Last updated: June 26, 2021. Originally published October 18, 2011
It’s October! You know what that means. The holiday season is approaching. The weather’s getting colder or warmer, depending on your hemisphere. Basketball season is starting. It’s National Pork Month.
But all of that pales in comparison to the REAL significance of October:
Adopt a Shelter Dog Month! If you want to join in on all the fun and add a pre-owned dog to your life, make sure you do your research first. Adopting a dog is a big commitment and you don’t want to end up with the wrong one. Check out all our free resources on picking the right dog for you.
But what about once you’ve done all that research? What about when you’ve brought the perfect dog home? What about when said dog is wandering aimlessly around your living room and the big question on your mind is, “what the hell happens now?”
So for you, my overwhelmed yet enthusiastic friend, I present a crash course in adopted dog ownership:
Let your new buddy decompress
Unless you’ve adopted a brand new puppy, your dog had a life before you found him. Sometimes this was a good life, sometimes… not so much. But no matter his history, he’s just gone through a huge upheaval. He was taken from the life he knew, suffered the craptastic experience of living in a shelter, and now he’s in a new home with people he doesn’t know. He doesn’t even know that this is his permanent home and he’s here to stay.
He’s gonna need some time to adjust. Many dogs will have no trouble and will embrace their new life with open arms, but others may take a while to get situated. Fido may be pretty reserved and quiet for a few days. He may cling to your side 24/7. Some dogs may even be afraid of you or your other family members.
Whatever his reaction, your job is to help him move on. Provide Fido with a stable daily routine to help him get settled. Start training early to teach him what is expected of him, and to help establish good communications. Be patient and understanding, and Fido will come around. Many dogs don’t show their true personalities until a few weeks after adoption, once they’ve gotten comfortable.
The “What The **** Was I Thinking?!” phase
I’m going to take a totally unscientific guess and say that 80% of new dog owners go through this phase. Regardless of whether they’ve adopted a shelter dog or bought a new puppy. It seems that no amount of planning and research really prepares people for the reality of dog ownership.
The doubts usually set in a few days after Fido comes home.
You might start to think that this is way more work than you were expecting. You might be surprised by the amount of attention that your new dog both gives and demands. You might be put off by the disruption that having a new pet brings to your family. You might be afraid that you’re doing everything wrong. However the doubt manifests, it’s normal. I went through it with each of the three lost dogs. My family almost returned baby Friday to the shelter.
The best advice is to wait it out. Breathe. Relax. Have fun. You and Fido will adjust to each other, but it does take a while. In the meantime, continue to educate yourself on proper dog care and training. The first couple months are the best time to train, as you want to establish good habits and prevent bad ones right off the bat.
Overwhelmed? Here’s what to do first
1. Start house training as soon as your new dog walks in the door.
Fido’s first stop should be his designated bathroom area. If he goes, praise him and offer a treat (I know it’s weird. You’ll get used to a lot of weird as a dog owner). When you bring him inside, watch him like a hawk to prevent any accidents from happening. If you’re crate training, introduce him to the crate on day one.
For detailed instructions and troubleshooting help, check out our House Training Course.
2. Acquire the proper ID.
Don’t want Fido becoming a lost dog again. Get a tag with your phone number and attach it securely to his collar. Figure out what the dog licensing laws are for your area and make sure Fido is law-abiding. If you haven’t already, get him microchipped at your vet or shelter. This costs about $25, and it’s your best shot at being reunited with your dog if he ever gets lost.
3. Figure out a basic daily routine.
Dogs thrive on routine. Routines make house training and getting settled easier. You don’t need a detailed schedule, but decide on times for feeding, walking and bathroom breaks and stick with ‘em every day.
4. Teach your dog his new name.
This one’s pretty easy. You want Fido to associate his name with good things, so say his name before you offer treats, dinner, toys, petting, or walks.
How to feed your dog
Fill food bowl. Place on floor in front of dog. Done. What? You want DETAILS? Psht. You guys are so demanding.
If you know what the shelter/rescue was feeding Fido, stick with the same food for a while to prevent stomach upsets. If you want to change foods, you can do so gradually after a couple weeks.
Leaving food out for Fido to pick at may exacerbate resource guarding behavior, it makes food-based training harder, makes house training harder, it leads to boredom, causes global warming… etc. Instead, feed your dog meals two or three times per day. Pick up anything not eaten after 30 minutes.
Better yet, feed your dog out of Kongs or other treat-dispensing toys. These help keep your dog occupied (and therefore out of trouble) longer, and provide some of the enrichment they need to be happy and healthy.
Should I feed my dog homemade food?
You’ve probably heard about various raw or home cooked diets. You may have heard that homemade is healthier, that pet food companies are evil… blah blah blah. Whatever. Don’t worry about any of that just yet.
Don’t get me wrong, I think homemade diets can be great! But when you’re a brand new dog owner, it’s just one more overly-complicated thing to worry about. Buy a good quality commercial food and carry on learning how to properly raise your pup. After the craziness has worn off and you are getting along nicely with your dog, feel free to look into home cookin’.
What about crate training? Is it worth it?
The short answer is yes. In most cases, crate training is a huge help.
- It makes house training easier. When properly trained, a dog will treat the crate as their “bedroom,” and nobody wants to soil their bedroom.
- Use it to prevent Fido from getting into trouble until he knows the rules of the house.
- Many dogs love having a cozy space to retreat to when life gets stressful. My dogs are way past the stage where they need the crate for training. But they each have one, and they use them all the time. Merlin is napping in his crate as I type this.
Make purchasing a crate a priority. Get one made out of plastic or wire. The crate should be just big enough for the dog to stand up, lie down and turn around comfortably.
How to begin crate training
Step one: Start by opening the door of the crate and letting your dog investigate. Toss really good treats inside. Praise him when he goes inside to get the goodies. Don’t force him to go in and do not close the door behind him.
Step two: Leaving the crate door open all day. Keep randomly placing food and toys into the back of the crate. Fido will catch on to this game and start to see the crate as a magical portal from which good things mysteriously come.
Step three: Once Fido is confidently going in and out of the crate, you can start closing the door behind him. Always open it before he gets anxious.
What about the other cases?
For a few dogs who, in their former lives, were kept crated too much (puppy mill dogs, for example), crates may not help. If a dog is forced to eliminate in their crate, they can develop a habit of soiling their bed that is very hard to break. For these dogs, try creating a pen instead. You can use an exercise pen or use baby gates to block off a dog-proof area like the kitchen or bathroom. Put a bed in one corner and pee pads in the other.
How to build a strong relationship
As Suzanne Clothier wrote in her book Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening our Relationships with Dogs (a book you really should read, by the way), there is no step-by-step formula for building a strong bond with your dog. It’s more of a trial-and-error, grand adventure type deal. These tips can help, though:
Use positive, humane training.
Modern training methods are based on setting the dog up for success and showing him exactly how to behave, rather than endlessly correcting bad behavior. As a result, training becomes fun, rather than a chore. Training new tricks is a great way to improve your relationship with your dog.
Make sure everyone in your home is on the same page as far as household rules go. If some people let the dog on the couch but others don’t, Fido’s gonna start his new life very confused.
For training, figure out ahead of time what voice/hand signals you’ll use and the exact behavior you want the dog to perform. Concentrate on delivering your cues clearly. Use the same cues every time.
Be consistent and flexible? Sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. This whole adventure is a learning experience. You’ll learn better ways of doing things and you’ll discard old ways. If something isn’t working, it’s okay to change the rules sometimes.
Not every training technique works for every dog. There are, for example, about a dozen ways to teach a dog to lie down. If one method isn’t working, try another.
Listen to what your dog is saying.
Learn your dog’s body language. Figure out what his habits, interests and fears are. If Fido tells you he can’t do something, or he’s afraid of something, listen. Don’t force him into situations that make him uncomfortable. On that note:
Stand up for your dog.
On your grand adventure, you’ll encounter many people who want to interact with your dog. If Fido loves people, that’s fine. But if Fido is wary, it’s okay to (politely) tell people to back off.
If you work with trainers, just remember that not all trainers are created equal. Some still use methods that are harsh and outdated. Don’t let anyone bully your dog.
Bottom line, building a relationship is not about becoming the “pack leader” or anything. It’s about establishing yourself as trustworthy and reliable. Someone Fido can count on to be there when he needs guidance or reassurance. It’s about being fun, having fun, and being someone your dog wants to be with.
See also: 14 Ways to Get Your New Dog to Trust, Love, and Respect You