Bringing Home a Rescue Dog: 8 critical things you must know

I heard something about bringing home a rescue dog this week that made me pause and think. An animal behaviorist I was meeting with said that when a rescue dog arrives in a new home, they need to be protected not tested. 

“They need to be protected, not tested.”  

I thought back to every rescue and foster dog I have brought home.  

Had I tested them those first few days, right off the bat? Or had I protected them, giving them relief from outside stimuli and time to decompress and start to feel safe? 

I like to think that I have done an OK job at helping the dog feel safe in my home by not doing things I shouldn’t. But let’s face it. We learn by making mistakes. 

thought I was doing the right thing when I took one of my first fosters to a soccer game during her first month with me. What it actually did was freak the poor dog out. As in to this day, loud giggling girls make her cringe. And that’s just one example of mistakes I have made – and learned from – on my journey. 

Knowing what to do, and what not to do, when I bring home a rescue dog took a lot of trial and error.

Hopefully this article will shorten your learning curve and empower you with information I didn’t have when I brought my first rescue dog home. 

How to Help a Rescue Dog Adjust 

There are so many small things you can do that help your rescue dog feel safe and allow them to adjust to their new surroundings. They aren’t hard or inconvenient; they are things that may seem insignificant to you but which can have a big impact . 

Follow a Routine from Day 1 

happy sleeping rescue dog
happy sleeping rescue dog pile on bed

When your dog arrives, her whole life has been turned upside down. She doesn’t know you, your house, your yard, or your other pets. She doesn’t know when her next meal will be or if she will get one. She doesn’t know where to go to the bathroom, or how to tell you she needs to go.  

Routines create comfort and security. The sooner your dog knows when she will be fed, when she will get let out, where to go if she needs to relieve herself – the less she has to worry about. 

Create routines for your new dog by:

  • Consistently going outside for potty breaks 
  • Feeding your dog at set times each day, and in the same spot
  • Taking walks at the same time every day 
  • Going to bed/getting up at the same time each day 
  • Observing a routine when leaving the house and when arriving home 

If your dog knows what to expect and when, it will create an environment of comfort and security. 

dog looking out window
photo by labsafeharbor
A Note About Potty Breaks 

Do not expect your new dog to tell you when she needs to go outside. Set up a good potty routine by: 

  1. Choose a signal. If you want your dog to ring a bell, hang it in the appropriate spot. 
  2. Set a timer. I’m serious. Get a kitchen timer and put it next to you. Take your dog outside every hour at first (more often if the dog is refusing to go potty because it’s nervous). When the timer goes off to remind you to take the dog outside (yes – YOU. This is on YOU until the dog learns how to let you know she has to go. ‘nuff said), call the dog up to the door where the bell is, ring the bell gently, and then go outside with your dog. Praise her when she goes. When you get back in, start the timer again! 

Set up One or Two Quiet Spots for Your Dog 

dog on bed
photo by Jodie Louise

No matter how wonderful you are, your dog is going to feel overwhelmed at first – wondering why he’s at your house, how long he will stay, what all the strange noises and smells are…it’s just plain hard for him. 

Put crates or beds in out-of-the-way areas. I would have one where they can see you, but from a safe distance where it’s quieter and less busy. Put the other around the corner in a quieter room for those dogs who want to escape for a while.  

If you plan to crate the dog when you leave the house, have at least one of these safe spots be a crate with the door propped open. If the dog can come and go at will and the crate provides a soft, quiet space for them to rest, it will help the dog to establish a positive association with the crate. 

Transition Their Food SLOWLY 

dog eating food
photo by Daria Shevtsova

If at all possible, find out what kind of food the dog has been eating and buy more, even if it’s gross quality food. For the first week, feed the food your dog has been eating and is used to.  

The stress of a new home, by itself, can cause intestinal upset and diarrhea. Any food switch can cause it as well, so it’s best not to change their food that first week. 

If your dog is not eating, mix a little cooked chicken & rice in with their food. If they have diarrhea, try a few meals of chicken and rice then slowly start transitioning back to their food if the diarrhea subsides. 

Starting the second week (and only if they don’t have diarrhea), start mixing a higher quality food into their old food, about ¼ new and ¾ old. After 4 or 5 days, go to ½ and ½, then in 4 more days ¾ new and ¼ old, then finally switch to the new food. 

Stay Home and Minimize Visitors 

When you get a new dog, you want to invite everyone over to meet them. I get it – it’s EXCITING news and you want all your family and friends to see what a great dog you adopted! 

You have waited so long to find the right dog, and dreamed of all the adventures you would have together. So of course you want to start NOW and take her everywhere with you.  

Not so fast. Stop, pause, and put your dog first. 

As hard as it will be – and if you’re like me it will KILL you to do this – give the dog a few weeks to adjust before starting the field trips and meet-and-greets. 

dog in coffee shop showing bad example of how to help a rescue dog adjust
NO coffee shop outings!!
woman reading book on couch with dog as a good example of how to help a rescue dog adjust
Stay home and bond to your new dog!

Think of it this way: the first few weeks are for the dog to adjust and bond to YOU. To learn that they can trust you. That you will consistently provide food at meal times, you will consistently walk them each day, you will give them attention when they want to snuggle.  

Take your dog on a decompression walk to help them de-stress. Practice intentional dog walks to help you get to know your dog better.

All of those things will bond them to you, and the predictability and low stress environment will help their adjustment go smoothly and (hopefully) a little more quickly. 

As your dog begins to adjust and relax, mix in new people and new places sparingly.  

Be Patient 

stressed rescue dog adjusting by chewing up a magazine

Don’t expect the world from your new dog. If the dog’s behavior is stressing you out, many times you may be part of the problem, or at least can be part of the solution.  

If they have an accident in the house, set your timer for a shorter time period. If they chew something up, chew-proof the room as much as possible and add some chew toys to their toy basket. 

If they bark when your partner gets home from work, start a new routine where you go to the treat cupboard when the back door opens. If the dog is toy motivated, throw their squeaky toy. Many dogs will forget about barking and play or sit for treats instead. 

Use Positive Reinforcement – LOTS of it 

positive reinforcement by rewarding rescue dog with food
photo by Ricardo Esquivel

You are going to be teaching your dog a lot of new information about how to live at your house. When they listen, or when you catch them doing good things, mark it with praise and treats.  

Reward small and big accomplishments alike. If they like to jump when you are getting their dinner, reward four feet on the floor. If they took something inappropriate to chew, trade them for toy and a treat. 

Getting angry, impatient, or yelling at your dog will slow your progress and create potential issues. Positive reinforcement is the way to go. 

Have Realistic Expectations 

When I bring a new dog home, I expect the first week or two to be hard.  

In fact, if I’m totally honest, each time I bring a new dog or foster dog into our house there is at least one time in the first week where I burst into tears, wondering what the hell I was thinking when I decided I wanted to add a new dog family member. 

frustrated woman
photo by David Garrison

I don’t worry about the meltdown, or act on it, because I have realistic expectations. I know there will be some “moments.” So when the “moments” happen, I don’t freak out. I don’t try and return the dog. I simply check off that I’ve gotten through my expected meltdown of feeling completely overwhelmed, and know it’s going to slowly but surely get better. 

In her blog post Three Things to Remember When Bringing a New Dog into Your Home Patricia McConnell advises us to use the saying “three days, three weeks, three months” to help remember what our new dog is going through.  

She explains that most dogs are in shock the first three days in a new home, need three weeks to start to show you their true personalities, and need three months to begin to understand the family rules and fit into the routine at your home. 

If you adjust your expectations to reflect this slow pace of adjustment, it will help you understand what your dog is going through. 

Brush Up on Dog Body Language 

Body Language of Fear in Dogs by Dr Sophia Yin
Click to download free poster from Sophia Yin‘s website

Dr. Sophia Yin discusses the importance of new owners being able to recognize subtle signs of fear in her article Adopting a Dog: Some Dogs are Easier Than Others

You will be amazed at the signs you may be missing because you aren’t aware of, or observing, your dog’s body language. The dog in the article didn’t show reactivity her first few weeks after being adopted – but, unbeknownst to the new owners, she was showing subtle signs of fear. She barked while backing away when someone new arrived. When people pet her, she did not lean into it, and would lick her lips, avert her gaze, and yawn. 

The owners didn’t know that these were signs of fear. Had they known, they could have started her on a training program to associate unfamiliar people with positive experiences. 

This Canine Body Language article by Victoria Stillwell of Positively.com gives an excellent rundown of your dog’s body language and what it means. 

Bringing Home a Rescue Dog  

couple posing with new rescue dog
photo by Barbora Franzová

Adopting a dog is a big commitment. By adopting a rescue, you are already showing your commitment to turning a dog’s life around. You want to do whatever it takes to help them recover from past trauma, and grow into a confident, happy dog that knows they are loved. 

Here is the big takeaway: love alone will not help them adjust, nor improve on any of their behavioral issues. 

But, if you take the time to learn how to help a rescue dog adjust, you will have the tools and wisdom needed to make your dog’s transition into your home smooth and successful. 

Help Others Learn New Ways to Help a Rescue Dog Adjust to a New Home 

Do you have other tips that helped your dog adjust to its new home? Share them in the comments below; your story could help countless dogs have smoother adjustments by empowering their owners. 

Here’s to adopting rescues! 

Naturally, 

Karen 

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Karen Pedersen Written by:

Karen is an independent copywriter who loves dogs and everything about them. She is married to Scott, has 4 kids, and likes to take a natural and holistic approach to living and pet ownership.

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