Bits Of Advice For New Dog Owners


Last week, I “fostered” a dog for four nights – not a big deal. He was a hound-mix, about a year old, who had been languishing in my local shelter for too long. A bit of an oversight, actually, due to the fact that the shelter has been crazily preoccupied with taking in and caring for dozens of animals who were evacuated or rescued from a month-long wildfire event. This little hound had the luck (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of being brought into the shelter within a day of the large evacuation necessitated by the fire’s rapid progression into our community, and he got a little lost in the shuffle of animals with more dramatic needs.

I spotted the little guy when volunteering at the shelter to help with the fire-evacuated dogs. (The ones that had been brought in as “strays” by first responders in the fire zone needed good photos taken for identification purposes, in hopes of reuniting them with owners; I also made phone calls to the owners of dogs that the shelter was holding for safe-keeping – people whose homes had burned down – to gently inquire whether they had made any progress in finding housing.) The shelter’s regular adoption program has been on hold off and on for months, first due to COVID, and now due to the formidable needs of animal fire victims.

But I had received an email from a friend of a friend of my son, asking for help in finding a family dog. And because of that specific pedigree (my son’s friend and his fiancée have adopted TWO dogs from my shelter, and I get to see the dogs’ new, wonderful lives in my Instagram feed), I said I’d help, and immediately thought this family and that little hound would be a great match – even though the family lives a good two-plus hours away. I implored them to come meet the hound as soon as possible and then met them at the shelter on a Sunday (when only the cleaning staff is present).

As I knew they would, they fell in love with him. I pressed to get the hound admitted for the next possible surgery date for neutering and took him home after his surgery, to wait for the next date his new family could come to adopt him. It was just four nights later.

But for me, it takes even less than four nights to form all sorts of opinions about how a dog should best be handled and cared for. Whenever I foster, I find myself trying to stuff all sorts of information into the adopters’ heads before they drive off with my ex-foster dog. And I kick myself, time and time again, when I think of things I meant to mention to them before they left – more than once, I’ve sent new owners emails about their new dogs before they’ve even gotten home with their new pets!

And then there are the general dog-care and dog-training tips that I wished all dog owners would know and employ. Some day, when I have a little extra time, I’m going to formalize all of them into a little booklet that I can send home with adopters. As I drove home from the shelter last Sunday, mulling over whether I had told Arlo’s new family “all the things,” I decided that, in an effort to jump-start that project, I’d at least write a blog post with a few notes about what I’d most want them to remember – and ask you for your top dog-care tips. What two or three things do you insist that your friends or puppy buyers or new adoptive families know?

My top tips for new dog owners

Here are a few of mine:

  • Keep ID on the dog at all times for at least the first few weeks before you remove it, even for just a bath! And even if there is ample evidence to the contrary, pretend like your new dog may try to escape at any moment. Don’t leave doors or gates not-quite-closed. Don’t take it for granted that he will follow you from the car to the house or vice versa; use a leash whenever he’s not securely contained. Don’t leave the house with windows open; lock the yard gates so the kids can’t accidentally forget to latch them. Practice this diligence until it’s clear that your new dog knows  and is comfortable with you, knows where he lives, recognizes the sound of your car, and is well-started on a positively reinforced recall.
“Arlo” and his new family.
  • Hand-feed him for the first few days. Take every opportunity to reinforce his concept of you as the most enjoyable human ever.
  • That said, don’t let him do the things you don’t want him to do, from the very first day. If you don’t want him on the couch or beds, don’t let him on the couch at all. If he hops up, throw a toy or treat across the room to lure him off the couch, and then either block him from jumping up again, and either sitting on the floor or next to his dog bed with him until he relaxes there, or putting him in a crate or on a tether with a nice fresh raw meaty bone or food-stuffed Kong toy. In other words, give him an equally enjoyable option!
  • Also, start teaching him to be alone in short bits from day 1. Give him a food stuffed Kong or chewy and leave him alone, crated or closed in a secure and comfortable room, for just a minute here and there. Observe how he handles this. If he notices you leave and goes back to sleep, that’s awesome. If he leaps to his feet and compulsively follows you every time you leave the room, you are going to need to work on this sooner and more formally. (See this article on why and how to prevent and deal with separation anxiety and isolation distress.)
  • Take him outside to potty a lot! At least once an hour! Praise him and give him treats or petting (if he likes that) every single time he “goes” outside. And watch him constantly, actively, when he’s inside. Try not to give him a single opportunity to “make a mistake” and “go” inside. If you screw up and he does go potty in the house, take a rolled up newspaper and hit yourself over the head and say, “I must pay better attention!”
  • Don’t be in a rush to take him everywhere! Let him get to know you and your family and home for at least a few days!  And don’t overwhelm him with visitors at first! As excited as you and your family may be, remember that the change is very overwhelming and stressful for your new dog. He’s trying to figure it all out. Give him a little time.
  • Don’t take anything for granted. Assume he knows nothing about living with humans. Don’t leave food on the coffee table, your child’s desk, or even the kitchen counter. Put your kitchen and bathroom garbage cans out of reach. Make sure the cat or other small pets in the house are kept safely and securely separated when no one is actively supervising the dog.
  • If that new owner is off to the pet supply superstore, my top tips would be: No plastic dishes! Stainless steel bowls only. Beds: As thick as possible. Treats: Don’t buy them; use tiny bits of cheese, lunch meat, roasted chicken, etc., instead. No Flexi-type leads! No store-bought rawhide or “chewies.” (There is exactly one supplier of rawhide that I trust, and I buy only one product they make – for all dogs, no matter their size.) Toys: Lots!

If you had to turn over a dog you loved to a new home, what are the bits of advice you’d most want to convey?


  1. Patience. Don’t be upset if the dog doesn’t bond with you or another family member right away. Some dogs have had a rough time prior to rescue or adoption, and while some will just be thrilled with you from the beginning, others may take awhile – days, weeks, sometimes longer – to feel comfortable enough to get close to you emotionally, even if they’ve had the best foster in the universe. Hang in there, because once that happens and the dog trusts you, you are truly golden forever.

  2. Do not make quick judgements about a new pup re their potential as a companion. Their behavior in the beginning will be due to the newness of the situation and whatever past traumas have influenced them. Their true personalities and strengths will slowly emerge as they settle in and grow to trust you and their new environment.

  3. Get your pup accustomed to being brushed and groomed. (And bathed!) Use lots of treats and praise to reinforce the idea that these are POSITIVE experiences.

    Take your pup to a positive-reinforcement basic obedience class as soon as he’s settled and comfortable with you and your home. Good manners NEVER go out of style!

    Take your pup for a visit with your vet (once this !$#! pandemic is over and you’re allowed inside again!), just to get him familiar with the office and staff and learn that this ISN’T a scary place where only bad things happen. Again, treats and praise and petting from everyone go a long way.

    (I second the idea of NO plastic food or water bowls…but ceramic is fine as well.)

  4. How important puppy K is, and how to choose a trainer. When someone I know gets a puppy I launch into my awkward speech about choosing a positive trainer and they should use treats and you shouldn’t ever jerk a dog’s collar and punishment training is so old-school and debunked and I end up sounding like a crazy person. I need a resource that explains all that in a short, friendly way so that new dog people who know nothing about training will understand.

    Also bite inhibition!

  5. It may take a week, or a few for a new dog to settle in and their full personality to show. Don’t compare a new dog to any current or past dogs you’ve owned. Last year I rescued a one year old Beagle/Lab mix. She is so lovable, and seemed quiet and shy in the shelter. Once in our home, she defnitiely was not! She is bouncy, and loves to play, but defnitely needed a lot more training than our previous rescue, a three year old Chow mix who was laid back almost to the point of being aloof! She loved long walks, but never liked any toys we gave her.. our new girl loves any toy she can get (and loves to go after stuffing and squeakers!) but walks with her are still a lot of work (her Beagle nose engages and her ears stop listening).

  6. I agree with all of the above and would add, if your dog came out of a shelter, don’t rush to start crate training, and go really, really slowly. More slowly than you think you need to!

    If you bathe the dog at home, get a rubber mat for your tub or shower stall

  7. Once the dog has settled in, get it used to having it’s paws handled. Touch them gently every day so paw wiping and nail trimming is easy.

  8. finding a good trainer is tricky sadly
    there is a well known seeing eye group that still seems to use the old “chain” choke collar method and of course it is also the lack of good training with the new person who has the guide dog.
    seems people do not have time for obedience training classes .i see so
    many new pups dragging their owners
    with a collar
    choking themselves! would a simple harness not be better. i have found dogs
    tend to not pull as much -meanwhile the clueless owners need to get some training and be consistent!

  9. In our rescue, we communicate as many of these instructions as possible BEFORE they pick up the dog. And we prompt for questions and test them for their plans for the new dog. We have a conversation with the family in detail before they get the dog. On “dog adoption day,” they are too excited to hear any instructions, and many folks think they know everything about settling a dog in. So, talk and go over information BEFORE the dog is taken home and without the dog present.

  10. Our shelter giveS each family a copy of Love Has No Age Limits , by Patricia McConnell . One of our supporters donates them in 50 book lots . Dr. McConnell give a substantial disconnect to shelters .It goes over all issues when adopting a new dog of any age .

  11. In addition to the above, if there are already other pets in the house, how to go about melding the new family unit together safely and with as little stress as possible on all concerned.

  12. Thinking of your new dog as behaving badly disposes you to think of punishment. Thinking of your dog as struggling to handle something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress.

  13. Make sure you invest in a harness and seat belt clip for safety during vehicle rides in the back seat (and turn off passenger airbag if riding in the front seat of a truck). I agree on the stainless steel bowls as being the best, a thick quality pet bed that the cover can be washed, and no flexi-leashes.

  14. The wonderful piece in this month’s WDJ “Kidnapped from Planet Dog” would be an excellent guide for new adopters of ANY age dog! That kind of tactful humility, attention and thought given to observations, are necessary because of the enormous variety of possible experiences this dog has had which shape his expectations, and which he can’t tell you about. All your tips are great! But the sensitivity and restraint recommended in this article is less commonly stressed, in my experience – and so needed!

  15. Teach “Littles” (human), and adults to not go up and hug/snuggle/grab a dog close to your face. The risk of being bitten in the face, because your dog (young or old) does not understand this form of human endearment is very high. I spent 6 yrs volunteering at my local shelter, and fostering for many more. The number of dogs who were returned after being adopted, after biting the face of an adoptive family member was greater than i wanted to see. Ultimately being put to sleep for their misunderstanding, saddened me greatly. As I tell my friends who are adopting – Please give 6 months at least, maybe more, before you present your face into close proximity of your new dog’s face. For your sake and theirs.

  16. Also, their ears. (I am still struggling with my 3-yr-old doodle to just look in his ears!)
    Also, if you plan to brush teeth, get them used to a toothbrush.
    Also, teach a “Drop it” command as soon as possible because a new dog will, without a doubt, get a hold of something you don’t want him to have!

  17. I tell people with a new dog to make sure they tell it ‘you are home and are not going anywhere ever again’. They may not understand the words but the intention communicates itself. A lot of dogs I see at the dog park are rescues from other countries and have travelled thousands of miles. I can’t imagine how stressful and disorienting it is to be in a strange country where you may not understand English.
    I also read it takes dogs 3 months to relax and start to be themselves. This can mean an outburst of bad behavior which seems to come out of nowhere. I think of it as a bit of a test as they are checking if being naughty gets them sent away.

  18. Excellent article, as always. I wouldn’t use lunch meats though, either for humans or dogs, when there are better alternatives. They have lots of unhealthy additives, and right now there have been many listeria cases connected to them. Roasting chicken or beef, or using a dehydrator to make jerky or fruit or veggie leather would be safer.

  19. avoid harnesses that inhibit free shoulder movement. demonstrate.

    Be honest – most teasing is not, so no teasing. Demo difference between honest play & teasing

    Tails and (car ) doors.

    Collars off when dog-dog playing

  20. Nancy,

    I love to read whatever you write!

    My tips would be; whenever everyone is relaxing, gently touch the dog all over especially feet, toe nails, ears, mouth and teeth. Gradually increase time spent on these areas with tooth brushing and nail trimming as goals.

  21. Feed good quality, age appropriate dog food.
    No collars in closed crate while unattended.
    There are still “trainers” with fancy websites that seduce the unaware owner with their touted expertise and proven methods…Be very wary of individual weeks’ or months’ long training sessions, where you are not welcome to visit, or even ask questions. Thousands can be lost, truly at the dog’s expense!
    Read and educate yourself. Is is easy to listen to others who have ‘had dogs for years’; bad advice is always popular.
    If you or your dog are impatient, stop and pick it up again when you’re smiling!
    Turn no into yes, by demonstrating behavior wished til they get it. (Folks and dogs)!

  22. That is wonderful! I rescued from a reputable organization, but did not get this kind of guidance. (As a result, I most likely instilled the separation anxiety that took me 8 painful months to undo). I would have loved it. Good for you, your clients and especially your pups!

  23. I remind owners that their dog does NOT speak English, it speaks dog. And, if they are rehoming a dog from a non-English speaking country (we get lots from Spain, Portugal, Greece and Romania in the UK) then there will be an additional language barrier!!

  24. You know i don’t understand why people have a dog if they don’t want to take care of them have a dog and a case i new a friend who had a nice dog but he always has the por animal in the case all the time..

  25. Thanks for the helpful tips for dog owners! I would add a tip for dog owners: to keep your dog from getting bored, it will need toys for its development at an early age. However, it is not always nice to have toys scattered everywhere, so it is better to allocate a separate large lockable basket for that.

  26. Thank you so much for talking about how to prevent a dog from doing the behaviors that you don’t want him to do. My wife is particularly worried about the possibility of us owning a dog since it could cause us a lot of trouble by sleeping on our furniture among many other things. I’ll make sure to address these behaviors as early as I can after I adopt my first dog from a nearby pet store.