We all love a good rescue dog story, right?
Rescue dogs are the best. You already knew that. Because you’re reading this.
Set your rescue dog up for success by seeking to minimize overwhelming and potentially dangerous situations as you integrate this dog into your home, your family, your life and your heart.
When you bring a rescue dog into your home — you really can’t know exactly what to expect. Perhaps the dog was living elsewhere in a foster situation. Perhaps the dog came straight out of a kill shelter where it lived in a metal kennel surrounded by many other stressed out barking dogs.
Perhaps the dog was abandoned, neglected, abused, became lost from their family through some other accident or circumstance. Maybe it’s a dog from a hoarding situation, or a dog who had to be rehomed because of behavioral issues, aggression, or a mismatch with a previous home or owner.
Remember: You don’t know what you don’t know.
The universal truth here is that you don’t know much, enough, or sometimes really anything about the dog. When this is the case, it is hard to know what to expect or anticipate once the rescued canine gets into your home, your life, and your heart.
Over my lifetime in veterinary medicine, and having had more rescue dogs than your average bear — I’ve got some pro-tips from the trenches for ya:
This is going to take some time. So put on your patient-pants and prepare to be patient with this dog. A rule of thumb is that it’s going to take AT LEAST 6 months of living in your home for this dog to let their guard down and for you to fully be able to see who they truly are. Thats a good chunk of time, so seriously, patience is a must.
Pretty please, DO NOT plan to adopt an unknown rescue dog and immediately take it to a large gathering, a family camping trip, or on a 3 week road trip. Clear your schedule and aim to keep things really, very basic and simple at home for the initial few weeks. Longer, if the dog is identified as having more ‘special needs’ due to their known or uknown history.
I see folks who are so, so excited and pumped about their new rescue animal that they immediately subject it to 45 stress filled trips to dog parks, trips to PetSmart (or whatever), professional photo shoots for the dog’s new Insta account, family parties where many people, kids, and other dogs come over to the house and into what will be this dog’s new territory — before the dog is really acclimated or anywhere near READY for any of these things. It’s a recipe for disaster and it jeopardizes the chance for smooth acclimation.
Remember: It’s easy to overwhelm a rescue dog, especially one who may have come from ‘difficult’ circumstances.
Because you often can’t or don’t know if, or to what extent this animal may have suffered in the past, and what areas might be sticky or triggers for it, it’s best to use the KISS principle.
Keep it Simple, Sweet-cheeks.
Things worth consideration and worry include: Does this animal have food-aggression or any other type of aggression with regards to whatever they may appreciate as “limited resources”. A dog may perceive food, water, toys, people, beds and space as limited resources — even when the resources actually aren’t limited — they still feel this way. If your dog does any of these things — if so, be careful! Safety first, dang it!
You don’t want to freak this dog out such that you, another person or pet get bitten. That’s not cool, on so many levels, and can absolutley negatively affect the outcome or longevity of this dog’s life in your home. Dogs labelled aggressive or unpredictable get tossed back to the shelter and/or euthanized. We don’t want a poor traumatized dog who you just overwhelmed with your own agenda to bite someone and then be put down because of it. That’s shitty. For everyone.
Pregaming for the rescue dog arrival:
Find out as much as you can about the dog. If the dog is living with a foster family or group — they will likely have some very hepful information for you. LISTEN and pay attention when they share it, they know way more about this dog than you do. You may be too excited to really take it all in, so get documents in an email or take notes, so you can refer back to them when you’re calm and can actually focus.
Does the dog sleep in a kennel? Is the dog eating? If so — what do they eat? Does it have food aggression? Where/How is it fed ? Solo? in a cage? Free range with other pets? From a bowl? A plate? The ground? Hoarding situation where periodically or infrequently a 40 lb bag of dog food is tossed onto the floor for the group or hoard of dogs to duke it out over (that makes food a limited resource and this is noteworthy).
Exactly what does this dog eat? Dog food brand? Wet/canned food brand? Dry kibble brand? Table foods only? Does it scavenge? What breed(s) is it? Is it spayed or neutered? Has she had puppies before? How recently? Was it rescued from a puppy mill? Because that’s a whole other ball of wax. Was it a farm dog? Does it have a strong prey instinct/drive? Will it immediately try to kill your cats/small dogs? Does it have a bite history? Does it get car sick? Is the animal vaccinated? For what? and How recently? and where are those paper records?
What about water? Does this pet have access to water bowls? Does it scavenge and use toilets and puddles outside preferentially? Has this dog been largely an outdoor or feral dog? Has the dog ever been indoors? Does it know how to walk on a leash? Are there any known/identified triggers? As in, does it cower or flinch in front of men, women, anyone in particular (children, the elderly)? Does the dog piddle in submission everytime you approach it? Is the dog head shy? (if so, it’s probably been hit in the head/face, more than once = abuse) Is the dog housebroken?
Are there any known medical issues? Has it seen a vet yet? If it’s old or abused, there are probably some old injuries or medical woes that you’ll need to address. Have they been tested for heartworm disease? Are any Flea/tick/heartworm preventatives being administered? If it’s a rescue that was moved across the country (or from another country, continent) — what medical issues or diseases endemic to it’s area of origin need to be taken into consideration? Please don’t Dr. Google yourself into a frenzy. Do research and be conscientious, but don’t try to be this animal’s vet if you’re not a veterinarian. Just, No.
Is this animal pregnant? Is there any chance that she could have been bred prior to your acquiring her? The gestation period in dogs is 63 days (+/- 2 days-ish). If your dog is an unspayed female and gets markedly larger in those first two months, if her mammary chains get big and engorged — she absolutely could be pregnant. If I a nickel for every ‘rescue dog’ that gets home, acclimates and then births a litter of pups that nobody knew were coming, I’d be a rich lady.
There are so many questions to ask, or to think about. Sometimes you know, sometimes you can’t. But try, always, to find out as much as you can.
Obtain supplies BEFORE your dog comes home, whenever possible. Not all dogs are prepared to go with you to the PetCo/PetSmart/wherever to shop with you, even though this may be the romantic notion you have in your mind. Make sure you have bedding/blankets, bowls, food, and treats, AS WELL AS a collar with an ID tag that includes your CURRENT contact information, AND a leash (and NOT a retractable one). Get a regular 6ft leash.
Is this dog microchipped? if so, is there only one microchip or could there be multiple? If it’s from a shelter — they will have already scanned the dog. Get the microchip number(s) and register the dog to YOU, so that if she runs off or gets lost, you can rely on that information. Most folks DO NOT do this, but you don’t yet know what type of flight risk you could be dealing with, so best to pre-arrange for these safeguards before you find that you need them.
Bringing the dog home:
If the dog is docile and seems aware of vehicles (as in, it climbs right into the car and appears to know what car rides are all about), then perhaps have a second person come along and sit in the back with it, to help soothe or hold a leash, if needed. It’s a good idea to have a kennel in the back of the car just in case the dog needs to be placed or contained in a kennel for transport, or in case you don’t want to risk the dog losing its shit and/or mind when the vehicle starts moving. If the dog appears shifty, fearful, or potentially unreliable in any way, put it in a kennel for transport — it’s safer for you, the dog, and the interior of your vehicle.
If the dog is NOT travelling in a kennel, DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT under any circumstances, roll the windows all the way down. Dogs can and absolutely will jump out of the windows of stationary AND moving vehicles. Many rescue dogs jump out of the car window on the way ‘home’ for the first time. They don’t know you, they may fear you or just freak out about the moving vehicle, and if you open the windows wide enough that their body can fit out — there is a decent chance that they’ll flee. I cannot tell you how many dogs have a major accident immediately after adoption because they jumped out of the window of a moving car, and have to then go directly to the ER for care before even making it home for the first time. It’s astounding but completely true. So, keep your windows closed, or open only enough so that head and snoot can catch a breeze.
Do not attempt to forcibly hold the animal during initial transport. You may get hurt. Again, a kennel or car carrier is not a bad thing, it’s not cruel, and it’s better than you getting bitten, scratched by a fearful animal, having the animal jump out the window, OR having that animal vomit/poo all over your car interior.
If the dog is chill and wants to sit in your lap — great. This is not a given, and is not the norm for rescue dogs — especially those who have had ‘difficult beginnings’ or trauma (including abuse) of any kind.
When you get home:
Leash the dog, and best bring this dog into and out of your home on a leash at all times. Do not assume that the dog will happily follow you into the house/apartment/cabin or wherever y’all will be living. This dog doesn’t know you, doesn’t trust you, and may not want to be or go indoors. Leash it, be gentle, move slowly, and tempt the animal with food or other high value items if needed. High value items differ from dog to dog, and you will have to hone in on what THIS dog views a a high value item. This will take time. Time, that you haven’t had together, yet. More on that later.
If you are integrating this dog into a home with other pets, other humans, or children, I recommend that you do meet and greets OUTSIDE the home, and if your existing dogs are territorial or have a history of having had any beef of any kind with other dogs — please do this on a neutral territory that is NOT your own (and therefore your existing dogs’ own) property.
The last and most recent time I integrated a traumatized (Cotton, the housefire survivor) old dog into our household with three other dogs, we leashed all the dogs — allowed them to have a sniff and greet on the street in front of our home, and did a 1 mile walk together with this “new pack”. This stragety works well for some, but may not work for all, especially if your new dog is fearful, shy, shut down or easily overwhelmed. OR if is unfamiliar with with wearing a collar or walking on a leash.
Go slow, be gentle, clear your schedule, and keep your expectations and trust low.
If you have kids around, please DO NOT put new rescue dog into a situation where a bite event could occur. Allow the dog to walk around the home and explore on their own, in their own time, at their own pace. Do not force it, and don’t helicopter parent the dog. Sit the Eff down, and be quiet, gentle, and let the dog safely explore the home. Pickup or cover all trashcans or things that the dog could scavenge or eat (garbage, even bathroom garbage, food or snacks kept on a low shelf need to be moved, pull all sugarfree gum from kids and adults rooms or purses/backpacks)
Don’t turn this new rescue dog loose with the kids straightaway. There is usually way too much excitement in the air, and a rescue dog with a traumatic past may become overwhelmed instantly — and may enter survival mode wherein things have the potential to go sideways very quickly. DO NOT allow kids to feed the animal or play with toys with the new rescue until you’ve given her some time to integrate and you are sure that it is possible and safe to throw, pickup toys, take away chews, and maneuver food from or around the new dog without the dog guarding the resources/items.
In multi pet households (multi-dog, really) I recommend you pickup all of your existing dog-toys, ones you purchased or acquired for pre-existing dogs in the home, as well as anything ‘new’ you purchased, intended for new rescue dog. Toys, bones, rawhides, sometimes even kids stuffed animals can be viewed as resources that a dog (existing dogs) or new dog might want to guard as “their own and noone else’s” and therefore could pose a problem. We aren’t even ready for that yet. So, chill, with the 8500 new toys you ordered online for this new dog. We aren’t there yet.
Adjusting to Life Together:
What is your actual normal life like?
Start with that.
Sleeping/waking hours and basic structure and schedule: You’ll want this dog to fit seamlessly into your home, and eventually this will happen, but it will take time, work, repetition and patience. Crate training is a good thing to do, unless this animal has separation anxiety or will attempt to chew/fight their way out of the kennel and hurt itself in the process.
Where’s the dog going to sleep? In your room? In a crate in your room? With the other dogs? On a dog bed? You’ll have to tell the dog where to sleep where you want them to sleep, otherwise you could end up with a dog sleeping on your face or in some other location that differs from where you WANT the dog to sleep. Entice the new dog with positive reinforcement, treats, praise and gentle TLC. IF you don’t allow dogs on the couch, or in certain areas of the home — you’ll have to make that clear in the beginning, ideally.
I prefer to crate train dogs, because it makes life easier in the 5,10 or 15 years that you’ll have the dog. If a construction person needs to enter your home and this makes the dog anxious or unreliable — crate it. This only works if the dog knows what the crate/kennel is about, and views the crate/kennel as their own ‘safe haven’. I generally feed my new dogs IN THEIR KENNEL. This has a few purposes- the dog will equate yummy meals and good things with going into the kennel, and will learn to go into the kennel without any fight or negative feels. It prevents other animals or children from interfering with the dog eating their food — which again, in a rescue dog with any food guarding issues, is a major safety concern (for humans and for other pets who might approach this new dog while they’re eating and start a fight).
There are many great resources online about crate training and how best to do this.
I favor using a treat, rawhyde, or filling a kong toy or a chew bone/toy with canned food, peanut butter, treats, kibble or squeeze cheese. These techniques are not a one size fits all kind of thing, but generally you want to be doing the following:
a) Enticing the dog to enter the kennel to have a high value treat and
b) Showing them that in their space, yummy things happen and
c) Distracting the new rescue from situations such as — the family is eating dinner and you don’t or can’t have a dog begging for food, whining, drooling or barking at you during meals, you have a cleaning crew come once a week and they can’t do their job without the rescue dog contained, you need to leave the house and have other pets — you don’t want to leave your new rescue dog in the home unattended with your other dogs, because — DOG FIGHTS happen and one dog could kill another. Sounds insane, but if it happens to you, it’s brutal, sad, and completely avoidable.
Be flexible, be patient and keep your expectations low in the early days. Focus on maintaing a safe predictable environment for the dog until you have the basics under control.
Safely riding in a car
Safely getting into and out of the home
Safely interacting with other pets and household members.
Crate training (unless contraindications to this exist or are discovered)
Making sure the dog is eating, drinking
Once you have your dog acclimated to ‘regular life’ you can start adding in other things — trips to Petco, Dog parks, Professional Insta photo shoots and all the other crazy shit you dreamed that this dog will do and become.
Good luck. Your rescue dog is lucky to have you. XOXO