When we first brought our adorable hound mix home, we were stunned at how un-hound-like she was.
Olive didn't bark.
Rattling cars. Speeding cyclists. Plodding joggers. Scavenging squirrels.
Through all of it, she never so much as whimpered.
Until Day 4.
That day, we were walking Olive near a Walmart Tire Service Center when a man emerged from a service bay shouting back at his co-workers. Olive stopped, pondered the situation, and let out a string of bellowing barks.
She hasn't stopped barking since.
The adoption process can be tough for everyone, but it's especially hard on your dog. Think of everything that's happening to them.
- They don't know who you are.
- They don't know where they're going.
- Your house is at least their third home in the last few weeks or months.
- They don't know if they're going back to the shelter.
- There are so many new sounds.
- Your house smells weird.
- You smell weird.
It's total system overload.
So, what should you expect over the first few days, weeks, and months as your new companion settles into their forever home?
This guide covers 9 crucial milestones for your adopted dog:
But first, let's talk about an easy-to-remember rule to gauge your pup's progress.
The 3-3-3 Rule
The 3-3-3 Rule helps set expectations for your dog's adjustment to their new environment:
- 3 Days: Compared to the shelter, your home is Disney World. Your dog is amped up on all the new sights, scents, and space and has no idea what to do with any of it. There's probably a lot of excitement, a lot of energy, and a lot of unpredictability.
- 3 Weeks: Your dog is starting to understand your routine and get more comfortable in their new home. Their personality will start to shine through, and you'll begin to identify any behavior problems that need to be corrected.
- 3 Months: Your dog knows that your home is their home. Shelter dogs with behavior problems, especially over 1 year old, may still need time and training to ensure a successful transition to their new life.
Dane County Humane Society has a great one-page PDF explaining the 3-3-3 Rule in detail.
9 Crucial Adopted Dog Milestones
Every dog is their own individual with their own past and personality. That makes it challenging for me to tell you what to expect with much certainty, but there are a few things you can look for as your dog gets comfortable.
I'd argue what's most important is gauging whether your dog seems quicker or slower than average to adjust.
Our dog was 14 months old when we adopted her with an uncertain past likely filled with traumatic experiences. She loves my wife and I dearly, but she's very anxious and never developed proper coping skills or confidence. She's been slower than most at almost every key milestone, so we'll keep working with her to ensure she settles in well over time.
Minute 1: Walking Through The Door (The First 2-3 Hours)
Most "Dog Adoption Milestone" guides start with Day 1, but I want to start with Minute 1: the moment they first walk through the door up through the first 2-3 hours.
- Keep your dog on leash and let them lead you through the front door and into your home. They're the tour guide.
- Don't let your dog off leash. Let the tour continue with your dog in the lead. If you have any kids, let them walk with your dog but don't let them reach out and touch him or her. Everything comes on your dog's time. As a bonus, arm your kids with treats and let them feed the dog from an open palm.
- If you have a fenced-in yard, end the tour outside. Let your dog off leash and let them sniff around. Feel free to toss a ball, but don't force the issue if they aren't interested.
- When it's time to go back inside, take your dog to an area in your home that you've already set up as their safe space: a comfy bed, a chew toy, a high-value chew treat, and plenty of peace and quiet. Let them relax here for about 90 minutes. This step is crucial to helping them feel safe and independent in their new environment and can go a long way toward preventing separation anxiety.
You're probably bringing your new dog home in the early afternoon, so the first 2-3 hours above may be the majority of Day 1.
That said, here are some overall Day 1 tips to follow.
The first day is all about decompression. Everything is different. Everything is weird. There are so many new people, sights, and smells in their new home. Your dog probably is exhausted from countless stressful nights at the shelter but too anxious to actually sleep that much.
It's important to give your dog space without giving them free reign of your home. Shelter dogs in new environments often experience housetraining regression and are prone to indoor accidents. This happens for three reasons:
- New territory that needs to be marked.
- In the shelter, they probably were forced to eliminate inside their tiny kennel.
- Dogs are terrible generalizers. They may have learned not to eliminate in their last home but may not have grasped that applied to all homes.
It's best to keep your new dog nearby without invading their space.
- Close doors or set up baby gates to restrict access to other parts of your home.
- Set up their bed or crate along a wall with toys and treats to make it inviting.
- Let them come up to you on their time.
- Resist the urge to invite your friends, parents, and in-laws over to see the dog.
- Initial tour aside, try to keep your kids away from the dog to give him or her plenty of space.
- Keep any other pets away until Day 2.
Begin by feeding your dog the same food they ate at the shelter. This is important for two reasons:
- Dogs always should be eased into new foods (to prevent digestive issues).
- It provides some semblance of consistency from their time at the shelter.
Olive didn't finish her food for the first few days. Before long she was polishing off her bowl in 30 seconds flat.
Your rescue may not be able to sleep much during their first few days in your home, but they'll probably zonk out at night. You'll want to give your new dog a comfortable, safe place to sleep, so keep these things in mind:
- Resist the urge to let them sleep in bed with you. Shelter dogs often experience separation anxiety and may whine or bark if left alone, but it's important to teach them to self-soothe from the start. Responding to their whines also sets a bad precedent. They'll learn that whining gets them what they want.
- That doesn't mean lock your dog downstairs by themselves. If your dog wants your company, let them sleep where they can see and smell you.
- Try to get them to sleep in their crate. You'll often hear that dogs are den animals; it's partly true. In the wild, your dog's ancestors didn't construct and sleep in dens. Therefore, they aren't true den animals. But they were raise in maternal dens, and your dog probably loves the feeling of curling up in a small, safe place. Put a blanket over the top of their crate and line the inside with plenty of soft pillows and blankets (and maybe a stuffed Kong).
- Some dogs (like our Olive) nurse at soft items to soothe themselves, especially at night. This is a reaction to being taken away from their mother too soon. It's absolutely adorable, and it probably isn't a major issue worth correcting. When Olive is stressed, she drags her favorite blanket out of her crate, lays down with it in her mouth, paws at it gently, closes her eyes, and zones everything else out.
- Dogs sleep for most of the day (puppies almost all day) but rarely sleep straight through the night. A study of Pointers found "the most sleep occurred between 2100 and 0400 hr during darkness," which is fancy speak for saying dogs go to bed by 9:00 pm and wake up way too early.
Keep giving your dog space as they get comfortable in their new home. If you have other pets, Day 2 is when you'll want to begin introductions.
- Pick a relatively neutral spot in your home or yard for the introduction to occur. If possible, introduce them in a totally neutral environment like a nearby park.
- If you have multiple dogs, do introductions one at a time.
- Keep both dogs on a short, loose leash. If they seem disinterested, don't force it.
- Keep the first few introductions brief. A few sniffs, some face-to-face, and that's it. Pull the dogs apart, give them some one-on-one petting and play time for a few minutes, and then work on another introduction. Only when the dogs can interact calmly should you consider extended interactions. If your neutral place is away from your house, now is the time to head back home.
- Be on high-alert for signs that either dog is getting riled up. These signs include rigid posture, standing tall, neck hair beginning to stand up, and a general lack of openness or comfort with the experience. It's crucial to intervene and separate before things escalate to snarling or worse. You can always try again in a few minutes. It may even take a few days. You definitely don't want to rush the process.
Dogs crave routine, so start strong on Day 2 by giving your dog some structure:
- Set walk and feeding schedules.
- Don't let your dog dominate your walks. You're the alpha. You're in control. Many non-puppy shelter dogs never learned how to walk on leash, and it can lead to a lot of problems, such as leash reactivity. If your dog pulls on leash, consider getting a front-clip harness to correct the problem.
- Help your dog find a comfortable place to eliminate outside.
- Don't push your dog too quickly to explore new things. Focus on exploring your immediate area and slowly expand outwards. Let them sniff every bush and pee on every tree before moving to the next block.
Day 2 is a good time to call your vet and schedule an appointment.
(Unless it's Sunday. Then grab a beer, turn on the game, and call your vet tomorrow.)
The 3-3-3 Rule tells us your dog should begin feeling more comfortable sometime during their first week home, but every dog is different. The important thing to remember about Week 1 is to keep going slowly.
As the first week concludes, it's probably time to start training your new dog. Even if your dog is a fully-loaded luxury model that comes with obedient sits and top-of-the-line tricks, it's best to start training like everything else: slowly.
- Practice sit, down, and stay with your dog. Even if they know these commands, beginning at Square One helps develop a solid foundation for future training.
- Remember the five Ds of dog training: dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge. (Sorry, I couldn't resist a well-place Dodgeball joke.)
- But there are three Ds of dog training: duration, distance, and distractions. A well-trained dog should be able to hold a sit for several minutes with you 10 feet away while other dogs play in the distance. If your dog can't do that, go back to the beginning and master duration before tackling distance before introducing distractions.
- Puppies are more of a blank slate and easier to mold. If your dog is older than 6-12 months, it may be tougher to train them because you have to overcome a lot of their ingrained behaviors they developed during the crucial 3-6 month learning window. But it isn't impossible! Just go slow, reward you dog for their successes, and avoid putting them in positions where they're unlikely to succeed.
If you want to transition your dog to a new food, you can start doing that now. Just remember to ease them into their new food slowly over the next week by gradually moving from 75% old food and 25% new food to 100% new food by the end of the week.
Toward the end of the first month, your dog should be settling into their new home and routine. Their true personality should start shining through, which gives you a good idea of the behaviors you may need to start addressing specifically. There are many common behavior problems among shelter dogs. Have any started rearing their ugly heads? If so, it's best to talk to your vet or find a recommended behaviorist in your area.
How is your dog responding to their food? Do they regularly finish it, seem energetic, and have solid bowel movements? If not, experiment with a new food or talk to your vet about your options. If your dog is scarfing down everything too quickly, a slow feeder bowl is a great way to make them work for their meals.
Chances are your dog has seen or possibly interacted with other dogs. This is a good time to think about introducing them to other dogs at your local dog park! But before you let Fido off leash with a bunch of unfamiliar mutts, you'll want to ask yourself a few questions:
- Is your dog up-to-date on all of their vaccinations?
- When they see a dog on leash, are they able to control their impulses until you casually walk them over?
- When they meet new dogs, do they introduce themselves properly? (Olive doesn't. She charges full boar at every dog's face, which is a good way to start a fight.)
- Do you feel confident they'll come to you when called?
If you answered, "yes" to all of the above, then what are you waiting for?! Load your dog in your car and get going!
The one-month mark also means it's time to make sure your dog is getting the routine care and grooming they need:
- Flea, tick, and heartworm prevention every month
- Baths every month (do the bath before applying any topical flea or tick treatments)
- Nails clipped every 2-4 weeks
- Teeth brushed every week (yes, that regularly, but dental sticks help, too)
- Coat brushed every few days
The final milestone described by the 3-3-3 Rule, this is about the time when your dog has learned that your home is their home.
Not to rain on your parade, but that comfort may present some problems. Many dogs backslide behaviorally as they settle in.
- Your home has become their territory.
- Dogs and people walking by are potential threats to their territory.
- Your dog may even begin to challenge your authority.
I've said it once already but it bears repeating here: You need to be the alpha.
It can be cute to let your dog sit on the couch or sleep in your bed. It may be easy to let them abandon sits, ignore stays, and have full reign of your entire home and property. Unfortunately, these behaviors may signal to your dog that they're in control. It isn't too late for you to reclaim your rightful place atop the iron bone.
By this point, your dog should be interacting with other dogs regularly (or working toward that goal). Of course, there are exceptions for every situation. If you live in a rural area or adopted a senior dog, they may be more of a homebody.
If you adopted a young, large-breed puppy that wasn't spayed or neutered, chances are they probably should have been by this point.
The 6-month milestone is all about staying the course as your dog continues to grow into their new life. Keep introducing them to new experiences. The seasons have changed, so maybe it's getting close to the first snowfall or warming up enough for a trip to the beach!
Are you thinking it's about time you got your dog a new playmate?
- If you adopted an an adult dog (at least a year old) who's transitioning on schedule and appears well-socialized, now is an acceptable time to start thinking about adding a second.
- If you adopted a puppy, your dog should be coming up on their one-year birthday and close to fully grown. Likely, they still need time to continue to grow as a confident individual, so it's best to hold off on a second dog for at least another 6 months. (You definitely want to avoid Littermate Syndrome.)
If you adopted a puppy, the 1-year mark is a good time to explore adding a second. At this point your puppy is around 15-18 months old and has become a well-adjusted and well-trained individual. (Nice work!) It's safe to bring a new puppy into the mix so your dog can show them the ropes without the risk of the two getting emotionally co-dependent.
The 1-year mark also means it's time to get your dog back to the vet for their annual check-up to monitor their height, weight, and health.
Remember to keep adding new experiences and keep working on your training. If your dog has mastered the basics (plus a few fun parlor tricks), consider enrolling them in a fun dog sports training program! Fenzi Dog Sports Academy has a bunch of awesome online, interactive courses led by actual instructors who will work with you to teach your dog fun new skills. I mean, don't these courses sound awesome?!
- AG110: Intro To Agility - Handling Basics
- AG200: Foundation Jumping for All Sports
- EL140: Mindset Training For Dog Sports
- FE370: ALL THE SPORTS: Foundation For The Cross-Training Canine
As an added bonus, dog sports training is a great way to deepen the bond between you and your pup while giving your shelter dog the life they always deserved.
Adopted Dog Milestones: Final Thoughts
The adoption process can be stressful for everyone involved, and it's easy to forget how hard the transition will be on your new dog. While every dog is their own individual with a unique personality, there are common milestones you'll both hit along the way and specific things you can do to ease the transition.
Above all else, keep these 10 things in mind:
- Start slowly and respect your dog's boundaries.
- Gradually introduce them to new people, pups, and places.
- Establish a routine and stick to it.
- Make regular obedience training a part of that routine.
- Be the alpha. You're in charge and your dog looks to you for guidance.
- Monitor changes in your dog's comfort and behavior over the first few days, weeks, and months.
- Look for signs of common behavioral problems, like separation anxiety, resource guarding, and leash reactivity.
- Be proactive about correcting those problems, enlisting the help of your vet or behaviorist as needed.
- Keep exposing your dog to new experiences without pushing them too quickly.
- The easiest of all, shower them with love and they'll return the favor.
If you have questions about what to expect after adopting, the best thing to do is talk to your vet. They know you, your dog, and your community best and are an invaluable resource.
But I'd also encourage you to sign up for our email list below. Our subscribers get exclusive info not published on the site, and we give away free stuff every month! Join our growing PetLists community, today!