Three phases of a rescue dog: How to help them adjust

phases of a rescue dog
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Observing the different phases of a rescue dog upon bringing them home is a wondrous thing. Bringing home a new rescue dog is an exciting change, and many owners are eager to start making happy memories with their new friend. Unfortunately, many new pet owners are disappointed to discover that their new rescue dog is withdrawn, anxious, or even fearful in their new home. But never fear – this phase won’t last forever! Your rescue dog has gone through a lot of changes in a short period of time, but you can help him settle in and help him feel comfortable in his new forever home. To help you understand your dog’s behavior, here are a few tips about the three phases of a rescue dog.

Phase 1: Coping with sudden changes

Prior to being adopted by a forever home, a rescue dog experiences a lot of turmoil. They may have been passed between multiple owners, experienced neglect or abuse, or even lived alone on the street. Once entering the shelter system, your pup may have been transferred between multiple facilities, moved in and out of foster homes, or even traveled across the country to get to you. Your new pet has likely experienced a lot of changes in a very short period of time, so it’s no surprise that they may be feeling a little anxious and apprehensive in his new home, making this one of the common of the three phases of a rescue dog being rehomed. 

Be patient with your rescue dog in the first few days after bringing him home. Your pup may hide or act socially withdrawn. They may not want to eat or drink. They may also exhibit some symptoms of stress, such as panting, restlessness, or diarrhea. To help alleviate their discomfort, keep your rescue dog in a quiet area of the house, away from other pets for the first few days to allow them time to acclimate to their new surroundings. Although you’ll likely be tempted to play with and get to know your new friend right away, try to give them a little extra space at first so that they feel safe. 

Make sure to also provide easy access to food and water, so that they don’t have to venture through the scary high-traffic areas of your household to get to these resources. If you have other pets that you plan to introduce to your new rescue dog, try to place an object with their scent on it – such as a bed they’ve frequently slept on – in the room with your new dog. This will allow them time to explore their scents in a non-threatening way, and will make introductions go more smoothly when the time comes.

Phase 2: Settling in at home

After the first few days, your rescue dog will likely start to feel more comfortable and may begin exploring his new environment. This is a good time to start getting to know your new dog and learning about his personality, just as he’ll be learning about you and the routines of your household. 

This is also one of the phases of a rescue dog in its new home when you can begin working on introducing your new dog to your other pets. Remember, this introduction process must happen gradually. Keep the interactions brief and positive, and allow both animals to interact at their own pace. If at any point either pet seems stressed or anxious, separate them and proceed with the introduction process more slowly to reduce the risk of conflicts.

The first few weeks after adoption, you may also begin to notice some problematic behavior in your rescue dog. Your dog may have developed some fear and anxiety due to their tumultuous background, or they may simply have never received training in his previous homes. You can help your dog learn the rules of their new home by working on some positive reinforcement training. This means rewarding your dog for performing desirable behaviors – like walking calmly on a leash, or sitting patiently for his dinner – by giving them something positive, such as praise, petting, or the best dog treats

For more complicated behavior issues like dog aggression or food aggression, enlisting the help of a positive reinforcement based dog trainer or a board certified veterinary behaviorist can help you address the issue quickly before it turns into a major problem.

phases of a rescue dog

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Phase 3: Becoming comfortable and confident

Within a few months of his adoption, your rescue dog should begin to feel more comfortable and confident in their new home. You should be getting a good sense of his personality, and they should be starting to recognize the routines and patterns of daily life in your household. By this time, your pup should be reasonably comfortable with you and the other people and pets in your household. If any training issues arose during Phase 2, these should be starting to gradually improve either with training at home or under the guidance of a professional. For more advice, read eight tips for training a rescue dog.

As your new rescue dog becomes more confident, you can begin to introduce new experiences and activities for them to explore. Try going for a hike, playing some indoor games for dogs, or even practicing some agility! This is a great time to start learning more about your dog’s likes, skills, and strengths. As always, keep the activities upbeat and rewarding to help your dog learn from this positive experience. Although experiencing new things is important, we don’t want your dog to feel overwhelmed. If your pup seems unsure, introduce new experiences more slowly and provide plenty of positive rewards. These new adventures will ultimately help you and your dog create a lasting bond.

Be patient with your new friend!

Your rescue dog is learning and experiencing a lot in a very short period of time! Remember that every dog is different, and some dogs will progress through the phases more slowly or quickly than others. Be patient and give your dog time to settle into his new home, and no doubt he’ll reward you with many years of happy memories.

Elizabeth Racine, DVM

Dr. Elizabeth Racine is a small animal general practice vet covering all things pet health and wellness.  Her special interests include veterinary behavior, nutrition, and internal medicine.  As a freelance writer, Dr. Racine has written content for major companies in the industry such as the American Kennel Club, Merck Animal Health, Bayer PetBasics, Elanco, and CareCredit.  In her free time, Dr. Racine enjoys playing trampoline dodgeball, hiking with her beagle Dasher, and spending time with her three mischievous cats.