Thoughts on training, behavior, and our relationships with dogs

 Bringing a New Dog Home?

Considerations straight from a trainer’s point of view

I have seen private training clients for over 13 years, and I have had the perspective of seeing dogs in various stages of transition; just coming home from the shelter, just off the plane from a breeder out of state, and even dogs rescued from natural disasters in other countries. I have also worked with dogs in county shelters, dogs from cruelty cases held in secret holding facilities, dogs in foster homes, fostering dogs in my home, and volunteering with service dogs. Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot of dogs over the years. With this, I have found common scenarios that seem to play out again and again when people bring a new dog into their home. Sometimes things go great, and sometimes it doesn’t go as expected. Here is what I wish people knew before bringing a dog home.

Context Matters Greatly: Dogs behave differently in different contexts.
A dog that lives in a foster home with another dog is not necessarily “good with other dogs” nor will it have the social skills to successfully navigate a dog park or meet all the neighborhood dogs on your morning walk. There is a big difference in a dog living peacefully with one dog inside of a home, and being exposed to numerous strange dogs in public. Dog to dog sociability is complex, and cannot be lumped under a general label of either being “good” or “bad.” The context in which a dog is exposed to another dog can involve many factors (such as being on leash vs off), and therefore can have a big affect on the dog’s behavior. 
How about the puppy that seemed to be the calmest one out of the litter but turned into a little tornado after a week in your home…yep it happens. Being surrounded by litter mates and then being on your own is a big contextual difference and can certainly bring about changes one didn’t see coming.
Guess what? Contextual changes are typical. If you take a look at your own behavior you’ll likely see contexts which appear similar, but where your behavior changes significantly. For myself, I really enjoy meeting new people and hosting guests in my home. But if you’re coming to my door trying to sell me something or convert me to your religion, you’re going to think I’m really rude (which I’m not). New people at my door = a vastly different response depending on if I invited them or not.

Maturation: Dogs change as they mature, and with that, so does their behavior.
Dogs go through numerous developmental stages the first 2 years of their lives. Just because your puppy loves the neighborhood kids at 3 months, does not mean he will love them at 18 months. In my experience, it is very common to see sudden behavioral changes around 7-9 months of age, with those changes often being fearful, aggressive, or anxious in nature. Adolescence is a challenging time for dogs and owners alike, and things that a puppy was originally “OK” with, can change. It’s a common time when owners believed their dog had one set of behaviors, only to find that they can change rather drastically. 
A dog’s level of sociability towards other dogs can also vary as they age. Puppies naturally want to engage in play with other dogs, but this often decreases as they get older. I see a lot of dogs begin to develop preferences for how and when they interact with dogs as they reach social maturity. They often prefer to only play with dogs they already know, or they become intolerable of rude behaviors such as body slamming or mounting. Guess what? This is normal. How many of us loved nightclubs or crowded bars in our 20’s but won’t go near one today? Yep – human sociability changes with time too.

Acute Stress/Trauma or Medical Issues: Do you feel like yourself after a major surgery or having experienced trauma? Of course not, and neither do dogs.
It is not uncommon for a dog to be more inhibited with their behavior and appear to be calm and non-reactive to things around them while recovering from a major life change. This may be their genuine temperament, but more often than not I typically see some substantial changes in a dog’s behavior once they are feeling better. Increased energy, destructive habits, or even being less tolerant of guests coming into their home are common changes that I have seen. The dog you once thought would be OK with a 20 minute stroll around the neighborhood may morph into a dog that needs a lot more exercise to be satisfied. Or, the dog who was terrified to come out of his crate the first 2 weeks may blossom into a fun loving companion who follows you everywhere. The big takeaway here? What you see may not always be what you get, so be prepared to support a dog who has experienced trauma or a major surgery through the potential ups and downs as they recover.

Genetic and Environmental Influences are Powerful: So no – love, behavior modification, or training can’t fix everything.
Many of my clients are surprised to learn that the socialization period for puppies can end between 12-16 weeks of age. Getting a puppy at 5 months and socializing it will absolutely not have the same effect as when that puppy is 8 weeks old. During the socialization period, dogs create associations and make assumptions based on what they are exposed to. It is critical that they be exposed to new people, places, animals, objects, etc. and that their experiences allow them to feel safe. Without those experiences, as a dog ages it will likely react to those same stimuli with apprehension, fear, or even aggression. Even if you did a great job of socializing your puppy, if your dog came from a sire or dam who exhibited poor behavioral traits those can be passed on to their offspring. Behavior is a combination of genetics and environment, not solely one or the other. 
If you have a dog that came from poor genetics or was under socialized, chances are they may struggle with living in our world. It doesn’t mean every dog with that history will behave that way, as we have all heard of dogs with rough backgrounds who are as stable and happy as can be. Yet I find this isn’t typically the rule, but rather the exception to the rule.

Dogs are Individuals: Regardless of where a dog came from, every dog is an individual.
I have had clients go to great lengths picking out a puppy from a reputable breeder only to bring them home and have a complete disaster on their hands. I’ve also had clients go to the shelter and pick out a random dog, and it was the easiest dog they’ve ever owned.

Because every dog is an individual, you might find that the puppy you got for agility doesn’t really have the heart for the sport, even after 2 years of training. Or that the Labrador you adopted prefers hiking in the mountains over the beach and playing fetch. Just because you intend to get a certain kind of dog doesn’t mean your dog will be that.
So does this mean getting a dog is going to be a crapshoot any way you go about it? Not at all, and there are many things you can do to make it as successful as possible (which will be a future blog post). I believe people should get a dog that fits their lifestyle, no matter where it comes from. I also believe the most important thing any person can do when bringing home a new dog  is to have a mindset of flexibility and acceptance to who their dog turns out to be.
When I say having a mindset of flexibility and acceptance towards your dog this does not mean you don’t seek out training or behavior help when your dog exhibits undesirable behaviors. It means you understand that when you get a dog there are inevitably going to be things that come up that you didn’t sign up for. If you are hard set on your expectations and your dog doesn’t live up to them, it creates a heck of a lot of resentment. And that is going to make it difficult to have a good relationship with your dog.

When I adopted my dog Scout, I already knew a fair amount about him because he spent 2 months in an experienced foster home. I knew better than to have certain expectations though, and it’s been fascinating to see him unfold in the few months I have had him. Some of these things have been wonderful – such as him bonding closely to my other dog. Other things not so much – I had to spend $500 to get the carpets professionally cleaned because he wasn’t fully house trained and I wasn’t aware he was sneaking off into rooms to mark (see even professional trainers make mistakes!). But one of my favorite surprises was how good he is with horses. For a small dog (he’s a Dachshund mix) one could assume horses would be really intimidating and he would react to them. But from day one he was as calm as can be, and had a natural awareness for staying out of their space. He loves coming to the ranch with me and taking my horse out for walks, or watching me work him in the arena. I could not have asked for a better ranch dog, and this was a criteria that I never even asked for.
I hope your next dog has some amazing qualities that unfold for you.

For additional information or to sign up for classes, simply send a message to Jessica at Happy Training!

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