Shelter dogs 101: What to expect in the first 6 months after adopting

COLUMBUS, Ohio — “Don’t shop, adopt!” is a popular phrase that animal shelters use to help find dogs their forever home. So, what can new owners expect when they bring home a shelter dog? Researchers from The Ohio State University tracked how pooches’ behavior shifted over the first six months in their new home and found some surprising changes.

Researchers surveyed owners who had adopted dogs from five shelters at multiple time points using a recognized behavioral assessment tool called the Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). The study found that while these dogs may exhibit various problem behaviors that fluctuate over time, owners generally remain highly satisfied with their four-legged family addition despite the adjustment period.

The findings revealed that aggression towards strangers, owners, and other dogs had a high prevalence among the adopted dogs, but the patterns of aggression changed over time. Separation-related behavior problems, on the other hand, decreased by the six-month mark. At the end of the study, 93.7 percent of owners rated their dog’s overall behavior as excellent or good, and 100 percent reported that their pet adjusted moderately or extremely well to their new home.

“We really got to see where in the timeline the pet’s behavior may change or may not change, and that’s really the key,” says study lead author Kyle Bohland, assistant professor-clinical of behavioral medicine in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at OSU, in a university release. “The shelter system touches many lives, both humans and pets. And so it’s important for us to be able to counsel owners on what may or may not change in the future so they can be better prepared to handle those consequences and then, hopefully, keep dogs in homes.”

Scroll down to see 10 steps for preparing your home for a new dog

(Photo by Hilary Halliwell from Pexels)

Scientists aimed to challenge the common belief that a dog’s behavior drastically changes three days, three weeks, and three months after adoption. Previous studies on shelter dogs’ behavior changes only examined one point in time or employed unvalidated surveys. To provide a more comprehensive analysis, researchers used the C-BARQ tool, which allowed them to assess individual dogs consistently. Participants who adopted dogs from shelters in the Columbus and Cleveland areas completed surveys at various intervals after adoption.

The surveys asked owners to rate their dog’s behavior on a scale from 0-4 across multiple factors, including excitability, aggression, fear, touch sensitivity, separation-related behavior, attachment and attention-seeking, chasing, and energy level. Owners were also asked to rate their overall satisfaction with their dog’s behavior and document any changes in their household.

The study’s results indicated that certain behaviors changed over time, such as increases in stranger-directed aggression, chasing behavior, training difficulty, excitability, and touch sensitivity at different intervals. However, two behaviors decreased by the six-month mark: separation-related behavior and attachment and attention-seeking. Some behaviors remained consistent throughout the study period, including aggression towards familiar dogs, strangers, and owners.

Seven out of the studied dogs were returned to the shelter during the research period, resulting in a return rate of 7.1 percent, significantly lower than the national average of about 15 percent.

“The bottom line is we don’t want to see dogs coming back to shelters,” says Bohland. “A lot of what we study comes from clients having questions. So my hope is that in the long term, this can help shelter employees and veterinarians target interventions that will help keep more dogs in their homes.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

How to prepare a home for an adopted dog:

  1. Safe Space: Set up areas where the dog can feel safe. This includes its bed, food and water bowls, and toys.
  2. Dog-Proofing: Make sure your home is adequately dog-proofed.
  3. Crate Training: If you plan to crate train, be sure the crate is ready.
  4. Familiar Items: If your new dog has a special item (such as a toy, bed, or blanket) from its foster home or shelter, find out if you can take it home. This can help make your home feel familiar.
  5. Supplies: You will need a few basic dog supplies ahead of time so you don’t have to run to the store at the last minute. These include a dog bed and crate (if using); food and water bowls; toys; dog food; collar, ID tag, and leash.
  6. Prevent a Lost Dog: Have a collar and ID tag with your phone number made in advance. Bring it with you when you pick up your new dog.
  7. Transition the Dog’s Food: Find out what food your new dog is currently eating and make sure you have enough for the first few weeks. If you plan on changing its food, wait at least a week before introducing the new diet.
  8. Bond With Your Dog: Spend the first few days bonding with your new dog, but give it some space as well. You can encourage your dog to interact with you through the use of treats and a soft, calm voice.
  9. Establish Routine: Begin feeding, walking, and interacting with your dog on the same general schedule each day.
  10. House Rules: If there are areas in or around your home that are off-limits to your dog, establish this upfront.

Remember that adopting a pet involves more than household preparation. It’s lifestyle preparation. Decide who’ll be in charge of house-training, feeding, and exercising your pet, and when during the day these activities will be done. Come up with some rules as a family.

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