The following guide explains how to bond with a rescue dog. It was written by a guest contributor who has previously adopted shelter dogs, so has real world experience of how long it takes to bond and interact with a rescue dog. I hope you find it helpful!
How to bond with a rescue dog
His tail was glued to his belly, shivering and shaking with fear. His bark was loud, ferocious, almost a high-pitched yelp. Past a bright orange muzzle, I could see the whites of his eyes. This is how I was introduced to Max, a malnourished three-year-old German Shepherd with a dark history.
Over the next ten years, he would become my best friend. From the early days of walking between my legs down the street for protection to blossoming into a confident loyal companion, bonding with each other was a slow journey but so worth it!
Taking home your first rescue or shelter dog is a huge life changing event for both of you. Perhaps your first introduction wasn’t as dramatic as mine, but your newly adopted dog has an entire history behind them that has shaped their lives so far.
The key to bonding with your rescue dog boils down to discovering their personality and learning to trust each other through patience, attention, routine, praise, play, and training. Remember that bonding is a two-way street; this scared shelter dog has so much to learn about you too.
Following these 7 simple steps will set you on the right path to becoming bonded to your adopted dog for years to come.
1. Exercise extreme patience
I cannot stress this enough. Interacting and bonding with your shelter dog can take a very long time. If you were to read any forum about dog ownership, you’ll see varied accounts of how long it took for their rescue dog to trust them and for the owner to trust the rescue dog.
Generally, the length of time it takes to bond with your rescue dog depends on the life experiences of both of you.
For example, if you rescue a young puppy, they are less likely to have any serious behavioral or emotional issues than an older shelter dog, beyond being a bit mischievous as most kids are! Therefore, puppies from animal shelters tend to bond with their owners quite quickly.
My Max was already an adult with clear memories of neglect and abuse. It took many months for him to feel comfortable with us, so extreme patience during the bonding process was paramount.
Handy Hint: Some people report a honeymoon period with their rescue dog, which requires different ways of coping once it’s over.
2. Know the signs of bonding
You can’t go about interacting and bonding with your rescue dog if you don’t know what to look out for. Yes, you probably know the basics of doggy behavior – a wagging tail is not new to you – but in the beginning, sometimes the signs are more subtle.
You may feel like your dog is not quite connecting with you yet, but they are communicating in an understated way. Here are three early signals you could easily miss:
Maintaining eye contact
No this is not a staring match but gazing into your eyes is, in fact, an evolutionary trait that dogs adopted when first domesticated by humans. Those clever pups knew that the eyes are the windows to the soul.
Locking eyes with you provokes your oxytocin response and makes you feel closer to each other.
“Humans bond emotionally as we gaze into each other’s eyes—a process mediated by the hormone oxytocin. Nagasawa et al. show that such gaze-mediated bonding also exists between us and our closest animal companions, dogs. They found that mutual gazing increased oxytocin levels, and sniffing oxytocin increased gazing in dogs, an effect that transferred to their owners.” (view source)
Following you around
Max became my shadow. This actually happened weeks before we would let me pet him, or, heaven forbid, even hug him. His willingness to trace my steps every waking hour showed that he enjoyed my company on some level.
He just wasn’t quite ready for the super affectionate stuff yet. He would even follow me into the bathroom if I hadn’t shut the door behind me. If your dog is following you around, take it as a good sign.
Closeness is a clear sign of comfort and a bond developing.
Sleeping in the same room
Yep, this is a weird one but a dog that doesn’t trust you will always be alert in your company. They want to keep an eye on you to make sure you’re not getting up to no-good behind their backs of course. You’re a new human after all, and new humans are trouble.
When your new rescue dog is starting to feel at ease with you, they’ll more readily let their guard down in your company. The easiest way to spot this is when they take a nap wherever you may be hanging out. That willingness to be comfortable when in your presence lets you know you are on the right path to bonding with your new adopted dog.
Handy Hint: Anxiety is often worse at night. Read these tips which explain how you can keep a dog calm from anxiety after dark.
3. Create a routine for your dog
Predictability is vital to all dog training, but particularly with rescue dogs. Our lovable canines adore routine so it’s important to instill structure from the very beginning. Building a routine should fit with your current lifestyle and that of the members of your household. It will also help the dog settle and adjust in their new home quicker.
Map out your current weekly routine. For example; what time you wake up, what time you go to work and so on. Then work out the best times to interact with your dog. Mealtimes and walk times are best to keep constant.
Handy Hint: Did you know that you should not feed your dog immediately before or after a walk. Read this guide to exercise and feeding for more information.
If you commit to feeding your dog breakfast before work at 7am then you’ll need to keep that consistent every day (yes, even on weekends!).
As time goes on, your dog will integrate with your rhythm and feel much more at ease in their new home. Be sure that all members of the household also know what the routine is so that they don’t unknowingly confuse your dog.
4. Praise them for good behavior
Did you know that your dog can read your mind? No? Well of course you didn’t…because they can’t.
But what they can do is understand the tone and meaning of your words. How incredible is that! Our voices as humans are incredibly expressive and your dog is acutely aware of what you are trying to communicate to them through your intonation.
“The reward pathway in the dogs’ brains lit up when they heard both praising words and an approving intonation — but not when they heard random words spoken in a praising tone or praise words spoken in a flat tone, according to a report in the journal Science.” (view source)
Praising effectively means you need to become very mindful of your dog’s behavior. Every good action should be rewarded with a sweet, vocal affirmation. If your dog is particularly reserved, make sure your praise is delivered in a soft tone of voice, as being too loud can be startling, even in praise mode.
And sure, to the passers-by on the street, it is a bit cringe to see you babbling baby talk to your dog. Your dog, however, loves to hear that they made you happy, so babble away!
Handy Hint: Rescue dogs will often be shy and timid. Here are some tips on how to help socialize them.
You might have even decided to change your rescue dog’s name which brings some different challenges.
5. Introduce play and touch
Now for the fun bit of learning how to bond with a scared rescue dog – playing! All dogs love to play and this is where you’ll discover the most about your dog’s personality.
Introduce a range of toys to see which your dog gravitates to the most. Is there a chew toy they really enjoy? Does playing with a rope appeal to them more? Do they like retrieving items? Are they intrigued by sounds?
When it comes to touch, this entirely depends on your dog’s personality. Some rescue dogs love to be cuddled and petted often. Some are more selective about who they allow to touch them, where and when.
Max was a reserved soul, especially in the beginning. We quickly learned that paws, the bridge of his snout, and ears were no-go areas for him until you had his complete trust.
Play is a great way to introduce touch, and so is grooming – all of which contributes to bonding. Your canine friend may love to have the soothing bristles of a comb through their long coat like a blissful massage.
How could you not love the person who gives you weekly massages?
Handy Hint: It’s imperative that you insure your rescue dog. I’ve written a guide about how to get pet insurance for rescue dogs that is suitable and affordable.
6. Don’t be afraid to train your dog
When rescuing a shelter dog, particularly an adult dog, owners often become hesitant to train them. This is amplified with dogs with difficult backgrounds, like Max. The length and breadth of their abuse can manifest in bad behaviors, which intimidate first-time rescue dog owners.
This is your time to shine; to prove that you were the right person to give this beautiful creature a second home. Trust goes both ways. To trust each other, you must train in order to bond.
To train your dog, positive reinforcement and discipline are key. You should start with the basic commands such “sit”, “stay”, “no”, “come”, “off”, “down” and build these into your daily schedule together.
Your demeanor should be calm, approachable, and in control.
Channel your inner crossing guard.
7. Keep track of their progress
What gets measured gets managed and the relationship with your new dog is no different. If you have been consistent with your schedule, training, and play, but your dog is still slow to warm up and bond with you, don’t be disappointed.
Sometimes the bonding process is a fast, natural progression but often it is slow, deliberate, and nonlinear.
Of course, there is a prickle of intuition you have when your dog is closer to you, but this doesn’t happen overnight. So, I advise just keeping track of their behavior at home, with questions such as:
- Are they recalling their daily routine?
- Are they approaching you for cuddles?
- Do they sit by you when you settle to watch The Bachelor?
All of these are very important things that signal you are on the right track in bonding with your newly adopted dog.
How long does it take to bond with a rescue dog?
And finally, how long will it take for a rescue dog to bond with the owner? Well, all dogs are different and have had different experiences. It might take few days to bond, or it could take months. You honestly won’t know until you get started interacting with them to gain their trust.
Rescuing a dog comes with many challenges, but once the bonds between you and them develop, it’s one of the most rewarding experiences.
With patience, time, and love, you and your rescue dog should be bonded for life. Put the work in, and it means you won’t even have to consider returning the dog (which unfortunately does happen).
You might also like…
I’ve published content about rescue dogs before, including:
- How to get your newly adopted rescue dog to eat
- How to get the best pet insurance for a rescue dog
- Why do people find it so hard to adopt dogs from rescue shelters?
Image used in header licensed from storyblocks.com.