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Introducing a Shelter Dog to a New Home


Being in a new home is extraordinarily stressful for any dog, but is especially so for dogs who have been sheltered for any length of time.  Their life has been unpredictable and they have had to deal with the stress of living among dogs and humans that they do not perceive as “pack” members. 


It can take dogs up to THREE months to become acclimated and comfortable in a new environment.  Therefore, it is very important to do everything you can to make the transition to a new home as stress free as possible and enable your new family member to be comfortable in its new pack.


1)  "Dog proof" your house and any area outside where the dog will be BEFORE the dog arrives.  The only effective way to do this is to get down on your hands and knees to see what you can see from the dog's perspective.  If you do not want it chewed, move it… NOW, before the dog arrives.


2)  Areas of the house where the dog is not permitted should be gated or some way blocked off BEFORE the dog arrives. 


3)  Prepare some especially nice "welcome to the pack" treats and hide them in places that will be reserved areas for the dog such as his doghouse, dog bed, or crate.


4)  Have food and water bowls in place.  Have a few special treats in the food bowl and fresh water in the water bowl.


5)  Have a plan for the arrival:  Ensure every person present has some exceptional treats.  You want the dog’s first impression of everyone in the family as positive and rewarding.  Keep everything low key and as calm as possible.  Let the dog approach each family member, who in return offers a treat (without trying to touch the dog...if the dog responds favorably or returns for another treat, it's ok to start stroking UNDER the chin. 


For dogs that appear more apprehensive, introduce each family member one-by-one with the dog in a sitting position, on leash or behind a baby gate.  Each person should toss the dog a treat, say a “hello” in the nicest voice possible, and then retreat from the dog giving the dog a comfortable space to take the treat.  Repeat this until the dog is relaxed and comfortable.  NEVER force the dog to meet a new person or another dog unless the dog is relaxed and comfortable. 


6)  After introductions and the dog is comfortable, release the dog letting him explore the area and approach family members if he wishes.  Every time he approaches a person, he gets another treat and only petted if the dog appears comfortable and seeks contact.  The key here is to make the “first impressions” of his new home and new “pack mates” as stress free and rewarding as possible.   Limit the initial greeting session with everyone present to no more than 15 minutes then change the scenario, i.e. a walk outside.  You may want to stage a repeat of the first session later in the day.


7)  DO NOT leave your new dog alone or under the supervision of any kids, regardless of age, at any time, for any reason.  If you do this, you are setting the dog up for failure, not to mention possible injury to a child.  Right or wrong, the dog is ALWAYS at fault when an incident occurs with a child.


8)  If there are other dogs that will need introducing, the first introductions should be on “neutral” territory, i.e. a park.  Then bring the dogs home together.  Slowly allow each dog to approach on leashes, not head on, while someone is between them and offering lots of good treats to BOTH dogs.  If they appear relaxed, allow them to investigate each other but for short periods of time (5-10 seconds at first).  If you see a problem developing, separate them immediately by walking between them and then giving treats to both.  Try again later.  Keep the dogs separated until you are confident that they can get a long. In most cases, dogs do very well at working out a “pecking” order between each other.  Some growling, barking, snapping, or even some heavy physical contact can occur and is normal at first.  Your goal is to ensure the safety of dogs and people while this happens.


9)   For the first 30 days, do not expose your new dog to any stressful events such as parties, large family gatherings, left alone for long periods of time, or trips to other family and friends.  The more calm and relaxed the dog’s new environment can be, the quicker he will acclimate to it without problems arising.


10)  For the first two weeks, observe the dog very closely and TAKE NOTES of odd behaviors or unfavorable reactions to objects and situations.  Some of these could be:  growling or barking at a particular family member; resource guarding behavior (food or toys); hyperactivity; barking/destructive behavior when left alone; eliminating indoors; etc.  It is very important to identify and document signs of unwanted or inappropriate behaviors in order to address them early.  DO NOT WAIT!  Seek help from a trainer EARLY if a problem is recognized.  Many issues are easy to solve, especially if addressed early.


Here are is a list of questions that can help evaluate whether a shelter is being operated properly.  If a shelter isn't willing to publicly discuss these topics, it can cast doubt and raise questions regarding their operation and the commitment they have to the public and the animals in their care.  A properly run and maintained shelter should not only be willing to answers these questions, but also able to provide this information in writing.


1)  How long do dogs stay at the shelter?  (Good shelters don't have a maximum time limit.  As long as there is room and the dogs are physically and mentally healthy they keep the dog)


2)  How often are dogs euthanized for space reasons?  (The best shelters don't.  Many are forced to.  The answer can help people decide whether they want to leave a dog there)


3)  How are dogs euthanized?  (Answer should be by injection of sodium pentobarbital...anything else is unacceptable)


4)  Are behavioral assessments done?  When?  By whom?  What is the criteria for passing?


5)  Can a surrendered stray be adopted by the person who turns the dog in if it isn't reclaimed?


6)  Does the shelter require spay/neuter of adopted dogs/cats?


7) What is the percentage of incoming dogs adopted or reclaimed?  (The national average is less than 30-50 per cent)


8) Does the shelter have a trainer on staff or contract with one?  If so, is there a training program in place that works to help rehabilitate and train the dogs while at the shelter?  (The best shelters recognize the need to have training as part of their shelter programs in order to increase their adoption rates and prepare the dogs for a home.)


9) What is the level of expertise of shelter staff?  Is there a training program for staff members?


10) Who makes day-to-day decisions at the shelter?  Is there a board of directors?  If so, what are the criteria for selecting board members?  What is the level of expertise and training of each board member?  Are board members paid?


11) Where does funding come from?  If "not for profit" status, how is the donated money/items accounted for?  Is the financial affairs of the shelter availble to the public?  If not, BEWARE!


12)  What other programs and/or assistance does your shelter offer the public?


13)  Hours of operation and availability?


14)  Is there a contact for emergencies and/or after hours?


How does the shelter you donate money or items to measure up?

Steve Benjamin, KPA CTP
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
Karen Pryor Academy Faculty Member
P.O. Box 5715
Endicott, New York 13763