I Got a Shelter/Rescue Dog – Now What?

The Animal Behaviour Consultants of Southern Africa (©®™)
Taken from a talk given by Louise Thompson (Accredited animal behaviour consultant ABC of SA©®™) of Paws Abilities Behaviour & Learning Centre

  • What to do when you get him/her home?
  • Coping with the first few weeks
  • How to move forward from there
  • Realistic expectations


Many of us involved with animal rescue tend to push adoptions as a good choice for owners wanting a new dog. We cajole, we beg, and are very quick to point out the advantages, the moral reasons, and the humanity of saving a life. However, we are not so quick to point out the potential downside. Therefore, it’s not surprising that new owners often have totally unrealistic expectations of their new rescue dog. This can often result in a dog becoming ‘re-cycled’, which is something all rescuers and shelters want to avoid at all costs.

An adopted dog can fulfil many expectations, and some rescue animals quickly fit into a new home, new routine, new dogs, new people, etc. However, without some time, energy, and effort on a new owner’s part, things can go horribly wrong. It is unrealistic to expect a newly adopted dog to adapt and fit into a family effortlessly or overnight.

Now, we all know that some rescue dogs come with excess baggage. This is a given. So what now? Where to from here?

I am going to make the generous assumption that the shelter is a reputable one, and has ‘matched’ the dog with the ‘right’ family. ie breed characteristics, energy levels, life style, environment, etc. Also that the mandatory sterilisation, micro chipping, health checks, internal & external parasite control has been achieved, and that any other medical issues have been attended to. I am also going to make the assumption that any dog-on-dog introductions to an existing dog or dogs, will have already been made on neutral ground, and that any existing dogs will have met the new rescue dog at least more than once to ensure that there will not be any potential aggression when you get the rescue dog home.

If this is not the case then the prospective owner should insist that this is an absolute necessity before taking home a dog that is expected to fit into an existing family. This should be done under strict supervision in a totally controlled environment, with responsible, experienced handlers who have extensive knowledge of dog behaviour, body language and communications, and have the skills to intervene if/when necessary with the least amount of stress.

Dealing with the Human Adopters!

Most people adopt a shelter dog because they are kind, generous people, with a genuine love for dogs. Because they are caring individuals they tend to want to see fast results. In many cases this is not possible. Expectations need to be realistic – regardless of the dog’s history. Generally speaking, there are no quick fixes. In most cases it takes time, patience and understanding to see improvements. The first things the new dog in a household needs is… time and space!

There is definitely a ‘personality type’ of human who will be drawn to taking on a shelter dog. Many of these kind people find it extremely difficult to put rules into place, to instil boundaries, and not to totally indulge a traumatised animal from day one! Of course this is not easy. Human maternal and paternal instincts want to shower the dog with affection, and most people instinctively want to try and ‘make up’ for the animal’s early bad experiences.

When presented with a behaviour modification programme with dozens of steps to undertake, many owners see this as daunting, and find it extremely difficult to grasp the emotional differences between dogs and people. Being a good role model/substitute parent is very difficult for these kinds of personalities. Many misguidedly think that if they give the dog its own way in everything, it will become a happy, contented dog.

  • A good tip to help adopters to comply with an integration programme, is to provide them with short-term goals, emphasising that they only have to achieve one goal at a time
  • A ‘settling in’ programme could be divided into individual goals, and on completion of each goal, the next one supplied
  • Supplying adoptees with too much information, too soon, can often cause them to feel overwhelmed
  • With problem dogs this is often intensified, as, to the new owner, the problems can appear to be insurmountable
  • By dividing a programme up into manageable steps, it simplifies the process and makes each and every step more attainable

What do you do when you get Him/Her Home?

The first thing that you do when you get your rescue dog home is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING – NOTHING AT ALL!

  • Don’t force any kind of interaction, social or other
  • Don’t speak to the dog
  • Don’t make eye contact
  • Don’t fuss
  • Don’t touch
  • Don’t attempt to play ‘fetch’ or solicit play behaviour
  • Don’t introduce her to your family and friends
  • Don’t crowd her with your kids
  • Don’t introduce her to your family cat, chickens, parrot, etc
  • Don’t stress for the first day or so about food, even if the dog is malnourished. Stress often inhibits appetite
  • However, after a day or so, if in any doubt, or if the dog displays lethargy or the lack of appetite continues, do consult with your veterinarian to rule out any possible physiological cause

Give the dog a chance to become aware of his surroundings to relax and settle in


  • Make sure, before you release him into your garden, that he is wearing a collar in case of emergencies. Do this at the shelter/foster home if he is not already wearing one. Also ensure that he is either micro-chipped or has a tag with all your current contact details on
  • Be as calm and as matter of fact around the dog as you possibly can. Try to ensure that the environment is as stress free as possible. You should be in control of the environment & management thereof
  • Provide the dog with easy access to clean water
  • Provide the dog with a ‘safe’ place where he/she does not feel forced to interact with anyone or anything unless he wants to. This can be a crate, or corner of a room, or if outside a kennel, etc. Make sure the dog has a place where his space is not invaded; where he can withdraw to if he does not want to interact. His rights in this regard should always be respected. Many dogs that have been kept in kennel environments are very happy to be ‘crated’ and this provides them with an artificial ‘den’ or ‘safe place’
  • Let the dog decide where he/she feels safe
  • After a couple of hours you can offer a small meal. Don’t make any dramatic changes to diet as this could cause serious digestive issues
  • Any change should be extremely gradual. Don’t panic if the dog doesn’t seem interested in a meal, no matter how high value it is. Stress often suppresses appetite
  • Offer small amounts of more frequent meals. You can also make the food a bit more high value. Some insecure dogs battle to eat when humans are present. However, there is always the other end of the scale. The half-starved dog who just can’t get enough in his gut. This can also be a sign of anxiety. Therefore, even with the over greedy dog, smaller, regular-spaced meals would be advised. This is also to ensure a healthy gut & avoid digestive problems developing.

Arriving Home – Conclusion

However, as much as I have said not to fuss too much, and to try and be somewhat aloof with the dog, if he appears to gain comfort from your presence, then of course give him some company and affection. Just don’t fuss, crowd, or go ‘over the top’. If the dog approaches you, certainly give a kind word, a smile, and physical contact if the dog is actively seeking this out. Some more naturally social types really need this as it gives them great comfort. It is easy to see a dog that is inviting contact. Some nervous individuals with a high food drive can also benefit from you dropping a high value treat each time you walk past them. However, more often than not, most dogs need some time to make the initial adjustment without too much interference.

Please Note: Most species of animal take at least 14 to 21 days to habituate to a new environment and some can take considerably longer.

Dogs are highly adaptive animals and are great opportunists! Their incredible ability to adapt is probably one of the most important facts to take into account when discussing the adoption issue. Virtually all dogs from all kinds of backgrounds will be able to adapt and habituate to a new environment. That is, as long as the environment is an appropriate one, the dog is given time, and his needs are satisfied (that is physical, emotional, and intellectual needs). Therefore, the way the dog is initially handled is vital to a successful rehabilitation and success.

Most dogs when they arrive at a new location are extremely stressed. Even if they were friendly, bouncy, playful dogs at the shelter/foster home, perhaps happily interacting with people, playing ball, running around, etc, the transition to a new environment can be a very frightening time for a dog. He may behave in a very different manner than when you first met him. Try not to take it personally! It has nothing to do with you at all. Stress can almost paralyse some individuals, so back off and give him some time.

It must be pointed out that many dogs spend a fair bit of time at a shelter before being adopted. Therefore, the shelter becomes their ‘home’; their territory, and the place they would perceive to be a ‘safe’ location. This is even more relevant if the shelter environment has been a ‘kennel’ type ‘pound’ facility. Not all dogs adopted are fortunate enough to have been in a family foster home environment, or for that matter from a good, well run shelter where dogs are socialised, walked, and have human contact while in shelter care. There are many shelters that are terrible places of disease and squalor. Lots of dogs, who come out of the old-fashioned concrete kennel ‘pound’ type environments, that are lucky enough to find a home, could already be suffering from various behavioural conditions synonymous with confinement, eg kennel dog syndrome, (severe stress behaviours caused by confinement and lack of mental and physical stimulation). These dogs can be overwhelmed by a large garden, and may suffer from agoraphobia (a condition characterised by an irrational fear of public or open spaces).

Crowds of people, too, can be overwhelming. A large, noisy family can be overwhelming to a dog that has spent time in a concrete wire kennel enclosure. It is a known fact that dogs that come out of a pound-type environment have far less chance of being re-homed, than dogs in good family foster homes.


Many dogs kept in these kinds of shelters stand little chance of being re-homed; many as a direct result of kennel dog syndrome. Dogs confined for long periods of time in ‘pound’ type facilities often become withdrawn, lose condition and interest in their surroundings, and can display stereotypical behaviours (repeated patterns of behaviours for no specific purpose or reason). In severe cases they may even self-mutilate – (acral lick granulomas), which is itself a form of stereotypical behaviour. The dog chews itself excessively until lesions are formed and often permanent tissue damage can occur. The self-licking and chewing acts as a release of tension for dogs which are bored, socially isolated, or confined for long periods of time. Pacing can also be evident, as can spinning or tail-chasing. All three of these problems can sometimes be linked to confinement stress related behaviours, where animals are kept in an area with little or no mental stimulation. This may be common in a ‘pound’ type environment. All these behaviours can become habitual, even after re-homing. Loose stools can also be a problem in these kinds of environments. While this can often be connected to internal parasites, it can also be a symptom of stress and severe anxiety.

Dogs arriving at a new location or environment can be extremely vulnerable. They need space and time to start the adjustment period.

Abused Dog? Not Necessarily!

Many people automatically assume that every nervous, shy, timid and neurotic rescue dog has been physically abused and/or beaten. However, if your rescue dog is avoiding people, or exhibiting fear aggression, it does not necessarily mean that he has been beaten. In my experience, many of these dogs have not necessarily been physically abused. Of course, some certainly bear the scars of physical abuse. However, there are many individuals who have simply been kept in total isolation, resulting in poor social skills, severe anxiety/stress, and often fear-related behaviours. Dogs who have experienced a total absence of socialisation; both inter and intra species (people/dog and/or dog/dog) for example; dogs that have been kept as ‘yard dogs’ who have been kept isolated behind four walls, with nothing to occupy themselves, and little or no mental/physical stimulation, will often present with stress/anxiety, lack of confidence, and poor people skills. This is often mistaken as signs of physical abuse.

The First Night

Many people feel that they have to give these shelter dogs extra love and double attention, in order to make up for what the dog has lost out on, with little thought to the behavioural patterns they are setting. Dogs habituate behaviour very, very quickly. From the beginning, the rules you set could quite likely be the ones that you are stuck with. In some cases, you could live to regret it. If a dog is successful in its aim, it will certainly repeat the behaviour that caused the success. Each and every time.

So, think very carefully about some of the more basic things. For example are you happy for the dog to be on furniture, or do you want him to keep to the floor? It would be very unfair to allow him on the couch and then change your mind later. When it comes to night time, your rescue dog may need extra support and care from you. Remember he has been taken away from everything he knows and will likely be confused and bewildered.

While you know he is now in a much better place, he still has this to learn. Prepare an area where you have decided the dog can sleep. Make sure he is provided with his ‘safe’ place/crate/bed/quiet undisturbed corner, etc. If you want this to be downstairs or in a separate room, you may need to make yourself a comfy bed too, and sleep with him for the first few nights until he gains confidence and trust in his new life. Many people like the safe place to be next to their bed so they can sleep in comfort and can easily reach out to reassure the dog in the night if he becomes distressed. If you don’t want your dog in the bedroom on a permanent basis, don’t worry.

Once the dog is confident, he will often choose somewhere else to sleep anyway, and if not, you can move his bed a foot or so per night until he is where you want him to be. The more you help his confidence and give him the reassurance he needs in the early days, the sooner he will be independent. Think of him as a puppy and treat him just the same. The good news is that with an older dog the ‘puppy’ stage is usually much shorter! Try to get him outside last thing before you go to bed if possible to encourage him to toilet. If he doesn’t comply, don’t worry. It is possible that he is going to have a few ‘accidents’ for which you should be prepared. If you can, a short walk will be best to encourage toileting, but if you do just use the garden, then go with him rather than just putting him outside and hoping that he goes.

Don’t put newspaper down for him to toilet on at night (or any other time), as this would be sending him the message that toileting indoors is OK. If you are with him overnight, you will hopefully hear if he is restless and can get up to take him into the garden. If you are a heavy sleeper, a good tip is to put some crackly paper down, so he makes a noise when he moves, but make sure the noise doesn’t frighten him first! If we limit his choices, there is less chance of an ‘accident’. However, there are no guarantees. Just remember, any accidents are yours, not his, so clean it up without fuss and remind yourself to try harder the next night.

Anxious dogs often present with loose stools! Getting up a couple of times through the night to give him an opportunity to toilet outside for a few days is well worth the effort. Dogs who have come from ‘kennel/pound’ environments are rarely taken out to toilet, so often have little choice but to toilet on the concrete floor. How is a dog from such a background supposed to differentiate between tiles and concrete? A good many of these dogs will need to be taught toilet habits from scratch. Please refer to our article on toilet training, which works just as well for an adult dog as a pup.

Sleeping Arrangements

If you have other dogs, and they are socially compatible, you could simply put him in the same area where the other dog/s sleep. Their company would make him feel safe, and he is then less likely to panic. The existing dogs could most likely also ‘role model’ many behaviours to him, so this would also help him to feel secure and begin the journey of habituating to his new home. Just ensure that he has his own space/bed, etc, in case he needs some space. Each individual person has a different point of view as to where a dog should sleep at night. There are no right or wrong rules (as long as you are not dealing with an aggression problem, or a dog who has personal space issues, or one who likes to defend his sleeping area). You are the one who decides where the dog sleeps. It is your dog and that is your right!

Everyone has a different point of view. However, if you can be flexible at first and make yourself available to help him for the first few nights/week or so, your dog will become confident much more quickly, and more able to adapt to the rules you want.

The Next Few Days

If he decides to approach you – great! You should show pleasure and verbally praise, with positive, non-invasive body language. Don’t lean over the dog or be invasive in your demeanour, as dogs perceive this as threatening. A good idea is to only approach him with your shoulder leading, as this is perceived as non-threatening. Or you could make yourself smaller if you are able to do this without leaning forward. If he is an only dog you can pop him a soft, high-value treat each time he approaches you of his own accord. However, be careful if one of your existing dogs has resource guarding issues, or is defensive over high value treats or objects. If he keeps his distance, don’t force the issue. Don’t ever in the early stages force him to interact with you if he is unwilling. In addition, if he shows fear of anything, never force him to confront his fears. Once he has settled in, you can start to put together a programme to work on fear using counter-conditioning, positive reinforcement, and other +R desensitisation methods.

Let him be rewarded for approaching you. Let him find the interactions valuable and rewarding. This will eventually equate to him wanting to please you, and there is a pay off. This is a good foundation for future canine/human interactions. The only exception would be if a dog was ill or needed veterinary attention. Then the rule of course does not apply.

Introducing the Family

For the first 24 hours, I would keep the kids and everyone else in the family really low-key. Over the next couple of days, depending on the dog’s individual tolerance levels, you can start introducing the family one at a time. Don’t introduce them all at once, especially if you have a large, rowdy family. One at a time is enough for him to cope with at this stage. Keep visitors at a minimum, and let the dog decide if he wants to interact or not. Initially, instruct your visitors to be as non-influential as possible. If he shows interest, get the visitor to drop a soft, high-value treat on the floor. If the dog approaches looking for more, they can repeat, and build up to letting him take the treat from their hand. Make sure that if treats are being given, that you flatten your hand (like feeding a horse), as many rescue dogs have no tit bit manners and may snatch, which could give the visitors/kids a fright and also panic the dog. So, set him up for success, not failure. This should be your attitude in all interactions and with all his experiences.

Don’t force him to interact if he is not ready. It is early days yet, and you have lots of time.

The Habituation/Adjustment Period

Expect an adjustment period. You might be pleasantly surprised. Some rescue dogs come into a new home and within a few hours it is as if they have always been there. However, the vast majority need time to get to know you and your family, and learn each other’s personalities & quirks. Remember, he doesn’t know your routines. He doesn’t know your rules. He doesn’t know your friends. He doesn’t know lots of stuff. So, give him time to adjust. After going through such a trauma as being re-homed at least twice in a reasonable period of time, he is going to make mistakes. Both of you are going to have to work hard together for you both to feel at home and content. As mentioned previously the average dog needs approximately two weeks to habituate to the new environment.

After Two Weeks my Rescue Dog is Suddenly being Very ‘Naughty

I often get calls from clients who have adopted a rescue dog and they tell me that for the first couple of weeks, he has been an ‘absolute angel’! Then, suddenly, he has ‘changed’ and become the dog from hell! The dog has now habituated to his new environment is now starting to feel safe and have trust in you. Sometimes this is when it becomes evident why he was surrendered in the first place. Fortunately for the dog, by that time, the new owners have fallen in love with him, so are usually more than willing to work through any issues that start appearing at this stage. So, be aware that this could be on the cards, and have some plans in action to deal with some of the more common problems. Also, be proud that he trusts you enough to relax and show you his true self. It should also mean he trusts you enough to let you help him work through any issues he has.

He Won’t Know the Rules

This is a big one. Every home has different rules. This dog might have gone from comfy living (or not, depending on his origin), to a place with very few comforts (the shelter), to your home, which probably seems like paradise after the shelter. He’s not going to know what to do, or what not do. You will need to start to gently guide him into your routines, and gently introduce any house rules.

Dogs are also great opportunists. Even if he’s never sat on a sofa before coming to live with you, he’ll probably try anyway, just to see if you’ll let him. The same goes for begging for food, or sleeping on the bed. Don’t punish him for trying, but try to limit his choices and not put him in the position where he is able to make the ‘wrong’ choice.

Good Rules to Establish
  • Give him his own area to eat in. Don’t expect him to eat close to other dogs, nor should you let children pester him while he is eating. He might have had to fight to get a meal at some stage. An indoor dog crate is a wonderful thing to use as a ‘safe’ place. However, he might need to be gradually accustomed to the crate and this could take a bit of time, especially if he has not had previous positive crate experiences
  • He should not be disturbed when in his ‘safe’ place. His ‘safe place rights’ in this regard should be respected, especially by the children. He deserves a place where he can escape to if he feels the need. This includes his own space to sleep in. Again respect his rights. He should not be pestered by the kids when he is in his bed
  • To help bonding with the dog, the entire family should take turns providing meals and the good things in life
  • The same goes with calm play. Unless he is fearful, try to get the whole family involved as play is a wonderful way to bond
  • The family can also take turns with the scoop the poop duties. This is also a good idea to help teach everyone what a responsibility it is to own a dog
  • Encourage the whole family to take part in some basic training such as teaching the dog to ‘come’ when called. All learning should be reward based, using basic positive reinforcement methods. Each and every interaction should be rewarding in some way for the dog. Children should, of course, be supervised at all times with this, and only involved once the dog understands what is required
Be Careful Which Rules you Establish/Reinforce

Beware of giving a dog attention while exhibiting behaviours you dislike. The attention could be perceived as a reward, and the behaviour will escalate.

Rather, concentrate on rewarding and giving the dog attention when he is displaying behaviour that you approve of. Ignore the negative. Reward and praise the positive.

In Conclusion

Taking on a shelter dog is one of the most rewarding things in the world. It is so gratifying to see an individual animal come out of its shell and flourish emotionally, and often physically. I freely admit I am prejudiced. Having had a house full of rescues and shelter dogs for decades, I can honestly say it is the only way I would ever acquire a dog! Sure they come with excess baggage, but in my opinion, each and every hang-up and issue is well worth working through.