If you are adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue, chances are the dog you see has experienced heartbreak, at least once, maybe several times. Dogs are emotional and affiliative creatures that can form extremely strong bonds with their social partners. When they give their hearts away, they do it completely and when their hearts have been broken, they will do everything in their power to reestablish connection. They are forgiving and generous to a fault and sometimes their need to love results in a need to be with their people. All the time. So, when these sensitive companions end up at our shelter for whatever reason and then get brought to a new home, they expect that any minute, you’ll leave them, too, and never come back.
What this ends up looking like in your living room is destruction. From scratched doors to chewed window sills to busted crates and even holes in walls and floors. And then, their worst fears are realized: they get returned to the shelter because their people can’t afford the costs incurred. But I’ve got to tell you – a lot of this drama and trauma can be prevented with some thoughtful preparation and gentle understanding. Even the most self-assured and confident dog can benefit from some easy transition steps in her new home.
First, plan ahead! Bring your new dog home when you have a few days off so you can spend a little time easing her into your regular routine without actually leaving for eight hours, the first time. If you suspect the dog may have a difficult transition, ask a family member or friend to dog-sit while you are away the first few days. Plan to take lunch breaks at home, if possible and adjust your routines and expectations to accommodate a slow entry into the 40-hour work week.
Next, understand that space matters. Dogs who are scared of being abandoned also seem to have a high rate of claustrophobia and will literally panic if kept in a small space. Crates can be terrifying for this reason. If you show your dog a crate and she high-tails it to the property line, don’t shove her in it and leave for the day. You’ve got some adjustments to make and it will take some time. Meanwhile, figure out a safe, dog-proof area to let her hang out when you have to leave.
Spend time with her in the safe, dog-proof doggie zone and basically hang out with her, but don’t give her any attention. Read a book. Check your email. File your nails. Let her have a chewie-toy or a food-packed Kong® while you remain present but ignoring her. When she’s particularly engaged with her chew and looks settled in, take a breath, stand up and stretch. If she bolts to her feet in a panic and refuses to settle again, give me a call here at the shelter. We’ve got some work to do and likely will talk to a veterinarian about anti-anxiety medication or supplements to help.
If she watches you stretch and goes back to chewing, go ahead and walk out the door saying, “I’ll be back” and then disappear for only ONE second. Walk straight back into the doggie zone, sit where you were and return to filing your nails. (You are going to have great nails!) Repeat this 3-5 times, each time a little longer than the last. If she’s totally chilling with the drill, then you’ve got a relatively easy-keeper. Just work on making those times away a little longer with each repetition.
Follow the same steps when you actually leave her and use your good-bye phrase each time. She’ll believe you and relax into the routine. You can then begin leaving for a little longer over the course of your weekend and by your work week, have a pretty good idea if you’ll need a fulltime doggie sitter, at least temporarily. Your new dog may very readily relax and trust that you will, indeed, be back, but it’s not unusual to need a month or so to gain that level of trust. Take your time and give her some solid routines and support, not leaving before she’s ready. If you need more help with this, contact us at Behavior@whs4pets.org or pick up the “I’ll Be Home Soon” book by Patricia McConnell in our shelter pet supply store.
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