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  • Writer's pictureRain Jordan

Keys to Success with a new, certified pre-owned, or any other adopted dog

Cowering, Trembling Dog Illustration
At All Costs, Avoid Scaring a Newly Adopted Dog

Adopting a dog is very exciting, and it is understandable to want to share the joy with everyone you know--human and non-human. It is common to want to pet, cuddle, hug, and kiss your new dog, especially if adopted from a shelter where the dog seemed lonely, sad, unwanted, et cetera. We want to do these things perhaps because we feel affection or sympathy for the dog, or we wish to make the dog's life happier as soon as possible. It seems fair to assume that most adopters' intentions are nothing but noble.

Yet many newly homed dogs escape, run away and are lost or worse, while others find the nearest hiding place where they cower in fear for what may seem like an eternity. Adopters of these frightened canines find themselves walking neighborhoods in the middle of the night carrying hot roasted chicken, or sitting for hours on the bedroom floor with toys and treats. Then there are those new adoptees who are are more than happy to see and be leashed up to their new humans or anyone else for that matter, but those humans may soon find themselves on the airborne end of the leash.

If you're thinking that you can avoid this and more by getting a puppy instead, think again. Puppies require a lot of training on top of careful, skilled socialization, specialized knowledge, and a huge commitment. In many ways, an adult dog is easier. Making your life, and your newly adopted dog's life, much easier and happier from the moment you leave the shelter, rescue, or wherever you found the dog, is a matter of following a well-proven formula that smart rescue orgs have been following for eons:

1/ Study up! Prepare yourself for your new family member. If possible, get to know one another other a little before the big move to your place. Read a book about positive reinforcement, canine body language, and behavior. If you love science, add one about applied behavior analysis. If you don't love science, add a different one about applied behavior analysis. It's that important. Or you can hire a certified behavior consultant for $100 an hour or more to teach you. :)

2/ Prepare your home in advance. Strategically installed, properly used baby gates can help protect your dog from unsafe areas of the home and from darting out of doors that lead to unfenced areas. Baby gates can also be used to create safe spaces for your dog instead of a crate; many dogs have confinement anxiety and will not be safe in a crate. Even those who would be fine in a crate need to be crate trained over time with positive reinforcement, not just put in one immediately, so a crate is not an immediately usable option for most dogs. If your dog will have access to cabinets, consider installing babyproofing locks to ensure s/he does not access toxic or other dangerous items, and invest in a stove knob cover if your dog can reach the stove with paw or nose. Stock your home with plenty of high value treats and food items such as liverwurst, freeze dried liver treats, turkey (no bones!), etc. Obtain a safety harness / spook harness for walks, and a simple nylon ID collar stitched with your phone number. Finally, prepare a soft, well-cushioned, private, safe space just for your dog, a space to which your dog can choose to retreat if feeling stressed. This space should be out of the way of foot traffic but may be within eye sight of you, so long as the dog can also hide in it if s/he wishes to do so. This space should also provide retreat from other pets, children, visitors, and so on.

3/ Go straight home. Any change is stressful, but a move is very stressful. Your new dog will definitely be stressed by moving from the old location to your home, no matter how wonderful a home it is, so the last thing you want to do is add any additional stress by adding additional changes. Don't stop at the store, nor at anyone's house, nor at the vet--definitely not at the vet! Go from picking up the dog straight to your home. This will be the least stressful way possible for your dog. It will also greatly minimize the risk of escape, which is already very high at this time.

4/ Do safe, slow, introduction, in neutral territory, to each establish dog before entering your property with the new dog. Introductions can be done either in a large, fenced field where your established dog has not previously established herself, or if none is available, then by starting with parallel leash walking. The process is too detailed, with many steps, to include here; it requires careful observation and at least a basic understanding of canine body language and management; feel free to email me if you'd like more information.

5/ Set and Stick to a Decompression Period. Rescues will often recommend 2 or 3 weeks for "decompression," which is a sort of no expectations/no pressure time for your new dog. For confident (not fearful, not hyperaroused or reactive) dogs, 1 week may be sufficient. During this time, have no visitors to the home (that means no family, friends, contractors, etc.), and the dog is not taken out to visit anyone either, nor to any parks, events, stores, or any places whatsoever. In many cases, the dog should not even be walked during this period, nor trained (positive reinforcement housetraining would be an exception in many cases). Also during this time, avoid hovering around the dog; generally contact should be initiated by the dog, not by the residents of the home, and instruct everyone in the home to be on their best and calmest behavior, for the sake of helping the dog avoid unnecessary stress. Once the decompression period is over, begin introducing people, places, and experiences to your dog slowly rather than all at once.

6/ Practice Alone Time. This can actually begin during the decompression period since it is not a training per se, but is rather a matter of ensuring that your dog builds a bank of positive experiences being alone in addition to being with you, so that when you go to work or leave the house for other reasons, the dog will be less likely to experience anxiety. To start building good alone experiences, prepare a classic Kong stuffed and frozen with your dog's favorite treat food (peanut butter without xylitol is a good choice). Pick up / put on whatever you normally would when leaving the house for the day, give the dog the Kong, then immediately leave the house (go far enough that the dog cannot smell or hear you. If your car would be heard, you would need to move your car away as well.) Return in 3 to 5 minutes unless your dog already has shown symptoms of separation anxiety--in that case you may need to return sooner. Do NOT give any treats as part of your return, nor extra attention, nor show excitement. If the dog is overexcited upon your return, wait until the dog calms, then greet calmly greet the dog but without food. Do this exercise every day, slowly building up the length of time you are gone, and adding to your preparing to leave routines to match the actual ones.

Other items and methods may be added later if needed.

7/ If your dog pulls on the leash, do not despair! And do not believe those who say your dog needs "discipline" or punishment. This couldn't be further from the truth. The reality is that while punishment may appear to work at first, studies show that it tends to make behavior issues worse in the long term. Also resist the urge to pull back on the leash yourself, since pulling on your dog will most likely be experienced as aversive to your dog, resulting in yet another 'reaction' such as the one that was the catalyst for the original pulling behavior, and you could find yourself part of a vicious cycle. Pulling on leash is best resolved with positive reinforcement training. Using a clicker as a marker of desired behavior, begin the process by teaching your dog to give you attention via eye contact; every time your dog looks at you, click and then follow the click by immediately giving a tiny treat. Developing this habit is the first step to resolving leash pulling. (If your dog never looks at you, then start this training by saying the dog's name; when the dog then looks at you or even near you in response, click, then treat. Keep at it until your dog is looking at your face. Then click and treat only when s/he looks at your eyes. Repeat repeat repeat. Practice daily.)

8/ If your dog is fearful, the first and most important thing you can do is ensure the dog is safe and make your best efforts to help your dog feel safe at all times. (See the Fearful Dogs / Behavioral section of this website for more information on how to do that.) A certified canine behavior consultant such as myself can help guardians of fearful dogs learn about counterconditioning to change the dog’s associations with what is triggering fearful reactions. Fearful dogs can also learn skills via R+ (positive reinforcement) training to replace fear-based behaviors.

Whatever your new, or not so new (senior dogs rock, by the way) dog's training needs may be, we are here to help. Click HERE to schedule a private training session or consultation in your home, online, or via phone.

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