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6 tips to establish a structured, healthy lifestyle for new rescue dogs

In honor of NBC and Telemundo stations' Clear the Shelters campaign, here are strategies for new owners of rescues to socialize them and keep them engaged and active throughout the day.
/ Source: TODAY

If there's one silver lining to come out of the pandemic, it might be that nearly one in five American households acquired a dog or cat between March 2020 and May 2021, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. That's about 23 million new homes for furry friends in need — and hopefully even more will be adopted over the next month thanks to NBC and Telemundo stations' Clear the Shelters campaign.

But now that many people are spending less time at home and possibly preparing to return to an office, a lot of rescues will have the proverbial (and possibly soiled) rug pulled out from under them.

"I think the most urgent piece of advice for people right now is to make sure they're leaving their dogs alone productively," dog trainer and anthrozoologist Amanda Gagnon told TODAY. "We're finding lately that a lot of dogs are ... not being left alone at all, and with people going back to work, it's causing a lot of separation anxiety."

New dog owners seem desperate for help in any form: Amazon is now touting a five-hour playlist of classical music meant to soothe pets with separation anxiety. Meanwhile, trainers like Gagnon are in high demand. She's begun adding online workshops at her dog training school in New York City.

Here are Gagnon's tips and a few from Dr. Karen Cantor of Westside Veterinary Center in New York City to build a structured, engaging life for your rescue dog as you slowly return to your own.

Start by leaving your dog alone for short amounts of time.

Gagnon's first tip to ease the transition? Every day leave your dog alone in a productive way, starting with short amounts of time — the few minutes it takes to buy a morning coffee, for example — and work up to longer ones. She recommended doing this at around the time you normally leave for the office and making it a positive experience by giving the dog a meal, a toy filled with food or a frozen marrow bone right beforehand so they eat it while you're gone.

Signal whether they're coming with you.

The departure is actually the worst part, according to Gagnon: "All the anxiety built around you leaving can cause the most distress. It becomes a signal that something awful is about to happen." Gagnon likened it to when we hear an alarm clock on a TV show and reflexively flinch. "It makes your whole body tense up, right? The alarm is now the thing that causes you that distress."

One solution is to teach your dog a sign that they're either saying home or coming with you, something Gagnon covers in her online classes.

Socialize your dog by taking them with you.

"You want to bring your dog to as many places as you can so they're introduced to as many experiences as possible," Gagnon said, adding that the goal is for them to learn to be relaxed in new environments.

"The tricky thing (for new dogs) during the pandemic has been getting them socialized, out in the world and exposed to different people and situations because we have been avoiding all that stuff," she said. It's good to practice bringing them to a restaurant, lying under a table while you have a cocktail." In general, rescues benefit from being socialized in different settings, according to Gagnon, but if you have a more fearful rescue, be attuned to their specific needs.

Understand there's no good and bad behavior for dogs.

"Most of what I teach people is about human social norms," Gagnon said. "We hate that dogs run and bark and jump and growl. These are all normal dog behaviors ... so we just have to teach them what good manners are." Once new owners realize this, it can be easier to have more compassion when your dog continues with a frustrating behavior and to motivate yourself to stick with your dog's training.

Keep them engaged physically and mentally.

Exercise is important for all dogs, Cantor said. She recommends long walks, from 20 minutes to an hour, two to three times daily. "Teaching a dog to retrieve a ball also keeps them active," she said.

If your rescue dog has a particular trauma, he or she might have an even greater need for exercise, Gagnon added. For example, if your dog doesn't seem to want to bond with you, which can be a sign of a difficult time before being rescued, being active together can serve as bonding time and socialization.

"If they're hyperactive and have poor impulse control, which is a symptom of inadequate exercise, they'll need more activity," Gagnon said before cautioning, "We don't want people to just go out and exercise their dogs to exhaustion to make them behave better. ... The key is not just physical activity but also mental stimulation."

Cantor advises trying to rotate toys with your pup to keep them engaged, such as Kongs, dental chews, and food puzzles, "so they can get into mischief that is acceptable." (Speaking of food, Cantor said that "name-brand food companies that have a history of doing research" on dog nutrition are the best, such as Royal Canin and Science Diet.)

Reward positive behavior.

Her biggest tip for any dog-human relationship is to notice when your dog is doing something right and reward them rather than focusing on the negative. Doing so will "nurture (the good behavior) and make sure it blooms," Gagnon said. "We learn from our dogs and our dogs learn from us, so usually both parties have to change their behavior if they want to create change."

"It's been very heartwarming how many people gravitated towards adopting dogs over the last year and a half," Gagnon added. "It's ... a good thing that has come out of all this awfulness. I wish everybody good luck towards developing this bond that is so unique and so exciting." And if good luck won't cut it, you can always call a certified dog trainer.