Adopting a new dog is an exciting time. As a behaviour professional, it is something I take seriously – I am usually on the other side of the picture, helping a family to make those adjustments in getting their new addition acclimatised to their household. Given I have the wonderful opportunity of thoughtfully planning a new arrival, I decided to write a series on my own new addition to hopefully help people on a similar journey to discovering and settling a new life friend. I hope I help those aspiring to get a new dog, to see how incredible a rescued dog can be, no matter what their background.
Finding your friend on the internet or in the shelter, reading about their personality and tendencies, as well as considering your needs is a big deal. Although it can seem easy for some, there are a lot of factors in finding the right dog when often little history is known about them. What is important to know is that you are engaging with a rescue group that has a good network of professional trainers and vets connected to it, who give sound, best practice and scientific behavioural advice about caring for the new addition to your family post-adoption. It is so important for rescue groups to invest in update-to-date behaviour and training knowledge to aid new guardians in their first steps. There is a plethora of harmful and outdated information available to new and seasoned dog guardians, but like any science, knowledge advances and evolves. More than any other consideration, the behaviour of your new family member will define how quickly they settle into the home and bond with you and ultimately lead to a successful adoption. Getting off to the right start is imperative, so don’t be afraid to hire a professional to help you over the first few weeks.
Whether your new dog is coming home from a stressful situation in a shelter, a well managed foster home or a rescue group, preparing for the new dog’s arrival is a big consideration and takes planning. Changing environments and losing all familiar attachments, coupled with an inability to speak our language – it can be hard to help a dog understand you are there to settle them into their forever home. It’s important to remember from the dog’s perspective, all of the faces in your home are brand new, the smells are overwhelmingly unfamiliar, the house setup and backyard structure is flipped upside down from what they have known and all of the things you have given them as welcome gifts are not yet ‘their’ things. They might also experience that niggling worry of bumping into walls looking for the bathroom at night, like any of us in a strange hotel or household. They might be uncertain of household appliances never before encountered or not understand some of their novel surroundings. For us, the only new thing we have to worry about getting to know about is our new companion.
During the first 48 to 72 hours (it varies) of change for animals, it is almost certain they will experience an increase in stress cortisol hormones kicking around their bloodstream (check out this great article on stress in dogs). That means they are more sensitive to triggers that may not normally bother them and they may take longer to settle, not exhibiting their normal baseline level of behaviour. Sometimes this bottled up stress can lead to a newly adopted dog being completely over exuberant and boisterous upon arrival home, while sometimes it can mean a dog will be shut down and under confident – it depends on the dog’s coping mechanisms. I will definitely take this into account by planning to keep my new dog’s home coming a quiet affair, with no visitors for the first few days, plenty of treats to build good associations and setting his environment up as best I can to help him settle.
Setting the scene
Typically a family will bring a new dog home, set them loose in the house to explore and may follow them around the house chastising or reprimanding them as they make mistakes, and do dog things that aren’t welcome, or their current dog wouldn’t dare do. “Don’t jump on the bench! No! Get out of the bin! Ugh get away from the cat! No! Stop! Bad!”. This can quickly spiral into a constant stream of criticism of the dog’s behaviour, frustration and regret that cause you to question your adoption decision, and worst of all – the dog can be scared, anxious or nervous of you in the very first few days. This doesn’t set up a very fair scene or safe learning environment for your new friend. The best thing you can do for your new canine companion is avoid any reprimands (I’ll get to that shortly), and instead, focus on setting your house up very well to prevent unwanted behaviour. This might mean setting up baby gates or barriers to prevent access to rooms that aren’t suitable for a dog learning about his or her environment (kid’s room, kitchen etc.), and planning to shut doors of rooms that are agreed off limits – at least in the first few days of your dog’s arrival. It also means putting anything unsafe out of reach or behind cupboard doors, and remembering not to leave edible items in the dog’s reach.
After months of searching, I’d found my new addition, a male Australian cattle dog named Blu (we changed it to Baloo after the bear in The Jungle Book), and I prepared to drive thirteen hours (round trip) to collect him.
Three days before I had arranged to pick up the new addition, I plugged in an ADAPTIL diffuser in the living room. ADAPTIL is a product that utilises synthetic canine pheromones to aid in reducing anxiety and stress in dogs – it is a good tool to consider using for anxious dogs, and dogs settling into a new environment or moving house. Plugging them in in advance allows the pheromones to permeate the room ready for the dog’s arrival. I also downloaded Through a Dogs Ear (TADE) onto my phone ready for the long car ride. TADE is a music compilation made specifically for dogs, studies in shelters have shown it can reduce stress levels and increase restful behaviour. Many clients benefit from playing this when they leave their dogs alone, during storms and/or fireworks events (keep in mind a professional may need to be called in to aid with serious behaviour problems and should not be substituted by products).
Bringing him home
On Thursday morning I set up the back seat of my car with a cushy towel, a pigs ear, a seat belt strap, checked Through a Dogs Ear canine relaxation music was ready on my music playlist and placed a cooler bag stuffed with roast chicken and cabana on my front seat. I filled my treat pouch with high value food goodies (not for me!) and drove several hours up the East coast to go and meet my new training partner and adopt him into the family. It’s a bit like a first date; you’ve seen the pictures but you have no idea how it will actually turn out. Baloo was clearly a sweet, affectionate dog who liked to be with people; he had been in care with a lovely foster carer for a couple of weeks. Prior to that temporary home, there is a big gap in his origin, apart from having come from a pound where no-one had ever come for him. It was fortunate for him he ended up with a rescue group. He was comfortable meeting me, with only a small amount of uncertainty – I made sure our first meeting was sealed with roast chicken in exchange for polite greetings (four paws on the floor) and to ensure his first associations with me were pretty darn good. Baloo rolled across his adoption papers as I signed them, making good work of my hand writing.
When we drove off in the car, Baloo understandably commenced whining and was panting quite heavily – stress that is to be expected when you have found yourself in an unfamiliar car with unfamiliar people. I spent the first ten minutes tossing small sized treats into the back seat with him, and was pleased to see he was choosing to eat (not eating can be a sign of stress).
I switched on Through a Dogs Ear as we went along. Having used TADE before with clients and extensively in shelters to reduce stress, I had seen the effectiveness of playing the music for dogs in a variety of scenarios. Within a minute of turning on the music, Baloo’s panting eased and he lay down with his head on the car seat. Shortly after, he fell asleep for the long drive. It was a smooth journey, with him choosing to sleep through until we made it to our long dirt driveway, with only one quick stop to refuel and toilet him along the way.
Building trust accounts
I was excited to have opened a trust account with this dog. Every interaction I would have with him, that he viewed as a positive experience, would mean a deposit into the trust account. When we consider thoughtful use of catching good behaviour, giving constant feedback to let him know he is doing what we do want him to do – we give a picture of what it looks like to behave in our human world, while building up that balance of trust.
The alternative to making deposits into that account, is if the introduction of your new dog to the environment isn’t properly planned. It can mean some new dog guardians spend the first few days following the dog around reprimanding them for every mistake they make, subsequently making constant withdrawals from a trust bank account that hasn’t even had any deposits made into it. If things aren’t well planned, there are a lot of ‘mistakes’ to make in a brand new house, with new smells and things to explore. If you make enough withdrawals (reprimanding), you run a high risk of a bankrupt balance with your trust account. And you’ve only just met your dog.
I choose to seek out ways to build a trust account at every opportunity so I have a responsive, well adapted dog who gets how things work and wants to be around me. When I see him making a good choice (like sitting to greet, as jumping hasn’t paid off at all – no attention), or I see him use self control when he wants something, or move out of our current dogs’ way – I reward him. I am constantly on the look out to say ‘Hey, good choice, buddy!’ to my dog, meaning that Baloo will seek out more and more of those good choices, and they become habit.
This dog must wonder why food suddenly rains from the sky and he could get something tasty at any moment – probably this has never happened to him before. I know I’d love a place where I was handed compliments, $5 notes and my favourite treat every time I made a good decision. And yes, I am unashamedly heavy on the reinforcements in the first few weeks. Good behaviour costs rewards. Good behaviour is an investment. Kibble and home made low-calorie treats are cheaper than replacing broken items, or the expense of a professional later down the track to fix ingrained, unwanted habits.
From the first day, I had planned to monitor his food and divide his daily rations out between my training pouch to teach new behaviours and reinforce good choices, stuffed in a Kong or similar stuffable treat dispensing toy (I’d have to teach him how to use it first!) and a small amount reserved for additional enrichment toy feeding sessions (more on this later). The majority of his daily diet would come from my treat pouch – for all those good choices I was going to set him up for. If the idea of throwing out a food bowl, and only giving the daily food intake in exchange for great behaviour makes you slightly uncomfortable – read up on contrafreeloading. As renowned behaviour expert and author Kathy Sdao said, ‘when you got the dog, you knew you were going to feed him every day’; we planned on feeding our dogs 365 days a year when we adopted them, so feeding them for good behaviour is no different. To feed from a bowl would be to waste catching those opportunities and reinforcing them.
If you set up your new dog’s world to prevent unwanted behaviour happening, and are armed ready to provide positive reinforcement for good choices they make – this will lead to a very good outcome of all those things you did want your new dog to do.
Stay tuned for the next installment of my series on Baloo – introducing him to our other dogs and the training journey. His training progress is inspiring to highlight shelter dog possibilities!
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© Jade Fountain 2015