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When you decide to foster or adopt and bring a new dog into your home, you’re changing a life - actually several lives (including your family and the other dog you've opened a rescue spot for by adopting or fostering).
As your and your dog’s lives change, whether you're a new foster or an adoptive dog parent, it’s important to have realistic expectations: your new family member is going to go through an adjustment period as soon as your pup's paws step into your home.
Knowing what to expect helps you begin building a secure forever-home foundation that supports your dog now and will last.
Let’s start by stepping back and seeing everything through the eyes of a rescue dog first...
Most rescue dogs are rescued from any number of circumstances - abandonment, illness, stray situations, seized from a hoarder, abuse/ neglect/cruelty, from puppy mills, or voluntarily surrendered due to behavioral issues, finances, death or personal problems. Your rescue dog has gone through a lot and likely a traumatic situation before he or she was rescued into the animal shelter.
Most rescue organizations go to great lengths to provide high welfare standards for the animals in their care. But shelters aren’t natural environments for dogs and can be very stressful places. They’re noisy, full of strange smells, lots of strangers, other dogs, and have lots of examinations and pokes from the vets. Your dog eventually gets into a routine in the shelter; meals arrive at certain times, there are walks, possible day trips, cuddles from volunteers and they learn to trust their favorite handlers.
Then once again, things change when happy day (!), kind, loving people - you, take your dog to your home. Initially to your pup, it's an unfamiliar place, with all the new smells, new people, new routines, and different places to eat. Change is scary to dogs who thrive on routine and predictability. Helping a shelter dog adjust and feel comfortable is the first, most important focus for all of us as new dog parents.
Once you bring your dog home, your pup will begin to go through the adjustment period all dogs experience. Canine behaviorists have called it "rule of 3" to give new pet parents good, working guidelines on a "usual" timeframe.
The Rule of 3 is a way to remind ourselves what to expect at any given time after we bring our rescue dog home and he or she gets comfortable and begins to feel at home. It's a reminder not to rush it.
It's a way to think about timing for something of a rescue dog honeymoon period when you want to let your newly adopted dog or foster dog ease into this wonderful, unfamiliar, new environment. Your individual dog may adapt more quickly or more slowly - just keep the rule of 3 in mind, eyes on your dog, and follow your pup's lead.
The first 3 days your newly adopted dog is home from the shelter, your pup is justifiably overwhelmed, with a body almost in shock from the environmental change. It's not unusual to have dogs who may not eat, may sleep excessively or not at all, and may not be themselves.
After 3 weeks, your new pup is gradually learning the regular routine of your home, starting to feel more confident in the surroundings and realize this is his/her home too. At this time for many dogs, behaviors that are good or not so good may start materializing.
(This is often the time when pet parents start asking about professional training/behavioral guidance or training classes. Feel free to ask any questions in our Community discussion here in the New Dog Channel, or reach out to me if you need 1:1 individualized help.)
Now at 3 months, you've built a solid relationship with your dog. Your pup is comfortable knowing this is home, and your dog has relaxed into your daily routines.
How long does it take a rescue dog to adjust to a new home?
It's hugely helpful to have the 3-3-3 guidelines to get a sense of a normal adjustment period; at the same time, I'm hesitant to put any dog in the rule of 3 box, as some magical dogs are able to quickly jump in and adjust to anything and everything. Meanwhile, other dogs may take 1 or 2 months or even more to stop feeling overwhelmed in your/their home and 6 months before it's possible to adjust to routines.
Dogs are individuals and have their own adjustment periods and their own behaviors. As with everything, know your dog. And in this case, embrace the opportunity to get to know your new family member from day one with you.
Once your dog has started adjusting in your/now-your-dog's home, it's common for behavioral issues to start to emerge. The behavior of rescue dogs, and all dogs, comes in many different forms, but here are some common behaviors for a dog in new surroundings and what's behind them:
When your dog feels fear, he or she will often try to appear as small as possible as a self-protective action. That includes several moves that are signs of flight mode (as in fight or flight):
Other expressions of fear show up in reactivity moves, often confused with aggression but based in underlying emotions of frustration and fear.
These are signs of fight mode - although "fight" is a bit of a misnomer since what we're seeing is actually dogs trying to make themselves look bigger rather than smaller to make whatever feels threatening and frightening to them go away:
“I am stressed" signals (what behaviorists call fear displacement behaviors) can be wide-ranging:
Other signs of stress can be a loss of appetite, hyperactivity, acting jumpy/hyper-vigilant, or excessive sleeping or restlessness. If your dog shows these behaviors, you want to remove as many stressors as possible, remove any distractions or stimulants, and make your dog's environment as comfortable, quiet, and supportive as you can.
In kennels, shelter dogs may have had very different set-ups or walk routines for their potty needs, so it can take time to adjust to going outside, knowing where the doors are, what your signals and timing are with each other for their toilet routines.
Some dogs will get it in a flash, some take a bit longer. The key rule is keep it positive and reward generously the behavior you want to see! (You can see a step-by-step on potty training here in Dogly's New Pet Channel.)
This is what's sometimes called "learned helplessness," emotional shutdown when it's just all too much to process. It's not uncommon in dogs who are overwhelmed with fear or anxiety - dogs can look like they’re not doing anything but resting all the time. But they’re not resting, they’ve shut down emotionally.
If your dog is unresponsive to being talked to or touched, is guarded/stressed when being touched, reacts slowly or not at all, tries to hide his/her face, avoids eye contact and just tries not to be noticed, give your pup the space he/she needs to gradually begin to trust you and the environment.
With new dogs, it's important to take it slow. In order for their minds and bodies to relax and recharge from the stress of their experiences and transition, they need to sleep, rest, and be exposed to things gradually at their own pace.
If you know you have adopted a highly wary or fearful dog, when you first bring your dog into your home, slowly walk your pup through your house on a leash, using scatter feeds in each room to create positive associations.
Your pup has a lot of decompression to do, so make sure your dog walks are totally no pressure, at your dog's pace, and let your dog lead the way.
A slow sniffari or decompression walk will decrease your dog's stress levels, heart rate, and stimulate and fulfill your dog's instinctive curiosity.
Sniffing is central to who our dogs are and how they take in the world around them. Not just new dogs, but all dogs, need to sniff and have the opportunity to go on sniffaris regularly - it has a tremendous calming effect and simply makes our dogs happy!
Don’t force introductions with new people. There will be plenty of time later for everyone to meet your new dog! If your dog is already stressed or fearful, greeting someone who isn’t respectful with their boundaries or behaviors (a lot of people don't realize they aren't) is going to create negative associations for the future.
Simply be direct. Short and sweet. Tell the new person that this is a new dog and your pup needs his/her space. If they don’t respect that, walk away.
If you think your dog's food needs to be changed to something better, gradually over a few days or 1 week increase the new food and decrease the old food. Do the same with enrichment if you want to use food toys to feed your dog.
This is not the time to take your dog to the dog park. It is too much for your pup and is not how you properly socialize your dog. Going to the dog park can put your dog back into emotional stress mode and exacerbate underlying behavioral issues.
Slowly introduce your dog to other dogs with parallel walks when the time is right. To learn how to do parallel walks, check out my step-by step guide here.
Opening your heart and home to a rescue dog is a wonderful experience that will change your life and your dog’s life in beautiful ways. It's worth every bit of loving patience in the beginning (and always)!
Now that you know how to help your new dog settle in your home, continue on to the next guide to learn what to expect and do on the first day with your new rescue dog.
If you have any questions about acclimating your new dog as a happy member of your family, just ask in the community discussion in the New Pet Channel.
Or if you ever need more personalized dog training guidance, please reach out!
DISCLAIMER: The content of this website and community is based on the research, expertise, and views of each respective author. Information here is not intended to replace your one-on-one relationship with your veterinarian, but as a sharing of information and knowledge to help arm dog parents to make more informed choices. We encourage you to make health care decisions based on your research and in partnership with your vet. In cases of distress, medical issues, or emergency, always consult your veterinarian.