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Five Things to Focus on with Your Newly Adopted Dog

It’s been lovely to see so many people show interest in adopting and fostering over these last several months of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing quarantine. Dozens of families recently brought dogs home, many of whom are working hard with their dogs and thriving.

Let your dog sniff. I’ll say that again—let your dogs sniff as much and for as long as possible. Sniffing has immense benefits for dogs. It’s enriching and mentally stimulating and it lowers their pulse. Allow your dog time to sniff and gather information about their new environment and neighborhood when out on walks. When safe, consider using a long leash (connected to a non-restrictive harness) and taking your dog on a decompression walk in nature where they can freely move, sniff, and explore. Providing adequate enrichment and meeting our dogs’ needs is the first step to behavioral health and preventing unwanted behaviors. Consider making enrichment a non-negotiable component of your dog’s life.

Don’t worry about “obedience” You read that right. Please don’t worry about teaching your new dog to sit for every treat, shake, or stay when they first arrive at your home. Instead, consider capturing as many behaviors your dog naturally does that you like and want to see more of. Capturing is a wonderful way to build behavior without the added pressure of formal training. This can be especially beneficial and empowering for shy or fearful dogs, dogs new to training, or dogs with punitive training histories. Behaviors that are reinforced become stronger. By simply observing your dog throughout the day and reinforcing the behaviors you like you will give your dog powerful and clear information about what you want and what works in your home. Your dog will begin to choose to do more of those behaviors. The bonus here is, of course, that using food and positive reinforcement creates positive associations through classical conditioning. Not only will you be teaching your dog what you want them to do, but they will be forming positive associations with you and their new environment in the process. A win-win! Kathy Sdao outlined a simple protocol through her See Mark And Reward Training (SMART). Just gather a few containers of treats (or kibble) and place them in accessible spaces in your home. Observe your dog and when you see them do something you like, say “yes” and then reward them with a delicious treat. You get to decide what you want repeated in your home. There’s no shortage of “good” behaviors you can capture, but some simple ones are: eye contact; four paws on the floor; bum on the floor; belly on the floor; belly on the mat, bed, or in the crate; response to name.

Give it time Let’s face it, we have some really unrealistic expectations of dogs and dog behavior in our culture. These expectations tend to color our perception when first bringing dogs into our homes. We immediately expect them to be friendly, and cuddly, and playful, and well behaved. But dogs are individuals and it takes time to get to know them. It takes time for them to acclimate to and feel comfortable with us and our homes. It takes time to build a relationship. I find Patricia McConnell’s take on the magic of 3’s really helpful. It can take up to three weeks to see your dog’s true personality and up to three months for them to learn how your household works. It can’t happen overnight, so don’t rush it! Give yourself some time and space to adjust too. Don’t despair when things feel challenging. We can’t always control the behavior of others and we can’t dictate the pace of progress. If you find yourself struggling, reach out to a reputable positive reinforcement-based trainer for help. Many trainers now offer a variety of virtual services. Finally, when we choose to bring sentient beings of another species under our care it requires us to expand our circle of compassion. It encourages us to practice patience and empathy. It pushes us to see the world from the point of view of another being. If we take this as an opportunity to connect, rather than compel, what we find on the other side will be more joyful and rewarding than we could have ever expected.

Thank you for choosing to adopt or foster. You’ve saved a life.


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