As a behaviour professional adopting a new dog, I decided to write a series on my own experiences to help people on a similar journey to 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. For Part 1 on Bringing a new dog into your home, read my first post in the series.
The opportunity to bring home a new companion is a huge highlight in many people’s lives, and most caregivers will remember their dog’s ‘gotcha day’ each year. Like many dogs, Baloo was adopted from a rescue group, with little history or background on what has happened to him in the first 12-18 months of life. Based on this, I consider I have a canvas that isn’t entirely blank – he has some learning history of how things work in a different environment to my home. He might have spent his first year of life learning it was okay to steal food off counter tops, or jumping up gets attention, or that if you sit and stare at someone you will get food. To him, it’s not bad or undesirable behaviour, it’s behaviour that works and gets an outcome he enjoys. In this article, I’ll be addressing how to change his perspective, and how to set up for success with a new adoptee while keeping your trust account with the dog intact. The three key things I focused on in Baloo’s first two days was management, relationship building and teaching foundation behaviour. The speed at which Baloo has learned new behaviour and how things work has been a wonder to watch.
While I can’t ask Baloo what behaviours he thinks work and pay off for him, I can set up his new environment to prevent access to common things dog’s do in new homes. It’s a bit unfair at times for a dog that might have learned that staring up at someone while they eat pays off with a tidbit of food, now gets them yelled at. Rather than always focusing on labeling the dog ‘naughty’, we need to acknowledge that there is prior learning of an action paying off (whether intentional or not, learned with you or with someone else). With this in mind, I can make my home the blank canvas, where he learns new things about how the world works.
A good majority of the first 72 hours in his new home, I have focused on management and prevention while implementing behaviours I do want. I thoughtfully provide reinforcement for good choices as I see them, and set him up to make good choices wherever possible. To put things into perspective, Baloo has come through several foster homes and a time in the pound, on day five of living here? I haven’t ever said ‘no!’.
Management in the first 48 – 72 hours
Baloo has stayed on lead by my side for the first two days. This prevents him roaming the house, and prevents mistakes from occurring. I use a waist leash/hands free leash (like this one) for convenience during this time – and I have him in a body harness (Balance Harness or you could use a regular back attach harness for inside tethering) to prevent any strain on his neck. Day two to three I start to have him off lead for short periods and encourage him to stay near by me playing, training or sleeping. There are lots of stuffed kongs and enrichment toys at this time. I supervise him going around the house to explore the first few rooms. Introduction to separate rooms of the house happens one at a time as he feels more comfortable in the house and doors to those rooms are closed when we don’t need to go in – for now. I can’t emphasise enough how important the on leash introduction to the house is.
Baby gates are an alternative/additional option to prevent access to new rooms (I’d still always use a leash on the first day), but this house has very wide arches and no standard door ways, so a lead is an easier management option in this case.
Spring clean and keep things tidy
While it seems like common sense, it helps to have a think about your house set up. Part of my job in the past has been inspecting people’s houses and yards for adoption approval or to be puppy raisers for service dog organisations. Sometimes the simplest things slip through the planning. Having a new dog in the house means you don’t set them up to fail by leaving things around that are magnets for chewing. You flip the picture and set them up for success by putting away things like children’s toys, tv remotes, packets of food etc. Tidy your kitchen and help your dog by not leaving food items on benches or low tables so they are not tempted to investigate. Put away all chemicals and keep doors closed to rooms the dog has no need to be in. I made sure to move pot plants out of Baloo’s way for the first couple of days, as I see it as an attraction for marking (our last adoptee lifted his leg on the clothes hamper in the bathroom when we were distracted for a moment and he wasn’t on lead). Pick up any cat litter trays and move them to a higher place and especially cat food that might be left out at a level dogs can access.
Marking and urination in the house
When a dog is feeling nervous, his or her stress cortisol levels are up, and for many individuals there are some predictable stress responses that will occur in a new environment – between individuals this will vary greatly. Many dogs (particularly male, neutered or entire), will lift their leg and urinate on things indoors in a new home. Call it whatever you like, scent marking/territory claiming/world domination, but what’s honestly going on is your dog isn’t sure of their new environment and increased urination/marking is at its most likely to happen in the first 72 hours. Preventing the marking in a new home will almost eliminate the chance of it happening in that house in the future (that has held true for all of the fosters and adoptee’s I have had). It’s different to toilet training, although not exclusive. You still need to ensure your toilet schedule is efficient for the first few days for a new dog (give very frequent opportunities outdoors and reward for success). Keeping your dog on leash with you, will prevent them sneaking off to mark on things in another room.
In my first post in Baloo’s blog series I outlined how important building a trust account with your new companion is. Deposits to a trust account include all of the training sessions where I teach him something new and reinforce him, when I give him rewards for good choices and as I start to get to a point where I can give him tactile pats and rubs which are enjoyable for him. But what else defines relationships and how we should approach our new dog?
Lets examine relationship and trust accounts from your dog’s perspective. One thing to consider is, you have just met your dog. I can tell you, that with all of my dog-loving heart I wanted to embrace Baloo and lather him with well-meaning gestures of love – ie kiss his head, pat him all over and rub his belly.
On the first day of class, had any of my teachers approached me and embraced me with (well-meaning) affection to welcome me to the class for the year, I would be somewhat hesitant and maybe even want to switch classes to avoid such unwelcomed closeness to a new person. Many people shy and freeze up at an aunt or uncle, or in-laws giving overzealous greetings when catching up at once yearly family gatherings. I always freeze up and feel physically uncomfortable when a big kiss is placed on each side of my face in a European greeting. For me, kissing faces is very invasive and is not how I feel comfortable greeting people I am not close to. When a family member who is close to me or a person in a relationship with attempts this, I welcome affection. The latter are humans I have formed a close trust account with.
In saying that, between those trusted family members who I enjoy the company of, there are limitations in the comfort levels of some interactions (you kiss a partner on the lips but not a parent!). Dogs feel exactly the same. We too often take for granted that dogs want our interactions. As renowned vet behaviourist Dr Ian Dunbar said, “to touch an animal is an earned privilege. It’s not a right.”
Baloo came to us with greetings of new people laden with appeasement gestures (here’s a quick video on body language). In the first two days, each time he came to greet one of us, his ears would pin back, his commissure (corners of mouth) were drawn right back and his eyes would squint, cowering his body into a smaller version of himself. From my observations he has likely had experience using these body language signals to avoid interactions with people he finds threatening or potentially threatening.
As I have been training him every day and working closely with him, the bank account with Baloo is a lot richer for me. We are at a stage now where, from observation, he is comfortable with me touching him anywhere, holding his paws and being affectionate. Here’s a great video of testing to see whether your dog is comfortable with physical interaction.
However, with some family members, he reverts to appeasing and licking at faces to increase distance because those more affectionate interactions are currently uncomfortable for him. If I bend into Baloo’s space, he is okay; but at the moment if other family members lean over his head, he pins his ears and asks for space. As his relationship with these family members develops over several weeks he will likely feel more at ease with these interactions. Although it is pertinent to remember some people just aren’t huge fans of a lot of tactile contact and that goes for dogs too (see another great video by Dog Charming on this topic).
I am not suggesting dogs should never be hugged or petted (though you should be aware of your dog always being allowed space from children). Some dogs will seek comfort in your affection and close contact, so what I am suggesting is that you are mindful of your dog’s body language and what their individual comfort levels are – keep these thoughts in mind with visitors interactions with your dog too! While it goes against every grain in my heart to try to be a little less hands on with a new dog, I have to respect that I wouldn’t want strangers all over me having just met. And, saying ‘but, he’s a dog!’ doesn’t cut it from your dog’s perspective. I want my dog to have a say in his friendship from the start.
One of the first things I tested Baloo on, was the common cue ‘sit’. Baloo stared at me blankly. A few times I said sit hopefully, he sat, and I went between thinking he might know it and I just didn’t know the right cue, to deciding he knew nothing. Sit is typically one of the easiest things I get to teach dogs. I have to admit, it took a little longer than expected with Baloo. He didn’t know any other cues. Once we got it, and I had started teaching a ‘nose target’ to my hand, his ‘learning light’ switched on and he has been surging forward with new skill acquisition since.
Baloo started learning his foundation skills on his first night. Training with a marker (clicker training), I introduced targeting to my hand, an eye contact ‘watch’, a chin rest on my hand and sit. Those few skills alone would compliment a lot of other bigger picture behaviours over the settling in period. Teaching new behaviours builds confidence, helps your bond grow and certainly makes managing your dog an easier task. The next post in this series will go into depth about his training in the first few days, but here is a video to show you day 2 and day 3 with me, and what he learned.
To summarise, managing a new dog in the first few days will help you develop a lasting relationship with your dog. The more opportunities to learn good behaviour, the better you will feel about your new companion and that bond will grow. Remember:
– Keep your new dog on lead for the first 48 – 72 hours (this is a key step)
– Use baby gates to block off rooms that have too many things to manage
– Put away all items that could be chewed
– Ensure all food is put away in the fridge or in a cupboard and not left on benches or low tables
– Plan to be home with your dog the first two days while they adjust to your home
– Build a really good relationship with your new companion before being to invasive with affection
– Start teaching foundation skills like ‘sit’, ‘down’ and eye contact ‘watch’ on the first few days (there are some good helping hints on Kikopup’s youtube channel)
I’ve successfully prevented unwanted behaviour being rehearsed, started teaching things I really like and I’m impressed with our training sessions so far. Finally, in my last post I explained that the first few days and weeks, treats will rain from the sky for Baloo. If he makes good choices, he will get reinforced. He can count on that.
Stay tuned for the next installment of my series on Baloo – introducing him to our other dogs, new people and the training journey. His training progress is inspiring to highlight shelter dog possibilities!
For more understanding of stress in canines, I recommend Stress in Dogs, Martina Scholz and Clarissa von Reinhardt, Dogwise Publishing, 2007.
Animal Behaviour Matters on Facebook
Animal Behaviour Matters on Instagram @animalbehaviourmatters
© Jade Fountain 2015