Carolyn Menteith is a behaviourist here at tails.com with over 25 years of experience working with and training dogs.
While no one can deny the joys of a new puppy, there is no doubt they are hard work and require time, patience and an inexhaustible sense of humour! A puppy needs constant vigilance and attention to ensure they grow up healthy, happy and well-balanced – often more than people can give in their busy lives – and so for many, the perfect solution is to go to a rescue centre and give a dog a much-needed second chance.
The big advantage of a rescue dog is that unlike a puppy, what you see is what you get… You know exactly what size they will be, how hairy, what training they might have had in the past – and if you are lucky and their background is known, you will have other information – such as if they ever lived with children, or cats, if they are toilet trained – and you will have an idea of what their personality and temperament is.
I say ‘an idea’ because how a dog behaves in the uncertain environment of a rescue centre and how they may behave at home when relaxed and more confident, can be different but you will have hints and clues – and the staff who have been looking after the dog will be able to give you much more information here too.
How to help your rescue dog settle into their new home
The key – like so many things to do with dogs – is to look at things from the dog’s point of view and not your own.
While you know that you have rescued this dog and are taking them home to safety, security and comfort, the dog doesn’t know this. For them, this is just another change, more strange people, an unfamiliar place, and even more stress. They don’t know you, don’t know their new home and most importantly, don’t yet feel safe.
This is something they need to learn in time and through positive experiences but far too many new owners somehow expect the dog to be ‘grateful’ that they’ve been rescued and expect far too much way too soon. While you may not want to admit it, coming home with you may be even more stressful to start with than life at the rescue centre they have just left– because you and your family want to interact with them and handle them, you expect them to behave in certain ways, have guidelines and rules that the dog doesn’t know – and put pressure on them to fit into a life and a family they don’t yet understand.
As soon as you recognise this, you can make their homecoming far easier, help them settle in much quicker, and have the rescue dog of your dreams before you know it.
In the first few days don’t expect anything. Let them take their time to explore the house – limiting them to a couple of rooms at a time so it’s not overwhelming and they can get used to the noises, smells, sights and rhythms of the house in their own time.
Keep all handling, games and training to a minimum – and make sure all interactions are the dog’s idea. Do not force them to interact with you or put them in positions where they feel they can’t escape from any contact or handling. Let them make their own choices as to when they think you are a safe person to interact with.
Remember the 5 Second Rule of Consent. If the dog approaches you to interact, quietly stroke or rub them in ‘safe spots’ (under chest, along the side of shoulder, possibly a light scratch at the base of the tail) – but for 5 seconds only. Then stop. If they push against you for more or don’t move away, you have consent to continue – for another 5 seconds.
Repeat this – always for 5 seconds at a time – stopping your interaction if the dog tries to move away or looks at all uncomfortable. By doing this, you are teaching your rescue dog that your hands are good things and that you, and contact from you, is safe and can be trusted. Make sure you teach any children in the household the same thing – and supervise all contact. By doing this you will find your dog is more likely to initiate contact and start to enjoy it without feeling pressurised.
While you should be keeping training to a minimum in these early days, this is a good time to teach them their name and a Watch Me – as these are both exercises that will help your training in the future but that will also help build a bond between you and your dog faster.
Do not expect your new dog to understand where the toilet is! Start toilet training exactly as you would a puppy – even if you think they may already be toilet trained – taking them out every hour and rewarding them every time for toileting in the right place. In these early days they don’t know you and have not yet learnt to trust your hands and so reward should be a tasty treat dropped on the floor. Taking food from your hand or any kind of physical contact may be less positive than you think right now!
Every single dog is different – and every single rescue dog is different depending on their experiences. Some dogs will settle in a week or two, while others will take months. The secret is to take is slowly – and always be guided by your dog.
As your dog settles in, you can begin to relax a little more and give them new experiences. Do keep in mind all the time how they are feeling and recognise signs that the dog is getting a little overwhelmed or stressed.
Expect your rescue dog to take up to six months to settle into their new life. Anything faster is a bonus but building trust and a strong relationship takes time.