Wednesday, July 06, 2011

How to Help a Rescue Dog Adapt to a New Home

As regular readers know, I sometimes foster dogs for rescue groups or take dogs in on my own that need a new home. I get lots of questions about behavior issues from rescue dog adopters and from many others who have taken in homeless dogs. There is one line of thinking that causes a lot of well-meaning people to get off to a rough start. I decide to share some thoughts about it here.

New dogs adjust best when they are told specifically what to do - not given the freedom to figure it out for themselves. Dogs like rules. Dogs like structure and routine. That is a lifestyle that makes them comfortable. It is people who want to give dogs free rein to "just be good" with no instruction thinking that will make the dog happy and "rescued". That is a bit negligent about teaching the new dog how to adjust. Adopting is not rescuing - helping the dog adjust and become a calm, happy companion is the real rescue and that takes time and effort.

Until the dog is fully integrated into the routine of your lifestyle all that freedom mostly adds stress to the new dog's life. You don't ever need to be mean about giving instruction and establishing discipline (aka rules) - just the opposite. You want to be calmly in control like a teacher to a new student who is entering the classroom mid-term. Tell them, show them, fit them in to the way that class works by giving clear, helpful direction. Or imagine if you went to give a talk to some group at a strange place where you did not know anyone. Most of us would feel more comfortable if a person in charge met us as we came in, told us where to park our gear, where to sit, what the schedule would be, etc. Not just let you walk in and be "given the freedom" to figure it out for yourself. That's not doing you a favor.

I love analogies -- I hope this helps make what I am saying more clear. The instructors are not mean - they are calm and in control. That is what gives you reassurance and confidence and helps you relax and be able to fulfill your role. If they were agitated and bossy you would not feel as good. Dogs are not so different in that respect except that many will feel the need to take control if no one else does. Or the stress of the instability and lack of direction will push them into acting out aggressively, sometimes because they are simply insecure.

So, don't think of discipline as a bad thing. Discipline with clear rules and instructions is what new dogs need. After some time a routine will be established and the new dog will understand her role - where she fits in. Then she can earn more freedom because she will know how to handle it, she will know what to do that makes everyone happy.

As I always say, train them as much as you can so they can have more freedom. Untrained, undisciplined dogs who do not receive direction are not freer or happier. Give them instruction, explain / train them what to do, put the time in - they are worth it!

Photo is of a young yellow Lab I fostered who had never been in a house or played with toys before he came to me. This was his first day. I Love Dogs!