The first three days, three weeks, and three months are milestones in the rehoming of a rescue dog. In this new series, Toni Shelbourne advises on how to settle your dog in during these key periods.
We often talk about the three-day, three-week, and three-month milestones when referring to the time it takes a rescue dog to settle in a new home. It’s a useful guide to understanding the emotions and challenges a newly adopted dog can experience.
As dog guardians, you can avoid many pitfalls by understanding the physical, mental, and emotional strain that occurs during rehoming. Your shiny new dog, especially if he has come from a kennel environment or travelled many miles (sometimes for days) to get to your home, will be confused, overwhelmed, and exhausted. Nothing is familiar to him; he has been cut adrift like a floating leaf with no attachment, no branch to cling to, and no roots to hold him.
Present understanding equates a dog’s emotional range to that of a human toddler; one thing is for sure, your rescue will need time, patience, and compassionate handling to adjust to your family, routines, and the environment, both at home and out and about. This three-part series is all about guiding you through these rehoming milestones, helping you towards a successful and happy life together.
Adopting a rescue dog is the start of an unforgettable journey.
Prepare and Plan
It is important that all is ready for him when you bring your rescue dog home. This means having his bed set up in a quiet area, and a bowl of water out ready nearby, food purchased, and some tasty high-value treats handy. Additionally, you may want to invest in a calming plug-in, like Adaptil or Pet Remedy, to help him settle, and baby gates to section off parts of the house.
Decide how all the family will interact with him, which areas you want him to have initial access to in the house, the routine you want to introduce, the cues you will use, and any house rules: do you want him on the sofa or upstairs?
If you are prepared, you can then devote 100 per cent of your attention into settling him in on arrival. It also means he won’t get flustered with you moving things around.
Let your new dog decide if he wants to interact with you or not. If he does, keep checking he still wants to be touched.
Bringing him home
On the day, double-check all doors and windows, and especially the garden fence and gate. Numerous dogs escape on their first day; they have no bond with you and will go into a panicked state, unable to listen to recall cues or even come to food; often, all they want to do is run away. Make sure someone has hold of the lead as you open the car door. It’s also worth keeping your rescue on-lead as you first bring him into the garden, for added security. Let him sniff and possibly toilet; don’t worry if he doesn’t do either, as he may not be comfortable enough yet. You can give him plenty of opportunities throughout the day if he is willing to move around the the house and garden.
It is often a good plan to only allow access to a small part of the house at first. Make this an area that isn’t in a main thoroughfare, where your dog can relax and have access to water. Above all, he needs time to process his surroundings and then rest and recuperate. Keep everything low-key, calm, and quiet. There will be time later to introduce him to the rest of the house, pets, and visitors.
Be kind, patient, and give your new rescue dog plenty of time.
A common mistake is introducing your new dog to existing pets too quickly. This doesn’t set anyone up for success and is too much for your new dog to cope with.
● Dogs — if you have an existing dog, hopefully you will have been encouraged by the rescue to allow the dogs to meet several times on neutral ground. At least then you can tell if their energies and personalities gel and you can get a sense of whether a friendship can blossom between them. If this has not been possible, keep the dogs in different parts of the house for a few days until your new dog has had time to decompress and catch up on some much-needed sleep. In the meantime, you could offer each dog the scent of the other to sniff; set up a positive association by dropping a treat on or near the scent each time he or she takes a sniff.
● Other animals — as well as not meeting or interacting with existing dogs for the first three days, it’s best not to test your rescue with other animals either. You want time to assess his nature and reactions. The integration of all household animals may take months to achieve.
Sleep and recuperation are the most important things in the first few days.
Sleep is the most important thing in the first three days. Your rescue will be exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Sleep is as restorative for dogs as it is for humans; it boosts the immune system, which can be very suppressed through stress; helps sort through emotions; and facilitates rational thinking, all of which he will benefit from. An adult dog needs between 12 and 14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour cycle and younger dogs need even more, so make sure you enable this crucial reviving sleep to occur, and that it is undisturbed.
Have your dog’s bed set up in a quiet area.
In the first few days, it is important not to overwhelm your dog with too many experiences; instead sit back and observe. Note if he wants to engage with you; if he does in what way, and for how long? Is he eating, drinking, and toileting regularly? Does anything disturb or panic him — household noises, family members, smells? Let him come to you; don’t press yourself onto him or invade his space. If he invites touch, stroke him with the back of your hand for just a few seconds and then stop and observe him again; does he walk away or nudge you for more? If he rolls on his back instantly stop touching him and move away; he could be feeling uncomfortable and adopting a submissive stance. If you continue to touch him, he may flip into defensive mode to protect himself. If you are unsure about how to read canine communication signals, learn about them before your new dog arrives. Learning just a little about the whispers of communication that occur when a dog first starts to get concerned can be enlightening, and may help avoid a dangerous situation occurring.
I would suggest no walks in these first few days, as it will be too much for your dog to cope with. Steer clear of high-energy games too like ball chucking as this promotes adrenaline, the very hormone you want to reduce in his system.
At first, your dog may feel anxious and overwhelmed.
Likewise, avoid visitors and keep a close eye on children, ensuring they are calm and respectful. Always supervise interactions and let them know how their new dog may be feeling so they can empathise and act in an appropriate manner that keeps everyone safe.