I got a rescue dog.

Now what?

When you adopt a dog from a shelter, foster home, or other rescue organization, you give that dog another chance to live the happy life it deserves. It could even be said that you are giving the gift of life itself.

Along with taking on the responsibility of caring for a dog, however, you must also take on the burden of the life the dog had before it was rescued. Sometimes dogs are given up by their owners due to a change in lifestyle or incompatible behavior issues; sometimes a dog never had a proper home. We can't always know the history, so it will take a lot of patience and a lot of time for a rescued dog to feel truly at home.

HOUSETRAINING

By beginning training immediately, routines and boundaries can be better established. If the dog isn't already housebroken, you may want to begin his new life by spending most of it in the kitchen, where it's easier to clean up messes. Be sure to dog-proof any area of the house the dog will be able to access. (For more on this, see our article "Essential Items to Dog-Proof Your Home.") Begin feeding the dog at the same time and place every day, and have its bed or crate ready to sleep in the first night. (It will also help to carry over any routines or familiar objects from the shelter or foster home – food, toys, bed, etc.)

When you bring any dog into your home, it's important to enforce the hierarchy of the household. Dogs are pack animals by nature, and must learn to defer to the human in charge, rather than the other way around. If he knows that there is a leader, he won't instinctively take on the role of alpha dog. This is especially important for a rescue dog that may never have had any kind of stabile life. Why should he get used to living with you if he expects to be shunted off somewhere else at any moment? As the dog learns to trust his new masters, he'll literally feel more at home, and any anxious or aggressive behavior will tail off.

One way to assert yourself as the leader of your dog's new pack is to "go first." Take the lead when entering or leaving the house, and walk ahead of the dog when you're out together. This will show the dog who is in charge, and by not being in the role of the alpha dog, your dog will also not feel the pressure to lead, watch over, and protect the rest of his new pack.

SOCIALIZATION

Naturally you'll want to show off your new family member right away, but keep in mind that the dog will not react well to too much excitement. Trainers call the first two to three weeks in a new home "the detox period." Here it's important to simply spend time with the dog, one on one, so he can build a trust with you. Lots of long walks and exercise will help too, as tired dogs tend to be less anxious and fearful.

Dogs are individuals, and if yours turns out to be outgoing, then socialization maybe easier, but a more fearful or shy dog will take more time. It's essential that you build a trust before attempting any kind of outings so your dog has someone to look up to. Try not to overwhelm him with socialization and tons of people until he learns his new routine and builds that trust in you. Avoid large gatherings, like town events, carnivals, fairs, farmers' markets, even places where people bring their dogs.

The more one-on-one time you can have with the dog will make him more comfortable around you, and that will help ease introductions to new people. Keep visits as calm and as brief as possible, and as soon as the dog starts to act out aggressively, cut it short.

It's also easy to be over-affectionate with the four-legged fuzzball, but what we see as affection is often interpreted by the dog as invasive. When your dog is ready to be enveloped in your arms and smothered with kisses, you'll know!

CONSISTENCY

As you're establishing routines, it's important to be consistent. Everyone in the house should use the same words for "walk," "sit," "down," "off," and so forth. Keep in mind that while your dog learns your household words, other words or objects may trigger some reaction from his life before you, which is why it's important to get into routines as soon as possible.

If you're still having trouble, ask for help. The shelter from where you rescued your dog will have lots of experience with transitions, and can recommend resources. If the shelter isn't local, talk to your veterinarian or pet supply store. The best trainers will emphasize positive reinforcement, and work with you to help you both understand your dog and learn how to communicate on the dog's level. They'll also tell you the two most important things about training your dog: time and patience.

You've done a wonderful thing by rescuing a dog. Here's to a great new life together!

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  • Published:
  • Updated: 10/10/2019: 1:38:15 PM ET