To a pack animal like a dog, fitting into the new environment or group must be just a stressful as the first day of school is to the average human. Only, unlike us, dogs have centuries of built in “shortcuts” to rely on in order to ease them along the process. I see them use them first hand, so I’ll share my findings with you below.
First, find out their history. Let’s take my most recent foster, Tippie. Her story is a simple one, but it will help explain her state of mind. Only 3 years old, she came to be rescued from a high kill shelter on the border of Virginia with Tennessee. A gorgeous miniature dachshund, with soulful eyes and a string of bad luck that almost got her killed, she must have gotten her start as a well-loved puppy. You can usually tell if a dog has “good” manners underneath their gruff and scared exterior. After she got handed from one friend or family member to another, a couple in their 80s finally dumped her up for the last time. Discarded and covered in fleas, Tippie arrived in Northern Virginia shaking and not knowing who to trust. On one hand, people constantly petted, touched and handled her, on the other - none of them wanted her for their families. And since any dog’s underlying drive in life is to belong – her insecurities flared up, driving her to forgot how to even relax.
The first few two weeks at your new home are crucial to a dog. The first three days will set the tone for the remainder of their stay AND their overall rehabilitation. Understand your dog. If you were in Tippie’s shoes, you probably would wish for some semblance of stability and predictability in your routine. If you don’t trust humans yet, having other calm and relaxed dogs around you can prove a calming factor. And lastly, and most importantly, your new caretaker should be able to make you feel protected, secure and wanted.
Step one: Introduce the dog to others slowly and without a hoopla. Show other dogs, cats, children and people in your household that you fully intend to protect your new protégé. Do what an Alpha dog does with someone it protects. Walk WITH your dog, controlling others access to it. Physically insert yourself in between when encountering unfamiliar or tense dogs and children on your walks. While feeding your dog, don't leave, stand nearby, keeping away anyone who attempts to steal from or upset it. Or, have the dog sit next to you on the couch as you watch TV, while resisting the urge to constantly pet it, as that would signal preference, and you said you didn’t want territorial issues. Step two: because you are trying to integrate the new dog into the existing hierarchy/structure – don’t change the existing hierarchy/structure for the new dog. Have them adjust and fit in instead. Sorry, this does mean feeding them last and playing with them last. Counter-intuitive, I know, but this takes the “heat” off the newcomer and allows them to adjust at their own pace. Putting your dog into a crate for the first night or two helps too. Dogs can smell each other without touching, so the integration will continue while everybody keeps their space. Step three: Allow all involved lose interest in each other. Dogs are not unlike children in the way they love a new toy. Persistently discourage desire to play and associate to ensure the associated excitement and frenzy wanes, so the interaction becomes more natural and not hyped up.
Most importantly, be decisive and confident as you do all this. Dogs respect a confident leader. If you fail in their eyes, they will try to assert themselves instead and that can spell disaster.
Tippie has been with me two weeks now. She has adjusted nicely and already had some strong adoption interest, so it is very possibly that by the next week she’ll be on her way to her forever home. The road to this moment was bumpy, but after her stay with me, however short, she got along with others and started to rebuild her confidence. And that is the last puzzle piece she needed to make her transition into her new forever family life that awaits her next.