Successful dog adoptions start here – 8 essential tips

Rescued dog? Shelter dog? Stray dog? Shy dog?
Barking? Biting? Aggression?
Successful adoptions depend on you.

1. Be Patient.
2. Build Trust.
3. Be Kind.
4. You are the Teacher.
5. Keep it Simple.
6. You are the Parent.
7. Safety First.
8. Get Help.

1. Be Patient.

Transforming Eva into a picture of vibrant good health and a social butterfly was not done in a day.

Transforming Eva into a picture of vibrant good health and a social butterfly was not done in a day.

That wonderful rescued dog will probably not turn into Lassie in twenty-four hours.
Even though it is so grateful to you for rescuing it from a fate worse than death. Or death. 

The first few days and weeks are really very stressful for your new dog. In addition to the recent history of perhaps being a stray and living off their wits, living in a kennel or shelter is traumatic and distressing for some dogs. Maybe they have been bullied, or had to compete for food, they are almost certainly tired, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. Now they move into your new home and have to learn how to communicate with you, become used to other people in your home, and sometimes interact with your existing dog or cope with, hear and smell other animals nearby. Some dogs will be a bit more reactive to stimuli that will not concern them even a few weeks later, others are depressed and closed down so that it takes a while to return to normal, to come out of their shell.

Humans who have traumatic experiences don’t get over it in three days or three weeks and your rescued dog may not either!

When someone isolates a dog in a back yard the dog is deprived of stimuli.  Everything he comes into contact with in his new home is unknown, safe or unsafe, potentially a threat, so his reaction will be to err on the side of safety.  This tension, anxiety about a safe environment, can lead to reactivity, barking and other behaviors that concern us. Gentle understanding, familiarization and education is now a priority.

Scared of a black plastic bin bag blowing in the wind in the half-light of evening? You better believe it!

This does not make it a basket case.

This does not make it a difficult dog.

This does not make it an un-adoptable dog.

This is your chance to teach your new dog the skills of a great and loving family dog.

Your gift to your dog will be awesome, I guarantee your dog will repay you with interest!

Eva – before. Just arrived from Baldwin Park shelter, barely skirting death. Sick, scared and skinny.

Eva – After rehabilitation – the dog everyone wants!

Not all shelter dogs are “damaged goods” but many may not have had the support and guidance they need.

Sometimes they are unlucky, life throws them a curve ball. Thank you for picking up the ball! 

It is safe to assume that they are either:

1) experienced and have stories to tell

Angel – Abandoned by her family, lived wild, avoiding capture, on a 5,500 acre military base for several years.


2) inexperienced and they have felt rejected and isolated and lonely.

Ranger – Before – 7 months old and already abandoned to the back yard. Booked in to the vet by his owner to be euthanized. Described by a local so-called dog-trainer as un-trainable, the inexperienced Portland family gave up on him. It makes my blood boil. He was big, bored, spirited and playful. He turned into the most awesome dog and is happy and healthy in his new home. A concerned neighbor saved his life.

You can’t tell immediately and often there is no history available.
You will see shyness or fear, or startle effects like nipping or biting, but you may not know why or how they acquired these defensive mechanisms.

Dogs very rarely bark or bite for no reason.

(from the dog’s perspective)

Most dogs bark and bite because they are anxious

and because they have learned that they get more space.

You can educate them, coach them and heal them so that they can reasonably be called normal.

Ranger – After rehabilitation – Ranger off-leash at the school field playing Frisbee and parenting Ellie the tri-color (shy) Border Collie.

Adoption is not over when the dog arrives in your home.

No matter how much attention you shower on the new addition at first, be careful not to overwhelm the dog with distractions.

Adoption starts when you bring the dog into your home and the process of assimilation, healing and training can take several months and sometimes years. Dogs and people have a tendency to regress to old habits and routines, watch for it and guard against it. Be consistent and keep the long term goal in mind.

Not to scare you but if you are not in this for the long haul you do a disservice to your new dog and your family.

Love the dog.
Change the behavior that bothers you.

If you don’t, who will?

2. Build Trust.

Without trust, you have nothing.

Without trust, you have nothing.

“All bonds are built on trust,without it you have nothing.”

Building mutual trust takes time. No short cuts.

3. Be kind.

Toto and Wendy. Born wild in Northern Nevada and scheduled for death because, according to  Animal Control, “feral dogs can’t be trained”. Keep the long-term goal in mind. You need to be patient, loving and kind, be a good parent. Earn your dog’s trust with every interaction.

This is all about building a long-term relationship of mutual trust, love and admiration. It takes work investing in the emotional bank account. Some dogs will be starting from a negative balance, an overdraft if you like, based on his previous experience. You might need to invest for a while just to get to a neutral balance before the investment starts to show. Every time you use punishment you withdraw from the emotional bank account. Punishment is not a short cut to learning. Stress inhibits learning. Help the dog by attending to his emotional wellbeing. By the way, no matter how much you think you are giving more than you are getting in the early stages, you are wrong. The dog will always pay back a return on your investment out of all proportion to your efforts!

4. You are the teacher.

If the dog is not successful, adapt or change your approach. Stop doing what is not working!

“Don’t do the same thing again and expect different results”

That is insanity!


5. Keep it simple!

The dog is just being a dog. If he is not doing what you would prefer, he almost certainly does not understand what you want. You thought you were clear, but he does not get it yet. That is not a dog problem.

Keeping it simple means you are making it easy for him to succeed and then you get to praise and reward him.

Look for the good! Pick the stuff that makes you happy and you want in the dogs repertoire for the rest of his life.

Maintain your whole focus on recognizing the behaviors you would like to be repeated, mark them and reward them.

“Rewarded behaviors increase in frequency and duration”

That is so easy.

Just do it!



6. You are the parent.

Yes, you are your dog’s keeper. Don’t set your dog up for failure. It is a very simple concept.

Parenting is not a popularity contest. There will be many times in the first few weeks when you have the dogs best interests at heart but the dog would prefer doing something different. A bit like going to the gym as a New Year’s resolution! Old habits, like the Lay-z-boy, have a strong pull!

Parenting implies responsibility.

Here are some examples of what I consider parenting:

  • Providing the best possible diet. Most rescued dogs arrive with a list of secondary symptoms often as the result of poor previous care, poor nutrition, physical injuries and stress leading to a compromised immune system and resulting in a dry coarse coat, flaky skin, mites, ticks and fleas. In addition to bathing, veterinary attention and medication to treat the obvious symptoms I have found in my experience that a good diet and reduced stress will almost always give the immune system a boost and resolve issues that might otherwise prove elusive.
  • Making their needs a priority – changing old habits is hard for some people. Now is the time to give your rescued dog whatever it needs to succeed, even when it means changing your behavior. More exercise? More time at home? Sometimes I sacrifice financially or otherwise to be certain that their needs are met, to the best of my ability.
  • Getting up in the middle of the night for potty breaks if needed.
  • Providing them with an excellent education – training is extremely important and all dogs need to learn, be challenged, and that creativity and problem solving is encouraged. Empowering the dog to acknowledge that they have control over what they experience in life will reduce stress in both of you!
  • Providing them with adequate social opportunities with people and other dogs, when these interactions are in the best interest of the dog. When the dog is ready, not just because I want it.
  • Cleaning up pee, poop, and occasionally, puke.
  • Provide a safe and comfortable living environment. Protect from harm.
  • Play games and practice for sports or competition. When it is in the dog’s best interest and he is happy, enthusiastic and excited to do it. I see many dogs in agility where the owners are convinced the dog is a “natural” and the dog is hating being there!
  • Measure in “baby steps”, celebrate progress, feel proud of your accomplishments and reward the dog very frequently.

7. Safety First!

The first rule of parenting is the dog should not die because you did not teach him the skills he needs to survive in the real world.

Containment is very important for the first few weeks and sometimes longer.  The “Natural Imperative” of a dog who is separated from his pack is to try to escape from the new environment and return to the old pack. Even when the old arrangement did not serve him very well there seems to be an urgency to just do it anyway. So this is where leashes, collars, harnesses and doors and gates need to be functional and safety oriented. Your mindset also has to be safety oriented, don’t gamble that the gate in the yard, which has never closed properly, is good enough. Walk round and repair or replace the hinges, catches and loose boards before you lose the dog!

Give your dog a safe environment and protect from harm. Don’t let him chew electric cables, or run into the street in front of a car or UPS truck. Don’t put him in any situation where he is fearful of the consequences and likely to be reactive with other dogs, people, machinery or vehicles. Don’t work him off leash, ever, (use a long line for training) until you have given him the foundation training and education to work for you on voice control in areas of high distraction.

Protect him from his own ignorance. Teach him what he needs to know. Then gradually expand his world under careful supervision.

8. Get Help.

If you are struggling with a particular behavior (or more) and you don’t seem to be making any progress, ask for help! I don’t mean talk to the local know-it-all at the dog park! Do a little research and find someone who has a lot of experience in the particular area you are struggling with and get some solid advice, take a training class, learn stuff!

Not as easy as it sounds but it can save you and your dog a lot of stress and heartache!

For extra information

check out

If you are still stuck, email me, Robin, at

There is a huge chance you are not the first person

and your dog is not the first dog to ever have this behavior!

Experience counts!

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