For a dog with such a demure name, Nora was, in the words of her new owner, purely awful. “There was not a thing that she got to that she did not destroy,” remembers Donna Hess of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, of the first few weeks with her newly adopted Basenji. “She ripped any pillow she could get to shreds, and then started on the comforters and blankets. She knocked over the garbage can 50 times a day. She chewed the other dogs’ collars off their necks. Tissues, toilet paper, knickknacks, throw rugs, small objects of all kinds were stolen or destroyed. Putting stuff up high did not help; she climbed all over the tables and counters. She literally could not be left alone for a second. And the worst thing was if you tried to catch her to confine her, she bit!”
Nora didn’t seem to want to interact with her new owners, refusing to make eye contact or respond to her name. Petting was out of the question. But at the same time, she had intense separation anxiety. “The minute she was alone, she pitched a holy fit, screaming and urinating in her crate, then destroying her bedding,” Hess remembers.
After weeks of this adoptive “Nora’easter,” Hess seriously contemplated returning her to the rescue group that had placed her. “I was making no progress whatsoever.”
While Nora is an extreme case, adopter’s remorse is hardly an uncommon phenomenon among those who bring an adult shelter, rescue, or foster dog into their lives and homes. Like any major life change, the adjustment period is not always pretty, and you can expect more than a few bumps along the way.
But there are many things you can do – or at least be aware of – that can make the process easier on both you and your new addition. With some hard work and more than a little patience from Hess, Nora eventually settled into her new home. And your dog can, too.
Great Expectations – The groundwork for a successful arrival starts well before your new dog’s paws hit the driveway (or the apartment lobby). Advance planning is always a good idea, and not just in terms of logistics, like figuring out where the dog will sleep or checking to be sure the house is sufficiently dog-proof.
Just as important – and frequently overlooked – is a once-over of your own emotions: You’ll need to manage your expectations about your new buddy, who at best may not be on the top of his game and at worst may be traumatized about being in an unfamiliar environment, no matter how cushy the digs or solicitous the humans.
“A lot of people expect their new dog to follow them everywhere, like a puppy would,” says certified applied animal behaviorist and author Patricia McConnell. “But unlike puppies, who almost always come with boundless enthusiasm, older dogs have no idea what is happening to them. A lot of them are in shock and are really sort of stunned.”
Like a second marriage, where both partners are fully formed individuals with their own life experiences and preferences, your relationship with your new dog is going to involve coming to terms with his “previous life.” You don’t know what baggage he is carrying, or what pushes his buttons. Decoding your dog’s reactions, habits, and world view will likely take some time.
“An important part of the process is understanding that you are bringing in an animal that has a history,” McConnell explains. “You may know some of it, but you may not know enough. Slowly let your dog become your dog. You’re trying to figure out who it is that you’ve got here.”
It’s About Time – Behaviorist Karen London, who with McConnell is the author of Love Has No Age Limit: Welcoming an Adopted Dog into Your Home, has observed that adopted dogs tend to come out of their shells during the “magic three” – the third day, the third week, and the third month.
Those junctures “seem to be major landmarks for a dog to reveal who he or she is,” London explains. For example, for the first couple of days in a new home, a normally happy-go-lucky pooch may be shy, timid, or aloof. By the third day, once she gets her bearings, she may regain most of the bounce in her step. Conversely, a dog whose reaction to the stress of relocation is to bark excessively may very likely calm down within a few days, once he’s acclimated to his surroundings.
At the third-week mark, London says she often notices more changes. Metaphorically, the honeymoon is over and the dog feels comfortable enough with the relationship to start leaving dirty underwear on the floor (or running off to her crate with it, as the case may be). And finally, after three months, if you are paying close enough attention, you may see still more evidence of your dog settling into her new role in your household, as if she is permitting herself to finally, freely exhale.
London notes that these timelines aren’t written in stone, but they do appear to be reliable patterns that many dogs follow when acclimating to their new homes.
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Past Imperfect – One more point before we leave the pasts of these dogs behind: Do just that. While you need to recognize that your dog’s past informs her present, don’t get mired down in what she has been through to the point where it impedes where she is going.
“See the dog, not the story,” wrote one visitor to McConnell’s blog. In other words, be careful not to romanticize your dog’s previous life.
“People often get lost in a dog’s story and get overwhelmed with compassion,” McConnell says. “There’s a feeling of ‘I know they’ve been abused, and I’ll make up for it by being extra sweet and loving all the time.’”
But instead of giving the dog a sense of safety and protection, this kind of uber-reassurance, without a set of clear and benevolent rules, often makes the situation worse.
In some respects, London sees a parallel with rescue dogs who have had a rough start and human beings who have had some sort of traumatic experience. “People who have been traumatized or assaulted or injured say, ‘See me – don’t just see what happened to me.’ And I think it’s the same thing with the dog.”
McConnell has a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel who was rescued from a commercial puppy mill. For most of her life, Tootsie “lived in a crate the size of a bread box, and had a litter every year, as far as we know,” she says. When Tootsie was rescued, her head was so severely infected it looked like a “cesspool,” McConnell remembers.
Today, Tootsie “is the happiest, friendliest dog, she loves everybody, and she’s even house trained,” McConnell says. Tootsie hasn’t been defined by her life story – you should want the same for your dog, too.
P Is For . . . Well, You Know –
If there is one Waterloo among adopters, it is housetraining – or, more specifically, the lack thereof.
“People hear the dog is housetrained at his foster home, and then the dog comes to their home and within 12 hours has peed all over the house,” McConnell says. “What is critical to understand is that dogs haven’t necessarily generalized houses. Just because they’re housetrained in the foster home doesn’t mean they’re housetrained in your house. This is one case where they are like puppies.”
Just as with an 8-week-old puppy, an adult adoptee benefits from consistency, plenty of opportunities to do the right thing, and being rewarded profusely for doing so. McConnell thinks one of the first things a dog should do when she arrives at her new home is to be walked on leash in her potty area. Being taken outside as often as physically possible also gives the dog a chance to eliminate in the right place.
“Some people are shocked that it takes them four days to house-train their dog,” McConnell muses. “But that’s an eyeblink compared to the time it takes to train a puppy.”
A Separate Peace – It’s of course natural and probably irresistible to want to lavish all your time and affection on your new dog as soon as she arrives. But trainer Denise Herman of Empire of the Dog in Brooklyn, New York, reminds that you should also build in some time for natural separation.
“You definitely want to bond with the dog, so it’s hard to put the dog away, but you can’t Velcro them to you for the first three days and then suddenly leave them,” she advises. “A lot times you’re stuck with a really ugly separation problem that could have been avoided if you had played it looser for the first couple of days.”
Herman advises “mixing it up a lot” – have the dog in and out of the crate (provided, of course, that she is crate-trained). She also recommends using lots of chew toys, which “tire them out mentally, not just physically, and build up focus. I ‘big heart’ chew toys so much!”
As with any new arrival, be cautious about triggering possessiveness over these new and valuable objects. “Resource guarding is one of the big ones I see change when dogs come out of shelter, often for the better, but sometimes for the worse,” Herman says. “Assume the dog hasn’t had many of [these high-value chew toys], and confine or supervise the dog when you give them.” If you do discover an issue, “try flooding the dog’s environment with them, and see if that helps,” she suggests. “If you lay it on thick, sometimes they decide it’s no big deal anymore.”
Running on Empty – You see the stories on Facebook and Internet email groups all the time: A newly adopted rescue suddenly bolts from his new home, and a frantic search begins.
McConnell points out that runaway rescues are not uncommon at all, and for good reason. “The dogs have no idea where home is, have no connection to their new human yet, and very well might have been terrified, traumatized, disoriented, or scared. One of the most common responses to fear is to run away. Why wouldn’t they?”
An ounce of prevention is the ideal prescription: Make sure your new dog has a microchip and an ID tag with your current cell phone number on it, from the first minute you take possession of the dog. Use baby gates to block exit doors that see a lot of traffic, particularly if you live in a home with small children who can’t be expected to police foot traffic as diligently as adults would. Before turning a dog out into a fenced yard, make sure all the gates are securely closed. McConnell reminds us that dogs are particularly good at going over, under and through obstacles, and at squeezing past openings that might seem far too small for them to escape through. “If you hear yourself saying, ‘I think it will be fine,’ that’s your clue that it probably won’t be,” she says.
Having the dog slip out of his collar is another concern. If you’re worried your dog might be a flight risk, Herman recommends “double-lockdown” – walking him with both a collar and a harness. She suggests a flat martingale collar, which is similar to a flat buckle collar but tightens when a dog pulls. Herman notes that she has seen some harnesses pull off entirely, so look for a brand that has a strap between the legs, like the Wiggles, Wags and Wiggles No Pull Harness (see wiggleswagswhiskers.com or call 866-944-9247).
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Party Animal . . . Not – It should go without saying, but let’s say it anyway: The last thing your adopted dog needs is a huge welcome party to add to his sense of being overwhelmed. Keep visitors to a minimum the first few days – one person at a time, two maximum. “Stay low key and quiet and let your dog get her paws on the ground,” McConnell advises.
Similarly, avoid trying or high-stress scenarios until the dog has been settled for a few weeks. McConnell recalls the client who adopted a huge Labrador Retriever and took him to obedience class the next day. The instructor told her to her wrap her arm around the dog to maneuver him into a particular position, and the dog “sunk his teeth into her and shook her like a rat,” McConnell recalls. “It not only injured her, but it injured her confidence and trust. The dog was put down that day. Who knows what would have happened had she waited two weeks to take him to that class?”
McConnell is quick to note that this is an isolated case, and that it is not a foregone conclusion that all rescue dogs will have behavioral problems. But the drumbeat to have all dogs be super-socialized and interacting with everyone and everything around them can be a prescription for disaster with some dogs – particularly those who are already in a state of stress and confusion. Be thoughtful about what contexts you put your dog in, particularly at the outset.
Though it’s one of the first things most people do with a new dog, McConnell also suggests rethinking a run to the vet’s office in those first fragile days. Certainly, if the dog is ill, needs treatment, or if there is any question about his health status, do not delay. But if the dog has already been vet-checked by the shelter or rescue group, and you are just going for a recheck, or to have some nails or grooming done, let a couple of weeks pass and then “go to the vet for a meet and greet,” McConnell advises. “Then they can literally do nothing but say, ‘Hi! What a cute dog!’ You only have one chance at a first impression.”
Walk this way – Similarly, London advises putting off that most iconic of canine-human endeavors: the walk around town.
Instead of being a gentle jaunt around the new neighborhood, for some rescue dogs a leashed walk can be “like taking them to the gladiator pit,” she says. While you might be in control of your dog, at least in terms of keeping him restrained with a leash, you most assuredly are not in control of the other people, animals and stimuli that might engage him.
“The average adopted dog is already on complete sensory overload – there’s no reason to add to that,” London says. So wait a few days to a week, once your dog has settled in a bit, before taking him on his first walk.
In the meantime, look for clues of potential issues around the house. “Hopefully you can see if the dog goes bananas when she sees kids walking by or charges at the window when she sees a truck,” London says. “That will give you some information: Which is more of a problem on a walk, trucks or kids?”
Less is more – Though it’s tempting to let your new dog have free run of the house – maybe not so tempting when you contemplate the Aubusson rug in the dining room – Herman recommends keeping him as close as possible. “A lot of people favor walking the dog around on a leash first, to see if he has any concept of what a house is,” she says. “Many a person has been surprised to see the dog leap up on the dining-room table.”
If the dog is crate trained, or willing to be crated, use that for times when you can’t supervise him directly. “Usually it’s a positive contract,” Herman says about the incentive for the dog to learn to like his crate. “Here’s a bone full of wet dog food; you can enjoy it in here, where it’s calm and quiet and soft and clean.”
McConnell adds that it’s “so much easier to expand the house than to close it down” once the dog has been given free rein. Restrict the dog to one or two dog-proofed rooms that he feels secure in, and then, as he proves himself, you can open up access to more rooms.
Don’t Panic – Easier said than done, but it may comfort you to know that even the pros have that moment of “What have I done?” when first incorporating that new dog into their household.
“I think the first three days are panic, panic, panic” – on the part of the human, that is, Herman says. “You think, ‘I’m in over my head, maybe I was too rash.’ Unless the dog is flat out Lassie, which is rare, you’re going to have barking or house-training accidents.”
Whatever you do, don’t go it alone. “Be open to the idea of seeking resources,” London urges. “A lot of knowledge, skill, and experience go into making the transition as smooth as possible. Seek help, whether it’s a training or behavior professional, or rescue or foster people. I wish we didn’t all try to figure it out in a vacuum.”
And remember that the best view is the long one. Sometimes love is a bit of a battlefield until you work out a truce.
“It takes time to figure out how to live together,” McConnell reminds. “Figure it will take about a year until you can look back and go, ‘Wow, this dog is totally part of the family.’ ”
Nora, the bad-to-the-bone Basenji, is a case in point. Her owner sought out help from another savvy Basenji owner, and consistently ignoring Nora’s bad behavior led to a turn-around. Today, while Nora still has “bad days” and her own little quirks, “she flings herself into our laps whenever we sit down, and contentedly falls asleep,” Hess reports. “She is still a work in progress . . . but Nora is home.”
Denise Flaim of Revodana Ridgebacks in Long Island, New York, shares her home with three Ridgebacks, three 9-year-old children, and a very patient husband.