Back in the days when I knew everything and worried about nothing, I did a lot of fostering, and dog-sitting, and invited friends to come over with their dogs. Back then, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I brought in a new dog. Back then, I was lucky.
A few years ago we took in a foster Boxer who took a shine to my husband and really liked cuddling with him on the couch. Our Diesel did not like this and they had a few fights. Again, only superficial, and it was only openly displaying affection that seemed to cause things to erupt.
Shortly after that we took in another foster Boxer. This one was the hardest foster story of my life. Unbeknownst to us, this dog had problems with aggression. Both with dogs – he and Diesel had several pretty bad fights – but also with humans – there were a couple of very severe incidents involving bites to multiple people. To be fair to us, we weren’t told his true story and he showed very few signs of this potential with us. But to assign blame where blame is due, we did nothing to help him overcome these issues. Introductions were done without much control and we gave him far too much freedom far too soon. It must have been incredibly stressful for him and I feel sorry to this day that I set him up for failure in this way. In the end, he is now in a better place, but it was traumatic and a huge learning experience for many of us.
Now we still foster, and we probably will for the rest of our lives. But when we bring a new animal in, things look very different now. We follow the Two Week Shutdown approach, which is so intuitive and simple when you really think about it. The full approach can be found here – and don’t be misled by the name, some dogs take less, or more time than two weeks, but this is about easing them in, helping them adjust, earning their trust, and setting them up for success. These are the basics:
- Run that dog! Making sure they burn off extra energy is very important to help them relax.
- But don’t take the dog out on a walk yet. Being out and about is very stimulating and can be overwhelming to a dog in a new place, with a new person. Keep the exercising in the yard on a long lead until you two know each other better.
- No socialization yet. No dog parks, pet stores, friend’s homes, etc. It’s too much stimulation and the dog needs to trust you wholly before you can both be comfortable in locations like these.
- Limit the freedom. This could mean keeping them in an exercise pen (my preference), or a crate (I’d suggest a wire one for better visibility), or leashed to you umbilical-style. This has so many good outcomes. It helps them understand that you are the person to trust. You are the person who brings good things. It keeps them from having accidents, making mistakes, getting into trouble. Building that trust and setting boundaries all at the same time. I particularly like the pen method because the dog is able to watch and observe the regular household routine and be watched and observed without risk of danger. I set the pen up in a busy part of our home (usually the main floor kitchen/dining/living space). We have a busy household with two small children, which is what makes this very important for us.
- Restrict access to resident animals. This doesn’t mean they won’t be allowed to play eventually. Or see each other. I prefer the ex pen method for this reason as well. Since Diesel had his two dog conflicts, he has been touchy with other dogs, particularly larger males. Making introductions through the ex pen helps the dogs know they have nothing to worry about, everyone can smell each other and see each other’s body language and calming signals, but they can’t touch each other – and more importantly, they can’t fight each other. Move into a rotation, where the new dog and the resident dog(s) take turns in pens (or crates). Since I have used this method, I haven’t had any issues with any rudeness, but if there was negative body language and communication through the pen, I would just keep rotating pen time and free time for a longer period.
- No furniture privileges at first. This is about setting boundaries. It fully depends on the dog, and you, and what privileges you intend to allow. But furniture access should be by invitation only at the best of times. And never too soon.
This is a huge simplification of the Two Week Shutdown; do read the full link on your own, but know that the method can be adjusted based on your household and the personalities involved. The dog will let you know when he or she is ready to take a step. You see a shift in their demeanor, their body language, their smile, and you know they’re ready to be trusted and that they trust you.
Written by Kristen B. Kristen is a slightly crunchy mom of two Boxers (and two angel Boston Terriers) and two Human boys. They’ve been rescuing dogs for over twelve years. Her family lives in Calgary, Alberta.