Tips for Surviving a Newly Adopted Adult Dog

helping your new dog find a secure spot in your family

by Kathy Diamond Davis

adopting an adult dog

For a dog with such a demure name, Nora was, in the words of her new owner, purely awful. “There was not a thing that she got to that she did not destroy,” remembers Donna Hess of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, of the first few weeks with her newly adopted Basenji. “She ripped any pillow she could get to shreds, and then started on the comforters and blankets. She knocked over the garbage can 50 times a day. She chewed the other dogs’ collars off their necks. Tissues, toilet paper, knickknacks, throw rugs, small objects of all kinds were stolen or destroyed. Putting stuff up high did not help; she climbed all over the tables and counters. She literally could not be left alone for a second. And the worst thing was if you tried to catch her to confine her, she bit the hand that fed her!

Adopting an adult dog into your family has the potential for being much smoother than raising a puppy. There can be bumps in the road, or the dog may blend in smoothly right from the first. Having a good plan will help you integrate the new family member in the happiest possible way.

Dogs thrive on routine and find it very reassuring. When you first bring the dog home, try to keep to your normal daily routine. You may have to do this in stages on some things. For example, let's say you get up at a different time and go to bed at a different time than the dog's previous family. You can help the dog's housetraining by adjusting your schedule to the dog's previous schedule, and then over a period of days moving the time perhaps an hour each day toward your own normal schedule.

Similarly, if you need to change the food, take a minimum of 4 days for the change. The first day, give 100% of the old food. The next day give 75% of the old, 25% of the new. On the third day, give 50% of the old and 50% of the new. For the fourth day, give 100% of the new food. It's fine to stretch this schedule out longer and make the change more gradual. With a dog showing any sign at all of digestive sensitivity, that is advisable. Make sure the food you're changing to is top quality, of course. Every change of homes in a dog's life is stressful, even when the new home is perfect, and good diet helps.

Duplicate the dog's former sleeping arrangements the first night or so if feasible. Be aware, though, that changing homes can create anxiety in a dog and result in unpredictable behavior. If the dog is accustomed to resting calmly in a crate (whether or not the dog has been routinely sleeping in the crate at night in the previous home), it's a good precaution to start by having the dog sleep in the crate in your bedroom at night. If you don't know how the dog reacts to a crate, try the crate first in the daytime for a few minutes at a time with you staying in the room.

When you must leave the dog alone, take whatever precautions you can. If the dog is known to panic in a crate, try a dog-proofed area instead. This could be one or more rooms in your home with a baby gate across the door. Shutting the door on a dog often leads to the dog clawing at the door. If the dog jumps one baby gate, stack another one above it in the doorway.

It's prudent not to leave a dog alone in a new home with the complete run of the house until you've had a chance to observe the dog awhile. You might come home to serious property damage if the dog gets anxious about being alone. This is not an unusual reaction in a dog new to your home and your schedule. Understandably, the dog may fear that you're not coming back, or that you'll be gone so long the dog won't be able to hold bowels and bladder, or that you'll come home angry. It takes time for trust and confidence to grow.

Provide the dog with enjoyable but safe toys to enjoy. Toys you can put food inside often have extra calming power for times you must leave the dog alone.

If the dog has a history of escaping from a fenced yard, don't leave the dog alone in a fenced yard at all for quite some time. This is a powerful habit and instinct that gets reinforced by the interesting things dogs find to do when loose. You'll want to give this habit a very long time to fade before you take a chance on leaving the dog out alone at all, even if your fence is far superior to the one that previously confined the dog.

Some dogs-many, in fact-will be calm and steady in your home right from the first. This is most likely with dogs over 2 to 3 years of age from stable backgrounds and of breeds that are not highly active. And of course it's more likely with dogs who have a lot of experience as happy house dogs. But it often happens with dogs who have had multiple bad breaks in life, too. The more stability you provide in the environment, the better the chance of a smooth transition.

If you can arrange time out from work and other responsibilities for the first days or weeks with a new dog, so much the better. Keep your regular schedule in mind and transition the dog to that schedule. Time off will give you the chance to evaluate the dog's responses to things like confinement before you need to leave the dog along for significant periods of time.

Reading a few good dog-training books before you bring the dog home is wise. It's a good idea to read three books on something this important, in order to gain more perspective than just one author's point of view. Two good ones are Pat Miller's The Power of Positive Dog Training and Jack and Wendy Volhards' Dog Training for Dummies. The booklets and books by Patricia McConnell are terrific too.

Getting Started

Have your crate, baby gate, dog food(s), toys, collar(s), leashes, and other equipment ready before you bring home the dog. Get an identification tag for the dog's collar, or use one from a former dog that has your current contact information on it until you get one for this dog. Dogs new to their homes are at higher risk of getting lost, so a tag is important right from the start. Also consider putting a simple little jingle bell on the dog's collar. This is a surprising aid to supervising a dog in your home.

Arrange a checkup for the dog with your veterinarian within the first two days the dog lives with you. Take all the health information you have about the dog. This visit is necessary even if the dog appears in perfect health and has all vaccinations up to date. Since it's the dog's first contact with your veterinarian and staff, take along small treats. Make the experience a happy one.

Also take along a little book you can use for notes on the dog's medical condition, lifelong. In this book you can record the date of each visit, the dog's weight and condition, instructions from the veterinarian, results of fecal and heartworm and other lab tests, etc. Use it at home to note when you see symptoms in the dog that you may need to report later to the veterinarian. Record the dog's temperature every time you check it, and note any medication your dog is given.

Decide where you want the dog to use the bathroom. When you arrive home, take the dog there first. Encourage the dog to relieve, and praise if the dog does so. Continue taking the dog out frequently until you get used to the dog's relief schedule; every dog is different. Better to take a dog out a few times a day too often, than one time too few!

Delay feeding a meal for an hour or so after you first arrive home, and give water sparingly. It's tempting to overfeed a dog, especially an underweight one, but getting the tummy upset can cause big setbacks. With a severely underweight dog who has been starving, get your veterinarian's advice on the initial feeding schedule and amounts.

Keep the dog either in the room with you under your supervision, or in a dog-safe confinement area, until you get to know each other's habits better. If you slip up on supervision and the dog has a housetraining accident or destructively chews something of yours, do not punish! (See Housetraining Basics and Destructive Chewing articles.)

Turn on your sense of humor! This is the time to make a great first impression on your new family member. Don't encourage inappropriate behavior, but don't show anger, either. Adult dogs come with some surprising skills. One memorable case was a large dog who could nimbly spring and land with all four feet on the kitchen counter in a space that looked far too small for him to fit. He could just as easily bounce onto the hood of the car. All it took to get him to do this was simple curiosity to see what was there!

Include a low-stress daily outing in your schedule. At first it might just be a 15-minute walk down the driveway. If you live in an apartment or condo where the dog must go out on leash for relief, those outings are enough for now. Outings and training times (easily combined with outings) are a good habit to start the first day, provided the dog is healthy, but these need to be low-key. This is especially true for the first two weeks the dog is with you. Don't take the dog out to stressful settings to train or test yet. Give the new family member time to get used to you and your home first.

Start training classes (provided the dog is physically sound) after you've lived together for 2 weeks or longer. The class needs to be enjoyable for the dog and also for you. A wide range of classes and methods exist, so do your homework to find one the right fit. A good class will help you and your dog form a great relationship.

Spend a few minutes each day grooming the dog. Comb or brush a long-haired dog, curry-groom or massage a short-haired dog. With an old bed sheet spread over yourself and under the dog, this isn't at all messy indoors. It will enhance the dog's bonding with you, your ability to identify medical problems early, the dog's tolerance of human touch all over the body, and even the dog's responsiveness to your training. It's one of the most productive ways to spend 15 to 30 minutes a day with your dog. Incorporate cuddles into this routine.

The Best

Adult dogs for adoption are a vast, undervalued resource. Dogs are chosen as young adults for assisting people with disabilities, police work, drug dog work, therapy dog work, circus performing, movie and television work, and a wide variety of other lifestyles.

An adult dog's temperament and other characteristics are easier to evaluate accurately than those of a puppy, and the dog meets you mentally as an adult. Puppy bonding is an immature relationship that must form again in adulthood before it becomes a real bond.

Dogs adopted in adulthood will bond to you just as well as puppies, and often better. They've been around, and if you provide them with a really good home, they'll recognize and appreciate it.

Dogs come to new homes ready to learn new rules, open to new things. Dogs are highly adaptable. The adult dog you adopt may well become the best dog you've ever had.



by Kathy Diamond Davis

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