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.
- 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?