There’s nothing more exciting than adding a fuzzy member to your family. But for most of us, logic goes out the window on seeing that new puppy’s face, or being kissed by that grateful rescue dog. We act before we think. Advance planning may seem unnecessary when you’re in love, but thinking ahead about your new dog’s transition into your home can make a huge difference to his comfort and your future relationship with him. Despite how blissful the first days may seem to you, it takes weeks for a puppy to adapt to his household, and up to six months for a rescued adult to feel truly confident about his new surroundings. Here are a few basic ways you can make your new arrival feel comfortable and confident more quickly – and make your life easier:
Find a good puppy kindergarten class, or basic manners class, before you get the dog. The better classes often have waiting lists, so check out your options ahead of time. Class time is important for bonding and critical for socializing young puppies. You’ll do well to get going with one before you start having behavior problems. Choose classes that use only positive reinforcement and no punishments – like choke or pinch collars, leash corrections or harsh words. Check that the trainers have studied in a qualified school and been tested and as professional dog trainers. Like human schoolteachers, dog trainers should be skilled professionals. They also should not be employed in a place where they earn commissions on selling you collars, leashes or food.
Decide where your new friend will rest and sleep. A new canine friend is lots of fun, but if he’s untrained and given too much freedom right away, he’s going to make bad choices. In that way he’s just like a human toddler. If you’re lucky, he will just tear up your favorite cushion. But he may also engage in dangerous behavior – chewing cords, eating clothing, destroying woodwork. Allowing too much freedom too soon is risky parenting and puts you in the role of the Fun Police, setting your training back light years. Your best bet? Before you bring him home, set up defined spaces for him to chill when you can’t watch him closely and when you leave the house. A crate is the safest and kindest sleeping place available for most dogs and all puppies. To a dog, being in a crate is a haven from well-meaning guests and overactive children. As long as you make the crate a positive place to be (with treats and toys, food and water), and not a punishment place, your pup will learn to love it. Choose a place near your main living space, and another in your bedroom for overnight sleeping. In addition to a crate, you can set up one or more Safe Zones in your main living space using baby gates or an exercise pen. Your dog can relax there with toys and water at times when you can’t watch him closely – when you’re cooking or eating dinner for instance. Crates and zones prevent make everyone’s life calmer and safer. Having a safe place for your new buddy to rest while you can’t attend to him will make the difference between a relaxed home and a chaotic and dangerous one. Here’s a great video to help you get started with crate and zone training.
Set up a schedule. Having a dependable daily routine is very important to a dog in transition. A regular schedule helps him feel more secure about his new life. It also helps him eat and eliminate more normally. Your new dog’s care can be a shared responsibility among all family members, but remember that everyone needs to agree about who will do what. And don’t forget to plan how the new arrival will get regular play and exercise. A tired puppy is a good puppy.
Make introductions to your resident dog safe. Is there another dog in your household? If so, keep introductions safe and easy. At first, your resident dog may not find the newcomer as appealing as you do, and the new dog will feel out of place. That’s a recipe for bickering and a permanently poisoned relationship. The more you can prevent bad feelings between the two dogs in the first weeks and months, the more likely they will feel comfortable together in the long run. Dogs who seem fine with each other after a day or two are nowhere near ready to be left alone together. Rushing relationships can lead to fights, injuries and heartbreak.
Start introductions in a neutral place, away from your home or yard. Go slow and easy. At first both animals should be on leash and allowed to see each other at a distance. Walk both dogs in parallel, perhaps on opposite sides of the street. If there is hostility or lunging by either dog, they are too close together. Create more distance. Keep these “pack walks” short and sweet, and offer plenty of treats to both dogs to keep the experience happy. Walk cheerfully forward and ignore hesitancy on their part. Offer both dogs treats. Let them learn to accept each other – or calm down – without your intervention. Avoid correcting either dog for staring or barking. This can make the scolded dog dislike the other one. HEY, WHENEVER YOU’RE AROUND, I GET YELLED AT! I DON’T LIKE YOU! It will upset both of them, too. Above all, avoid nose-to-nose play for many walks, no matter how well things seem to be going. Good manners do not equal friendship. Relationship- and trust-building take time.
Inside the house, keep a barrier between the dogs – a baby gate works well. You may find that a piece of board or other visual barrier prevents stare downs and keeps the energy level a little lower. With time, the barrier may not be needed. Be sure to reward both dogs with treats and quiet praise when they are being calm. If there are hostilities, don’t punish. You are moving too fast. Increase the distance between the dogs.
Above all, resist the temptation to “just let them play together.” Many dogs end up in rescue because they start fighting with their housemate, most often because introductions were hurried. The dogs became anxious and got into a squabble and then couldn’t trust each other. Don’t let that happen to your friends. Go slow and be a safe parent, and nine times out of ten they’ll become friends at their own pace. That’s worth the investment, right?
Use special precautions with cats. If there are cats in your household, special protections are a must. Cats look like prey to many dogs. Make sure your kitty has his own area, away from the dog, and that he can get to it safely at all times. This place could possibly be a bathroom or laundry area. It should have her cat food, a litter box and a comfortable sleeping place. There are good hook systems for doors that allow a cat through the door, but not a dog. Also check that there are safe spots around the house where Fluffy can rest, out of the dog’s reach. Give the dog treats when he sees the kitty, so he realizes the she predicts good things. When you allow your dog to meet Fluffy, attach a drag line (leash with no loop to catch on furniture) to his collar. This will give you a safe way to hold him if you need to. Always be kind to your dog, even if he gets anxious or enthusiastic around the cat. At all costs, avoid scolding him for his excitement, or he will learn to hate Fluffy. That’s not going to help! Instead, separate them quietly and be patient with introductions.
Feed your dog out of your pocket when training, or in his crate when you go out. In nature, dogs work for their meals – they hunt. When you’re training, you can give your dog a little of that hunting experience by asking him to work for some or all of his regular kibble. Simply measure out his normal portion, and let him earn it out of your pocket, piece at a time, as training treats. You can ask him to do things like sit or lie down, or simply reward him for calm behavior. Working for his meals will help him learn to focus on you and become a better listener. When crating your dog, consider offering him food-dispensing puzzle toys (e.g., stuffed Kong®, Chew BallTM). You’ll be helping him to develop positive feelings about his crate and prevent boredom. Tip: If you give long-lasting chew treats or a food puzzle to him as you’re leaving the house, he’ll feel less concerned about being by himself.