The biggest mistake adoptive owners make, says the expert

Borodziej Nora

2024. April 5 - Photos: Getty Images Hungary

With newly adopted dogs, I typically encounter two mistakes made with good intentions: the first is immediately enrolling them in obedience school to learn basic "commands." Many still believe that a good dog is primarily an obedient one who does everything on command. However, this isn't always the most effective approach.


The other mistake is when the adoptive owners take their dog everywhere from the very first day. Usually, they aim to show their pet how beautiful life is and how friendly everyone is. However, often in these situations, both the dogs and the owners experience their first failures.

A newly adopted dog primarily needs calmness and predictability, not inundation with stimuli.

Have you heard of the 3-3-3 rule?

During the first 3 days, everything might be overwhelming for the dog. It might be very restless or, conversely, just sleep (shelter dogs are often sleep-deprived). It might not want to drink or eat. It might pee or poop indoors.

After 3 weeks, the dog begins to find its place in this new system. Daily routines slowly come together (both for the dog and the owner, these need to be figured out together), the dog starts to pay more attention to its surroundings, engage in interaction, and play.

After 3 months, the dog begins to truly feel safe in the new place, and a secure relationship and attachment gradually develop with us. It understands routines and rules well, and behaves in a relaxed manner.

Of course, the 3 days – 3 weeks – 3 months timeline is just an estimate; every dog will progress at its own pace. But the essence is that the first few weeks, months are very stressful for a newly adopted dog: filled with new stimuli, new social partners, and new situations.

We often assume that just because we’ve brought a dog home from the shelter, it should immediately feel good because now it has a home and we love it. Even if the shelter was very stressful, there were familiar routines, the dog didn’t have to deal with new situations, expectations.

Being safe and feeling safe are two different things: one is objectively measurable, the other is a subjective feeling.

What does a newly adopted dog need?

A secure place that is solely theirs, where they can rest and hide – this could be a bed, a crate, or any space the dog has chosen for itself (which is not in the way). Calm resting and quality sleep are crucial for processing stress. If we use a crate, it should not – indeed, it’s not recommended – be closed. It’s important for the dog to be able to control how long it stays there. Sometimes they don’t hide but stick to the new owner like a sticker, following them everywhere. This is also a normal reaction, but it’s important to consider that following doesn’t necessarily mean the dog wants to be petted.

Calm everyday life: during the weeks after adoption, it’s advisable to give up on hosting guests and other activities; of course, it’s important to take care of our own well-being, but it’s better to spend as much time at home as possible even if our dog isn’t initiating interaction with us.

Understanding, empathy, patience: mainly, this means reducing our expectations of the dog, not trying to teach them all sorts of things, or forbid them. This doesn’t make them “disobedient”, they won’t “take over control”.

If the dog isn’t initiating interaction with us yet, it’s better to leave them alone and wait for them to approach us on their own. At the same time, we can reward every small attempt at interaction with praise or treats, such as when they come into the room to see what we’re doing or look up at us when we pass by.

Avoid overwhelming them with stimuli: rather, go out for short periods, take them to places where there aren’t many people, and avoid busy times on the streets. Most rescued dogs have lived in rural areas, so they have to process a lot of new stimuli during a short urban walk.

Provide opportunities for stress relief: decompression walks (in a place where there aren’t many people and the dog doesn’t need constant control or reprimanding), quality sleep, chew toys, treats-filled toys – all of these help the dog cope with stress and provide opportunities for meeting their basic needs.

Instead of prohibition

Of course, there are many behaviors that are very unpleasant or dangerous for us but it’s better to prevent them instead of prohibiting. (This way, training will also be easier later on because the dog won’t have the opportunity to practice undesirable behaviors, so they won’t become ingrained.)

Here are some ideas:

Indoors, we can use baby gates to prevent the dog from entering certain rooms, or from jumping on us when we arrive, or when we’re preparing food for them. Additionally, indoors, we can also use a short leash; for example, we can tether the dog to a bed (ideally with a chew toy or treat-filled toy) while we’re having dinner.

Outdoors, a long leash (at least 5 meters) is our best friend: it’s not safe to let a newly adopted dog off leash anyway, as we don’t know how they’ll react to certain stimuli or what they might chase or run away from.

Proactive prevention: if we want to prevent the dog from stepping onto the street, we should keep the leash short. And a few steps before reaching the intersection, we can start feeding them, so when we stop, they’ll do the same for the treat. Then we praise them and cross the street together.

We can leave a closed box of dry food in front of the entrance door. When we arrive home, we can immediately scatter some of it, so the dog won’t jump on us, and we can calmly take off our outerwear.

When can we go to dog school?

Spoiler: It’s not necessarily required to attend dog school to have a “good” dog. But if we want to, of course, a group course can help many people.

It’s worth going when:

  • our dog feels comfortable indoors, rests a lot, and willingly interacts with us
  • during walks, they are calmer, accept treats, and can concentrate on us for short periods
  • we feel motivated to do it!

Borodziej Nora dog trainer and behavior therapist

Nora is a dog trainer and behavior therapist, founder of the Kutyaegyetem/The Dog Nerd. She is the owner of one dog and four rats. She completed animal trainer training in Vienna with the Tiere Als Therapie organization.
Nora primarily works with dogs exhibiting behavioral problems, specializing in handling aggressive behaviors and reactivity. In addition, she teaches cooperative care, veterinary training, and scent work. For her, the main goal of training is to help dogs confidently handle everyday situations and ensure that both the family and the dog enjoy their life together. Her certifications include  Certified Dog Behavior ConsultantCertified Fear Free Trainer.

Of course, if our dog’s behavior is very concerning to us, it’s worth reaching out to a professional. They can help us understand the dog’s behavior and manage the situation appropriately, so we can feel comfortable and safe with them.

The best thing we can do is either read a lot on the subject or consult with a professional before adoption. This way, we can learn how to prepare for the dog’s arrival in advance and what behaviors to expect initially.

So once again: a newly adopted dog who pees indoors or doesn’t respond to recall isn’t disobedient, stubborn, or dominant. They’re just a dog starting a completely new life with us, and they still have a lot to learn. But they’ll almost certainly progress a lot with us if we’re willing to grow with them.

As an owner, you should also pay great attention to feeding. Never make THIS mistake!

adopted dog dog adoption Education rescued dog socialisation

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