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How to bring a new dog into your home, and the Do's & Don'ts for the first 3-days/3-weeks/3-months

By Ann King, CBCC, KPA-CTP

Everyone knows that adopting a dog from a rescue saves lives and makes us all feel good. Our social media feeds are packed with heartwarming stories of people giving homeless dogs a well-deserved chance at a do-over. It’s feel-good central and we eat it up. 


What people don’t talk about as much, though, is what the first few days and weeks at home with a new dog are like, particularly if it’s difficult. And even less talked about is the fact that many dogs are returned to rescues and shelters within just a few weeks. Some statistics say as many as 20%. Why is this? How can things go from happy to, well, crappy, so quickly?


The truth is that a lot of us are simply doing it wrong. With loving intentions and full hearts, we’re inadvertently setting our new best friend up for failure. Trust me, as a frequent flyer in the dog foster and adoption world and before I was a professional dog trainer, I made every mistake in the book. Some of these were little mistakes, which merely resulted in a dog that wasn’t pleasant to live with. But some of these were BIG mistakes, a few of which resulted in injury to dogs and me, and the subsequent re-homing of dogs. 


Obviously, I didn’t set out to create chaos for my newly adopted dogs. In fact, I now realize the problems were a result of the things I wasn’t doing. Because I wasn’t proactive with structure, management, activity, red flags, and training (S.M.A.R.T) I ended up having to “fix” problems that arose for dogs both new and existing in my household. 


Before we jump into the S.M.A.R.T. protocol we should address a couple of truths I wish I had known.


Lose the baggage!

Let’s talk about the suitcase in the room: your new dog’s “back story”. The circumstances that led your new dog to end up in a rescue. The baggage. Let’s lose it. By hanging on to what we may or may not know about our new dog, and viewing it through a lens clouded by the dog’s perhaps-not-ideal past, we do it a great disservice. Let us observe the dog in front of us, and respond accordingly. 

The rule of 3/3/3

Keep in mind the rule of 3/3/3 – 3 days, 3 weeks, 3 months. These are common milestones when we often see changes in behavior as the dog settles in. Emerging behaviors may be old habits resurfacing, or they may be new behaviors brought on by the environment. What we do (or don’t do) in these early days and weeks affects both. These timeframes are important in setting new routines and helping build new habits. Resist the temptation to back off on the elements of the S.M.A.R.T. protocol during the first 3/3/3. 

What is S.M.A.R.T? - Structure, Management, Activity, Red flags, Training

The S.M.A.R.T. protocol is a holistic approach to our relationship with our dog. It provides a framework that addresses all aspects of a dog’s life: physical, social, environmental, and bridging the communication gap between our two species. When we attend to each area of the framework, we are setting our dog (and ourselves!) up for success. Conversely, when there are deficiencies in the framework, these can manifest in behavior we find undesirable.

SMART diagram.jpeg
Rescue S.M.A.R.T: not always enough

By following the Rescue S.M.A.R.T. protocol, you’re giving your adopted dog the best chance possible at successfully integrating into your home and your life. Wouldn’t it be great if following the recipe worked every time? We wish. 


Those of us who have been in this game long enough know that even when we do everything “right” with a dog in our care, it doesn’t always work. There are times when a dog has problems – behavior or physical – that become more than we can reasonably expect someone to handle. Sure, some folks give up more easily than others, and that can be frustrating, but in my decades of experience I have found that most people have good intentions and want to do the right thing. And most rescues want to provide fosters and adopters with as much education and support as possible, which was my goal in creating Rescue S.M.A.R.T. 


All that said, the reasonable dog welfare advocates among us know that adopting a dog is a crap shoot: you can do everything right and it still might not work out. Hopefully, if you have to make the very painful and difficult decision that your new dog isn’t working out, you are not made to feel guilty or shamed by activists who loudly scream from their social media platforms about how they’d live in their car with their dog if they had to. Know that there are real and reasonable folks in dog rescue that don’t expect you to take up residence in your car with your dog.


So, thank you for fostering or adopting. And thank you for giving it your best shot. Your commitment humbles us every day and is the reason we in dog rescue are able to do what we do.

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