Anna and Margo making friends during Anna’s first days
Over this past year I’ve fostered three adult dogs – that’s three new personalities attempting to mesh into our existing little pack of four adults, two dogs and one large, dogwise cat. And each entry has had it’s own challenges – it’s rarely easy or simple (life just isn’t like that – ever!)
Adopting an adult dog is not like adopting a puppy. Adult dogs, like adult humans, are not as flexible and malleable as young dogs – they are no longer in their prime socialization window and rehoming, for the dog, is about as traumatic an experience as a dog can have in its life!
So where do you start?
First, it helps to see the integration process from the new dog’s perspective. The dog has gone from a life where he speaks the language, understands the rules and norms, where everything may not be always pleasant but is pretty predictable to suddenly, without out warning, finding himself with strangers in the wrong house! He knew where he lived, who his friends were, his neighborhood and community but suddenly it’s like he’s been dropped into a foreign country where no one speaks his language and everything smells wrong, the food’s weird, and the pee spots are in the wrong place.
Ruby happily and safely off leash and playing with her house mates.
(And that’s if he’s gone from his former owner’s home directly to yours. What if he’s gone from his former owner’s home into a shelter where he was suddenly incarcerated in a tiny, cold space, surrounded by unrelenting barking, frightened animals and the smells of fear, illness and death? Or what if he was adopted from the shelter and returned several times?)
Can you imagine how confused and frightened your new dog feels? Where is the family who loved him, who gave him a job and fun times? And in this new house there are strange dogs who clearly know each other and have been working together for a long time – and they don’t want him there.
It’s very, very stressful. And then you – new owner - want him to be quiet, get along with the thugs in the corner, ask to go out to go potty, oh – and walk nicely on a loose leash!
If you think about it, your new dog is traumatized and exhausted! He feels sick, lonely, frightened and all he wants is to go to sleep and wake up at home. You want to show off your new pet and introduce him to your friends, take him to the park, and enroll him in training classes right away.
But what your new dog needs is a 3-4 week adjustment period, a chill time, with minimal stimulation and a predictable routine. No visitors, no novel experiences, no doggy parks, nothing that will over-stimulate him or cause him to feel more fearful than he already does. If you can do this for him, chances are good that there will be no lasting damage or manifestation of strange behaviors after the readjustment.
The first thing your new dog will need is a crate. The crate should be large enough for the new dog to stand up and turn around in comfortably, and preferably even bigger than that. The crate is going to be the new dog’s safe place, his hidey–hole, his sanctuary. He’s going to have all his meals in here, he’s going to rest in here, he’s going to sleep in here and no one (human or animal) is going to be allowed to enter or reach in, unless the new dog is elsewhere and can’t see the invasion! The new crate needs to be solid or covered in a large blanket so the dog can feel private and safe.
Your new dog will need two 30 minutes periods of quality time with you per day. One of those periods should be a walk with just Mum or Dad – no other dogs allowed. The other should be a mix of brief training periods (each no more than 5 minutes long) and play – again, with no other dogs participating.
During the short training periods you are going to focus on teaching basic foundation behaviors that are going to make training all the other behaviors you’ll need after the shut in period that much easier.
The behaviors you’ll be working on in your short training sessions include: “look at me” – clicking and rewarding for eye contact; “touch” – clicking and rewarding for targeting two fingers, and a dowel with a cork on the end; “go to your mat” – which is actually body targeting and is very easy to teach; “here” –clicking and rewarding for the beginning of a good recall. (Please see detailed instructions for teaching these behaviors on my website.)
Two of my foster girls, Ruby and Margo, adjusted well to life in our house and eventually went to their forever homes. I stay in touch with their new owners who report that they are happy and well adjusted and still offering their foundation behaviors on cue. One of my foster girls, Anna, found it too difficult to adjust and developed some very pronounced stress related behaviors. Luckily, Anna had the option of going back to her owner so, when it became clear that she wouldn’t adjust, I took her back and, at last report, she’s settled happily back into her familiar home. For some dogs, as for some people, the trauma and stress of rehoming is overwhelming. All we can do is be aware of how difficult it is and do our best to make the transition as calm and structured as possible, and give the new dog the time he needs to adjust. Most dogs adjust very well and go on to be happily integrated members of the family.