Contributed by Irith Bloom, faculty at Victoria Stilwell Academy and certified animal trainer with multiple certifications, including CPDT-KSA, CDBC, VSPDT, KPA CTP, and CBATI.
If you are looking to adopt a rescue pet, keep in mind that it can be challenging. I have fond memories of the day I got Franklin from the pet rescue. He was disoriented and clearly uncomfortable about everything that was happening, but he was oh-so-sweet. He lay with his head in my lap as my husband drove us home, and then timidly explored our apartment after we arrived. We were off to a great start—but that didn’t mean it was smooth sailing ahead.
We quickly learned that although Franklin was housetrained (definitely a blessing!) he was otherwise completely untrained. He didn’t know how to sit on cue, and walking him on leash was a good way to get a shoulder injury. He also showed signs of severe stress whenever we left him alone. Our first few months together were a learning experience, to say the least. But we got through it, thanks to a thoughtful plan of management and training.
When you first adopt a rescue dog or cat (or rabbit or other pet) from the animal shelter or a pet rescue, it’s important to remember that the animal’s entire life has just been turned upside down. Even though a pet rescue or shelter is sometimes a less-than-ideal environment, that is the environment the animal knows, and change is hard. Many rescue dogs and other pets seem to be more or less in shock at first. It takes them a while to start to relax into their new, permanent home.
Something I often see, especially when you adopt a rescue dog, is that the new pet behaves very well for a month or two, and then things start to change. It’s almost as if the pet has figured out, “Well, they brought me home from the pet rescue, and they haven’t taken me back, so I can start to express my feelings a little more.” This is actually great for the pet—imagine going through life afraid to say or do the wrong thing at all times! But it’s not always so great for the household, depending on what the pet starts to do.
What does this mean for you? First of all, it’s important to remember that when you adopt a rescue pet, they may be going through a tough transition. A little empathy can go a long way! There are also things you can do to make the transition easier.
Facilitate the Transition for Your New Pet
Positive Reinforcement Training
After giving your new pet a day or two to settle just a little, start doing some positive reinforcement training. You could clicker-train your dog using Blue Buffalo Wilderness Trail Treats Duck Wild Bits as dog treats after the click. You could also use treats such as the Blue Buffalo Blue Bits Tasty Chicken Recipe to lure your dog into a sit, and then teach a word for that behavior.
And don’t stop at “Sit.” Use treats to teach your dog to walk politely with you on leash. Or train your cat to lie in a particular spot while you are typing, rather than walking on the keyboard (Halo Liv-a-Littles treats may help with that last goal, by the way). The sky’s the limit! Positive reinforcement training helps you build a stronger bond with your pet, while teaching them the kind of behavior you’d like to see more.
Implement Behavior Management Methods
It’s also helpful to treat your rescue pet like a baby at first—even if they’re an adult. Assume your new cat does not know how to use a cat litter box, for example, and keep them confined in a small room with the litter box for a little while. Living in a smaller space temporarily can also help reduce transitional stress for a cat. (Note that if the cat is feral, this kind of confinement can be very stressful, though.)
If you adopt a rescue dog, assume they are not housetrained and will chew anything they can get their teeth on. Put up dog gates such as MyPet Windsor Walk Thru Swing Gate, or confine them in an exercise pen whenever you are too busy to supervise them. You might also want to put your new rescue dog in a crate or pen the first few nights, so they can’t roam around and chew or do other destructive things while you are asleep. This is a form of management, which refers to changing your pet’s environment to help prevent the animal from successfully “practicing” the problem behavior.
If you set up the environment so that your new pet can’t make a lot of mistakes, you’ll have a lot less trouble in the long run. It is all about setting them up for success. As your pet proves that they know where to potty and understand to use the scratching post rather than your couch, you can give them greater freedom. It’s best to start out with more restrictive boundaries, and gradually allow your pet more and more access, instead of the other way around.
Make Mealtimes a Challenge
Another great thing to do with a new pet is to make mealtimes a bit of a challenge. The time and energy your pet spends working at getting food is time and energy they won’t spend getting into trouble. For dogs, you can use a toy such as the Busy Buddy Tug-A-Jug Dog Toy or the KONG Wobbler Dog Toy. (There are also food toys for cats, such as Trixie Activity Strategy Game Tunnel Feeder, but not all cats engage with food toys as readily as dogs.)
Above all, remember that it’s a process for a rescue dog or other pet to adjust to a new home. The first few months may be a bit challenging at times, as your pet finds her feet, but she’ll figure out the routine in time. Soon enough, you won’t know how you ever lived without her.