Bringing Home a Shelter Dog

A Guide To The First Hour, Day, Week, & Month

So, you’ve made the decision to adopt a dog and the day is nearly here. While shelters are generally awesome with the post-adoption support, it sometimes helps to have a plan in place for those first few weeks and months. Keep in mind that they are coming into an unfamiliar place with new humans.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

-Benjamin Franklin
Shelter behaviorist with dogs.
Shelter behaviorists are the people that are great to talk to as they have a sense of the dogs’ personalities in the shelter.

Most shelters have a behaviorist that will examine common things that the dog can come in contact with like cats, are they food aggressive or a resource guarder, how they interact with adults, and try to figure out their personalities. Some things just can’t be tested in a shelter’s environment like how they are with kids (this could be dangerous if they don’t know what kids are), some sounds such as doorbells, kitchen noises, and common household item noises.

What should you expect from your shelter dog when you bring them home.
“Thank you for adopting me! Now please give me a chance to feel comfortable.”

With that in mind, I’ve put together our top tips for what to focus on in that first hour, day, week, and month after bringing a shelter dog home.

The First Hour
How your shelter dog will adapt will largely depend on their history and reasons for ending up in a shelter. If they have been well cared for and well-socialized in their previous life, they will likely adapt quite well.

Dog unsure of what to do and nervous.
“I’m not quite sure how I should act.”

If they have found the shelter incredibly stressful and they didn’t have the best experience prior to the shelter, they could take a little longer.

That first hour should be dictated by your dog. You need to be patient and follow their lead. Let them explore their new surroundings on their own terms. Don’t force them into every room in the house; just give them space. You can shut doors or gate off areas where you don’t want the dog to explore quite yet.

Watch them from a distance. (Don’t overcrowd as this can lead to anxiety.) If they’re behaving inappropriately, offer a distraction with a wanted behavior instead.

Use positive reinforcement and reward-based training to help start them off on the right foot in their new home.

The First Day

Dog crate with bedding, toys, and treats.

You may have set up a crate as a den for your new shelter dog. They can use it as their safe space when they’re feeling a little over-whelmed.

This is particularly helpful for anxious or small dogs, but only if they’ve had either no experience or only good experiences with a crate so far in their life.

Crate broken by dog.
This can lead to injury to the dog and make the dog more fearful of crates.

If a crate was used as a punishment or to simply keep them out of the way in their previous life, then the sight of one will likely instill fear immediately. Don’t push too hard for them to get inside. You can toss some treats in and leave the door open to see if they’ll try to go in by themselves. Give them lots of praise if they go in or even just sniff at it. If they are very fearful of the sight of a cage/crate, take it away from the area. (*Crates/cages were made to make the dog feel safe like having a den. Never punish the dog for not going in.)

During this first day, you’ll learn a lot from your shelter dog. If you have other pets, you should carry out the initial introductions before bringing the shelter dog home. Some dogs can cope with other pets on their first day; some may prefer a quiet day just to get used to their new environment.

Watch your new addition’s body language — this will tell you all you need to know about how they’re feeling.

Diagram of dog language.

The First Week
During the first week you should try to make the introductions to close family and friends, but again, you must move at your dog’s pace.

If they’re settling well into their new home, they may accept new humans at this stage. If they’re wary or nervous, you may want to leave the introductions for another week. The shelter should have informed you on your dog’s socialization skills and experience with other humans and offered guidance if potential issues could arise.

In this first week you may venture out on your first walk around the block. Again, take your time and be patient. It’s a whole new world to your new addition.

Taking your dog out on it's first walk.

Of course, on your first few walks you do run the risk of coming across something your dog has never seen before, and you don’t always know how they’ll react, even if the shelter was diligent in telling you about your dog’s history.

Keep them on leash at all times, at least until you understand more about their personality and typical behavior.

The First Month
Depending on the history of your dog, you may start to train or retrain.

If your dog doesn’t have basic commands or recall, then that’s where you should start. You can figure out pretty quickly how best to teach them. Find out if they’re most motivated by food, toys, praise, play, or some other reward.

Dog learning commands.

Offer a selection of toys and treats on the floor and see which item your dog chooses first. This will be how you keep their attention during training.

Old dog learning new tricks.

There’s a myth that you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, but that’s not true. Any dog can be trained — you just have to find the right motivation for them. No matter the age or history of your shelter dog, you can train or retrain them.

If your shelter dog has picked up bad habits, then you should start retraining with a focus on redirecting and replacing unwanted behaviors with appropriate, wanted behaviors.

Dog is bored and tearing up the furniture.

So, for example, if your dog barks inappropriately, teach them to bark on command, instead. You can then train them to stop barking on command, too. If your dog is chewing on furniture, clothing, or inappropriate items, provide them with a sturdy chew toy and reward them when they use it instead of your shoes.

You may wish to consult a professional trainer if you find it difficult to teach your dog wanted behaviors.

Bringing a shelter dog home is no small task, but the reward is worth it. Most shelters provide excellent support post-adoption, but it certainly pays to have a plan in place. The most important thing is to be patient and follow your dog’s lead.

A thank you note for choosing a shelter dog.
“Thank you for picking me as a family member.”

Published by Dogwuvr

My love of animals started when I volunteered at a humane society. From there I wanted to teach people how to take care of their precious pets and get the word out about adopting. I went to Animal Behavior College and got my Dog Obedience Certification. I have been working in veterinary clinics and give people information about dogs.

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