A Guide to Adopting a Shelter Dog
One of the dogs’ greatest abilities is to be able to adapt to new environments. This takes a tremendous amount of resilience, it is so important to give your new pet time to adjust. Shelter dogs are so unique, their backgrounds are varied and you will need to understand behavior is an ever-changing fluid concept. If you want to simplify behavior, Dogs Do What Works (D.D.W.W). Simply put, dogs choose behaviors that get successful outcomes. If a behavior works, it will be repeated.
When you make that big decision to adopt a dog from the shelter, it is crucial you find a dog who fits your lifestyle. Too many people decide on a dog from a photo or because they are cute. Spend time with several dogs and get to know them a bit. Don’t worry about their past so much, it’s great if we really do know it, but try not to speculate based on what you think happened to them. So you spent time with a shelter dog and you have decided he is the right fit for you. Get set up for success.
Get a crate! Some people feel strongly that the dog should have the whole home, that is a great goal, but remember this dog has had a routine using confinement in his environment. He is used to being in a kennel environment where everything in there is fair game. Then he get’s out for potty walks, playtime and enrichment. This dog needs to learn the rules and routines of your household before he has total access to everything in your home. Make that crate great, feed your dog in the crate, spend time near him while he is in, then get him out and take him to potty outside. If he goes, freedom, if not back in the crate for a short stint (this is more like a shelter routine anyway). Have him loose in your home when you can supervise. This will keep him from making mistakes. Don’t build a habit of using the toilet indoors or chewing up your belongings in the first 2 weeks, this will be hard to un-do.
Consider your NORMAL schedule and routines. Too many people take time off when adopting a dog and spend a ton of time with them the first few days, this sets them up to fail when your regular routine resumes. I think shelter dogs are often prone to separation related problem behaviors, showing them you are home 24 hours a day then disappearing for long periods of the day is sure to be a shock to a dog trying to adjust to a new environment. Help them get used to your normal routine right from the start.
GO SLOW: it is great to have big goals but don’t over-do-it. People like to get the dog out right into the world when they adopt. Steer clear of big stressful, complex environments like a dog park or busy shopping center until you and the dog have a solid relationship and some training.
Bonding, this will take some time. True the dog may be affectionate right from the start but a relationship is based on trust and communication. True bonding will happen through activities and experiences. Using feeding as a way to bond, hand feed your dog on walks rather than dumping it in a bowl.
Know dogs. The more you understand about dogs as a species the more successful you will be. Most the big errors are made from things people believe to be true about dogs, cultural myths cloud real knowledge about this wonderful species. People approach training and socializing based on “dominance theory” and “pack theory” and these method are popularized on television by so called “whisperers” but don’t be fooled. This is the wrong approach. Dogs learn through trial and error. Rewarded behavior get’s repeated. Dominance simply means who controls the resources, you put the food in the cupboard, congrats you are the Alpha now you are the pack leader, so act like it. Leaders don’t threaten or hurt their followers, they inspire and motivate. You don’t need fear and pain to train. Dogs love to learn. READ BOOKS, there are so many wonderful books out there about dog behavior, try something written by someone with doctor in their title not whisperer.
Training is essential. Newsflash, dogs and people are not the same species (shocking right). So when you train a non-verbal species it is important to use visual cues first and build an association to verbal prompts over time. People are always yelling commands at dogs, first teach them what these commands mean. To train you need a ton of repetitions for the dog to understand what is expected. A great way to bond with a dog is to take them through a class. Find a certified professional dog trainer (I would avoid big box store training programs) to help you learn the process and guide you to success. Remember you don’t know what these dogs have been through so find someone using positive reinforcement based training methods and be patient, it may be the dog’s first time learning in this way. Your goal should be to build positive associations to the environments your dog will be exposed to.
Socializing your dog should happen slowly as you dog becomes more familiar to you. Fear and neophobia are common to new places, people and objects in (shelter) dogs. I highly discourage using the dog park or a big dog daycare as your first means of testing your dog out with dogs. Also you should have a solid recall command and have seen your dog play with one dog before going into these environments.
If there is already a resident dog in the home, remember to slowly integrate their lives, don’t just give total access, you may have conflicts arise if you make them spend every moment together competing for resources right off the bat.
Don’t give up too quickly. Remember your dog has had some major life changing experiences. You need to help them transition before you can expect to see all their normal behavior patterns start to emerge. Begin building good habits right from the start. Management of you environment is key. It is so much easier to focus on keeping bad behaviors from starting than trying to fix them once they are learned. Find cooperative games to play, this is the best way to bond and train your dog at the same time.
Time, patience, compassion and consistency will set you up for success with your new shelter dog.