New Year, New Rescue Dog

Following on from our New Puppy blog, we also have to consider those who have started the year with a new rescue dog. Whether your adopted dog is young or old, there are many things to think about when they arrive in your home. The New Year can seem the ideal time to begin life with a new dog but, just like with a new puppy, the novelty can wear off fast as the reality sinks in.

The start of the year is unfortunately a time where many dogs are given up, some may be Christmas puppies who are no longer enjoyable to live with, while others may have been in the family for a while but no longer fit in. Christmas is a busy and stressful time for many families, there are financial pressures, family tensions, or general exhaustion from a busy schedule. Add in a dog who is finding the change in routine a struggle, and suddenly something has to give.

When you look at all the factors combined, you can see why many dogs are given up for rehoming or even euthanised in the New Year. Often there’s a culmination of trigger points and getting rid of the dog becomes the easier option.

If you have chosen to adopt a dog, the chances are it has come from a somewhat stressful or chaotic situation. Whether it has been waiting for a home for a long time or it has newly arrived for adoption, it will have experienced a huge amount of stress and unsettled circumstances. With this in mind, your new dog will need some stability and a period of adjustment time.

Time to Settle or Time to Train?

There is no question that a new dog will need time to settle in, it can take months for a dog to show their true self in a new home and it’s a process which shouldn’t be rushed. During this time of adjustment, it’s important to set your dog and your family up for success:

  • Management: avoid unwanted behaviours being practiced by managing the environment, for example, only allow access to certain rooms, remove items which may cause conflict, use a longline on walks, and so on
  • Don’t expect too much: a new dog may not want loads of attention and fuss, they may need their own space for a while, they may not choose to play or engage much until they really settle in
  • Don’t jump to conclusions: during settling in phases, different behaviours may appear but don’t panic immediately, watch for warning signals and manage things to keep everyone safe, but also be patient

The early weeks can be focused on allowing your new dog to settle and adjust, but that doesn’t mean all training is off the cards. Teaching new skills and easy behaviours can be a great way to bond with your dog, while also reinforcing good behaviours. The key is to always keep to your dogs’ pace and tolerance, a dog who is still adjusting may have less stamina for training, they may find it more stressful or become overwhelmed more quickly…

  • Keep sessions short. If your dog starts to lose interest or shows signs of stress then end the training and return to it another time
  • Keep it fun. No one likes high-pressure learning, so don’t expect too much, just aim to have fun and see if your dog can learn something. This could be as simple as catching a treat to start with!
  • Keep expectations low. Don’t aim for complex tricks and behaviours too soon, depending on your dogs abilities, just learning their name or taking food treats might be a big achievement, every dog is different so go at their pace

Is it Too Soon to Change Behaviour?

Most rescue dogs are likely to come with some baggage from their past lives. They may never have lived in a house, walked on a lead or enjoyed any freedom outside. Some will have been much-loved pets and perhaps have a good history of training, but they may come with some habits you would prefer to change, like jumping up or barking at the door.

It can be tempting to try and ‘fix’ everything straight away, give them a new start and teach new behaviours immediately. In some cases, this can be a really good approach, start as you mean to go on and lay the rules down from day one … but it really depends on the dog and the behaviour you want to teach.

Some things are best left until the dog has fully settled in, especially if they’re finding the change hard enough as it is. This is where management is crucial. Many unwanted behaviours can be managed in a way that prevents them being practiced while also not needing to spend lots of energy training anything. There’s no benefit in allowing your new dog to run riot around the house while you watch on in horror and tell yourself ‘He just needs time to settle in’.

Problem behaviours can be worked on from day one, the main thing is to work on it in a positive and consistent manner, so your dog isn’t feeling stressed or pressured by the training. A combination of training and management is key to success…

  • Chewing items: keep tempting items out of reach and offer suitable toys to chew on. Reinforce your dog for choosing correct items and calmly swap any inappropriate items for something else (and then keep the inappropriate ones out of reach!)
  • Jumping up: pre-empt jumping moments and scatter a few treats on the floor or teach your dog to offer a ‘sit’ in exchange for attention. If jumping is persistent, calmly remove yourself from the room or give your dog some time to rest if they’re over-tired
  • Barking: think about why your dog is barking. The reason for barking will be your starting point for whether it’s a training, management or settling in issue
  • Restlessness: new environments and stressful changes can lead to more unsettled behaviours. This can be a key behaviour which requires time for adjustment. But you can help your dog by providing a safe space where they can settle undisturbed, work on rewarding/acknowledging settled behaviours, and manage their environment to help them out (e.g. enforced rest time in a quiet room or crate). Offering calm enrichment activities can also help ease the moments of restlessness

I Want to Give Up

With a new dog, it can feel overwhelming to know how to help them and what training to do. It can also be quite scary to look at your new dog and think ‘this is it now’, especially if they have come with some challenging behaviours. Seeing your dog display different behaviours while they settle in can leave you with questions about whether it’s the right dog or whether you’ve taken on more than you anticipated.

If your dog is causing a safety issue or you feel way out of your depth, you should always communicate with your rescue organisation. A dog who is putting you or those around you at risk, is probably not in the right environment and there is no shame in putting your safety first and asking the rescue to move the dog. Sometimes dogs will display behaviours which weren’t known about until they’re placed in a new home, if this involves unknown aggression or potentially dangerous behaviours then the dog should be moved to a more suitable environment.

However, if you’re feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, but not at risk due to aggression, it is worth pushing through with your new dog. The early weeks and months can be the most challenging but they can also provide huge satisfaction when you look back and see how far you and your dog have come. In the moment, you may feel like you will never get anywhere with this, each bit of progress is followed by a frustrating set-back, but with consistency it will all pay off.

This may not be without compromise though. Your new dog may never be the dog you had dreamt of for years, they may not be able to accompany you to all the places you’d hoped, and you may find yourself making some adaptations or adjusting your expectations to fit with what your dog is capable of. This is the compromise many people have to make with a dog, whether they bought it home as a perfectly-bred 8 week puppy or adopted it as a complicated 2 year old adult. Dogs are rarely the perfect dream we imagined, they all have their own personalities and we can’t always shape them into what we want. We have to accept a level of compromise in order to keep them in our lives.

Don’t give up when it feels too difficult with your new rescue dog, ask for help from your rescue organisation or find a good experienced trainer who can offer support and advice. It’s easy to feel alone when you’re struggling with your dog, with a new rescue dog we may be tempted to wonder why the dog is making our life so difficult when we’ve done such a kind thing to offer them a loving home!

Having a trainer working alongside you not only provides you with a listening ear and a supportive person with years of experience, but also someone who can offer advice and show you how to help your new dog. They can help unpick behaviours, looking at possible causes and deciding the best course of action. It really is invaluable!

A new rescue dog comes with all manner of challenges and adjustments, some behaviours may require time and patience, some will benefit from training and behaviour modification from day one, and some will need management before training can be implemented. There’s nothing to say you shouldn’t start training your new dog as soon as they arrive in your home, but always take it at their pace and keep it fun!

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