Originally featured in Greyt Happenings Greyhound Newletter June 2022
By Micaela Frank, CDBC, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP
Are you considering bringing home a new dog soon? It is incredibly exciting to welcome a new family member into your house and life. There are few things you can keep in mind to ensure you and your new dog’s first few days and weeks are successful. Here are some top tips for welcoming a newly adopted dog into your home:
Observe: During this important “getting to know you” period, focus on observing your new dog. What are they telling you about themselves through subtle communication? Do they engage with you on their own, or do they avoid and need to be coaxed? Where do they position themselves in relation to new people or things – do they walk right up, or do they hide behind you? Where do they tend to lay down to sleep? Simply watching what your dog does will give you a lot of information about who they are.
Learn body language: A huge piece of welcoming a dog into your home peacefully and smoothly is knowing how to read their communication signals. Everyone knows how to recognize the really obvious signs of discomfort, such as when a dog growls. But there are also lots of subtle body language signals that dogs use to communicate when they are uncomfortable or when they are feeling calm and relaxed.
Typical signs of stress or discomfort include:
- Lip licking
- Moving away from someone or something
- Shaking off as though wet
- Turning their head away from an interaction
- Sudden change in ear or tail position
Some typical signs a dog is feeling relaxed include:
- Soft facial expression
- Tail and ears in a neutral position for that particular dog
- Loose body
- Leaning in or moving closer to an interaction
- Laying in a “C” shape while resting
Depending on the breed of dog, some body language signals may be more obvious than others. For instance, if a dog has a docked tail, you won’t be able to tell if it is high, tucked, or somewhere in between. It also may be harder to see if a dog has a “hard eye” or is staring if their face is very hairy. Knowing your particular dog and where they usually carry their ears or tail is very important too. If you’re feeling confused about what your dog is indicating with their body language, focus on noticing changes – like if your dog’s mouth suddenly closes or their tail position suddenly changes.
Be consistent: If there are certain house rules you would like to maintain, be clear and consistent about these from day one. It can cause more confusion for a new dog if they are allowed to get on the couch when you aren’t planning to let them in the future, or to go in certain rooms or pull you on leash if those are things you don’t want. Avoid harsh tones or trying to punish but do be clear with the dog what you would like and reward them lavishly for doing the correct thing.
3 day, 3 week, 3 month Rule: In the shelter and rescue world, there is a something called the “3 Day, 3 Week, 3 Month Rule.” This rule provides a rough timeline regarding when behaviors may change post adoption. Often there is a “honeymoon” period at the beginning, where a dog may show fewer behaviors overall or seem almost too calm. It takes a while for stress chemicals in the body to decrease after transport or transitioning from a foster home into a new space. It’s important to keep in mind that behavior is not a fixed quality but will change based on environment.
Get info, But Stay Open-Minded: The observations of experienced foster, rescue, or shelter personnel are invaluable. It’s great to make sure to find out as much information as possible regarding what has been observed in these settings prior to bringing your dog home. However, it’s also really important to remember the rule above, that behavior can and will change depending on environment. For this reason, prior observations are not guarantees but rather guides to who your new dog may be in your home environment. You can also influence their behavior by putting them in situations where they will succeed and helping them out of situations in which they may struggle.
Stuff is Weird!: When your dog gets to your home, keep in mind some things may be completely foreign to them depending on their history. Examples include sliding glass doors, slippery floors, stairs, and sounds like doorbells, coffee grinders, or voices on the radio. It is very adaptive for an adult animal to be afraid of things they have not experienced before. Think about an animal in the wild. If suddenly there was a brand new thing in their jungle or forest glen, they should be scared and ready to protect themselves. So, if you have adopted an adult dog and you notice they are afraid of something, remember this fear does make sense on some level.
We can’t reason with them to get them comfortable with new experiences, but we can use scientific principles to help them. These principles are called desensitization and counter conditioning. Desensitization means presenting something at a level so low the dog is not afraid, and as they gradually become more comfortable, increasing the level. Counter conditioning is the process of working to change a dog’s emotions about something by systematically pairing it with another thing the dog likes. These techniques are much kinder than forcing a dog to experience something at a high level in order to eventually acclimate to it. For instance, if your dog is afraid of walking on linoleum, putting a leash on them and dragging them across may cause more trauma. But by using desensitization and counter conditioning techniques, you can slowly teach them to choose to place one paw on the linoleum for reward, and then build on that. Putting a rug down for them to cross until the behavior is learned is a great management technique.
Introductions to other animals: Even if your new dog has done well with other animals in the past, keeping introductions short and sweet is the best way to go. And if you have resident animals who are friendly with new dogs, it is still beneficial to give them space and time as well to adjust to the new interloper. One technique I especially like to use is scent introduction. This can be used for two dogs meeting each other, or when introducing a dog and a cat. To do this, take a towel and rub each animal with it. Exchange towels and let the animals sniff and “get to know” each other prior to meeting face to face. I also encourage long walks to help get dogs acquainted, as their focus will be on the environment and not on each other. Contrast this with two dogs meeting face to face and everyone just standing around not moving. Awkward!
When it comes to cats, make sure to provide high places where they can get away and plenty of spots to hide. To avoid chase behavior, make sure to structure the environment in such a way that it is not possible for your dog to chase your cat, which is highly reinforcing. Use leashes and baby gates as management tools and reward your dog for any behaviors that are calm in the presence of the cat.
Introductions to children: When introducing dogs and kids, the same rules apply as with cats and dogs – slow and steady wins the race. Make sure kids know what is expected in regard to the household animals, including coaching them on reading dog body language from a very young age. It can also be useful to have some “kid only” and “dog only” zones in the house that are decided on prior to the new dog coming home. Baby gates can be used to cordon off hallways to bedrooms so that the dog cannot get to toys or lay on clean sheets. A “no kids allowed” rule on dog beds is wise, since many dogs can be sensitive to being bothered in their sleeping spaces. And since some dog/kid relationships can run afoul, it’s wise to remember that many dogs will not, nor should they, tolerate ear pulling, being sat on, or having kids mess with their tail or paws. Let sleeping dogs lie!
Keep these tips in mind the next time you bring home a new dog. Go slowly, get to know them, and have fun. Thank you for adopting!