October 1, 2019

What to Expect When You Adopt a Shelter Dog

Adopting a dog from a shelter is a really noble thing to do. There are nearly 4,000,000 dogs in shelters across America, about 20% of which will never be adopted at all. Shelter dogs make incredible pets. They can be loyal, grateful, and generous with their affection. They can also have some special issues that make parenting them a little more complex than dogs with simpler origin stories. The key to being a successful rescue dog owner is understanding - and being compassionate to - these challenges. Here's what to expect when you adopt a shelter dog.

Rescue Dogs and Change

First, know that dogs are creatures of habit. Change is stressful for all dogs, particularly for those who might associate change with danger or resource scarcity. Rescue dogs who lived for months (or years) in unstable situations will be understandably wary of being dropped into an entirely new environment. To you, the shelter might seem cold and inhospitable...to a rescue dog, it might be the closest semblance of home they've ever had. How does this translate? Consider all the ways humans respond to change. Some become withdrawn, taking it all in before they make a judgement. Some might lash out, "protecting" themselves from vulnerability. Others might cling to what they're most comfortable with, be it a person, an object, or even a behavior. The one constant to expect in all rescue dogs is an extended adjustment period after a big change. This will probably continue throughout the dog's life, even if you've loved her unconditionally for years, in periods of change like a move from one apartment to another, during a breakup, or even during fun scenarios like travel. Rescue dogs generally have a persistent fear of change.

Bringing a Rescue Home: The Adjustment Period

It's always best when possible to bring your new dog to your house for a visit before you bring her home for good. This allows her to familiarize herself with the space and generally decreases her anxiety about the "newness" of it all. Because smell is so important to dogs, it also allows her to familiarize herself with the different smells around your home, including those of people and other animals. Once you bring your rescue dog home, expect there to be a significant adjustment period. Some dogs are more adaptable than others and may fit right in after just a few hours. Others may take days or even weeks to open up to you and learn to feel safe and comfortable in their new space. This is particularly common for dogs who have been abused by previous owners. What, exactly, can you expect from your rescue dog's behavior during this adjustment period? 

  • Obvious shyness, hiding, or timid behavior
  • Excessive or unexplained barking
  • Marking of territory or backsliding on house-training
  • Possessiveness over people or objects
  • Leash aggression/aggression with other dogs
  • Avoidance or nervousness around strangers

The good news? There's a great chance you won't experience any unusual behaviors from your rescue dog! She'll probably be very excited and grateful to have found a loving home, but all dogs show their gratitude (and express skepticism) in different ways.

Setting Your Rescue Dog Up for Success

Preparing to bring home a rescue is a lot like preparing to bring home any new dog. You need to gather all your supplies before you walk through the door with a pup, so be sure you're thoughtful about the process. It's never a good idea to peruse a shelter for fun and walk out with a dog totally unplanned. Gather all the supplies you need and dog-proof your home before you bring your new pet home, remembering that adult rescues can sometimes have a little trouble not "going" in the house at first. You might want to set your dog up in a room that's easy to clean (like the kitchen!) for the first few days while she's getting adjusted. Just imagine you're bringing a very young puppy home. The first few days, keep introductions to new people and pets at a minimum while your dog's getting adjusted. She's probably going to be overwhelmed and might become too stimulated by a lot of noise or unexpected smells. You also want to stick close to home the first few weeks - no road trips! - so your dog learns to trust that this is home now...she doesn't have to worry about being moved to a new shelter or taken somewhere unsafe.

The absolute most important thing you can do to help your rescue dog is to have her see a vet as soon as possible. Since rescues can be skittish and suspicious of change, bringing in a house call vet makes perfect sense. Aim to see the vet within 1-3 days after bringing your dog home to be sure she's up-to-date on her shots and doesn't have any lingering health issues that might make her transition more difficult.

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