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5 Pro Trainer Tips to Help Your Rescue Adjust to His New Home

Rescue dog adjusting to new home
Sad Lucy on her first day home from the shelter, hiding under the coffee table. Photo by Tim Dawson

Helping Rescue Dogs Adjust to Their New Families

While many rescue and shelter dogs are ready to adjust to their new family lives, others can be anxious or fearful of their new environment and family members. The constant changes in their circumstances leading up to adoption are often bewildering, and can make an otherwise laid-back and eager-to-please dog, cautious or even suspicious of its new surroundings.

These tips from top obedience trainers can help ease your new canine family member's transition into his new lifestyle, and quickly build bonds of trust between you and your new best friend.

How to Approach Your Rescue Dog When Petting Him

Research shows that dogs that are highly stimuli-reactive and those with fear aggression are most likely to bite their owners if startled when they are approached.  Before petting your new dog, first say his name, and be sure you have his attention.  Approach him by petting first under the jaw, then gently stroking the side of his face, gradually moving upwards, until you can pet the top of his head.

Petting by starting on the top of the head is a dominant act.  Until you have established a bond with your dog, you will want approach him from the side in a more deferential manner.

Watch his body language for signs of distress or discomfort.  Are his ears relaxed; is his tail wagging? If his ears are pinned back, if his tail is rigid or if you can see the whites of his eyes and he moves up on his shoulder, it is time for you to back off, and maintain a nonchalant attitude by focusing your attention elsewhere.

Limiting Your New Shelter Dog's Access to Your Home

One obedience trick used by top trainers for quickly building trust and a bond with their new dog is to tie his lead to your belt as you go about simple household chores.  Leave 5-6 feet slack on the lead so he can freely adjust to your movements.
The Hands Free Leash is ideal for keeping your pet close to you while doing household chores or jogging on a trail.

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You don't want to engage in activities that may frighten or over stimulate him, such as vacuuming. Choose chores such as washing dishes, putting away dishes, prepping food in the kitchen or putting away household items. This allows the dog to explore the home with you while he learns to read and adjust to your movements. As you go about your chores, occasionally call him to you and pet and treat him. Then return your focus to the task at hand.

When he is off lead, you will want to limit access to the entire home until you are sure of a good recall as well as his level of potty training.  You don't want to end up trying to corner the dog that won't yet come reliably when called. Child gates work well in traditional home floor plans.

However the recent trend towards open floor plans can present problems in limiting your new dog's freedom. Heavy duty playpens like the one pictured below can also be used as gates or indoor pens to limit access to areas when you can't keep an eye on his activities.

Shelter dog exercise pen for potty training
Heavy duty playpens can be used as gates or corals to keep you new dog safe and secure indoors and outdoors.

Quickly Build a Bond With Your Rescue By Hand Feeding

Another obedience trick for quick bond building is hand feeding your dog her meals.  Measure out her meal portion, and offer her a handful of food cupped in your hand.  If she is too nervous to take it from your hand, place the food in front of her a couple of feet away from you.  Place each succeeding handful a little closer to you until she is eating her food near your foot.

Some dogs have never been given treats, so it may take some time to get her to eat out of your hand. Once she does, she will be engaging in an act of high-level trust.  If you are short on time, you can hand feed half of the food, and then give her the rest of her meal in her bowl.

Crate Training Gives Your Rescue Dog His Own "Safe Place"

Most dogs enjoy having an area to call their own, and crates can become a den-like area where they can go to rest or get away from the children. To learn more about creating a den atmosphere for your dog read Crate Training - Easy as 1 2 3. Once your dog is crate trained, you can leave the door to it open, and he will seek it out when he is ready for a nap or in times of stress such as fireworks and thunderstorms.

Rescue dog learning basic obedience
Learning "Watch Me" helps focus the dog on you in stressful situations.

Basic Obedience To Establish Your Relationship With Your New Adoption

Learning basic obedience commands teaches the dog not only a new trick, but more importantly how to please you.  Knowing how to be "right" with their new owner builds self confidence in rescue dogs. Engage in several 5-10 minute training sessions beginning with "watch me."  Watch me teaches the dog to make and maintain eye contact with you, another high-level trust activity.

Hold a treat in your hand and point to your eye with that hand saying, "Watch me."  Once the dog makes eye contact with you, praise her and treat her. Extend each period of eye contact before treating.  Once you have watch me down, you can move on to sit, down and stay.

Watch me can be used in situations where the dog is reacting negatively to stimuli in the environment. For example, it can be used on walks to distract your dog from another dog you may encounter that elicits a fear or aggression response from your dog.

Every dog is different and will progress and sometimes backslide at his own pace.  Be patient, and watch his body language for signs of joy or discomfort. with these training tips, your new best friend should be bonded to you within the span of a week if not sooner.

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