If you brought home a puppy in the past year to take advantage of extra time at home, you’re not alone. ”What we hear every day from people looking to adopt a dog is that it’s not what it used to be,” Lindsey Quinn, public relations coordinator for the Oregon Dog Rescue, told VICE. She now sees dogs with 20 to 100 potential adopters vying for them. Last year, eager adopters even emptied out shelters in high-demand states. But actually getting through your dog’s initial adjustment is only the beginning of learning to live together.
It’s a misconception that dogs will settle in and chill out on their own, and outsized expectations without training or preparation can lead frustrated owners to question whether their dog is truly a fit. As vaccines roll out in the U.S., many more people will be spending time away from home, and it’s normal for dogs in these situations to start exhibiting some bothersome new behaviors—so don’t panic if you need to consult a vet or behaviorist. Whether you adopted or purchased your pup, now’s the time to figure out how to make your relationship thrive long-term. Here’s how you can avoid the top reasons dogs are surrendered, and ensure your pet is home to stay.
Dogs are creatures of habit, and feel secure when they’re in a stable routine. As far as your new dog knows, you being home all the time is normal. Sudden absences and long stretches of time without you can spur anxiety, excessive barking, and the untimely demise of your furniture.
Crate train your dog. Sometimes misunderstood as a cruel practice, crate training establishes a safe and comfortable space where your dog can happily relax and escape stressful situations. (If your dog becomes more anxious while crated, ask your vet if there could be underlying issues, or consult with an animal behaviorist.) To make the crate more appealing, lock a toy or frozen treat inside it (but leave your dog loose) while you’re preparing to go out, Greer suggests. Right before you leave, allow the dog to run in the crate, then lock the door behind him.
Leave behind puzzles and toys for your dog to play with. Try placing kibble inside a hollow chew toy (like a Kong). Stuff the opening with peanut butter, then freeze it. Entertainment while you’re away helps dogs destress—and avoid turning to other temptations.
Take a “sniff walk.” Help your dog burn energy with a walk at her own pace before you leave. Allow your pup to stop and sniff along the way. “Hopefully, the combination of energy and enrichment tires them out enough that if you’re gone for four hours because you went out with your friends, they basically just hang out and nap,” Lindsay Hamrick, director of shelter engagement and outreach for the Humane Society of the U.S., told VICE. “Obviously, the more energetic your dog is the more you need to do that.”
Hire a dog walker while you’re still home. Slowly acclimate your dog to the idea of being taken out by someone other than you by setting up a routine of regular outings with a local dog walker. This helps prepare your dog for walks by a stranger before they’re facing the added stress of your all-day absence.
Start leaving your dog alone for short periods of time. If you haven’t started doing this yet, now is the time to run quick errands, building up to a few hours, before you leave for an entire workday or bar crawl.
Plan ahead for overnight stays and trips. If you’re heading home from the bar with someone, it won’t work to leave your dog alone, so plan on inviting people back to your place going forward. In addition, vacation plans should include a budget for boarding your dog. And don’t put boarding or finding a pet-sitter off until the last minute; things book up fast, especially during busy travel times, and can get expensive.
Use medication as a last resort. Shaking, severe drooling, and extreme destruction in the home while you’re away are signs that your dog may need medication for anxiety. The best time to address it? “Before the damage or destruction is severe,” Greer said. Some dogs require medication short-term to make a transition; others may need it for life. Regardless, your vet can help you figure out how to proceed.
Surprise medical bills
Even the most well-behaved dogs occasionally eat things they shouldn’t, and emergency services, urgent care, overnight stays, and surgeries can quickly add up. While it’s tempting to skip vet visits now to save a little money, that can cost you, too.
Pick up the house. Intestinal blockages in adventurous eaters are a common reason dogs need surgeries. Stinky, smelly items, including those that smell like you, are irresistible. Avoid leaving socks and underwear on the floor or purses/bags containing sugarless gum where your dog can get into it.
Don’t skip preventive medical care. Vaccines, heartworm and flea/tick medication, and regular dental care (including brushing at home) lower the chances of costly surprises later. Spay or neuter when your vet recommends; these surgeries prevent unwanted puppies and head off infections that can require expensive surgeries, according to veterinarian Marty Greer, whose book, Your Pandemic Puppy, was published last year.
Consider pet insurance. If you can swing the upfront expense and find a plan with solid coverage, getting insurance while your pet is healthy can help you avoid major bills if your dog develops a chronic illness or has a big emergency later. Caveat: insurance can be pricey and restrictive, and isn’t regulated like health insurance for humans, so check the fine print for waiting periods, pre-existing condition exclusions, limitations on coverage for chronic conditions, and more.
If you’re in a tough spot, look into pet-specific financing and funding. Greer recommended resources like ASPCA-sponsored KeepYourPet.com and alternative financing from CareCredit, Scratchpay, and similar sites. Local shelters may also have funds to help prevent medical surrenders, as do some vet clinics, so it’s worth calling around. If you’re lucky, your area may have a nonprofit like Tennessee-based AlignCare, where social services agents match pet owners with funds and with veterinarians who accept reduced rates. These services are increasingly common, according to Hamrick.
Growling, snapping, nipping, and other reactive behaviors are signs that your dog is over her stress threshold. These behaviors can come out toward other dogs, smaller animals like cats and birds (prey drive, anyone?), and people. The key is to address them early, and to get expert advice as often as possible.
Take a puppy class. While there’s a “critical phase” for puppy classes between nine to 16 weeks, Hamrick said, positive reinforcement-based training is helpful at any age. Despite her being a dog trainer, one of Hamrick’s own dogs needed three sets of six-week classes, she said, so have patience.
Make food and water easily accessible. When it comes to multiple-pet households, “any place where resources become restricted or narrowed is where we run into problems,” Greer said. Clear doorways and hallways so pets can get outside easily, move food bowls to easily accessible areas, and offer each pet its own bowl.
Create cat escape routes. Dogs and cats are often a mismatch, both because of their sizes and varying desires for play and interaction. Install cat flaps or cat doors so cats can get away when need be, or use baby gates, sturdy cat towers, hammocks, or other landing spots where they can leap beyond the reach of an overeager playmate.
Have new friends give food. If you’re moving in with a new roommate or partner, put them in charge of treats and meals. Food is a love language for dogs.
Try an exchange. Don’t panic if your dog growls; take it as a warning, Hamrick said. Use high-value treats, like hot dogs or cheese, and throw them away from guarded items. Does your dog growl when you come near her bed, or a stolen sock? Toss a treat in the other direction then grab the item. If your dog is growling at other dogs, positive reinforcement can still work, but you’ll also want to consult an animal behaviorist for the best responses to your dog’s signs of stress, and when it’s time to walk away or limit exposure to other animals.
The end of a relationship, finishing school, or a new job can mean it’s time to find a new place to live... and not every housemate, partner, or landlord is comfortable having a dog around.
Let loved ones in on your plans. If you’re moving in with family, roommates, or a new partner, make sure they are aware that you’ll be bringing your new pet well in advance. If they are uneasy about it, talk to them about things like your plan for a dog walker while you’re away at work, the fact that your dog took a training class, or your planned schedule for feeding and exercise each day.
Get a dog DNA test. You may be able to skirt breed restrictions by proving that your dog isn’t actually a banned breed, despite appearances. Even seasoned pros find themselves surprised by the results, Hamrick said.
Create a pet resume and solicit recommendations. “Twice in six or seven moves, I found places that adamantly said they weren’t going to accept any pets, and I moved in with two dogs and a cat and because previous landlords said I was cleaner and easier than tenants without pets,” Hamrick told VICE. Document your dog’s training and medical history and solicit recommendations from pet sitters or your veterinarian.
Seek temporary options. Boarding can be pricey, but it buys you time when you’re looking for pet-friendly housing. Or turn to people in your community. Would a friend or neighbor pet-sit while you’re bargaining with a new landlord?
Put dogs first after a breakup. Try to take emotions out of the equation when you’re deciding who should take a shared dog. “Look forward. Who’s going to have more time to exercise the dog, whose living space can accommodate the dog?” said Karis Nafte, a pet custody specialist. She told VICE that shared custody, while popular, can create additional stress for dogs during a split, so be realistic about what you agree to.
It’s easy to see well-behaved pups in sidewalk cafes, or lolling beside their owners at sunny dog parks, and feel chagrined that your own pup lost her cool over a stray cat a block away last week. When you’re dealing with problematic behaviors that crop up daily, or neighbors’ complaints about your pet, it’s easy to become so focused on fixing the issue that your dog becomes a source of stress.
Ask for foster help. Some rescues, shelters, and nonprofits offer temporary foster care for pet owners who don’t want to surrender. Hamrick said pandemic restrictions made these arrangements more common, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Don’t shame yourself. “When people are in a position that they need to surrender an animal, it’s usually one of the last bad days of a string of bad days they’ve been having,” Hamrick said. Still, it’s normal for dogs to have behavioral issues, and they are often fixable. Many dogs seem to forget all of their training during adolescence, which falls between six and 18 months of age, depending on breed.
Talk to your vet. Some vets are more knowledgeable about behavioral issues than others, but behavioral issues can have a medical cause, and it’s best to rule out physical ailments before starting training, particularly if issues (a sudden spate of housetraining mishaps, say) have come up suddenly. Vets can also make referrals (see below) and help you find a behaviorist.
Contact a veterinary behaviorist. These harder-to-find experts can help you get to the bottom of serious anxiety or unrelentingly destructive behavior, discussing medication options and last resorts when nothing seems to be working. In some cases, the dog may truly not be a fit, or may have behavioral issues that are too much for you to handle.
Ultimately, Hamrick said, “Get to know who your dog is and set them up for success.” Realizing your dog, like you, has had a hell of a year may help you balance your frustrations about the occasional gnawed-up shoe or overturned trash can with an appreciation for the benefits of a wagging tail at the end of a long day.