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ADOPTING A SHELTER DOG 10 tips for a successful adoption

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adopting a shelter dog, dog adoption, dogsDogs are exceptional animals, and their ability and desire to form deep and loving bonds with humans is extraordinary. Yet far too often, dogs end up in shelters, unfortunate victims of circumstances beyond their control or understanding. By adopting, you are truly giving your dog an amazing gift – a second chance.

Following an adoption, it may take a few weeks or months for you and your dog to fully adjust to your new life together, and to establish a relationship based on mutual understanding, trust and respect. Be patient. Your dog may have bounced from one or more homes, to a shelter, and then to you. Providing her with consistent and gentle guidance will help lower her stress and instil in her ways you’d like her to behave. Remember, there is a reason you’ve chosen this dog or she’s chosen you!

The following 10 adoption tips will help you bring out your dog’s superstar qualities.

1.Help your dog relax at home alone

Adopted dogs usually form instant deep bonds with their new owners, and in the beginning, separation may be emotional for you both. Help give your dog the confidence to be home alone by incorporating the following confidence-building tips into his day. Begin using these tips as soon as you bring him home.

  • Leave the house frequently for short periods by walking out the door, closing it, and then returning. Once your dog is comfortable with short departures, randomly include some longer departures.
  • Ignore your dog during departures and arrivals (be very casual – don’t look back!).
  • Practice mini departures inside by closing doors when you take a shower, use the toilet, etc.
  • Turn the television or radio on 30 minutes before leaving (and at least 15 minutes before you start preparing to leave) to help calm your dog when he’s alone. Note: If you turn on the television or radio shortly before departing, it can become a signal to your dog that you’re leaving and increase his anxiety.
  • Studies have shown that dogs are calmed by classical music so consider changing your radio station.
  • Try to stay relaxed (if you’re anxious your dog’s
    anxiety will increase).
  • Give your dog a safe chew toy stuffed with treats before you leave the house.

A dog with severe separation anxiety may destroy property, bark incessantly, scratch around doors or windows, or injure himself in a frenzied panic. Speak to a dog trainer, animal behaviourist or veterinarian for ways to increase your dog’s comfort when he’s home alone. To learn more about separation anxiety read, I’ll Be Home Soon! by Patricia McConnell.

2.Establish household rules and routines

If your dog is living with more than one person, it is especially important that rules and routines are followed by every member of the household
to encourage consistency, and to give your dog stability and leadership. The more consistent your family is, the quicker she can figure things out. Lack of routine, yelling at your dog for doing things wrong, or letting her make up her own rules will only make your dog anxious and unsettled. Consider incorporating some of the following rules and routines into your household.

  • Feed your dog high-quality meals on a regular schedule in a quiet place.
  • Walk your dog a minimum of twice a day – once before you leave for work. Active dogs may also require vigorous off-leash exercise in a secure area.
  • Until your dog is housetrained, sleeping in a crate in someone’s bedroom is recommended. Once she can hold it all night, sleeping on her bed or yours is fine.
  • Use treats or small amounts of people food as re- wards for good behaviour (such as lying down quietly) or as training aids. Do not feed your dog from the table or when she’s whining, barking or pawing you (unless you enjoy your dog begging!).
  • Teach your dog that she must ask for things she likes by sitting politely, rather than by making demands (e.g. barking/pawing). Before giving her things she values, such as meals, wait for her (pa- tiently!) to sit. Turn away if she starts barking and/or jumping.
  • Once your dog knows a few commands, you can
  • begin to practice “Nothing in Life is Free.” Before
  • you give your dog anything she likes (food, a treat, a
  • walk etc.), ask her to perform one of the commands
  • she has learned. For example, she must sit until you
  • put the leash on. This exercise is an excellent way
  • to incorporate training into your daily life, establish
  • leadership and to give your dog a sense of security.

3. Reward behaviours you want

Consider what your dog finds rewarding, and use it to motivate your dog to repeat behaviours you like! A reward can be treats, walks, dinner, praise, a game with a favourite toy, saying hello to another dog, sniffing grass, belly rubs, a throw of the ball, etc. Most of us are so used to noticing “mistakes” our dogs make that it seems odd to notice and reward “good” behaviours. But, if the only behaviours you reward with your attention are unwanted behaviours (even yelling is attention), then these are the very behaviours your dog will repeat. Instead, make a habit of noticing and rewarding your dog for wonderful behaviours that you may typically take for granted, such as lying down, playing quietly, chewing appropriate toys, acting friendly to other pets or people, or walking on leash without pulling. To be meaningful to your dog, the reward must closely follow the good behaviour. Having been rewarded, he will be motivated to keep doing those things you like!

4. Manage the situation so your dog makes “good” choices

Dogs develop habits (good and bad) quickly. As a result, extra management early on is invaluable. Every time your dog has the opportunity to repeat an unwanted behaviour, such as jumping on guests, you’re making it more likely she will do it again. Your job is to figure out what triggers the behaviour, to anticipate it, and to prevent it from reoccurring. For example, before opening the door, make it impossible for your dog to jump on guests by putting her in a crate, blocking the front entrance with baby gates or putting her in another room. When your guests have a chance to sit down, and your dog is calm, take her to meet each guest on a leash. Step on the leash at the point where it touches the ground if she’s standing. If your dog attempts to jump to say hello, the leash will momentarily tighten, and she will correct herself. Other examples of management include:

  • Dog proof your house. Pick up anything that might be chewed, and coat electrical cords and furniture legs with Bitter Apple (a bad-tasting substance available from most pet stores).
  • Watch your dog closely. Use doors, baby gates or a tether (a short plastic-coated cable about four ft long with snaps at both ends to restrain your dog for short periods of time) to keep her in the same room you are in.
  • When you’re not available to watch your dog, either crate her or put her in a completely dog-proofed room. Set her up to succeed!
  • Place at least three enticing, safe chew toys in every room your dog frequents to help keep her entertained and out of trouble. One of the best is Kong toys, chew-resistant rubber beehive-shaped toys with a hollow center which can be stuffed with your dog’s dinner, treats or veggies, held in place with yogurt, cream cheese or peanut butter.
  • Purchase a dog seat belt (dog wears and attaches to car seatbelt) to keep your dog from wandering around the car while you are driving and to protect her incase of a sudden stop or collision.
  • Prevent your dog from pulling the leash on walks by using a head halter (e.g. Halti, Gentle Leader), pressure harness (e.g. Sporn) or front-clip harness (e.g. SENSE-ation harness). Avoid choke chains which literally choke the dog and can cause tracheal and esophageal damage.

5. Turn “mistakes” into learning opportunities

If your dog is well supervised, she shouldn’t have the opportunity to make many mistakes, but on occasion they will happen. When they do, make a mental note to boost your management next time. In the meanwhile, use his unwanted behaviours as an opportunity to teach him preferred behaviours. Consider:

  • Finding an alternative behaviour. When you want your dog to stop doing something, give him something to do that is incompatible with the behaviour you don’t want. For example, if your dog jumps on you, ask him to sit instead. Next time, catch him before he’s jumped and ask him to sit. If he barks to greet visitors, teach him to grab a toy to say hello (makes it much harder to bark!). If he gets distracted on walks, teach him a “watch me” command to get his attention. If he’s heading for the table (or already chewing it) offer him a chew toy instead and praise him for chewing it. It’s not enough for you to say you want the behaviour to stop. Define what you want your dog to do in the situation and help teach him how to behave. Reward good choices!
  • Ignoring the behaviour. If a behaviour is ignored, it will eventually end on its own. Imagine you are trying to buy a bag of chips from a vending machine. You drop in your change and press the button – but nothing happens. You press the button harder repeatedly. You might even shake the machine. Finally, frustrated, you give up and leave. The chip-seeking behaviour stops (extinguishes) because there was no payoff. So, if you ignore your dog’s unwanted attention-seeking behaviours, such as barking, whining or jumping (by not looking, speaking or touching your dog in any way until the behaviour stops), it will eventually extinguish. But before your dog gives up, the behaviour will appear to worsen. Recognize the escalated behaviour for what it is, and wait it out. The behaviour will eventually stop, and it will stop even sooner the next time. If you need to, walk out of the room and close the door behind you to prevent yourself from giving your dog attention. Be aware that ignoring behaviours that are inherently self-rewarding to your dog, such as digging, won’t be effective.

NOTE: If you use punishment techniques that cause pain or frighten the dog to deter unwanted behaviours, such as yelling, choking, popping the leash, smacking, shaking the scruff, alpha rolling (forcing the dog onto his back) or choke chains – you risk damaging the relationship between you and your dog – sometimes beyond repair. Moreover, it does nothing to address the cause of the behaviour so it is likely to be repeated. Remove the cause of the unwanted dog behaviour – not the symptoms!

6. Take a dog training class

Taking your dog – and your family –

Taking your dog – and your family – to dog training classes is a wonderful and fun way to help you understand how your dog thinks and learns, and how to motivate her to repeat behaviours you like! You can also have a trainer visit your home for private sessions to boost your dog IQ. While costs vary (group classes typically cost from $150 to $250 for six to eight one-hour sessions and private sessions generally cost $35 to $80 per hour), the investment will repay itself many times over throughout the life of your pet. A good class can put you in a room full of other new dog owners just like yourself, answer all your day-to-day questions, and help address the minor issues that arise

Look for a trainer that uses “positive-reinforcement” techniques that are humane and fun including “lure-rewarding” (using treats to lure dogs into position), and “clicker training” (marking the exact moment the dog is doing the desired behaviour using a small device that makes a “click” – followed by feeding a treat). In class, trainers should give clear instructions and explanations, provide demonstrations for each exercise, and give individual feedback while everyone in the class is given an opportunity to try the lesson on their own dog. Most basic puppy (12 to 18 weeks) and adult (18 weeks and older) classes typically cover the following commands in class: sit, down, stand, stay, off, come, walking on leash without pulling and a few fun tricks. Generally a number of behaviour topics are included as well.

All trainers have slightly different styles – from enthusiastic, fun and fast-paced to more serious or relaxed. Ask to view a class beforehand and find one that interests you. Many schools welcome school-age children so ask what their policy is if you’re interested in having your kids participate. If the dogs and people in the class enjoy the trainer – it’s a good sign you and your dog will too! Read How to Choose a Dog Trainer to learn more about dog training classes and how to find a group or private trainer in your community.

7. Gain helpful insights from dog behaviour and training experts

Reading writings from dog behaviour and training experts can give you fascinating insights into your dog and how to handle a variety of behaviour issues. It can also help you appreciate how well dogs relate to us, considering how confusing our efforts at communication generally are!

Indeed, good professional dog trainers are effective because they understand how dogs learn and they are aware of their own behaviour. They’ve learned to stop doing things that may be natural to humans but are misinterpreted by dogs. They know that the smallest of movements can result in huge changes in a dog’s behaviour. For example, just turning around and moving away from your dog can greatly increase the chance your dog will come to you when called, and leaning slightly backward or forward can encourage a scared dog toward you or chase her away. Additionally, good dog communicators consciously make sounds that reflect what they want the dog to do, rather than how they’re feeling inside. For example:

  • If you want to increase your dog’s level of activity, such as encouraging your dog to come or speed up, use short, repeated notes like claps, smooches or short, repeated words.
  • If you want your dog to do an action that inherently inhibits activity – like sit, down or stay – try to say it only once (one single, continuous note). E.g. Staaaaaaay.
  • One long continuous note, paired with long, slow strokes (and slowing your own breathing) can help calm an anxious dog. E.g. Gooooood dog.
  • Saying a signal in a lower voice than before can increase the chance your dog will comply.
  • Sounds that change a lot in pitch get a dog’s attention better than a continuous flat sound.

Helpful books and websites to better understand and train your dog:

  • The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell
  • Power of Positive Dog Training by Pat Miller
  • Click for Joy! by Melissa Alexander
  • Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor
  • Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson
  • Dogs are from Neptune by Jean Donaldson
  • Excel-erated Learning by Pamela Reid
  • (Dogwise offers an extensive collection of books and videos for dog lovers and trainers through their website)

8. Teach children and pets to respect each other

When introducing your new dog to your pets, supervise at all times and allow them time to accept each other – friendships may take weeks or months to develop. In the beginning, you may need to baby gate certain rooms, or shut doors to keep pets separated when they can’t be supervised. You may also want to reward your current pet with a treat when you pay attention to your new pet to help her accept the new addition. Once you’re comfortable your dog and other pets will behave, they can have access to each other without supervision.

It’s also important to teach your children – and dog – to behave appropriately together. Babies and small children require adult supervision around any dog, even their own. Teaching your dog basic obedience, such as off, sit, stay or come are invaluable. Be aware that older dogs, and those with disabilities, may be easily irritated or frightened. Educate children to be considerate of their limitations and to treat them with respect. As well, teach your children not to:

  • Disturb a dog that is eating, sleeping or caring for puppies.
  • Approach a dog’s food, toys or bowl.
  • Tease, chase or yell at a dog.
  • Play roughly with dogs, or grab their ears and tails.
  • Take food away from a dog or pick up dropped food in a dog’s presence.
  • Run or ride a bicycle past a dog. Some dogs like to chase fast-moving objects.
  • Corner, crowd or stand over a dog, as this may make the dog feel defensive.
  • Approach unattended dogs – in yards, in cars, outside stores etc.
  • Additional resources:
  • Feeling Outnumbered? How to Manage & Enjoy a Multi-Dog Household by Karen London & Patricia McConnell

9. Housetrain your dog to prevent indoor accidents

Even if the dog you’ve adopted was previously housetrained, err on the side of caution and assume he hasn’t been for the first couple weeks to help prevent any accidents. From the moment your dog enters your home, spend time teaching and rewarding him for eliminating in the right spot. Most dogs can learn what is expected in a few weeks. Some dogs, including those raised in places such as pet stores or puppy mills, will take longer by the experience of living their formative weeks or months in a tiny cage where they could not avoid sleeping in their own waste. These dogs can be housetrained, but extra patience may be required. Helpful housetraining tips include:

For the first few weeks, take your dog outside on leash directly to the appropriate area and treat him as soon as he goes.

Once he eliminates, do not immediately ask him to come back indoors. Some dogs will “hold it” for as long as possible to avoid returning inside. Instead, play a game of ball or take your dog for a walk. Keep your dog under close supervision until he is trustworthy. If you allow the dog to wander unsupervised, at least limit his access to the entire house by closing all doors to bedrooms, bathrooms and basement, and/or using baby gates to
block off rooms.

If you keep your dog with you, watch him closely. If he starts sniffing, circling or goes to an area where he has eliminated before, take him out immediately. If you do not watch him and he eliminates, it’s not his fault – it’s your mistake for not paying close enough attention to him.

If you catch your dog in the act, make a sharp sound to distract him (e.g. loud clap), then pick him up or race him outdoors. Praise and treat him when he finishes doing his business outside.

Never get mad at your dog for having an accident in the house. It is your responsibility to help ensure he’s successful. If your dog is not caught in the act he will not understand why you are angry – even if he is showing signs of appeasement (cowering).

Purchase an enzymatic cleaner to neutralize accident odors to prevent repeat accidents on the same spot.

The general rule for how many hours your dog can hold it is their age in months, plus one. So a four-month-old puppy can hold his bladder for five hours. From seven months through adulthood he should be able to hold it for nine hours total during the day (for smaller dogs it may be less).

Adult dogs have bigger bladders, but they still need to go outside after feeding, when you come home from work, before going to sleep at night and after waking. Older dogs typically need to be let out more frequently.

Keep a record of when your dog eliminates and the activities (e.g. a meal or walk) that precede it. You will soon notice that your dog tends to eliminate at certain times and after particular activities as long as he eats at approximately the same time. Be proactive and anticipate his needs.

Crating, while not necessary for all dogs, is generally considered the easiest and quickest way to housetrain because most dogs will not soil in their crate (never leave a dog in a crate longer than they can hold it). It can also help prevent puppies, adolescents and young active dogs at the peak of their chewing prowess from misbehaving if left alone or you’re preoccupied. Click here for some crate training tips.

Additional resources
Way to Go! How to Housetrain a Dog of Any Age by Karen London and Patricia McConnell

10. Find ways to exercise your dog’s mind and body outdoors and indoors

The simple root cause of many dog behaviour issues is too little exercise and mental stimulation. Excess energy, boredom and the resulting stress, can cause dogs to invent their own activities, such as chewing or barking. Keep your dog’s life active and interesting by taking her to explore parks, nature trails and city streets – running, walking and playing fetch or frisbee. Set your alarm 30 to 60 minutes earlier in the mornings to accommodate exercising her before you leave for work. If you are unable to accommodate the exercise needs of your pet, ask a neighbour, friend, family member or paid professional to help.

In addition to outside exercise, help your dog burn some energy indoors with the following games:

Kong toy chew: The hollow center can be filled with food and treats or your dog’s meals. A dab of peanut butter spread around the inside is very effective.

Hide and seek: Hide and encourage your dog to find you by making clapping sounds, bouncing a ball, squeaking a squeaky toy, etc. When she finds you, praise her and play with the toy or give her a treat.

Scenting: Hide a toy or a biscuit and encourage your dog to find it. Make the game very easy to start. Later you can make it more challenging by hiding multiple items in hard to find places.

Fetch: Toss a ball across the room and let your dog fetch it and bring it back to you. To teach your dog fetch, place her on a leash, toss the toy nearby, praise when she approaches the toy and picks it up. Encourage her towards you, using the leash to reel her in if necessary (or turn and run away to encourage her to follow you). If she won’t give you the toy, place a smelly treat near her nose and make an exchange. Quickly throw the toy again. If she’s not interested in fetching, make a hole in a tennis ball and stuff some treats in it – then throw!

Tricks: Teach your dog to shake a paw, roll over, or even balance a biscuit on her nose. Take a training class or buy a tricks book to learn fun and impressive moves!

Stair toss: Toss a toy up or down the stairs and encourage your dog to get it. Come: Make the word “Come” fun and rewarding every time! To teach the word “Come,” show your dog a treat, say the word “Come,” then run away and encourage her to follow by clapping your hands, whistling, talking silly, etc. When she catches you, reward her with the treat. Call “Come!” while hiding and encourage her to find you. Gradually call your dog away from further distances (start by running away if you need to)! Long lines (light lines that are 10 to 50 ft) are great for practicing outside while keeping your dog safe. Note: To keep your dog’s “Come” response reliable, use the word sparingly and only when it is followed up by things your dog likes (e.g. meals, games). If you need to do something unpleasant (or even neutral) to your dog, such as ending a play session, simply go up and get your dog, bounce a ball, call his name, make fun noises or use a secondary recall word.

Games to avoid include: “Catch me if you can” (dog can learn he can outrun you and he may think it’s a game of “keep away” when you want him near); play fighting and wrestling (encourages jumping up, chasing and mouthing or biting); and “tug of war” without rules (should only be played if you start and end the game, keep the tug toy in a drawer when not in use, end the game if the dog’s teeth accidentally touch you in any way, and if the dog is required to give you the toy frequently – say “give” or “off” and use a treat if necessary to make an exchange).


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