go about it, and have better prepared you for the adoption process. In the last post of this series I've listed some of the most common mistakes that new dog guardians make, and how to avoid them.
1) Too much, too soon
It's common to hear rescue and shelter volunteers refer to something called the "decompression" period. Typically the decompression period is the period of time after your new dog is in their home where they need to "decompress" from the stress they may have been under in the shelter and during the transition period into their new home. The decompression period can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks after you've brought the dog home, and the goal is to keep things as low-key, predictable and structured as possible. This means refraining from taking your dog all over the place, introducing him to everyone in your neighborhood, and excessive amounts of exercise. While we may be excited about our new family member, it's important to remember that they don't know they're home. They don't know you're their family, and only time and consistency will help them understand this. Imagine being brought into an entirely new environment, with a different species who speak a totally different language than you. Even if they are well meaning, it could still be a potentially scary situation, and it's important that we consider our dog's perspective during this exciting time. Allow them the time to adjust to the environment before doing lots of exciting new things.
2) Acting too familiar
Again, consider the fact that your dog doesn't know he's "home". He doesn't know you're his family and as such may not be entirely comfortable yet. Avoid acting too familiar and friendly with your dog at first; no pushing or pulling them toward you (generally not recommended with any dog regardless of if they're new or not!), no hugging, don't get in their face, and respect early warning signs. Learn how to read your dog using graphics like this and this, and if you are petting the dog and he gets up and moves away from you, or you approach and they increase distance, give them space. You have the rest of your dog's life to build a bond with them, it's most important that you listen to them and earn their trust right now. (On the other hand if you end up adopting a smush-bug who loves to cuddle, then cuddle away! Just be sure to listen to them too!)
3) Too much freedom in the house
I've mentioned this a few times in previous blog posts, but if you get your dog from a shelter you don't know if they're potty trained, will chew on things other than their toys, destroy furniture, and so on and so forth. Even if they were in a foster home previously and were reliable in their training there, when you bring them to a new environment that training may not transfer over (remember, dogs aren't great at generalizing behavior to new contexts!) or the stress of being in a brand new environment may cause your dog to act out to relieve stress (lots of dogs use chewing to relieve stress, and some dogs will mark almost as a self-soothing mechanism). Therefore, you want to limit your dog's freedom in the house for a while. For the first few weeks make sure to have the dog in the same room with you within eye sight, or if you can't monitor their behavior put them in a dog-proofed room or in their crate or exercise pen. As they behave appropriately you can start to give them more freedom one or two new rooms at a time. This will set your dog up for success and keep them from developing bad habits right off the bat.
4) Too much freedom with other pets or children
Freedom is the culprit again! When you bring your new dog home you want to be especially careful of any freedom around other pets or children; even if the introductions went great, it simply isn't safe to leave them unattended together. For guidelines on supervising children around dogs Family Paws is a wonderful resource! You always want to be actively supervising, which means being nearby, paying attention, and ready to intervene if necessary. Children can be unpredictable and don't always know how to behave around dogs, so they depend on our guidance for that. As for other pets, make sure that what you're seeing is appropriate behavior, and if you see anything concerning hire a trainer or behavior consultant to come in and assist you. Dogs should not be chasing cats, and if dogs are given high value resources your new dog needs to be managed properly which may be putting them behind a gate or in a crate to prevent fights. Lastly, absence of behavior is a behavior in and of itself; i.e. even if your dog isn't chasing the cat but stares and stiffens every time the cat enters the room, that can be a symptom of predatory behavior that may develop as the dog gets more comfortable. You want to see soft, relaxed affiliative behaviors with other pets and children, anything other than that should tell you to hire a trainer as soon as possible.
5) Here today, gone tomorrow
In my last blog post I mentioned how it's ideal to have a few days off at home with your new addition to help them adjust, however you want to make sure to find a happy medium. In most cases if you take a week off with your dog and don't leave the house at all, and then suddenly have to go to work for a full eight hour day your dog will be shell-shocked. You want to start out with gradual absences, maybe 5-10 minutes to go get the mail or talk to your neighbor, and then as you return and your dog shows you they are comfortable increase durations, leaving for a half hour errand, then an hour, and so on and so forth, always leaving your dog in a dog proofed area, crate, or pen to keep them from getting into mischief. If you return to a panicked dog (i.e. the dog has been obviously drooling, is panting heavily, or has messed in the area he was left in) you probably want to have a trainer in sooner rather than later to assess whether there is any separation anxiety.
There you have it! Follow these tips and the other tips in this series and hopefully you and your new addition will have a wonderful transition into your family! Good luck!
All of the dogs pictured in this blog post are looking for homes and are up for adoption through Heartland Animal Shelter in Northbrook, Illinois.