Adapting to Adoption: Appreciating What Our Dogs Must Learn

Posted by on Aug 22, 2022

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One-year-old Jake, also known as Chuilein, is shown here as he began his new life in Pennsylvania in June (photo by Risë VanFleet)

Adopting a new canine family member is exciting. We have high hopes for a happy, healthy dog who will enjoy and appreciate their new lives with us while bringing us many hours of pleasure together. Many times we don’t know their histories and whether they were strays, owner relinquishments, or victims of unkind or abusive treatment. What we can be fairly sure of is that somewhere in their past they were unwanted or didn’t fit in. Similar to parents’ oft-reported reactions when adopting a child, we hope that our love and care will be enough to help them overcome any prior unpleasantries and thrive. Sometimes they seem to fall right in step with our lives, as if they’ve been with us forever. In most cases, however, things don’t go quite this smoothly. They – and we – have some adjusting to do! Learning to live together is a task we are familiar with when we find a partner or add children to the family, but because dogs often adapt so well to our lives, we sometimes forget just what they are going through. This article highlights the many things dogs must learn when entering a new living situation. The items covered are true of puppies and other animals as well, but the focus here will be on adolescent and adult dogs. Other relevant resources and blogposts are linked within the text below.

Background

In June, we added a new dog to our family. He came from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah where I have several colleagues and friends who do amazing work with the animals in their care. I learned of this dog from my dog training/behavior friend Susan Fishbein. After many conversations, videos, and assessments, the dog known as “King” joined our family. Since he didn’t recognize his name, I renamed him Chuilein (pronounced KOO-lin), which is Scottish Gaelic for “my laddie.” Having just returned home from the beautiful Cuillin Mountains (similar pronunciation) on the Isle of Skye, this all seemed to fit. My husband, however, said it was too close to “colonoscopy” so the dog’s everyday name became Jake — an example of how living with someone requires flexibility!

As I knew from all the assessments and first days with him, Jake was a very sweet, stable dog who seemed eager to love everyone of all species that he met, albeit a bit too enthusiastically. He was funny and playful and very interested in people. It was hard to believe that he had been just days away from being euthanized in the shelter in another state from which Best Friends had pulled him. There were no signs of aggression or even sensitivity to touch, noise or novelty. He was a happy-go-lucky boy. The only “negative” was his lack of awareness of others’ space, which he tended to invade in his eagerness to say hello or to play. Knowing this was an area I could help him modify, I wasn’t worried. He was an adolescent, after all, and some of his enthusiasm was characteristic of that period of brain and body development. He has been learning during the past 9 weeks, and he’s a great dog. I mention all this to emphasize that Jake was from the start a stable, sociable dog. The points I am about to make in this article are relevant to many dogs, but they could be more extensive with dogs who are more sensitive or wary.

Jake/Chuilein has been eager to please everyone, and he watches us to learn what he can about what we want of him. Here he waits patiently for a treat for coming back into the house when called.

Adjustment Period

Having volunteered my behavior services with rescues for 20 years, I knew that dogs need time to adjust when they enter their new homes. Often “2 weeks” is mentioned. My own family has had a number of other adopted dogs through the years, and they usually needed at least that amount of time to fall in with our family routines. As a child and family psychologist, I have also worked with many adopted children and parents and was aware of the so-called “honeymoon period” in which all initially went smoothly after which some adjustment problems appeared. This is all very normal, although it can be challenging for families. There are parallels with other animals.

My hope for Jake was that he would eventually be suitable to become an Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT) dog who would work with some of my human clients and help with our AAPT workshops several times a year. We use a “goodness of fit” process (article here) so I make no assumptions about dogs’ potential work until we know each other much better. Because of this tentative plan, however, I decided to do some more extensive systematic observations of Jake’s adaptation to our lives. A prior article (article here) provides an overview of major components of adopted dogs’ early days. In the current post, I share some of my more specific observations of the numerous ways that dogs must adapt to their new lives with us.

Jake/Chuilein’s introduction to some of the play therapy toys, another part of his learning

What Adopted Dogs Must Learn

As I began observing the many things Jake was learning and trying to see them from his point of view (article here), I became increasingly impressed with what a huge task this was for him. I consider myself fairly well attuned with dogs, but this “armchair ethology” study humbled me. I will share my substantial list of observations here, but I know there are considerably more areas than this. I now believe that dogs probably need closer to 1 – 2 months to begin to feel more comfortable and to be themselves. Even though Jake seemed to be comfortable from the start, I have just now begun to notice qualitative changes in his behavior that indicate he is relaxing more fully as we end his 9th week with us. Here is my list of things Jake has had to learn thus far, in no particular order, as he is often learning several of these at once!

  1. Getting used to the feel of grass underfoot – he came from a desert environment
  2. What the wet drops from the sky are all about – rain was new to him. He looked up into the sky the first several times he experienced it
  3. What the dull booming noise was – he was unafraid of thunder, fortunately, but still looked to the sky when he initially heard it
  4. Learning about other outdoor noises – cars in the driveway, dogs barking at the farm next door, human voices outdoors, trains going by, the vocalizations of pond dwellers like bullfrogs
  5. Unfamiliar house noises – washer, dryer, television, refrigerator, hair dryer, which door people are entering
  6. His new names – he had to learn that the name was referring to him
  7. How to stay out of the humans’ paths when they walk around the house
  8. Personalities and preferences of the resident dogs and cats in many situations
  9. How to give the “proper” amount of space to the other dogs in the home
  10. Where to get a drink without intruding on the other animals
  11. Where to sleep without irritating the other animals
  12. The different play styles of the resident dogs and cats, and how they react to his own play behaviors
  13. That it is okay to get on certain furniture pieces but some are off limits
  14. How to signal to the humans to go outside
  15. Where to eliminate so it doesn’t infringe on the resident dogs’ elimination spots
  16. How to urinate without hitting the other dogs nearby
  17. Where to sit for treats at the times they are typically doled out
  18. Many, many different human signals, expressions, behaviors, and preferences and the different situations with which all of these are associated
  19. Information and behavior patterns of wild animals (rabbits, squirrels, groundhogs) and many species of birds on the property or observed through the windows
  20. What sleeping spots during the day and night are acceptable to resident animals and humans
  21. Odors from the farm next door, e.g., when fertilizer was spread
  22. Where he should go to eat his meals and how to stay away from other animals while they are eating
  23. Cat food smells delicious but he shouldn’t eat it
  24. How to wait to eat until he is given a release signal by a human
  25. The basic schedules and rhythms of life in the household
  26. The varying emotions of everyone in the household
  27. How to walk calmly on a leash even with the distraction of new animals or people
  28. How to walk up stairs without stumbling
  29. How to walk down stairs without sliding down the bottom 5 stairs on his backside
  30. A handful of basic politeness behaviors with humans (walking alongside instead of jumping up, and slowing down when approaching instead of body slamming them during play, for example)
  31. How to stay still for nail trims by a new person whose technique might be different from that of others in the past
  32. How to control his “zoomies” or joyful moments so he doesn’t smash into other animals or humans
  33. How to get into the car and where to sit when other dogs are in there, too
  34. Which people give the best scratches and how to signal to them that “more” would be nice
  35. That going to the vet is not intended as a major social event and play date, and that he shouldn’t interrupt the veterinary professionals in other rooms to say hi and see how they are doing with their procedures

Jake playing with the rowdy Josie Patches

Tangled play with Murrie, a quieter style 

A few more photo illustrations follow. It is remarkable that dogs learn many of these things from their own observations of their new situation. They watch and learn. Sometimes they receive growls from the other dogs or a swat from one of the cats, but because dogs usually avoid conflict, their observations help them avoid most confrontations. Their ability to observe and adapt has allowed them to adjust to life with humans for thousands of years. It is quite easy for us to overlook just how much they must learn.

Jake has learned to engage in 3-way play with Murrie and Josie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even things that seem mundane to us can be fascinating when an animal is unfamiliar with them. Perhaps that is why we sometimes fail to realize just how much they are learning when they join our families!

There are many things we take for granted that can be fascinating discoveries for the new dog

One problem to be solved: how to share the comfy chair without bothering the resident dog! (These dogs weigh the same.)

Well, Murrie doesn’t seem to mind some closeness!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People often seem unaware of the enormity of adaptation needed when dogs move into our homes. Even though I have studied dog behavior for a long time, I was surprised by the quantity and complexity of adaptation I observed. It is true that we can make things a bit easier for them by showing dogs more clearly what we expect of them, by structuring the home environment and the various interactions, and by some simple training to start. At the same time, it is valuable for us to remain aware that they are astute observers and capable problem-solvers. Perhaps one of the best things we can bear in mind is just how many adjustments they are making and to defer some of our own plans for training, work, or dog sports until this initial adaptation period has occurred. Providing them with clarity and agency to adapt to their new lives is valuable in building healthy, reciprocal relationships, not only with us, but also with the other animals in the home. They seem to learn remarkably quickly, but this is not the time to hurry them into other activities or extensive training. By giving them a chance to learn with and from us, we establish a foundation of mutual trust that will serve everyone in the family well into the future.

Jake (right) has been accepted by Murrie (left) and Josie Patches (center), and they have all relaxed into their own relationships with each other. Here they watch the outdoors while leaving their noseprint-art behind on the glass!

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Animal Assisted Play Therapy™ is a trademark of the Family Enhancement & Play Therapy Center, Inc. and its International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®. www.iiaapt.org

 

 

 

Author and photo credits: Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC, CAEBI (licensed psychologist, registered play therapist-supervisor, certified dog behavior consultant, certified animal ethology and behavior instructor)  is the author of multiple books, chapters, and articles, including The Human Half of Dog Training (Dogwise), and coauthor with Tracie Faa-Thompson of the Maxwell Award winning book, Animal Assisted Play Therapy (Professional Resource Press). She is shown here during her first meeting with Jake Chuilein in Indiana, as he was en route from Utah to Pennsylvania.
Photo credit: Susan Fishbein.

 

 

 

The International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy® offers online and intensive in-person training courses for those interested in the many aspects of involving animals in a voluntary and reciprocal way in their mental health, allied health, and education services. www.iiaapt.org
Email: info@iiaapt.org

Article and photos © 2022, International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®. All rights reserved.