Happy rescue dog
You’ve taken a thoughtful approach to adoption and found the right rescue dog for you. Now you can’t wait to open your home — and your heart — to your new four-legged family member.

It’s important to keep in mind that change — even good change — can be hard, and your dog will probably need some time to adjust to his new family and environment. However, there are things you can do to help make his transition as smooth as possible. So we asked experts for advice on helping a new pup get settled into his forever home. Here are their top tips.

1. Prepare Your Home

Before you bring your dog home, you’ll need to get your house ready. That includes getting essential supplies like bowls, a collar and ID tag, leash, crate, dog bed, toys and food.

After you have everything you need for your dog, be sure to properly dog-proof your home. “It’s a good idea to get on your hands and knees and crawl around so that you can see what your new dog will be seeing," says Joey Teixeira, senior manager of customer relations and communications at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Adoption Center. "It’s very important to make sure your home is safe, just like if you were to bring home a new baby.”

That also means ensuring your home and yard are secure so your dog can’t easily escape. Vetstreet trainer Mikkel Becker warns that you can’t assume your dog knows commands like sit, stay and come and will return to you if he gets loose. She recommends putting a long line leash on your dog while he’s in your home that you can grab easily to prevent him from bolting out the door or trying to run away. Just remember: You should never leave a dog alone in a room on a long line.

You should also keep areas of your home sectioned off and introduce the dog to your home slowly, gradually expanding the space he’s allowed in. And, Becker adds, those techniques can also help with housebreaking since they don’t allow him full reign of your home right away.

Finally, Becker says it’s important to determine a schedule and routine for your dog ahead of time. You’ll need to figure out if you’re going to come home on a lunch break and let him out, have a family member or dog walker let him out during the day or if you’re going to use a doggy day care.

2. Address Behavioral Issues

Before you bring your dog home, Mikkel Becker suggests asking shelter staff what behavioral issues your pup may have had in a prior home so you can begin addressing them as soon possible. For instance, if you discover he has a barking problem, which can be a symptom of many things, including separation anxiety or barrier frustration, you’ll know to focus on curbing that issue right away.

There’s often a stereotype that dogs end up in a shelter because of something negative, but many issues — like barking or chewing — can be easily managed, Mikkel Becker says. “In a lot of cases, it’s because the dog wasn’t provided for or didn’t get the proper training.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that many common types of behavioral issues can happen regardless of how a dog has arrived in a new home, says Dana Ebbecke, an animal behavior counselor at the ASPCA Adoption Center. And adolescent dogs are the most common age group surrendered to shelters. “They tend to have their own special set of behavior issues, just as an adolescent human might.” However, depending on the dog’s history, you may see more separation- or transition-related issues, particularly in dogs who have had multiple homes.

Plus, it’s unrealistic to expect a new dog to come in to your home and immediately be the perfect pet, says veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker.

Behavior Issues to Watch Out For

According to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Wailani Sung, the most common behavior problems reported after adopting a rescue dog are reactive behavior toward people, dogs or both; generalized or separation-related anxiety; and fearful behavior directed toward people, dogs, inanimate objects or noises. Some dogs may exhibit behavioral issues within the first week of their adoption, such as anxiety or destructive behavior when first left alone in the house. Other dogs, says Dr. Sung, may be a bit inhibited by their new owners, household or other pets and may not exhibit any behavior problems until they feel more comfortable and confident, which could take a few weeks or months.

If your dog exhibits behavioral issues, Dr. Sung suggests reducing exposure to the things he may find scary or reacts to; working to build positive associations with those things using food rewards, praise or toys; and seeking professional help from a trainer, animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist.

What to Do If He’s Shy, Fearful or Stressed

For a particularly shy or fearful dog, she says it’s best to establish a consistent routine and to give him positive attention and praise but not overwhelm him with too much affection, since a gesture like hugging or kissing him on the face could be perceived as threatening for a dog who isn’t used to those gestures. You’ll also want to slowly introduce him to other people, pets and experiences as opposed to overwhelming him with new things.

Dr. Marty Becker says that for particularly anxious dogs, you may want to talk to your veterinarian about natural or prescription anxiety products.

As your dog gets acclimated to his new home, be on the lookout for signs of stress. Those signs could include pacing; panting; yawning; lip licking; licking themselves, new owners or objects excessively; excessively whining, barking or howling; or destructive behavior. Dr. Sung recommends taking a few days to build a consistent relationship with your dog and slowly leaving him alone for brief periods and recording his behavior — for instance, with a video monitor — to determine how he responds to your absence. Take him on short walks or car rides and monitor his behavior. If he appears stressed, she says, try to distract him and redirect him to fun or rewarding activities. Playing soothing classical music or using dog pheromones can also help.

3. Sign Up for Training

After your dog has settled in, the next best step an adopter can make is to sign up for training classes or hire a certified professional dog trainer, Ebbecke says. “Dogs aren’t born understanding the social rules of humans, the same way that humans aren’t born understanding canine social rules.”

Mikkel Becker recommends getting one foundation behavior in place — being polite. That could mean teaching your dog to do a sit or a down. “That’s how you can teach a dog to say please.”

If the dog isn’t housebroken, house training is a must. Other useful training commands Mikkel Becker suggests teaching include come, stay, leave it and drop it. Hand targeting, which involves having a dog touch his nose to an outstretched hand, is another handy training technique. It can be especially helpful for shy or fearful dogs since it can give them a predictable way to interact with people.

4. Introduce Your Pup to Other Pets Slowly

If you have another pet at home, you’ll want to introduce your new dog to him slowly. “You want to avoid the situation where you bring the new dog in to the house and the other pet is just right there,” says Mikkel Becker.

It’s ideal if your new dog can meet existing dogs on neutral territory, like the street or sidewalk, where they can go for a walk together, says Dr. Becker. “Don’t make the first greeting in a place with tension.”

Mikkel Becker also recommends letting your existing pet have a positive interaction around the new dog, like getting a treat while your new dog is on the other side of a baby gate.

When introducing an existing cat to a new dog, Dr. Becker suggests keeping your dog on a long leash at first so he learns to respect the cat’s space. With dogs, you can help them create a positive association with each other by feeding your dogs with one of them on each side of a door and giving them a “really high-value, tasty meal” and switching bowls halfway through so they associate each other with good things.

5. Bond With Your New Family Member

Foster a bond with your dog by engaging in rewarding activities, creating consistency and respecting your dog’s boundaries. Make it a point to learn what your dog finds rewarding, suggests Ebbecke. For instance, maybe he likes to play fetch, prefers chicken treats over beef treats or likes walks or car rides. “Then engage in or use the things that the dog seems to enjoy and the dog will associate these great things with their new family.”

Teaching your dog basic cues can also help strengthen your bond and helps establish a line of communication, Dr. Sung says. Taking a training class can help build his confidence as well as reinforce listening to you, which can help improve your relationship.

Not all rescue dogs are skittish, but for those who are, Mikkel Becker says to “make yourself really positive.” Consider coaxing your dog toward you instead of approaching him, by holding a treat in one hand and letting the dog initiate the interaction. “Giving them a choice can significantly increase their confidence."

And don’t forget to listen to what your dog is telling you about what he’s comfortable or uncomfortable with, Ebbecke says. Watch his body language and if he appears uncomfortable with something, stop and think about how you can make things less scary for him.

“Remember, this initial phase is about getting to know one another,” Ebbecke says. “If your dog is telling you they’re scared of something, think about why that might be and help them to feel more comfortable, maybe by pairing it with a tasty treat or finding an alternative solution.”

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