Understanding the Canine Adjustment Period
The rehoming experience can be stressful for many dogs, much like it may be stressful for one of us to suddenly be thrown into living with a bunch of strangers in a land where nobody speaks your language or understands your customs. When a dog enters a new environment, the entire world changes. There are new sights, sounds, people, animals, and rules.
Some dogs seem to adjust immediately to their new home, automatically relaxing into a new environment. However, many adopted dogs go through a transition period which may last anywhere from one or two days to a couple of months.
During this time, the dog is testing his environment. What works here? How are these people different than other people I have known? What is "safe" and "dangerous" in this new home?
Dogs transitioning to life in a new home require patience, commitment, and consistency from their handlers.
Reflecting the importance of extensive and appropriate socialization during critical periods of development is the fact that for all animals, once these windows of socialization have closed, the policy on evaluating the relative safety or danger of a new stimuli is as follows: "dangerous until proven safe."
Fearful dogs especially take time to blossom in a new environment. Fearful dogs are often painfully shy, with a tendency to initially avoid contact, hiding, sometimes trembling, growling, or barking in fear. They may exhibit signs of anorexia, submissive urination, whining, pacing, or self-mutilation through licking or chewing at themselves.
Allowing fearful dogs to feel as though they have control over the rate at which they engage or interact with new people, animals, and other stimuli in the environment will help build establish confidence. Do not attempt to force your fearful dog to "get over it" by putting her in situations she cannot comfortable handle. Consistently rewarding prosocial behavior (high value treats for initiating engagement) will help your dog acclimate to her environment more quickly and will help establish trust.
If your dog is very fearful or is biting people out of fear response, do not hesitate to contact a behavior professional immediately. Here are some tips on evaluating a prospective behavior professional. Behavior problems tend not to disappear or get better on their own. More often than not, behavior problems intensify the longer they are allowed to continue unaddressed.
Adolescent dogs (whether they have grown up in a home or are adopted during adolescence) tend to exhibit a lot of demand behaviors - jumping, barking, pulling on leash, nipping, etc. These behaviors are a natural part of this life stage, and many of the behaviors may have been reinforced by previous owners. Practice careful supervision, management, and training desirable replacement behaviors to help your newly adopted dog quickly learn the rules of her new environment.
For the first few months of living with your new dog, keep the following in mind:
- Supervise and observe: Keep a close eye on your new dog at all times and when you are unable to supervise, manage for good behavior (through use of crates, gates, and tethers). It is unwise to allow a dog who has only been home for one or two days to have unsupervised access to the entire house during your 9 hour workday. Freedom to be left unsupervised in the house is a privilege that must be earned once a dog has proven reliability.
- Manage to prevent unwanted behavior: for fearful dogs, this means giving them safe sanctuary from scary things and reinforcing prosocial behavior or applying the techniques of classical conditioning. For adolescent dogs, this may mean keeping the dog or behind a baby gate when guests arrive to prevent him from jumping. Dogs with high prey drive or a history of killing small animals should not be left unsupervised to "hang out with" the family cats. For dogs with potty training issues, this means providing plenty of opportunities to eliminate outside, careful supervision when you are home, and crating when you are not home.
- Don't trust your dog off leash - Being off leash can be a life or death scenario for dogs. While you may feel as though your new dog sticks close to your side, you also may not have had enough experiences together to learn how she reacts to a variety of distractions. Don't allow your dog off leash until you have established reliability in a variety of different situations, with a variety of distractions, on a long line.
- Implementing the calming aids discussed yesterday will help the dog adjust to a new environment more quickly and comfortably.