When We Adopt a Dog: The Early Days

Posted by on Mar 28, 2022

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Adding a new dog to the family is a big decision and a lifelong commitment. Although it is exciting, much thought and planning should precede the decision to ensure a happy ending for all! Of course that is just the start of the process. Once the dog comes home, there is much to be learned and many adjustments to be made on everyone’s part. This article is about the initial adjustment process–what we need to think about during the first days and weeks when a newly adopted dog joins the family. After a lengthy planning and selection process 5 years ago, we added Josie Patches, a beagle mix, to our family. My hopes at the time were that she would enjoy participating in Animal Assisted Play Therapy® (AAPT) with me, so the selection process included features of AAPT dogs as well. In the years since, she has excelled at AAPT, but first and foremost, she is a valued member of our family. This article incorporates my early considerations during her first days and weeks with us in the hopes that the information will be helpful to others.

Josie Patches was found as a stray in West Virginia and brought into rescue where she gave birth to the puppies shown here. Beth McGonigal of North Pittsburgh Animal Behavior took them all in as fosters for Forever Home Beagle Rescue. She did a fabulous job helping Josie be the mother she really didn’t want to be and socializing all the puppies.

1. Time

Dogs need time to adjust to a new home. I like to give lots of space and time for this adjustment to occur. I don’t move into heavy-duty training or place expectations on the dog in the first couple of weeks. I do want to show them the ropes, what they may or may not do, and some basic “how to live with us” information, but I mostly do that in the course of the day. A little light training is part of the picture, but I want them to get used to their new surroundings on their own terms as much as possible, as long as I’m not reinforcing unwanted behaviors. I never pressure them to interact with people or other animals in the household before they are ready.

It is quite common for dogs to show a little uncertainty when they enter a new home. This is true even of confident, stable dogs.

2. Observation

Moving to a new home requires a vast amount of adaptation from a dog. It also requires a great deal of adaptation from the other dogs, cats, and even humans in the home! I take lots of time to observe interactions, mostly because they are fascinating, but also to make sure that they go smoothly. I intervene if interactions head off on the wrong track, but as long as things are going smoothly, I mostly just watch. I want to learn all I can about the new dog, and how the animals already in the home respond to the new family member. This is a getting-acquainted period and I can learn the most by observation.

Sometimes the resident dogs will show them the ropes.

3. Animal Appropriateness Scale (AAS)

I use the categories from the AAS (which we developed for assessing animals in Animal Assisted Play Therapy®) while observing and interacting. I not only use the AAS when first assessing a dog, but I continue to apply it in my observations going forward. (Another very useful tool if you’ve had the training in it is the Clothier Animal Response Assessment Tool, or CARAT). Since I have always operated from a “goodness of fit” perspective drawn from child development research in all my therapy work involving animals, the better I get to know the dog, the better I will be able to involve that particular individual in my work in a way that is truly enjoyable and well-suited for the animal. The idea is to match the personality, preferences, and choices of the animal with the types of activities in which we ask the animal to engage.

Observation helps us answer the question, “Who is this dog?” and “What does this dog enjoy naturally?”

4. Building Relationship

This is most important. I simply spend time with the dog, taking walks together, offering liberal scratches, trying out various types of play interactions, and providing some guidance as needed. Relationships take time, and I’m mindful that everything I do can have a positive or a negative impact on this newly forming relationship. I, of course, try to keep that impact positive! I know that I’m setting the tone for the rest of our lives together as companions and as working partners.

It’s important that all family members have a chance to build relationship. Taking the dog on a walk around the property or in the neighborhood can be very useful if it’s not overwhelming. Allowing dogs to use their noses to explore is one of the best things we can do. The walks are for them to explore their new home areas!

5. Planning

As I learn more and more, I also begin making a mental list of the things that I want the dog to learn. This starts with basic “good manners” (such as loose leash walking, polite greetings), behavior issues or fears that might need to be overcome (such as counter surfing or reactions to novel objects), and further out into the future, the types of play therapy behaviors that I might be able to put on cue or build into the process. I always try to think about the eventual play therapy work in terms of who the dog is, not about what I want the dog to be. Everything is built around the personality and preferences of the dog.

Josie creates this effect with her ears when she tilts her head a certain way. Early on, I began thinking about how I might be able to incorporate this into some of her work since she does it so naturally!

6. Going Slowly

Helping an animal to adjust to a new family and home should never be rushed. It can take weeks to months for the animal to feel safe and comfortable. Animals also learn by observing us, and we usually have lots of patterns and behaviors to notice and begin to understand. To help avoid undue stress and anxiety, keeping our expectations to a minimum while taking everything slowly is ideal. The Slow Dog Movement (see  http://www.slowdogmovement.org ) offers many great ideas for creating calm environments and interactions. The same is true for introducing the new dog to other animals in the family and to allow them time to create their own relationships as well.

Within the first 2 weeks, Josie Patches and Murrie began hanging out together some of the time.

In the first weeks, the only thoughts I have about the possible work I might ask a new dog to do are fleeting, but I might create a list of possibilities based on my observations and time spent together. I revisit that later after I am sure the dog feels very comfortable in our home and with both the humans and other animals in the family. At the start, my focus is on making life comfortable and fun for the new dog, while simultaneously looking out for the well-being and happiness of my other dogs and cats who must also make their own adjustments for our new family member. Adopting a slow pace permits all the animals to make choices about when and how much to interact.

In our eagerness and excitement, it can be easy to hurry or nudge the process of accommodation along, but this can lead to unintended negatives. Think about the last time you moved to a new location. You probably needed some time to learn the lay of the land, to decide what neighbors you preferred to socialize with, and to get used to the sounds in the new house and neighborhood. This is really no different, and the first days and weeks after a new dog joins the family are rich with information if we simply slow down and watch and listen for it!

Since these early days, Josie Patches has worked confidently and happily in AAPT with children and families for 5 years. She is also happy to show therapists who attend AAPT workshops how to keep a loose leash while allowing a dog to sniff and explore to her heart’s content!


Cover Photo Credit: Carl Photography
Other Photos: Risë VanFleet

Above: Dr. Risë VanFleet with Josie Patches, Murrie, and the late Kirrie. 

Author: Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC, CAEBI is the founder and president of the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy® which offers online and in-person workshops for professionals interested in the many aspects of involving animals in AAPT. AAPT is unique in the strong emphasis it places on relationships with animals that are equal to relationships with other humans, and where animals have agency and choice about their involvement. In AAPT, animals must truly enjoy the work they do, not merely tolerate it. This is accomplished through the goodness-of-fit concept, fluency in reading animal body language, and knowing how to respond in ways that are animal-friendly while still honoring the therapeutic process.

© 2022, International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy®, www.iiaapt.org. All rights reserved.