Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Two Week Staycation: In the Beginning . . .

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a work conference in Phoenix. I’ve never been to Phoenix before, and in fact, secretly suspect that it may be a foreign country. Or possible another planet (I mean, really, it can’t be normal for cactuses to just grow up out of the ground like that!). I was also the only one from my five state area going to this conference. To top it off, it would be my first time flying by myself.

To say I was a little panicked would be an understatement.

And I’m a fairly well-adjusted human being. I speak the language: my english is passable most days, and I still remember how to say important things in Spanish. I know that if I have five dollars in my pocket, I’m probably not going to miss a meal. I knew where the hotel was, and I have a pretty good idea of how to check into one. I most likely would not spend any time sleeping on the streets. I also knew that Phoenix has tequila.

A dog coming into a new home has none of these advantages. She has been uprooted from her familiar environment to a place where she doesn’t know who to trust, where it’s okay to pee, or if she’ll ever see another meal. Even if her previous home was less than savory, chances are she at least understood what to expect. And people, god love and help us, want to take our new dog everywhere, show them the world, all the wonderful people, great toys, and amazing delicacies in their new lives. For even the most balanced of dogs, this can be hugely overwhelming. But just a little extra work now can help smooth everyone's transition, promote bonding, and prevent behavior problems in the future.

For the first week after you bring your new dog home . . .
-          Don't take your dog away from your home. There will be plenty of time in the future for walks, car rides, trips to the pet store, training classes, and play dates with friends. Trips off your property can be over-stimulating, over-exciting, and stressful. For now, we want to focus on teaching your dog to trust you, learning your routine, and learning the routine of her new house.
-          On the same note, don't allow visitors or introduce new animals – even the dogs already living in your house! Dogs bond much more easily to other dogs than to people, and this first week is for you to build a relationship with your new dog. The first week will also allow your new dog to get used to the smells and sounds of your other animals, which will make for much smoother introductions in just a few days' time. Don't let them meet – don't even let them see each other! - for this first week. 
-          Leash the dog to you when you are together. This prevents your dog from wandering off and getting in to trouble. It also allows the dog to get comfortable with your routine. Plus, it allows you to observe your dog for good behaviors and reward those behaviors with praise or a cookie.
-          Crate or tether your new dog when you can't supervise her. This will keep the dog out of trouble when you’re not there to work with her. Don't be tempted to take your dog everywhere with you. Undoubtedly in the future, there will be times when you need to go to work, go to the grocery store, or use the bathroom alone. Set up the expectation early that you will not always be present, and give your dog a comfortable place to relax with a Kong or toy while you are gone. Make sure to ignore any barking or whining; we don't want your new dog to think that being noisy makes you appear!

For the second week . . .
-          Let your dog earn the privilege of freedom. Does she behave well when leashed to your side? Then start letting her free in the room you are in. Keep a close eye on your new friend: don't let her find trouble, and don't let trouble find your dog! You don't want bad behavior now after you've put so much hard work into a great start.
-          Start letting your new dog and your resident dog(s) see each other. Quick glimpses through baby gates are great for this: let them sniff for a second or two, then go with your new dog to another room to get a cookie for good behavior. If this goes well, start giving the dogs more exposure together. Crate them side by side, let your new dog sleep in a crate in your bedroom while your resident dog(s) sleep where they want, and let them see each other while moving from room to room. After a day or two of this - provided everything is going well - start allowing short play dates between the dogs. Don't leave them together all the time yet, though! Make introductions a gradual, relaxed process, and both your resident and new dogs will thank you for it. You risk a lifetime of hatred by rushing things; you risk nothing by going slowly.
-          Start introducing the outside world. Go for short walks around the neighborhood. Have a friend over for a quiet dinner. Let the dog ride along with you for a trip to the bank. Short, calm activities will keep your new dog from getting overwhelmed and help build the trust that you will keep her safe. Don't force your new dog into situations where he or she feels uncomfortable, especially this early in your relationship.

I’ve been using this system to introduce new dogs to my house for years now, and it is by far the smoothest way to introduce new roommates into my horde. The process seems like a great deal of work, but it’s a lot less work – and a lot less scary – than breaking up multiple dog fights, or trying to work with a dog who doesn’t trust you.

The two weeks, by the way, are just a guideline. I’ve never shortened the process to less than a week – that first week is the most important – but some dogs move through the second week much more quickly. Jai, for instance, took ten days before he was fully integrated. Rubi, on the other hand, took three weeks before she figured everything out. I make sure to let the dog tell me when they’re ready to move on to the next level, and I try not to let my own bias on how I feel like they should be progressing interfere with the process. Remember – train the dog in front of you, not the one you wish you had.

There are a few types of dogs that I don’t use this process for. Puppies under fourteen weeks are in an important socialization period, and I try to expose them to many new people, places, objects, and other dogs in an effort to create an adult dog that is as balanced as possible. Shorting a dog on new experiences during this socialization period can predispose them to shyness and reactivity.

The other category I don’t bother with the two week staycation process for is compassion cases. Compassion cases are that special category of dog that a foster takes into their home knowing that, due to severe behavioral or medical conditions, this dog will die in their arms. These dogs get richly spoiled at my house. Their time is short, so they get to do whatever they want, as long as it is safe to do.

As with any training program, these first two weeks are flexible and should be tailored to meet the needs of the dog. The idea is to create a foundation of trust and open communication between you and your new dog. If your dog knows that you will take care of her, will meet her needs and keep her safe, it will pave the road for a lifetime of happiness.

Rubi on day 13 of her three-week Staycation. Note the death-hate-look. 

Four months later. Note happy smile and relaxed face.
Not quite forward ear indicated that she is likely partially focused on something else,
or mildly uncomfortable with the situation. She is also not looking directly at me/the camera.
Looking back, there are very few pictures from the first six months she spend with me in which she is
looking directly at me. 

Almost one year ago: relaxed body, soft eyes, happy mouth, good eye contact.
Rubi and I are finally a team.
Photo by Paige. 


  1. I love your green toenails, Rubi! :)

  2. Hi. So, we unfortunately didn't have this great advice when we adopted our fearful/reactive dog a year ago thus missing the first 2-week training period. Any suggestions on how we can move forward now helping our fearful (which turns into aggression) girl become as happy and relaxed as your Rubi? Thanks!