Ask Tom, the Dogcharmer: Making Nina feel at home

Charlotte, a border collie cross. Photo Courtesy of Pam Goff

Dear Dogcharmer,

My husband and I are ready to adopt our first dog together. We decided on a Lab mix coming from Florida. This sweet 6½-year-old, named Nina, ended up at the shelter twice, first as a puppy, and the second time after the family that adopted her had to move. She is fully trained (come, sit, stay, and numerous tricks), but my main concern is that she was abandoned a few times already, and has had to adjust to so many scenarios (in and out of a high-kill shelter, fosters, boarding). How do we make her feel at home with us? I want her to feel loved and safe, and know that she’s part of the family now! Any advice you have is highly appreciated, as neither of us has adopted an adult dog before.

Thank you,
Aurelia and Eric

Dear Aurelia and Eric,

The first thing I have to say to you is Hurrah for you. So many older dogs languish in shelters because so many adopters think they want a puppy. “You never know what you’re getting when you get an older dog”; “I want to start with a puppy so I can train it from the get-go” is what I’ve heard a thousand times. Well, that concept can be as wrong as it can be right. Just as often as not, you can get a real good feel for the older dog by a little hanging out with her or him. A wagging tail and smiling eyes wouldn’t be a bad sign. Maybe a short walk to see her reactions to the real world outside the shelter, to people on the street, to other dogs, to squirrels and cars and children. If the vibe is good and you take her home, as an adult she may be ten times easier to deal with than a puppy. Feces and urine, that’s the game when you bring home that 7-week-old egg-for-brains puppy. Simultaneously, of course, you’ll be working on the jumping, mouthing, eating your remote, and teaching it its name. With the older adoptee, all this stuff may be done within a couple of days. And truth be told, you don’t really know what you’re getting when you get a puppy!

As important as the environment is, genetics plays a major role. As the dog evolves from pup to punk to young adult, there’s always the possibility of some unwanted behaviors presenting themselves. So, when Nina is lucky enough to enter your hearts, I’d suggest that you don’t smother her with attention. Give her some space and let her come to you. Initially, always be the bearer of treats. Even tiny ones — size doesn’t matter. Nothing for nothing. She earns every treat she gets. Call her a lot, and when she arrives, she gets a treat after sitting. I’d also suggest she be disallowed from getting on any furniture, or eating people food. It’s an awful lot easier giving her more and more privileges as she earns them than it is to share immediately your bed and food, then realize it was a mistake and try to take those privileges away.

Aurelia and Eric, as far as I’m concerned, you sit firmly on the “good guy” side of the fence, so it would be my pleasure to donate my time to meet Nina and help you with any questions or issues regarding her. Congratulations and the best of luck.

The Dogcharmer