Reviewed by Sarah-Anne Reed, dog trainer, on May 11, 2022
Adding to your fur family is a momentous occasion, full of joy and anticipation for the future. But for pets heading to a new home, there can also be elements of fear and anxiety. Shelter dogs experience numerous stressors in addition to any neglect or abuse they may have faced in a past household. The constant cacophony of barking coupled with an unfamiliar setting and a rotating cast of strangers has a profound psychological effect on pets.
After arriving in the peaceful, pampered setting of an adoptive home, shelter pets are understandably ill at ease. Confusion about boundaries – like appropriate potty spots – and boundless curiosity are not a combination that makes for good manners. It’s important for pet parents to take steps to make a new family member feel at home! Avoid future behavioral issues by laying the foundation for a successful fur family dynamic the first night home.
Give a Proper Introduction
Never adopt a pet without first having a meet and greet between all members of the household, including canines, felines and humans. A study of failed shelter adoptions found that problems with new pets developed “right away,” within the first 24 hours. The top issues given by returnees were conflicts with children or other pets in the home, including aggression or “not good with children.” Any discomfort on the dog’s part will become apparent immediately, but feelings will change over the weeks to come. Whether tensions escalate or defuse is affected to a large degree by pet parents’ actions.
Making a good first impression is important for the incoming dog, but it’s not the end of the world if things go poorly. Supervised introductions are the best way to introduce a new dog to pre-existing pets as well as children. Keep the newcomer on a short leash and allow all parties to take their time investigating the other. Animals pick up on human body language, so keep yourself calm and project an upbeat attitude for pets to imitate. Never force a relationship, but do build trust between pets in small doses. If you have serious concerns, call the animal shelter for advice or consult an animal behaviorist.
If you have children in the home, have a discussion about pet protocol and safety. Never leave children under ten unsupervised with a dog, and enforce strict rules regarding tail- and ear-pulling. Give older kids and teenagers some responsibility for your new dog’s care; this allows time for bonding and encourages respect for animals.
Be Patient with Potty Problems
Recurring “elimination problems” are also a top issue for pet parents returning a dog. Accidents are almost inevitable for new pets. Consider the adoption process from a dog’s point of view: Some strangers – whose language you don’t speak – drive you to their house, point out a lot of things and smile at you a lot, then eventually go back to life as usual. It’s left to you, a dog, to determine the new boundaries, and that low-pile khaki rug looks a lot like the potty patch back at the shelter…
First things first upon arriving with your new dog is to give the grand tour of their new home! For the first week of arrival, take your pet outside at designated times to reinforce a bathroom schedule. Reward successful eliminations with a well-deserved treat and plenty of positive reinforcement. A common housebreaking mistake is to overemphasize accidents, yelling or even forcing a dog’s face near the mess. Instead, take the dog outside immediately and clean up the mess out of sight. Be sure to thoroughly clean the affected area, as pets often return to the scene of the crime for repeat offenses.
Senior dogs, teacup dogs, or those with kidney disease may face chronic incontinence, requiring doggie diapers or more frequent bathroom breaks to avoid accidents in the house. If your pet continues to eliminate inside the house, it may be a sign something is wrong. Animals often indicate illness in mysterious – and frustrating – ways, so consult a veterinarian if housebreaking becomes a battle for your new dog.
Keep Calm and Establish a Routine
Shelter dogs have lived chaotic lives, crowded and abandoned, interacting with dozens of strangers in any given week. Sticking to a schedule for feeding, walking and bathroom breaks help establish consistency in a pet’s life. Chronic stress can cause behavioral issues like aggression and separation anxiety in dogs; as creatures of habit, a routine helps ground canines and provide them with stability.
When pups finally arrive at a forever home, all the freedom can be overwhelming. Dogs with a high energy level may feel overwhelmed with so much room for activities, so provide plenty of mental stimulation. Puzzle dog toys, games involving using their mind and body, like fetch, and a canine companion can all alleviate boredom in pets. Channel your pup’s enthusiasm into dog training and exercise, making morning walks part of the daily routine. Dog tricks are a great way to bond with your pet as well as break any bad habits from a past life.
Pay Attention To Your Pet
Obvious as it may seem, this step is the most important to helping a new dog adjust to your home. What an adopted animal wants more than anything is to please their pet parent, loving you unconditionally. Give your dog every opportunity to do this. Watch as your new pet’s personality begins to blossom over the coming weeks as he or she settles into your household, finding a place within the existing fur family.
Keep your pup on the path to success by continuing to stick to your schedule. Over time you can start to introduce new activities into the routine, like visits to the dog park or doggie playdates. Positively reinforce continuing good behavior and work to correct quirks with patience and training. Even if the road becomes difficult, stick with your pet – when adopting, you made a commitment to care for this dog to the best of your ability. Unfortunately, sometimes surrender is unavoidable, such as when behavioral issues or humans allergies make cohabitation impossible. Discuss all options with your animal shelter before making the decision to return a dog.
Welcoming a new animal into your home is never easy, but it is rewarding. The unconditional love of a pet is their way of saying thanks for saving their life.