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3 Simple Choices That Can Help Your New Rescue Dog

The first weeks with your new shelter dog are an important period.

Key points

  • Bringing home a rescue dog is an important time of adjustment.
  • Dogs show fear and stress in different ways.
  • We can help dogs feel more comfortable with three simple strategies.

This year, nearly 2 million people in the U.S. will welcome a new puppy or dog from a shelter.

If you’re among them, congratulations! Those first few months after you bring home a rescue dog are an important period, full of learning and adjustment for both humans and canines.

From the moment a new dog steps into your home, he or she begins discovering and adjusting to the sights, sounds, textures, and interactions of an unfamiliar environment. With your help, the newcomer will learn to overcome any prior traumatic experiences and settle in comfortably.

You might be surprised that many behaviors signal fear or stress in dogs. Some dogs show discomfort outwardly by barking or growling. Others retreat by physically hiding or turning their head away to avoid eye contact. Some dogs lose control of their bladder and bowels; still others develop nervous habits, like licking their lips, pacing, or chewing on themselves.

How can we help rescue dogs feel more calm, confident, and comfortable in a new home?

These three simple choices are a great start.

Madeline Bowen/Unsplash
Source: Madeline Bowen/Unsplash

Change up your petting style.

Dogs can become agitated by fast, jerky pats, getting poked with fingertips, or being tapped on top of their head.

Yes, petting a dog’s head is common, but it’s not the best choice, especially for a dog with a history of neglect or mistreatment. What if a stranger walked up to you and tapped you on the head? You’d feel uncomfortable and probably find the newcomer overbearing and a bit aggressive. That’s how dogs react, too, especially when it’s someone they don’t know well.

The best choice is calm, slow petting from a gentle, open hand placed on their chest, on their cheek, or along the neck behind the ears. This way, the approaching hand remains visible and beneath their eye line, making touch more predictable and less scary.

Quit staring.

In a dog’s world, eye contact is tricky. Many dogs interpret a direct look in the eye as a threat or challenge. Even if we mean no harm—for example, by sitting on a chair, legs wide, and looking straight at a dog—we can easily make them feel as if a giant is glaring at them.

In our first encounters with any dog, especially those with a history of abuse or maltreatment, we can show friendliness and demonstrate that we mean no harm by standing sideways to them and turning our heads slightly away as if looking elsewhere. That will help them feel more relaxed and comfortable.

Play it cool.

We can help a dog feel confident in a new home by resisting our own natural impulse to grab them and pull them in for a friendly bear hug greeting. Let them have a choice in the interaction. Dogs will let you know when they are ready to be touched or cuddled.

Instead of wrapping a dog or puppy in our arms and “loving” on them immediately, we can give them some time and space to feel comfortable.

Just as formerly abused people often feel trapped by a two-arm hug, dogs can feel distressed if they feel restrained in a two-arm embrace. A good strategy is to let a new dog approach your side and then respond by using just one hand to pet them.

You can also give your rescue dog a make-believe playmate to help build confidence.

Compassion and mindfulness go a long way with rescue puppies.

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