Bringing a new dog home is exciting for the entire family — and the pup! But that doesn’t mean he won’t be a little nervous at first, too. To offer some advice on getting your new pet comfortable in their new home, we spoke with veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kelly C. Ballantyne and Shelby Semel, a New York-based dog trainer and behavior expert. They shared their advice for how to make this transition as seamless as possible, from the first night in their crate to how to handle their first accident.
Whether it’s a puppy or senior dog, the first night in their forever home is the beginning of a happy new life. But with so many new smells, new people, and new places to explore, it might be a little overwhelming too. “Before they bring the dog home, they need to create a safe space to rest,” Ballantyne told The Dodo. “Make sure [the dog] has a bed in the living space, but not in the midst of traffic.” Unboxing and assembling a crate or bed should happen before the dog comes home too, Semel added, as doing so while the dog is in a new space can be scary. Beyond creating a place to sleep, making sure they have an area to play in, a designated bathroom spot outdoors, and a place for their food and water before they arrive is key to putting them at ease right away. (Pro tip: Feeding puppies in their crate may help them adjust to sleeping in one faster.)
The key to an easy first few nights at home, Semel said, is taking them extra slow. That means avoiding abrupt changes like switching up pet food or adjusting meal times. “Any abrupt change can cause gastrointestinal distress, which is just added unpleasantness [during] a challenging time,” Ballantyne said, while noting that a slightly irritated tummy is perfectly normal the first few nights of a new routine. If your vet does recommend new food, or it’s time to transition a puppy to adult food or from wet food to dry kibble, start by replacing small amounts of the new food to their usual food. Then increase the ratio of new food over time until you’ve fully transitioned.
Dog toys aren’t just a treat for your pet, they’re essential for settling into a new home. Many dogs naturally want to chew things, which can make them go into hyperdrive when they are in a new space, stressed, or bored, Ballyntine said. Toys are the best way to positively reinforce what they should (and shouldn’t) chew on. Ask the foster or shelter what kinds of things your pup is drawn to, like fabric items or hard surfaces, and pick up toys with a variety of textures based on their preferences. Then only take out two at a time, Semel suggested. That will keep your dog interested in the toys as they rotate in and out. High-value food toys like a peanut-butter stuffed Kong can be a key treat for when you need to crate your dog at night, while Ballantyne recommended investing in a puzzle feeder to help ensure your dog is getting enough mental stimulation.
Whether you’re adopting a new puppy or bringing home a senior dog, it might be bumpy at first — especially when it comes to their bathroom habits. “All dogs should be treated like puppies when they first are brought home, no matter their age,” Semel said. That means keeping a log of meal times and bathroom breaks, and making sure you’re bringing your pet to the dedicated bathroom spot after every activity to relieve themselves. An adult dog will often get the drill after the first few days, while young puppies may need more time. Keep a stain remover around just in case, as dogs will likely return to the same spot to pee in your home if they can still smell their marking. A bathroom log can also be your first clue if your new pup isn’t adjusting well, so having a vet contact handy will help ease worries that first week. If you live in an apartment, pee pads may be helpful, but Ballantyne warned this could reinforce behavior you don’t want in the long term, aka peeing inside rather than outside on the curb.
Most pet parents dream of having their pets love each other as much as we love them all individually. That said, those relationships often take time to build, and it’s good to start slow. “Older dogs can definitely get annoyed by puppies,” Semel told the Dodo. So it’s important that before you bring your new pup home, they have a chance to meet your other dogs in a neutral place. (This is true whether you’re bringing in a puppy or an adult dog as well, as an adult dog may take a while to warm up to their new roommate.) Ideally, this would be in a park or backyard, but if that isn’t an option, even the hallway or lobby to your apartment is better than skipping it completely. Once you do bring the new pup home, use gates and pens to ensure that both dogs have separate spaces to retreat to when they need a break. Ballantyne recommended keeping a new pup completely out of sight of your cat, which will give them the opportunity to adjust to their smells and sounds before they meet. Once they are ready to interact, be sure to give your cat plenty of safe access to high-up areas, like a cat tree, so they can easily “escape” when they’re tired of playtime.
Dogs are learning constantly, even if you aren’t formally trying to teach them a command. Be prepared to reward good behavior (like sitting unprompted, using the bathroom outside, etc.) with treats and praise every time you notice it, Ballantyne said. Then, once your pup has adjusted to a new space, more formal “training” can begin for commands like “sit” or “stay” if they aren’t familiar with these already. Semel noted that a trainer can (virtually) help you set up your space and provide one-on-one instruction once your dog has settled in.
With these tips in mind (plus a few key items from Petco), your new pup will feel right at home with his forever family in no time.
Christie Rotondo is an editor at The Dodo and currently lives in New Jersey with her two cats. She knows you have plenty of jokes about that and she does not care.