What if your new shelter dog doesn’t settle in?

17th Jan, 2023

What if your new shelter dog doesn’t settle in?

Written by Scotty Valadao – Canine Behaviourist – www.friendsofthedog.co.za

On average, a dog will adjust to its new home within 2 – 3 weeks and will then feel more settled and secure. But what if this doesn’t happen with your adopted dog? 

You’re not alone. We’ve come across many rescue dogs that just don’t seem to be able to settle in the new environment and the new owner is at a loss to know why. Fortunately, this can be resolved. 

Why do dogs battle to settle?

The most common type of behaviour we’ve observed is the dog that’s aloof, not interested in its new family, wants to spend time alone and seems to make no effort at all to fit in. While all the family will be in the lounge watching TV, this particular dog will be in a bedroom, outside, etc. This keeps happening, even when the dog’s been in the new home for an extended period of time.

As we can’t read dogs’ minds, it’s difficult to determine exactly what causes this to happen, but from the backgrounds we’ve been able to obtain, this seems to occur more in dogs that appeared to have a strong bond with their previous families, have perhaps lost a beloved owner due to illness or death, and the dog may even be waiting for its previous owner to appear and take it home. It could even be that the dog had a companion or relative at the shelter and they’ve been separated.

In some cases, these are dogs that have spent a long period of time in shelters before being adopted. Many shelters have very high noise levels and are busy places with people walking to and fro, buckets and food bins being banged, hose pipes washing out the run, dogs barking and whining, and dogs that aren’t always suited to being together are placed either together or in a run next to one another. All these factors can impact on a dog and cause high levels of stress and even depression, making it harder for the dog to settle in the new home.

When dogs are off-colour, they can isolate as well, so do check out this aspect with your vet, who’ll ask you questions and may suggest you take the dog in for a check-up.

Other types of dog that often fall into the “battling to settle category” when being rehomed, are those that were bottle-fed as pups or taken away from their mother and siblings before eight weeks of age. Of course, unless you have a background confirming same, this cannot be determined.

Perhaps the dog just views the new owner as one of the many who’ve walked past its run in the past and one day they too will simply disappear. 

We really don’t know why for sure, but what we do know is that we can help these dogs to feel more secure and start to accept the new family more. 

Here are some of the things to consider:

  • Don’t “pander” to the dog or force yourself on it
    We as humans like to “fix” things, and the more you try to comfort the dog, there’s the possibility that it will become more withdrawn.

    To a dog, a natural leader is somebody who’s calm, is in control, looks after its pack, etc., and not somebody who’s constantly trying to comfort and interact with it. Taking the position of being in charge of the human/canine pack structure will help the dog to feel more secure.

    Aim for very short and positive interactions with the dog, rather than one long one – just a few minutes at a time will do initially.
  • Manage your expectations
    Don’t expect the dog to learn any basic obedience exercises at this stage – first, get it settled, then consider this aspect.
  • Determine what the dog really likes and use this
    It could be a game of ball, pullies with a rope, a soft toy being thrown. Don’t throw the ball from one end of the garden to the other initially as this doesn’t always work. Instead, bounce the ball up and down in front of the dog, then toss it a few inches away; as the dog starts to get interested, slowly build up the distance – the same with the pull rope and soft toy.
    Have frequent, short games with the dog in this manner, and always stop before the dog has had enough – this makes it more likely to want to play again.

    If the dog isn’t toy driven but instead prefers food (and many of them do due to being in a shelter), then supply plenty of appealing chew toys (but not all at once). Choose toys that can be stuffed with food, and change these frequently to provide variety and stimulation. You’ll find plenty of recipes and ideas of what to stuff them with, from simple kibbles to frozen treats.

    When the dog seems more relaxed and is enjoying the chew toy, instead of leaving him alone to enjoy it, place a special cushion for him in the lounge or kitchen (where people are) and place the toy on this. Do this for short intervals of time and make sure that the area the dog is in isn’t too rowdy and has no other dogs to compete for the chew toy. This helps to slowly build up the dog’s association that being with people is a good thing. At the same time, you can tell the dog from time to time “good dog, clever dog” and reward with a delicious treat each and every time, further building up the positive association.

    onsider some simple clicker exercises where the dog can be stimulated and taught some basic skills, which will serve to stimulate it and build a bond.

    Another thing you can do where food is involved, is instead of feeding the dog out of the bowl twice a day, start to feed small portions of food by hand, simply calling the dog to you and awarding a few pieces of kibble at a time. Don’t use the whole of the dog’s meal initially – start with a handful and you can gradually build it up and include some nice tasty treats. This further associates you with “good things” and will help to build up the bond.
  • A lovely scent/smell-filled walk just outside the property can work wonders
    First, ensure that the dog cannot get out of the walking equipment used. Once outside, allow them to sniff and smell to their heart’s content. A dog’s sense of smell is about 45 times stronger than that of a human; this is approximately over two million more scent cells than we humans have. A dog needs to sniff and smell to relax and be stimulated. Additionally, in humans, it’s been shown that exercise has an effect on our serotonin levels (the happy hormone), and I’ve seen the same thing happen with dogs.

    In my experience, many dogs which just couldn’t seem to cope appear instantly happier after a short sniff around outside the property.

    Stay very close to home initially, such as on the pavement. Allow them to take as much time as they want to sniff – this walk isn’t for exercise – and, from time to time, when the nose isn’t to the ground, call the dog’s name in a happy voice, praise when the dog looks at you, and offer a lovely treat. You want to keep the dog in an area it feels safe and close to home initially until its confidence levels increase and it’s no longer being involved with the family.

    After the dog has gotten used to this, start walking in other areas – only introduce them to one new area at a time and make sure they’re totally comfortable before moving somewhere new. It takes time, but it’s worth the effort for you and your new canine companion.
  • Rope in your vet
    Speak to your vet about putting the dog in a pheromone collar for at least a month. These collars contain synthetic pheromones that mimic the pheromones that a bitch releases at birth. These serve to calm and reassure the dog and assist with bonding. A dog recognises these throughout its life. The vet may suggest another medication to assist.
  • Try TTouch™
    I’ve been involved in this wonderful modality for years now and am still blown away by the changes that can occur when it’s used with fear behaviour and dogs like this. I’ve never yet come across a situation where it doesn’t help!  

All this may seem a lot of work, but not only is it fun and rewarding, it’s so worth it in the end. 

Note: Always check with your veterinarian if your dog seems out of sorts, as many health conditions can also cause them to behave in a withdrawn, depressed way, and it’s important to rule these out before proceeding.

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