Top 10 tips for success with a new rescue

If you have decided that giving a dog in need a second chance is the right decision for you and/or your family, congratulations! In the almost 20 years that I’ve worked with clients and their rescues (in addition to my own) I can say with absolute certainty that it is an incredibly rewarding journey. But it’s not without a few challenges and while each dog has a unique story, here are some universal guidelines that will help set everyone up for success:

1. Limit freedom

  • Set up a small area, ideally in the hub of your home, where your new dog can hang out and decompress for the first weeks. Confine him to this area with either closed doors or baby gates. 
  • Dog-proof like you have a new 8-week old puppy: remove access to anything paper, wicker, wood or wire. 
  • Even if you’re bringing home an adult dog, even if you have been assured that he is fully housetrained and perfectly well mannered, he may not be in a new environment. A smaller space will limit potential stress-related mistakes and help him feel more secure.

2. Crate Train

  • Ideally. And by crate train, I don’t just mean ‘buy a crate and put him in it’. Crate training means teaching him to view it as a positive place where he can feel secure.  This is best done in small increments of time, starting with planting a few treats/toys inside and leaving the door open to see if he will venture in on his own. When he is comfortable going in and out, you can start to invite him into it to work on a wonderfully stuffed Kong with the door closed for 3-5 minutes only to start, building time slowly and only as he looks relaxed.  Some calming music such as Through A Dog’s Ear would be a nice touch.
  •  If your dog came from a good foster home he may already be comfortable in his crate but if he has any separation anxiety  being left alone in a crate might exacerbate it and you may need a different set up. 

3. Introduction to resident pet(s)

  • It’s a good idea to separate your new dog from other pets in the home for the first 24 hours to give your new dog time to just decompress.
  • Be sure to introduce to a resident dog on neutral ground – perhaps by going for a walk together or allowing them to meet in a fenced-in yard (if on leash make sure to keep leashes VERY loose). 
  • If you have a resident cat, they will need their own space in the home with access to food, water, litter and affection without having to cross paths with the newcomer. Baby gates are  a MUST.

4. Keep calm 

  • Consider playing Through A Dog’s Ear as the soundtrack to your new dog’s life for the first few days. It’s available for free on many popular streaming apps.
  • Avoid a lot of visitors or taking him to new places (other than a vet check) for the first week or so.

5. Avoid big changes in diet

  • Odds are your dog won’t be used to a premium diet but don’t’ rush to change it as you risk causing him digestive upset (not to mention the accompanying housetraining problems for you)
  • Stick to the same food for the first week. If he really won’t eat you can try  adding a topper to make it a little more interesting. There are lots of high quality offerings in this department, just check with your vet or a trusted pet food provider. 
  • Do schedule a vet visit within the first week to make sure there isn’t a medical reason for appetite issues.

6. Don’t smother him

  • Yes he may have a sad story and yes you may want to hug him non-stop to make up for it. But you’ll need to resist (and if there are children in the home they will need clear instructions to keep hands off unless he comes to them first and should not be left alone with him unsupervised). 
  • Instead, give him the chance to make contact. Invite him over to you. If he doesn’t come don’t coax, respect his need to take some time. If he does, try try some gentle scritches with one hand (two may feel like restraint) on his chest where he can see your hand (not over his head or back). After 3 seconds, stop. If he leans in he’s telling you he is ready for more,. If he doesn’t, that’s your cue to give him a little time and space.
  • Avoid pity parties. He’ll need to pick up on your confidence to start feeling more secure so don’t look at him like he’s a victim, view him as the trooper he is.

7. Establish a consistent routine

  • He will need a consistent and predictable environment to feel secure so schedule meals, walks, play time and quiet times right from the start.

8. Postpone the new adventures you envisioned having with your new BFF

  • No rush to go exploring together just yet. Your new dog needs to build some familiarity with his environment first. Aim for brief 10-15 minute walks in quiet areas to start until you see how he is handling things.
  • It’s a good idea to take the same route each time for the first few weeks/months and gradually build on time and distance as he relaxes.
  • NO DOG PARKS. These can be an overstimulating frat party at the best of times. Your dog doesn’t need to make 100 new friends right off the bat, not to mention that he shouldn’t be off leash. Wait until he is settled to introduce him to new dogs.

9. Don’t start training right away

  • This may be surprising advice coming from a trainer but I generally suggest giving him a few weeks to decompress and bond with you. Even the most gentle positive reinforcement based training may be too much pressure or potentially overstimulating. Just help him feel secure in his new home and routine and understand that you are going to be there for him. Forever.. 
  • That being said, he may have come with some bad manners that make daily life challenging (jumping all over people or furniture, pulling on leash) or even a little baggage in need of immediate attention. There are plenty of good online resources for positive reinforcement based solutions to a number of common issues and you shouldn’t hesitate to hire a qualified trainer early on to ensure that you are on the right path. 

10. Remember the 3-3-3 rule!

  • In her book Love Has No Age Limit, Patricia McConnell refers to the Rule of Threes: expect a newly adopted dog to be in shock for the first 3 days, to need 3 weeks to just settle in and start to show you who they are and 3 months to begin to feel like a part of the family and understand the house rules. In my experience these time frames are a bare minimum. 

Don’t worry if you experience some adopter’s remorse (aka rescue regret), that is normal and in most cases is temporary. Reach out for help and support. Be patient and have faith. When I first adopted Harry almost 3 years ago I had to remind myself of this almost daily for the first 6 months. There were occasional tears and even days I wished I could give him back but we persevered. Now I look at him and can’t believe what a great dog he is and how lucky I am to have him as my sidekick.