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A New Member of the Family: Welcoming a Shelter Dog Home

A New Member of the Family: Welcoming a Shelter Dog Home

The Honeymoon is Over… Now What?

You’ve just walked in the door with your new best friend and your tummy does that flip-flop thingy. In the span of 15 minutes, your new canine companion has peed on the carpet, played roughly with every toy you bought, and is now running zoomies around the backyard with your wife’s favorite pair of underwear. You realize pretty quickly this ain’t no Teddy Ruxpin. This is an animal who in the days to come will likely make you laugh, sigh, want to shout at the top of your lungs (though we don’t recommend that), get out of bed early on Saturday morning, talk to your vet (who was a complete stranger before you walked into her office) about the color and consistency of poop, use that goofy baby voice so you can watch his head tilt from side to side, and make your foot do that little tappy thing your mom used to do to you.

Your new dog comes with thoughts, opinions, feelings, habits and quirks that you didn’t necessarily think about amid the joyous ruckus at the shelter as you adopted the staff and volunteers’ favorite dog. And now it hits you: “What have I gotten myself into?” And maybe also “How do I get my wife’s panties back in one piece without her knowing about this?”

This post is supposed to be about bringing home a long-stay shelter dog (read Part 1 in the series), but truly, our advice to someone adopting any dog would be the same. It doesn’t matter if a dog has been at the shelter a week or a year, there’s going to be an adjustment period as you find a routine and structure that works for both of you. Your dog needs time to learn your habits, what’s allowed and not allowed, and develop the comfort and safety of knowing he’s in his forever home.

The Three-Week Rule

Maybe he’s doing a few things you wish he wouldn’t, or he’s a little more energetic than you were prepared for, or maybe there’s some medical problems, or maybe even something came up in your life you weren’t expecting. It can be overwhelming; trust us, we totally understand (ahem, ahem, um, erg, cough).

But it’s also going to be more than worth any initial bumps in the road that will later become stories you tell with a smile. You can gauge the time it might take for your dog to fully acclimate to his home in threes: three days, three weeks, three months (Drs. London and McConnell).

The first 3 days (at a minimum) are the initial “detox period” as the dog transitions from the shelter to your home. Your home is a lot quieter than the shelter, with many more fun things around than a cement kennel, with more stimulating activity and space and freedom than a shelter can ever provide. It can be overwhelming for many dogs, especially those who have been in the loud, bustling shelter for months.

Your new dog may sleep a lot in those first few days (he probably didn’t get a lot of sleep with that dog next to him barking all day and night). He will want to check out all the new smells and investigate his new digs. He won’t know what you expect from him, that you are going to feed him twice a day, or where to go potty, or that the cat box is strictly off limits and so is the leg on that antique chair, by the way.

After 3 weeks, though, your dog is probably getting used to your comings and goings, learning the daily routine, and starting to figure out when the next meal is coming, that you walk at the same time every morning, that he gets to go out for regular potty breaks.

At 3 months, most dogs know they are “home.” It’s a process to get there, but with a good behavior plan, the right tools, patience and a sense of humor, the two of you can scale the mountain together and enjoy the journey toward a great relationship.

Setting the Right Rules from the Start

The first 30 days after you bring your dog home is a critical time. You are setting the tone for your new relationship, and it’s so much easier to start out doing things how you want rather than try to make changes after Fido is already comfortable. That’s not to say that your relationship isn’t going to change and morph over time; but if you know you don’t want dog hair and slobber all over the couch, best to start off from Day One with the “no dogs on the couch” rule firmly in place.

We recommend planning out a basic daily structure and routine, and a deciding on a few rules before you bring your new dog home. It always works out best if everyone who lives in the home has input and is aware of the rules, and agrees to follow them! This puts the humans (ALL the humans) in charge, and gives your dog the comfort of consistency and knowing what’s expected of him.

Dogs like to know what to count on day in and day out; if you basically do the same things around the same times (walk, grooming, feeding, play time and cuddle time), your dog will settle in and relax faster. Not sure what some good rules might be? Here’s how we tend to break down rules in our homes:

  • No dogs on the furniture (unless invited)
  • No begging at the table during meals
  • No jumping on people
  • No counter surfing
  • Crate time when we can’t directly supervise

Remember: what works for us might not work for you. Your lifestyle is unique to you, and the types of things you want out of your relationship are just as personal. As Ian Dunbar wrote: “… I usually let owners decide on their own rules for their own dog. I consider household and lifestyle rules to be a very personal choice.” Don’t let someone else tell you that you absolutely must or must not do something with your dog. If you are happy with your relationship, if your dog follows your cues and you have control over him anytime you need, then you are already on the right track.

Training is a Process, Not an Event

Training is always more fun with a dog who is willing to try things to see if he can get a reward. We set up treat stations around the house with tasty, non-perishable goodies; whenever we notice a rewardable moment, treats are never far away and we can catch them in the act of being good. And if it’s something especially wonderful, Jackpot! Maybe the dog gets 10 little treats over the course of a minute while we shower him with praise and affection. This teaches him that doing the things you want him to do might just win him the lottery.

Before you bring home your new dog, have an honest discussion with the members of your household about how much time you have to create and maintain a relationship with your dog, and the types of things you want to do with a dog. The easiest path is to choose a dog who would fit neatly into the lifestyle you already live. After the novelty of this new furry thing wears off, you are still going to have to walk, feed, train and interact with him.

Think of things you’ve been doing for years; the things that you enjoy. Dogs come in all shapes, sizes and energy levels; there is a dog out there who will both fit with and enrich your lifestyle. At the top of your list, write down the number of minutes or hours a day you will commit to training your dog. Be honest. When you adopt a dog, and if you are really in it for the long haul, there is the possibility he will need a few training classes, or visits with a private trainer, or even more extensive work into the future.

Training is one of the most rewarding ways to develop a beautiful relationship with your dog; it can also be expensive, time consuming and on occasion, frustrating. Do you have the resilience, stubbornness and finances to keep going, either with a trainer or on your own? If not, are you willing to put management techniques in place, no matter how extensive they may be, to make living with an untrained dog doable? If the answer to these questions is “ummmmmmm,” then look for a dog who is less likely to require that kind of commitment.

Ask a lot of questions, visit the dog a few times, ask if you can foster the dog or do an overnight visit, or even see if you can do a trial adoption. Shelter staff and volunteers usually have a good idea which are the easier vs more challenging dogs, and local trainers often offer dog selection assistance services. Use the knowledge of these people to help pick the right dog for you.

When the Inevitable Happens…

Training isn’t something you do for one month or the length of one class; every interaction you have with your dog is a training opportunity. Dogs are sponges; they are always learning something (kind of a “passive” training). It’s important that with every interaction, you are teaching him what you want him to do. Pat Miller writes: “Think in Terms of What You Want Your Dog to Do, Not What You Want Him Not to Do.”

Dogs are always doing what works for them. If jumping on you gets him attention (and what kind of attention doesn’t matter: touching, yelling, whatever; it’s all attention), then your dog will repeat that behavior. If jumping doesn’t work for you but does for everyone else in the house, your dog will continue to jump on the family members who allow it. But if jumping never works, and everyone always ignores him, then he will try a different behavior instead. This is your opportunity to teach him that a Sit gets him all the love and attention, and jumping makes you go away. Every interaction is like this, and if you are always cognizant of what you are teaching your dog, your dog will understand and comply with what you want more quickly. This means less stress and frustration for everybody.

It helps to attend at least one training class, either to polish behavior or try a new game or sport or teach your dog a job. Here are some types of training classes your dog may benefit from:

  • Basic Obedience: Sit, Stay, Come, Down, Heel, etc.
  • Trick Training: Fun ways to keep your dog mentally stimulated
  • Sports & Games: Agility, Rally Obedience, Nose Work, etc.
  • Reactivity/Aggression: For dogs who struggle with fear, anxiety or aggression

There’s no set method you have to use to train your dog: Whether you decide on a group class or private lessons, it’s often best to wait a few weeks and develop a relationship with your new dog before beginning. This will allow you time to figure out what you want to work on and to start developing your relationship so you will have some control over your dog in class. If your dog hasn’t bonded to you yet, he will be less likely to want to work for you when there’s other more interesting things around.

The most important thing is that your interactions – every interaction – works to build up and strengthen your bond with your dog. If someone tells you to do something with your dog you are not comfortable with, speak up. Ask for a different solution or sit out that particular activity. The best trainers are great problem solvers and should have multiple techniques to achieve the same results.

The Rollercoaster Continues

So you got home and maybe the first day or week or even month was great, but now it’s getting rough. Maybe you are getting frustrated or worried, and you are not sure what to do. Don’t worry; you are in the same boat a lot of owners of new-to-them-dogs are in.

First, take a deep breath and relax. It’s okay to feel frustrated or unsure or worried. Problems were bound to come up and you are not expected to have all the answers. Bringing home a new dog has its rewards and challenges, and it’s very likely your dog is in a situation he hasn’t been in before. Take a mental and even physical step back and decide how to proceed. Use the resources available to you (remember that training scholarship and all those people at the shelter who loved that dog? They’re a good place to start.) and create a plan.

Without a plan, you are just fumbling around in the dark getting more and more frustrated. Many adoption packets have some basic problem solving handouts included. Check out a few of the DIY training resources mentioned above. Think about what is going wrong. Breaking the situation down as Paul Owens suggests can help alleviate frustration. When and where does the behavior happen? Try to decide what is causing the problem: Is the dog hungry, thirsty, stressed, sick, bored? Does he simply not know what to do?

Then, think about what the picture would look like if the dog was doing what you want him to do (sit instead of jumping, lay quietly instead of barking at the mailman, go outside instead of going on the carpet). The best way to solve a problem is first to think of what your ideal picture of the situation would look like. Then break down training the behavior into smaller steps to achieve your goal. Focus on what you DO want your dog to do (so think “I want him to Sit” rather than “I don’t want him to Jump.” You can’t teach your dog all the things in the world you don’t want him to do).

Maybe you need to redirect your dog to an appropriate activity (chew this bone instead of my shoe), maybe you need to pay closer attention to the time and let your dog out sooner, maybe you need to hire a trainer to help you with your reactive dog. Every problem has a solution; how quickly you get there depends on how quickly you identify the cause of the problem, eliminate the reward that comes with doing the problem behavior, and ensure that the dog only finds reward in doing the behavior you want.

And maybe most important of all: Keep your sense of humor. Sometimes just letting go and having a good laugh at the dog who is running zoomies with your underwear is the best way to get over frustration and start enjoying your dog. Dogs are clowns with beautiful thoughts and ideas and humor all their own. Who knows, maybe he was trying to make you laugh? Dogs teach us how to let go of our preconceived plans and ideas and how to go with the flow. Take this opportunity to see things from your dog’s perspective and figure out how to use what he wants to do as a reward.

Dogs are resilient creatures; what happened to them yesterday doesn’t have to dictate what they become in the future. You can always work to mold and shape your relationship with your dog into something that gets better and better with age. Relationships are like gardens: they can look and smell like the most beautiful of sanctuaries, but only if the plants and soil are tended regularly. Gardens can get weedy and die off fast. But with a little daily maintenance, you have something beautiful to appreciate for all the love and effort that went into it.

So it is with your relationship with your new dog. Put in the work and effort, but never forget to stop and enjoy how far you’ve come. When you set reasonable expectations that both of you can meet, it’s a satisfying experience and motivates you to reach another peak. Enjoy all the scenery and beauty the climb to the top has to offer; it’s the most important lesson dogs have to teach us.

For more information on welcoming a shelter dog into your home, visit

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