Written by Scotty Valadao – Canine Behaviour Consultant (ABC of SA); Founder of Friends of the Dog
The first few weeks with a new dog are crucial weeks. They’ll set the tone and foundation of your future relationship. It’s essential that you put in the time and work needed to develop a well-balanced and well-behaved dog. This will set you up for that wonderful fur friend relationship that everyone dreams of.
What is the Honeymoon Period?
Nothing to do with roses and coffee being served in bed, on a tray, by your new husband! There’s a period of approximately three weeks when we take a new adult or adolescent dog into our homes, where the dog’s more likely to be well behaved, and if any behaviour concerns are exhibited, these are likely to be of low intensity.
Having said that the period is approximately three weeks, newer research by vet and behaviourist Karen Overall and other behaviourists indicates that the Honeymoon Period can go for as long as three to six months, and we’ve definitely seen this for ourselves. It really is a case that it all depends on the actual dog adopted and its personality.
What is crucial is that you do all you possibly can to bring in your basic rules of what is and is not allowed and lay down a solid foundation.
Why is there this Honeymoon Period?
Well, think about how you would feel if you were taken from your current home, arrived in a country where they didn’t speak your language, and ended up living in a house with a family you didn’t know! Of course, you’d be on your best behaviour and watch your Ps and Qs. However, as you learnt the basics of the language and what was expected of you, you’d feel more relaxed, and your own personality and habits would start to emerge. That’s exactly what happens with new dogs coming to a home, whether it came from a shelter or another family – the stress levels are enormous.
If we bear in mind that this dog has already had its own experiences, some of which may not have been pleasant, has “learned” behaviours, often developed to cope with its previous home and even in the shelter, is definitely traumatised to some degree by being in the shelter or just the stress involved of ending up in a new home, then we can look at the dog with a new appreciation and understanding and work at the dog’s pace to help the adoption be successful.
Many people are surprised that, if there are other dogs in the home, initially all goes well… and then suddenly friction between the dogs develops. Although this doesn’t always happen, if it does, it normally starts towards the end of the Honeymoon Period when the dog’s feeling more relaxed and it starts to figure out its own position in the canine hierarchy. This can be even more challenging if the dog being adopted is an adolescent – a time in a dog’s life where behaviour can decline and adolescents, on average, tend to push boundaries and push for position in the hierarchy (like teenaged humans).
What is interesting is that we find that the Honeymoon Period exists between dogs that are casual visitors to a family member’s home as well. On average, the dog will stay with another family member for two or three weeks while its people are on holiday, but if the period is extended for some reason or other, friction often develops between all the dogs – this is because the visiting dog is now trying to find its position in the canine hierarchy as a permanent member.
Starting the work the moment the dog comes into the home and keeping it strictly in place over the next few weeks can go a long way to a successful adoption. Don’t wait until problems develop and then call in a professional for help – rather start the second the dog comes into the home. As the old adage goes “prevention is better than cure”!
So, what do we do?
First and foremost, don’t feel sorry for the dog for having had a hard time in the past, even if there was known abuse; the past is just that: the past. This is one very lucky dog as it’s ended up in a home with its new family and you’re all off to a fresh start.
The more we hold onto these feeling of pity towards the dog, the more we’ll hold it back – as the saying goes “yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift, which is why it’s called the present”. Focus on the present, and daily do all you can to help your new dog settle into its wonderful new home, as you are indeed a gift to the dog!
As much as you want to hug and love this new dog and show him/her how happy you are that it has become part of your family, go slowly and, as with a pup coming into a home, don’t give the dog additional attention – respect the existing canine hierarchy that does exist already.
Sixteen steps to success
- When the new dog arrives, allow it to sniff and smell the first few days while it finds its feet. This dog will be stressed and unsure – don’t just plonk on a collar and lead, go for long walks, introduce to multiple people, go to dog parks, etc. until the dog is first settled in the home environment and knows both its new people, the home, the garden and the other pets in the home. Then increase novel (new) stimulation, visiting people, meeting people, going to new places on a gradual basis and at a pace the dog can cope with.
- Put routines in place the same as you have for any existing dogs, especially around food. Ideal feeding is twice a day, which helps to balance serotonin levels, and the dog knows when the next meal is coming – especially important with shelter dogs. Additionally, stick to your own routine as well; so often people take a week off work to settle the new arrival, and this results in separation anxiety beginning to develop when the dog’s new people do go back to work.
- Don’t feed dogs together, or even in the same room. Doing this is a sure way to increase stress and cause possible resource guarding between the other dogs – feed dogs in separate rooms completely – you have no idea how much a simple thing like this can lower stress.
- If you’re not going to allow the dog on your bed or chairs, then start this right at the beginning, and provide a blanket for the dog to lie on.
- If you’re not going to feed the dog from the table or supply treats when you’re cooking, then don’t do it right from the beginning.
- Get the dog used to the equipment you’ll use for walking, and get it used to walking on lead around the home and garden (we do prefer harness and lead, if possible).
- Teach the basic exercises you’ve decided upon. We suggest Sit, Down, Recall, Bite Inhibition and Swap as absolute basics.
- When you’ve been out and arrive home, if the new dog is jumping up on you and you allow it, all you’re doing is putting in place a bad habit for the future! Rather just stand quietly inside the door and wait until the dog’s calmed down – then call it, request a Sit (if not yet taught, then just have the dog standing quietly), praise quietly and offer a treat. Take a few steps away from the door and repeat. This totally prevents the jumping up and overexcitement that often happens at doors and may be fine on average, but not if you have on white trousers!
- As tempting as it may be to shower this new dog with love, give attention on your terms only. If the new dog is pawing you, pushing its head on your lap, demanding you play with a toy etc., just ignore the dog. When it gives up (which it will), allow a few seconds and then call it back and give the attention the dog wanted – you’re not saying you don’t love the dog – you’re doing it on your terms. Once the dog gets the idea of this, then vary the time period.
- As we all work for our living in one way or the other, stop giving all “freebees” to your new dog. Ask it to do something and “work” for its living. Doing this will increase your standing in the combined human/canine social structure and make the dog feel more secure. It will also go a long way to a well-behaved and polite dog that doesn’t jump up! Examples:
- Sit before getting your attention
- Sit before eating
- Sit before putting on the collar and lead
- Sit before getting both in and out of the car
- Sit before opening the door
- Not all dogs are great with children and all people – ensure that the new dog doesn’t have fear of the new person, and rather introduce it to new people on lead where you have control of the situation. If any problems are encountered, please get assistance.
- Be totally consistent in both your behaviour and what you allow and don’t allow, and this applies to all members of the family and also visitors. Not to be totally consistent is to totally confuse the dog (mom says no and dad says yes), plus, if you’re allowing certain behaviours sometimes (such as jumping up) and not at other times, you’ll inadvertently be reinforcing the behaviour you don’t want!
- Ensure that the new dog is given some alone time, starting with a short period and gradually increasing. At this time, supply a delicious stuffed chew toy which is only given at this time, and when the dog joins you again, that chew toy is taken away. This teaches the dog self-confidence at being alone, and that time alone is a wonderful time to look forward to. This also prevents resource guarding between dogs where chew toys are concerned and helps to prevent separation anxiety.
- Ensure you supply sufficient chew toys and mental stimulation. Here’s a link to an article which will give you some idea: https://www.friendsofthedog.co.za/destressing-physical-mental.html
- Once your new dog is settled and used to walking on lead and in the garden, start short walks, and if there are other dogs in the family, walk them together. Dogs that walk together tend to bond together. Scenting is crucial to dogs and part of their innate needs, so even if you don’t walk too far, allow the dog to sniff and scent to its heart’s content – this is a walk for the dog, not gym for the owners.
- If you’re experiencing any problems, please do get professional help as soon as possible – the longer the problem is in place, the harder it is to change. Look for a certified behaviourist that uses positive reinforcement methods. You can find a list of behaviourists at the Animal Behaviour Consultants of South Africa’s website at www.animal-behaviour.org.za, or ask the animal welfare from which you adopted if they have a behaviourist they work with (many do offer assistance to new adopters).
Offering a home to an adolescent or adult shelter dog, we believe, is one of the most wonderful things that a person can do. Not only will you end up with a great new companion, but you’ve also taken a dog from an unbelievably stressful situation and perhaps even saved it from an untimely end.
Remember that each time a dog is returned to a shelter, the physiological damage is huge, and the chances of a successful future adoption are reduced dramatically – if you need help, please get it. We have nothing but utter admiration for those who take this route and bring an adolescent or adult dog into their homes. Thank you!
About Friends of the Dog
Friends of the Dog is a (free) “one-stop shop” of information and advice about all things dog-related. It’s the brainchild of dog behaviourist Scotty Valadao, who realised that many dog owners were totally confused by the proliferation of information on the internet, with its mixed messages and dubious experts, and very often, more harm than good was occurring. In order to remedy this, she decided to put together a “one-stop” site full of reliable information, written by professionals, to help dog owners with their dogs. Visit www.friendsofthedog.co.za for more information.