I’ve finally come back to this after a couple of weeks–hopefully the post will be the better for the delay.
So, hopefully, you’ve made the right decision to adopt a dog. You’ve found the right dog, and you have a good support system set up to help you get through the transitional period. You’re finally to the point that you’re staring at a dog who is, somewhat mysteriously, YOURS now.
What do you DO?
I would say the very first thing you do, and I’ve done this even on my way home from the shelter if I see the opportunity, is you go for a very very long walk. Choose a venue that’s not busy, and don’t go to the dog park. A good easy hike or big field is best.
And then you put the leash on and walk.
Choose ONE rule to enforce. You’re not looking for a perfect heel or a good sit or anything like that. Just “don’t get too far ahead of me” would be good.
Make sure your pockets are full of treats, good ones, and hand them out liberally. Every time the dog makes an attempt to be with you, chooses to come over, tries to communicate, or bumps your hand, give her a treat.
Now just walk. Walk until you are both tired. Walk until the dog settles in, puts her head down, and steadily moves forward. Look for her to engage her brain and her nose, to find a rhythm with you. Walk until she stops pulling.
And then find a place on the ground and sit down. Come prepared for this with a groundcloth or something if the weather is cool. Sit and wait. This is very tough, because you can’t influence this moment. But, if you are very still, very calm, don’t look right at her, she will come and share your stillness.
Some dogs will go so far as to lie beside or on top of you–that’s good, even great, but make sure that the moment ends with both of you very quiet and calm.
Some dogs will need to lie down apart from you a little ways. That’s fine too. Just be quiet, listen to her breathe, and wait for her to heave a big sigh and completely relax.
And then wait a moment and walk back to the car or back home.
This all sounds very new-agey, I know, and that’s unfortunate because it’s really not. It’s a tremendously challenging mental effort for the dog. Just that one walk can radically change the mindset of a traumatized or shy dog.
It’s so important because you are saying to the dog, in the only way the dog can understand:
I am part of your pack. I am vital to your life. We hunt together. I am predictable and strong.
I control the food, and I can bring you great happiness when you seek me out.
I have a quiet soul. Please have a quiet soul with me.
Hopefully you end the walk with a greater and deeper relationship with the dog–you need to move from “I saved you” to “I respect you and enjoy you.” And from “I feel sorry for you” to “You are powerful, and together we are a force to be reckoned with.”
And, I hope, you end with a feeling of great empowerment.
Because you’re going to need it.
It is pretty much the rule that for the first 30 days of a dog being in your home, you’re going to see far less of the dog himself and a lot more of the emotions the dog is feeling about being displaced. For some dogs that means they’re on their very best behavior, perfect dogs, and you can be lulled into thinking that this is an effortless thing. For MANY dogs, it means they are going to test you in every way and at every moment. So hold on to that calm empowerment and use it, renew it, be calm and be positive.
One extremely important thing to do when you bring your new dog in is to be absolutely clear on the rules of the house from the beginning, and to be precise and consistent throughout the dog’s day. Don’t waste even a single moment being sorry for the dog and–whatever you do–don’t make the rules for day 1 different from the rules for day 300.
This is what the dog NEEDS. Dogs do NOT need us to mirror their sadness or their trauma. That may work for a friend who needs a shoulder to cry on, but it only builds and amplifies the bad emotions for a dog. Dogs need to find a solid, predictable, proactive owner who makes decisions for them.
So, for example, when you bring him in from the outside, since he’s tired from that good long walk (right? DON’T SKIP THE WALK!), bring him to his bed beside the couch and tell him to lie down while you watch TV. And then make him do it. Don’t get physical or force him; he should be eager to lie down and then you just gently put your foot on his leash. This can be a ten-second exercise–your goal is not to make him do a 30-minute down from the day he arrives–but it needs to be a clear message that you control his movements.
Make him sleep in his crate (in your room is best, because you want the bonding that comes from sleeping together as a pack) from the first night.
Begin “wait” at the door, “sit” for a treat, “down” before food, etc., RIGHT AWAY.
You can modify this however you’d like, but the basic philosophy is “Our house is a house of order, predictability, and calm. Your life of chaos is over.”
By the way, this has to apply to other family members and kids as well. If you are trying to maintain predictable circumstances and they’re sticking their fingers in the dog’s eye, the dog is going to react badly to them and, I am not kidding on this one, I’m on the dog’s side. It’s YOUR job to control them so the dog can live a safe and calm life. If you can’t, this is not the time to get a dog. PERIOD.
So first, calm rules. Next, EXERCISE. Immediately. You’ve got to get the dog exhausted at least once a day, every day, doing stuff that involves running or walking in a straight line. That means that yard play is going to be suitable for only the very smallest of dogs. If you’ve adopted a Pomeranian, this could be throwing a rolled-up sock for her in a large fenced-in yard for 20 minutes. If you’ve adopted a Malamute, this is a five-mile jog. This goes right back to why choosing the RIGHT dog is so important. If you are a runner, you’re going to be very unhappy trying to get a Shih Tzu to keep up with you. If you’re house-bound, you will make a Weimaraner neurotic and destructive and hopeless.
Whatever it is that you do, you’ve got to do it every day, and you’ve got to do it until the dog is asking to lie down and sleep.
You can give yourself a day off, by the way, by getting involved in a good training class (training is usually very mentally exhausting) and by taking advantage of a good dog daycare program. As with other exercise, the suitable dog daycare is going to depend on the breed and size and age. If you adopted a six-year-old dachshund, a daycare that uses one large room may be OK. If you adopted a Brittany Spaniel, you need to find one that has a 3/4 acre field and tons of room to stretch out. Be savvy about the facilitator, too. A good program works hard to keep everybody rolling through their day with minimal conflicts. If you find someone who thinks it’s cute that the dogs fight as soon as they get in the room, it’s not a good bet.
And that’s basically it–enforce the rules, feed the dog well, love the dog, groom the dog, ALWAYS exercise the dog. Dogs are more than willing to come half-way if you put forth that effort.
And do not forget to take the first 30 days with a grain of salt. Don’t read too much into anything; set and enforce the rules, and don’t panic. Get that support system up and running, read everything you can get your hands on, and go sit in a field with your dog at least once a week. And pretty soon she will be YOUR DOG.
Which is a magical thing indeed.