Getting a Dog: Surviving the First Weeks

The first few days of having a new dog are nerve-wracking. You’ve got a strange animal in your house and you can’t quite be sure what they’ll do, but after a couple of days you start to develop a pattern and figure out how things will work. You get comfortable, which is why it’s so upsetting when your new dog also gets comfortable and is replaced with the actual dog you’ve adopted. Here are some tips for dealing with the first few weeks with a new dog. Some of it repeats advice about the first night with your new dog. That’s because you’re going to want to relax your guard after the original excitement is over, and that’s a big mistake. 

Keeping Yourself Set up for Success

Have your home set up to foster your rules before your dog shows up, and keep it that way. If you don’t want him on the furniture, don’t just assume he’ll stay off of it. He may be too scared to jump all over it at first, but as he gains confidence, he’ll probably check it out. Have some carpet protectors turned upside down on the furniture to make it uninviting. Keep treats and toys in areas you do want him to frequent. This goes for everywhere your dog might get into predictable trouble. Make your flower beds uninviting and leave fun things in his outdoor play area; block off your kids’ toys and make sure he has his own stuff. Think hard about what your dog might do, and keep him set up for success until you’re confident he’s got it. If he makes a mistake, make it harder to repeat and present an easier behavior as an alternative.

Learn to read dog body language so you’ll know what’s making your dog quietly uncomfortable when you bring him home. It’s common for dogs to “blow up” after they’re feeling safe enough to do so. Manage interactions between the new dog and other pets or children, and don’t expect him to quietly accept harassment if his body language screams that he’s being bothered. Dogs that enjoy harassment/rough play are loose, whole body waggy, and make it very clear they’re into it. If your dog is “frozen,” he’s just too overwhelmed to deal with whatever is upsetting him now, but that could change. Manage his interactions with adults, too. Many dogs don’t enjoy being woken up suddenly with kisses, or overly-clingy human style affection, and this is especially true with humans they don’t know very well. Give your new dog a place to sleep and eat in peace, and allow him to guide when and how he gets affection.

Begin treating the correct behaviors the second he walks into your home. If he chews the right thing, goes potty in the right place, doesn’t jump all over you at the door, or anything else you can “catch” him doing, he needs a reward for that. Most of our interactions with our dogs take place outside of formal obedience training, so setting yourself and your new dog up with treats and rules right away makes it much easier for him to figure out what he’s doing right. If something works, it will be repeated. Causing food and attention (if it’s wanted at this point) to happen definitely counts as working.

Try to avoid correcting your dog, but if you have to, make it gentle and immediate. You’re still in the trust building phase of your relationship, so avoiding negative interactions is extra important right now. Stick to simply moving him as calmly as possible away from whatever he’s gotten into. Dogs can’t figure out what they’ve done unless the correction happens within 2 seconds of the behavior, and corrections not connected to anything the dog knows he’s done make him consider you unreliable and scary. Imagine living with a stranger who spoke a different language and might go off on you at any time for things you did 5 minutes or an hour ago. You probably wouldn’t learn much, and you would live in fear of their temper. If you catch your dog mid-pee inside, try to startle him out of it and get him to the right spot, but if you can’t get him to stop, or you find it after the fact, your best option is to ignore it and set him up for more success with more frequent bathroom visits next time. Remember that you shouldn’t correct your dog for growling or other warning behaviors. Dogs growl because something is making them afraid or uncomfortable. You may teach them not to growl, but you’ve done nothing to address the cause of the growling and you’re setting yourself up for a more aggressive outburst with no warning. Depending on the situation, counterconditioning by pairing the unpleasant situation with wonderful food to change your dog’s feelings about things may be in order. It may be better just to give him some space and work on teaching him to retreat from things that make him uncomfortable.

Settling in, the Honeymoon Period, and Second Puppyhood

Depending on your dog’s personality and background, your dog will need at least three weeks to settle in to your house, sometimes much longer. My (Moretta’s) Chow didn’t even look at us or acknowledge us for three weeks, and I am not exaggerating. I had already resigned myself to the fact that having a pet was really overrated and that we would have at least a decade of living with a polite stranger, until one day when we came home from work to find him wagging his tail happily. Your honeymoon period will hopefully not be as weird, but there will be one.

Your dog might also have something called a honeymoon period, during which they will behave really well. After your dog is more comfortable in your home, don’t be surprised to find that bad behaviors start to emerge. It’s natural, and it’s a sign that your dog is feeling more comfortable with you.

One of the most poignant things about adopting a dog that has suffered from benign neglect is that those dogs often go through something we call second puppyhood. After the honeymoon period, you might find your five-year-old dog gamboling in the backyard, playing with toys, being silly, and having a huge amount of energy. The reason for this is simple: they didn’t get to experience their youth the first time around. Try to enjoy this and have compassion if their antics get out of hand for a little while. Remember: In many ways, their life is just beginning, and they are celebrating life because their optimism has returned in full force.

Establishing Your Support System

Do you need a support system for your dog? Yes, probably. ASAP you should try to find the following:

  • A good veterinarian: Even if your dog is fully vetted, you should try to set up a visit if only so your dog can meet the vet during a non-stressful time, so get that started during the early weeks.
  • Dog sitters: Start researching NOW so you can have this ready. Good dog sitters are hard to find.
  • People who can let your dog out if you are delayed for some reason: This is imperative and will be a huge relief to have in place when that time arrives, and it will. If that’s a neighbor or family member, get that person a key to your house, and have them meet your dog before the emergency situation starts.
  • A trainer: It never hurts to sign your new dog up for obedience courses, even if you think they are fully trained. It’s a great bonding experience.

Another HUGE resource for you and a major part of your support system is the place from which you got your dog. Many shelters and rescuers have programs in place so that new owners can manage the early weeks. Don’t be afraid to contact them. Also, it is imperative that you alert your rescue/shelter to any major problems your dog is having that remain after the first few weeks (honeymoon period), even if you don’t want them to do anything about it. Keep the lines of communication open.

Well, this is the last in our series about getting a dog. We will be using these articles as the framework for our E-book, tentatively entitled The Persephone Guide to Getting a Dog (or something like that). We don’t know when it will be completed, but now that we’ve said it in public, it’s much more likely to happen, right? Thanks for your participation in this process, and for the lively discussion we’ve had in the comments.

Best regards,

Laura and Moretta

9 replies on “Getting a Dog: Surviving the First Weeks”

You guys are great, thanks for all the info for the last few weeks. (Months? It’s been so fun it’s hard to tell.) I’ve learned so much more about paying attention to dog signals, and it’s been so much easier managing some of the anxious weirdness. You are both super awesome.

Agreed on all points. My first few weeks with our newest addition were a little traumatic for both of us, since she came to us from the rescue with three types of intestinal parasite, so I might add that you need to be prepared for the unexpected. Also, we lived so long with two senior dogs who were perfectly content to meander around the fenced-in backyard that a much younger dog’s mad dash to find a patch of fence she could escape under came as quite a surprise. So, it’s leash training 101 now that she’s feeling better (although the hookworms are extremely persistent).

Now that I think of it, do either of you want to come train a very energetic chihuahua/antelope mix?

I’ll trade you for Bramble!
We do Sentinel for heartworm because it also takes out hookworms. All of my fosters have had them and I’ve never had a repeat positive on a foster or have my dogs test positive for them once I started using it, so it works.
At one point I had a mom and 8 puppies with hookworm diarrhea in my yard, so I figure my lawn must be pretty well infested.

We have them both on Sentinel now. We did a course of Panacur and a course of Metronidazole, and am now waiting the two weeks to do the Drontal. The giardia and whipworm went away (as did the diarrhea, thank god), but those hookworms are persistent little fuckers.

Heartworms suck donkey balls. The dog gets 2 or 3 injections of arsenic and has to be kept calm and quiet for 2 months to keep the decomposing worm bodies from causing a pulmonary embolism.

And that’s all in addition to the ick factor of having worms in the heart.

So many layers of mystery in Gershwin’s background…our vet hadn’t seen a heartworm case since she’d moved here from California…10 years prior! She didn’t even keep the meds in stock.

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