Stranger in a Strange Land

by Jeanne Spreen

Three days, three weeks, three months. This familiar adage suggests how long it takes for a newly rehomed dog to acclimate to his new environment. While catchy, and a good reminder to give new dogs a break early on, its simplified timeline often gives us false expectations.  Just like humans, dogs come with their own set of preferences, learning styles and coping mechanisms, along with the hereditary traits that make them “them.” Into this soup of genetics, personality and past experiences, we toss a new environment and then wonder why it takes Fido “so long” to settle in. Well…

Imagine that you are suddenly transported to a completely unfamiliar place; the sounds, smells, language, and customs are all unintelligible, unrecognizable and strange. Think Tanzania or Mars. You had nothing to say about this, no role in planning, no forewarning, no preparation. No research on or glossy brochures from the Mars Chamber of Commerce. And now you are expected to function normally and fit seamlessly into this new environment right away, without showing stress, anxiety or confusion. Without committing a social faux pas or legal blunder. Might you make some mistakes? Might you want to withdraw and hide under the covers? Run away? Yell or lash out in frustration? Would you feel stress or fear or a sense of danger?

The answer is “yes.” Of course.  And how you feel will also be affected by how you are treated by the citizens of Tanzania or the Martians looking after you. But even with the nicest locals trying their best to guide you and show you the norms, I’m betting that you would feel bewildered, unsettled and a little afraid. Perhaps for a long while, because communication is essential, and learning Martian takes, well, some doing.

This is how it must be for a newly rehomed dog. And for our foreign pups, it’s this in spades. Add to this any physical discomfort, and it’s a wonder we all get past the first week.

So how can we best help Fido settle in? It is essential to remember that safety is every dog’s number one priority. Despite centuries of regular meals, warm beds by the fire and generally copacetic relationships with humans, the little genetic chip in their brains has them constantly scanning for safe/unsafe, friend/foe, 24/7. Understanding this and helping a newly rehomed dog develop a sense of safety must be Job One.

Dogs are much better observers of their world than we humans are. They thrive on consistency and on reliable patterns that predict good things or warn them that something unpleasant may be afoot. The first few days/weeks with a new dog should focus on this need.

Keeping their world small gives them a chance to begin to get their bearings. No trips to Home Depot or Petco, no parade through the neighborhood to make introductions, and certainly not to the dog park. In the beginning, the more consistent, reliable and safe you can make his experiences, the more quickly he will learn to trust. Avoid fear or intimidation-inducing practices – now and forever. Building a foundation of safety and trust yields dividends beyond measure down the road.

Become a student of dog body language and use your skills to observe him. Watch for signs of pain, discomfort or stress, and adjust your actions accordingly. Some dogs are clingy and want to be joined at the hip with you right off the bat. However, many dogs need and crave their own space. Respect this need, and make sure Fido has a safe, quiet place to tuck himself away as often as he wants.

Remember that safety is in the big brown (or green) eye of the beholder; what makes us feel safe may make him feel threatened or trapped. We humans are touchy-feely-huggy creatures, but dogs, not so much. While your new pup may enjoy being petted, scratched or brushed, chances are that he’s not enamored with hugging or close encounters of the physical kind. Remember, you are a stranger to him. Imagine that we are back on Mars…speaking for myself, I’m not eager to have those non-humans all up in my personal space. The same goes with any resident dogs and their interactions with the newcomer. Although they are the same species, they too are strangers and have no reason to trust each other. Create structured time together, with plenty of separation and downtime mixed in. Give them the benefit of a relationship, built slowly but surely at their pace and level of comfort.

Above all, have patience…with Fido and with yourself. Double handfuls of it, sprinkled liberally and generously throughout the day. The dog before you on Day One will not be the dog you see on day 14 or week six – or a year later.

Patricia McConnell and Karen London, in their wonderful book Love Has No Age Limit offer this priceless gem of wisdom: “See the dog, not the story”. Your goal, beyond providing your new dog a safe and stable environment, is to honor him by letting him tell you who he is right now, accepting that and acting accordingly.”

On day three, week three, month three and beyond, see and honor the dog in front of you, and do your best to create the safest world possible for him. Build trust first – a solid, sturdy foundation of it – which will support your relationship for a lifetime.  As time goes by, his true self will flourish, and his view of Mars will become a distant memory.




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