Written by Bryan Finck, a Pixel Fund Board Member
You’ve done something heroic, amazing, and life-changing. Something that 98% of the world’s population will never do. You saved the life of a rescue dog. So what do you do now?
With COVID-19 stopping the world in it’s tracks, pet adoptions have boomed in the US and elsewhere. Some shelters have been completely emptied for the first time in their history. Rescue groups can’t process apps fast enough, and don’t have enough animals to meet the demand. Pet stores are showing record sales. It’s a wonderful development in an otherwise fraught time.
Those of us in rescue and shelter work know that the days immediately following adoption are the most crucial to a successful transition. It takes dogs at least 3 months to truly settle into their new home. This period of time is collectively known as Decompression. Decompression is the key to a happy transition, from your dog’s old life to his new one. I’ve worked with a rescue group for 5 years now, and decompression, along with a lot of patience, is nearly certain to work. If it is not observed, however, the chances of a dog failing to assimilate into the home are very high.
Fortunately, it is a simple process known as the “Rule of 3's” or the “3–3–3 Rule”. Every dog is different, so some will require less time in each step and some will require much more. For the majority though, this guideline will set them on the path to being a wonderful, loving pet for a lifetime. Let’s look at each step, detailing what new adopters can expect, with a few examples from my fostering life.
The First 3 Days
As with any new animal, these first days are crucial to getting the relationship between you and your new pup off to the best start. The dog will still be in “shelter mode”, scared of the new environment and prone to hiding in the safest area possible. They are going to be overwhelmed with all the new smells and unfamiliar surroundings, so their true personality may not come out in this time period.
It is possible they will not want to eat or drink, and will spend much of the day sleeping or hiding in their safe place. This is normal and does not indicate a problem or sickness. One of the most important things you can do in this period is to spend time with the pup, allowing them to get used to you and your presence and your scent.
When you leave the room, they may whine or cry, which is known as separation anxiety. To ease this process, let them see that you will come back. At first you can leave for 5 minutes, then return to praise them and give treats. The next time, leave for 10 minutes and repeat the process, gradually lengthening the time you are out of the room.
This is also the time you want to establish a routine for the pup. Dogs crave structure and routine, and do best when they know what to expect. Whenever you feed and walk them, try to make it the same every day, every time. The more routine they have, the faster they will acclimate to their new life.
If they are hesitant to eat from the bowl, try putting a bit of their food in your hand and letting them eat from there. Don’t worry about them getting into the habit of only eating with you there, as they will quickly revert to the bowl once they are comfortable. Eating from your hand is an excellent way to strengthen the bond and trust they feel with you. If you have other members of your family, let them do the same thing so the pup can feel safe with everyone.
The key to a great relationship with the entire family is having the dog interact with the entire family early in the process.
Introducing your new pup to any animals that were already in your home is extremely important, and must be done correctly to help all of them get along well together. If you have other dogs, try to let them meet the new pup on neutral territory, like the sidewalk outside the house.
We have had great success taking our dogs for a walk and letting them meet the new pup that way. If the new dog comes into your house unexpectedly, your dogs can get defensive because they are guarding you and their territory. When they meet outside, there is nothing to defend, so they can meet without stress. Everyone can then walk into the house together, where your dogs will see that the new pup belongs there and you are able to encourage good behaviors.
At that point, you should let the new pup have a room or some space to themselves, separated from the others by a baby gate or some other physical obstacle. We like to do this for the entire first three days, and up to a full week depending on how you feel about the interactions. You want the new pup to get comfortable and feel safe without the others wanting to get into their face out of innocent, well-intentioned curiosity.
This same process applies for cats you may have already owned, you want to make sure the dog is “cat-safe” and that the cats have a way to escape if they feel threatened. Often, a dog that will chase or be aggressive with cats will not show that behavior right away, so you want to monitor those interactions closely.
Your pup will slowly come out of their shell and begin to show their true personality as the days go by. This is when the next stage begins!
3 Weeks at Home
The next stage of the “Rule of 3's” typically starts after the pup has 3 full weeks in your home. They have slowly progressed out of their scared, hesitant shell and will be starting to feel comfortable with you and their place in your life. The routine we mentioned in the first stage should be very comforting to them now, and they will start to understand your rules and expectations for them. Rules are another important part of making your dog comfortable in his new home. You want to be consistent with discipline and with positive reinforcement so they know what to expect. If they are not allowed on the couch, you need everyone in the family to enforce that rule. The less confused they are, the better it is for everyone.
As the dog gets more comfortable, they will feel safe enough to show their true personality. They may begin to test their boundaries and see what they can get away with. It is crucial to stay firm with routine and rules, and quickly establish what is good and bad behavior when they display new traits. You will want to carefully watch their interactions with your other animals around this time as well.
We fostered a pup named Charlie about a year ago, he was a big goofy American Staffordshire terrier mix. He was with us for about 10 days, and in that time he never showed any interest in our two cats and got along great with our dogs. We had begun to let him mingle with everyone in the house, roaming freely as he saw fit. On the 11th day, though, my wife was holding one of our cats in her arms when Charlie decided he wanted the cat too. He ran and jumped at my wife, taking a chunk out of the cat’s tail in the process.
The point of that is, you must continue to monitor interactions between your new pup and all other animals in the house until you are certain they will get along. As the dog grows more comfortable, their true personality emerges and it may be very different from what you’ve seen prior to that time. I would say a change as severe as we saw with Charlie is rare, but it’s best to be cautious so you don’t have to learn this lesson the hard way.
3 Months and Beyond!
After roughly 3 months, your new dog should finally be settling into his permanent situation and routine. They will have developed a full sense of trust in you and your family as their forever people. They will have bonded fully with you, and if they are the type to do so, they will have picked their favorite person to follow at all times.
This is the ultimate goal of the “Rule of 3's”, to give your new pup the assurance and security it needs while becoming a true family member. The more work you put into the relationship in these 3 months, the better and more stable your relationship with them will be. It takes patience and time, and there will be more than a little frustration as you figure each other out. Stick with it and all the work will be worth the payoff.
The rewards will last a lifetime and the bond between you and your pup will be unbreakable.