Give Them Time!

Shelter and rescued dogs need safe space and enough time to decompress before you should make any serious judgments about them.


Today I am dog-sitting Chief, a 1-year-old German Shepherd-mix from my local shelter – just for the day. He’s actually being fostered by my favorite person at the shelter, my friend Lynee.

Chief was brought to the shelter over a year ago as a young pup. As yet ANOTHER uneducated, no-manners, anxious, all-black dog in a shelter full of them, he has lingered and lingered. He got adopted once but was brought back because the family’s old dog didn’t like him. (Few old dogs like wild young dogs with no social skills, especially within days of having the wild youngster arrive in their homes.)

Recently, Chief got adopted again – but he was so overwhelmed in the new family’s home that he hid behind the couch and wouldn’t come out. When the family tried to insist, reaching behind the couch with a leash, he growled at them. Since the family brought him home on a Saturday, and this happened on a Sunday, when they called the shelter in an apparent panic that the dog was vicious, the message on the shelter’s answering machine said, “In an animal-related emergency, call the (local) police department…” So they did!

Fortunately, the police contacted the animal control officer who was on call, and he went to the family’s house to pick up Chief. (Literally. He picked up the 60-pound dog and carried him to the animal control truck. He reported that Chief was petrified.)

Worried that two bad experiences in homes reduced the odds that he would get a third chance at a family, Lynee took Chief home last weekend. She reported that he had to be pulled out of her car, but he followed her into and then around the inside of her home like he was glued to her side. At first, he was too afraid to go outside to go to the bathroom, but she encouraged him, and, partly lifting him by his harness to get him out the door, pulled him outdoors. Once there, he went potty, and then rushed back into the house.

Lynee stayed home with Chief for three days. She said that every day he made progress. After that first time being lifted/pushed outdoors, he went outside to potty with just encouragement. He wouldn’t eat food or treats the first day, ate only canned food the second day, but ate kibble with just a little canned food mixed in on day three. He wouldn’t interact with her other dogs on day one, but by day three was playing chase games outside.

On day four, Lynee and her husband lifted Chief into their car and took him and their oldest dog for a short field trip to our local wildlife area. They let him explore on a long line and he waded into the river and enjoyed sniffing all the interesting smells. He got into the car on his own power for the trip home.

Both of the families who adopted Chief before were told that he had been brought into the shelter as a puppy, and didn’t know anything else. That he was undersocialized and essentially didn’t know anything about the world outside nor any dogs other than dogs he was kenneled with in the shelter. And yet neither family gave him the time and space to acclimate and learn about the world outside a shelter.

Lynee had to go to work today, and she didn’t want to leave Chief home alone all day; nor did she want to bring him back to the shelter. So she asked if I could do a little daycare duty. Of course! This will give Chief even more experience in yet another environment – but a safe, non-demanding space, where no one will have any expectations of him and he can observe everything in the environment without pressure.

I met Chief a month or so ago at the shelter, when Lynee had him in an exercise yard. My impression of him then was of a hyper but nice young dog – just what you would expect of a dog who had grown up in a loud, busy shelter. So far, walking around my property and laying in my office as I write this, he’s calm and quietly observing everything. He’s taking treats from me, and hasn’t been too afraid to enter and exit the outbuilding where I work. And this transformation is after just three days in Lynee’s home.

When you bring a dog home from a rescue or shelter – or anywhere, actually! – give them space and time! Be friendly and encouraging, but don’t loom or fuss over them. Try not to make demands on them at first, but reinforce every behavior you like to see. Set up the environment (with pens or gates) so they can’t get into places or getting into things you don’t want them near, so you don’t have to scare them by rushing them out of those spaces. Keep in mind that they might not know anything about human cars, homes, or other animals, and they may react with fear, and yes, even growling. Remember, a growl means, “I need some space!” It’s meant as a distance-creating message. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you or plan to attack you!

There has been a “3-3-3” meme going around the shelter and rescue community for a while that says something like, “The first three days with your newly adopted dog should be used to adjust, the next three weeks for training and bonding, and the next three months for continued training and socialization.” Our contributing editor Pat Miller hates this meme and wrote an article with her preferred version of the good intentions behind the meme: Give your new dog all the space and time they need to decompress and get to know you. Sometimes this happens quickly – even immediately. But take it from Chief: Sometimes you just need a little more time.


  1. Again, another note about my Boo (my 6 year old GSD). We got him when he was 6 months old and he had already been in 5 foster homes. He came from 4 states away to us and there was no sending him back and we had not even seen a picture of him. Well, we called him our wild child for almost 6 months. He was the sweetest puppy in the world but would not settle down for a minute. My husband and I would say “What have we gotten ourselves into?” But today, he is the greatest dog ever! We have had many dogs, but I think he is the best. The point of this is they just need time.

  2. We see that same scenario at our local shelter. Different adopters, different dogs, but the same story, and this is despite a long and tedious explanation about what needs to happen in the new home. We even have it written out and included in the adoption kit, but I think we could title it “Ignore All of This,” and get the same results.

    OTOH, I just started working with a new client and sibling Aussie mixes – one of which was returned because she chased the children in the home. Then at the end of the first session the new adopter/handler said she was amazed at how far they’ve come in only 10 days, and we both marveled at how well things can go if dogs get a chance to settle in without unreasonable expectations put upon them.

    I don’t likje to 3-3-3 meme in particualar but I think it may at least

  3. get a new adopter THINKING about the adaptation process as a concept, and reduce the unreasonable expectations that end with dogs coming back to shelters

    Oops on hitting Enter too soon and not finishing spell check but I think I got it now.

  4. Thank you for this reminder. I have found more and more people who adopt a dog and expect it to know the English language AND to act like any well trained/behaved dog on television. Such an unrealistic expectation that even most humans can’t pass!

  5. Thank you for this important reminder, Nancy. All shelters should stress that patience is needed before any adoption takes place. So many people don’t have either the patience, compassion, or even the common sense required for successful adoptions so the poor dog suffers.

  6. Why aren’t my comments posting? Bad enough Whole Dog Journal no longer works in Chrome so I have to use Firefox but now my comments don’t show up either. And my subscription is current and I am logged in.

  7. Mlaiuppa, I see both of your comments, they did post. And WDJ does still work on Chrome. I use Chrome and Firefox both, and I know if the site wasn’t working on one or the other browser, we’d hear more about it! Do you have the latest versions of the browsers, and operating system, and all that? That’s usually the issue.

  8. I made three posts. The third was longer and never posted. I tried twice. Only the short ones showed up.

    I have the latest IOS and browser versions. Your IT just suggested I do things I had already done. WDJ still doesn’t work for me in Chrome. I get the 400 Bad Request page.