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Surviving the Transition Phase

Updated: Oct 7, 2019

Over the years, I've had a lot of difficulty with new adopters or even Service Dog Handlers when it comes to one thing: The Transition Period. 


Now, this does not go strictly for dogs. This is for all animals who are being adopted or re-homed. Some species take longer than others to acclimate to a new environment. Others take much less time. And this distinction does not go strictly based on species; it depends on the personality of the animal in question. 


I've seen horses adjust to new surroundings seemingly overnight when, one would think, they would take longer. I've helped people with exotic Sugar Gliders take two or more months to see any kind of real adjustment or bonding happen. And, unfortunately, I've seen some pups - trained or not - take a couple weeks, or more, to adjust and acclimate. You never know what an animal is going to react like when you change the environment, the people, the schedule -- basically, when their whole world has changed. 


Now, the problem in this phase of adoption is not that this phase exists. No, no. It's the reaction to it. 


  • "He doesn't love me!" 

  • "She just seems to be stupid." 

  • "He doesn't seem to be trained at all!" 

  • "She's scared of EVERYTHING."


Oh, I've heard it all over the years. And whether you're adopting a young animal, or old, you're going to go through this phase, and you might even think to yourself one of the above quotes...Or many others. One of them being, "Dear lord. I've made a mistake!" 


But, pump the brakes a little! I know this phase is hard. I know it's frustrating. I know that in some cases, it leads to a real lack of sleep and a whole lot more running around after an animal that doesn't seem to give two toots about you. Most of all, it's a whole lot less fun than you had daydreamed it would be. 


There is one thing though that you need to remember: This is temporary! 


When you bring a new animal home to your family, the first mistake I often see people make is that they rush the process. That process being the bonding, the trust, the comfort level...And this happens not because anyone is being cruel or mean. It happens because everyone is excited! They want to bring the new puppy everywhere! They want to jump on their new horse at 5am the next morning, and get in that first dawn-rise ride! I know that feeling. But, I also know that it can lead to a lot of damage to the bonding relationship. 


Patience is a virtue, if no where else in the world than when you are working with animals and children. I know you want to show everyone your new cat you adopted from the shelter, but if your cat isn't ready to hit the Welcome Home Party, can you blame her? She doesn't understand where she is, who the heck you are, and might even have some past trauma that only time will begin to cloud over. So, what do you think is going to happen to the bond-building process if you thrust her into a group of new people -- all cooing and making lots of human noises this poor cat doesn't know how to associate? That's right: That bonding process is going to be delayed. Sometimes it will delay significantly if the animal mistakenly associates YOU with high-stress, high-stimulation, and excessive pressure. 


This is not what you want, I know. But, in the animal world, actions speak much louder than words. Your intentions may be loving, but your actions are impatient and forceful in the above scenario. 


All too often, I hear of trouble stemming from the first couple weeks of a new adoption. Puppies were brought to a dog-park much too soon and ended up with trauma. Horses were ridden too hard within a day or two of coming home, and now are experts as avoiding a catch. Sugar Gliders were stuffed into someone's pocket way, way too soon (Yeah, that is a real example. It happened. It didn't go well for the person, or the suggie). 


Being patient and empathetic toward others are traits somewhat unique to humans, but it seems that we very often forget these two key parts of our psyche...Most of all, when we are overrun with emotion; happiness, sadness, anger, excitement, fear. These emotions cloud our judgement and can often lead to impulsive decisions that effect us and those around us in a negative way -- no one less so than an animal who has just joined the home, and is not receiving the space and time needed to acclimate.  


So, as your resident behaviorist, here's what I recommend to you (and all CC adopters when they choose to work with us) during the transition phase: 


1. Be calm. Don't overreact if your new adoptee is frightened, over-excited, or wants to be on his or her own. Keep emotion out of it! Just let them process the new environment, the new people, and this new world on their own for the first couple days (or more, in some cases). 


2. Associate yourself with positive things. Did your puppy approach you all on her own? Give lots of pets and a treat! Any time you see your animal doing something you consider good, give them attention and food. These are the two things nearly all domestic animals desire, and if they associate you with these then you become very, very interesting. 


3. Don't show imbalance. This means, do not get overly angry if puppy has an accident on the carpet. Too bad; guess you should've brought him outside sooner, eh? Remember that setting the rules of your home should be done in a calm, assertive fashion. Emotion has no place here. Imbalance will alarm any animal, and it will not encourage them to associate you with a leader or ally position. 


4. Don't judge! Just because your adoptee isn't following you everywhere, or doesn't appear to be affectionate, willing to play, and doesn't want to sleep on your bed does not mean that she hates you. It doesn't even mean that this is "Just who she is!" During the transition phase, the true personality doesn't shine through until a level of comfort has been reached and sustained. So your cat is jumping at every little noise? Well, he's basically in a new universe from his point of view; wouldn't you be a little jumpy, too? 


5. Forgive. If your new cat scratched you, or if your dog jumped on your child in excitement, don't hold a grudge. They don't know any better right now. It was a mistake, and you (hopefully) corrected the behavior in a balanced fashion. Now, move on. Your animal has, that I can promise you. But, if you don't, then the bonding process will stall. 

If people take the week or two and focus on their adoptee's progress, comfort, and understanding this goes an incredibly long way toward a balanced relationship and communication throughout the pet's life. As I always warn new adopters, "Put in 110% effort for a short amount of time, or put in half the effort for a long time. You choose." 


Make the rules consistent. Stay balanced. Show your adoptee you are not only their friend, you are their protector...And I promise, that animal will view you above all others. You will have that classic pet you always dreamed to have. When I was a child, all I wanted in the world was a horse who would come when called; one that I could walk around on with no tools to control him -- just the two of us. And, guess what? I have that. Two of them, in fact. And no, that did not happen over night. It took a long time, a lot of patience, and a lot of trust. 


And you know what? It was totally worth it. 

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