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How Can I Help My Rescue Dog Adjust?

Adopting a rescue dog means the addition of a lovable, furry new member of the family, but it’s also a big responsibility.

We’re sure your first reaction is to smother your little guy or gal with lots of love, and that’s a great thing. But our tendency towards excitement and a desire to overcompensate for past owners’ mistreatment can be overwhelming for your new pet at best, and confusing at worst, causing an increase of negative behaviors in the long run.

It is important to understand the change your dog is going through and that the novelty of a new home is often scary. There’s a lot of stress associated with so much change. A rescue dog has a history, and it’s important to be mindful of each pet’s personality and unique history while granting patience and grace to allow your pet to adjust to his or her new home life.

So, what can you do to make your rescue dog’s transition easy?

The Theory of Threes

As a new pet parent, you should be prepared to help make the transition as comfortable as possible. Being forced into a new environment is confusing—new place, new smell, new sounds, new people. A good rule of thumb to go by while transitioning your pet is the theory of threes, which was first highlighted in the book Love Has No Age Limit by Dr. Patricia McConnell, an expert in dog training and animal behavior. The theory suggests that you can gauge the time it might take for your dog to fully acclimate to his or her home in threes: three days, three weeks, three months.

Three Days

The first few days in your home are special and critical for a pet. Think of the first three days as the initial decompression period as the dog transitions from a rescue facility (or foster home) to your home. It's unrealistic to expect a dog to walk through the door and instantly know all the rules or understand what behavior is acceptable. And when a dog has lived in several homes or a shelter environment, the challenge can be even greater.

During this time, you may be faced with multiple signs of anxiety and nervousness. Your dog will be confused about their new environment, as well as what to expect from you. He or she will likely hide away in a comfortable, confined space. They may act timid, may do a fair amount of whimpering, and will often refuse to eat at first. This time can be overwhelming for many dogs. Setting up some clear structure for your dog will be paramount in creating as smooth a transition as possible.

Three Weeks

After three weeks your pet will begin to settle in, feel more comfortable with your home, and realize this new space is also their space. He or she has figured out the routine that you have set and is probably used to your comings and goings, meal routine, etc.. They will begin to let their guard down and may start showing their real personality. This is an important time for you to establish a bond and trust relationship between you and your newly adopted pet. Take the time to provide fun and loving experiences, because your dog will associate them with your presence and is an important part of building mutual trust.

Also, be sure to establish clear expectations. At this time, behavior issues may start showing. Use this period for training, even though you might feel that all he or she needs right now is love and cuddles. While it’s definitely true that your new pet needs lots of love, cuddles, and positive reinforcement, it’s important to begin training and setting boundaries before bad behaviors get out of hand and becomes more difficult to correct later down the road. It’s a process to get there, but with a good behavior plan, patience, and a sense of humor, the two of you can enjoy the journey toward a great relationship.

Three Months

After three months, your dog is now completely transitioned to his or her new home. The two of you have built a special bond, and routines and expectations have been clearly defined. You’ve set the tone for your relationship. Unfortunately, many adopters return a rescue dog to the shelter before this threshold passes, and this is simply because they do not understand the fundamental timeline of building a sense of trust, routine, and clearly defined expectations between owner and pet.

That’s why it’s so important to define expectations early on. If you know you don’t want dog hair all over the couch, or if you have a strict designated sleeping place for your dog, or a no begging at the dinner table rule, it’s best to start off from Day One with such rules firmly in place. Set your pup up for success by setting clear expectations and being consistent with your routine and discipline (and your praises).

Of course, that’s not to say that your relationship isn’t going to change over time, or that previously learned bad behaviors cannot be corrected. But with a defined set of expectations and a clear plan, you’re well on your way to creating a happy home for both you and your pet.

And, speaking of plans …

Plan Ahead

It’s important to ready your home for your new family member by having a clear plan for the coming weeks.


Designate a cozy spot where the dog is allowed to rest and relax. Provide soft, comfy bedding and at least one safe space in the home that he or she can retreat to when they feel overwhelmed. If you reward your pet when he goes to those areas, it will help him or her settle in and feel more comfortable in a strange environment.

Purchase whatever equipment you think you’ll need for your newest family member—walking equipment such as a leash, collar, and animal waste bags are a must. Food dishes and chew toys are encouraged too. Stock up on appropriate treats for training and rewards, as well as any grooming supplies that you might need.


The rescue facility can tell you what type of food your pet has been eating. If you decide to change the food, do so gradually. If at all possible, try to replicate the rescue’s feeding schedule for at least the first few days to avoid gastric distress. If you wish to switch to a different brand, do so over a period of about a week by adding one part new food to three parts of the old for several days; then switch to half new food, half old, and then one part old to three parts new.

Living/Sleeping Arrangements

Where will your dog live once he or she comes home? Will they be allowed in all the rooms or limited to some designated areas?

Making these decisions before the big homecoming day will reduce anxiety and help you decide where to place beds, gates, and barriers. Set up the crate ahead of time. Make sure it’s the appropriate size for your pet and that it’s fitted with comfortable bedding. A Kong or similar smart puzzle game left in the crate during times your away will provide both comfort and stimulation and will help your furry friend to pass the time while you are away.

Lastly, take time to create a vocabulary list everyone will use when giving your dog directions. If everyone in the family is on the same page, it will help prevent confusion and help your dog learn his commands more quickly. Not sure which commands to use? Check out Petfinder’s notes on how to talk to your dog.

Be Patient

Even with the most well-behaved dogs, the stress of change to a new environment and the associated anxiety can lead to training lapses.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that your new rescue dog is learning a whole new set of people and expectations. Every dog will make the transition to a new home at his or her own speed. Don’t worry if the expected outcome doesn’t fall into place right away. With love and patience, it will happen.

And remember, dogs are remarkably resilient. What happened to them yesterday doesn’t have to define what they become in the future. You can always work to shape your relationship with your dog into something that gets better and better with age. That’s the joy of having a pet.

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