Brown and white dog destroying a pillow in living room.

I Can’t Cope with My New Rescue Dog! What Should I Do?

If you are having second thoughts about the new rescue dog you just brought, home, take a deep breath and relax. First of all, you are not alone. You may feel overwhelmed and afraid that you can’t cope with your new rescue dog. But rest assured that most new dog owners have moments or even days of regret. And, as with most other major life changes, you probably feel some confusion and doubt about your adoption choice.

The most important thing is to remain calm and take it one step at a time. Your new canine pal will need some time to get used to you and your home. He will need to learn new rules and routines. And he is probably uncertain and maybe a little frightened. Therefore, he may exhibit some initial behavioral issues. With patience, understanding, and time, your new friend will most likely adapt. And so will you!

Is it normal to feel regret after adopting a dog?

Most new dog owners have some regrets after adoption. This can be due to a number of reasons including unrealistic expectations of what it takes to raise a dog, behavioral issues, or unexpected problems that arise in the days following adoption. According to the NCBI website, approximately 7% to 20% of pets adopted from shelters are acutually returned within the first 6 months following adoption.

Common Reasons New Dog Owners Feel Initial Regret

  • Behavioral problems
  • Medical problems
  • Allergies to dogs
  • Not getting along with other pets or family members
  • Not properly house broken
  • Aggression or fear
  • Howling or barking
  • Cost of pet ownership
  • Personal or family unexpected life changes

Dogs who are adopted from shelters may have additional emotional, mental, or physical health problems. Therefore, a shelter pet can be more challenging. So, it is no wonder that people who adopt from shelters may have some misgivings.

Shelter Animals May Have More Problems

Frightened Black and Brown Puppy Who Has Been Abandoned Lying in a Corner
Frightened, abandoned dog.

Shelter dogs are often extremely loving and grateful to have a caring home again. However, it is understandable that many may need help in overcoming some emotional or physical problems. Yet, that is the very reason that many people want to adopt from a shelter, to give a deserving pup a second chance. But just be aware of the challenges before you adopt.

The predominant reason for the return cited in the MPDI 2020 published study was due to behavioral issues (59.9%). The sad part about this statistic, was that most owners knew about the shelter’s supportive services but chose not to use them.

D. Euritt

Below is a table from a study published by MDPI in 2020 which appeared on the NCBI website (see their full report here). The table lists a sample of dogs and cats in an Austin, Texas shelter and the reasons they were placed in the shelter to begin with:

Table 1

Reasons for intake of all dogs (n = 1604) and all cats (n = 1292) who came into the care of the shelter during the study period (3 July 2018 to 22 October 2018 for dogs and 13 August 2018 to 22 October 2018 for cats).

Reason for IntakeDogs
(n = 1604)
Percentage of Dog SampleCats
(n = 1292)
Percentage of Cat Sample
Medical29.6%29.5%
Medical needs of animal24915.5%34927.0%
Medical costs20.1%00.0%
Urgent medical382.4%141.1%
Parvovirus18611.6%00.0%
Panleukopenia00.0%181.4%
Behavioral9.2%5.9%
Aggressive toward animals271.7%30.2%
Aggressive toward humans372.3%30.2%
Destructive tendencies120.8%50.4%
Separation anxiety70.4%10.08%
Behavior/temperament70.4%50.4%
General behavioral support needed573.6%594.6%
Personal8.6%8.4%
Cannot afford basic care221.4%100.8%
Unrealistic expectations613.8%241.9%
Moving301.9%312.4%
Unwanted offspring of pet100.6%00.0%
Medical needs of pet owner60.4%141.1%
Allergies20.1%80.6%
Behavior/temperament of resident pet40.2%181.4%
Death of owner/family member40.2%20.2%
Other52.6%56.2%
Born in shelter care1056.5%292.2%
Stray with shelter’s microchip140.9%100.8%
Stray140.9%201.5%
Breed or species restrictions30.2%00.0%
Wellness10.06%00.0%
Bottle baby281.7%36728.4%
Pregnant/nursing865.4%1189.1%
Shelter space59236.9%18414.2%
Table from Factors Informing the Return of Adopted Dogs and Cats to an Animal Shelter; Sept.3rd, 2020;
Sloane M. HawesJosephine M. KerriganTess Hupe, and Kevin N. Morris

So, you can see from this table that these animals had some additional issues prior to being adopted. Yet, with the exception of allergies, many of these issues can be dealt with over time with patience, training, and perhaps some professional intervention. And most shelters offer follow-up support for the new owner to help with the transition. In fact, reputable shelters usually provide a full array of medical services and behavioral support for issues that may arise after adoption.

The researcher’s sample included 102 dogs returned during a four-month period of time. The average ownership was around 60 days prior to return. The predominant reason for the return cited in the MPDI 2020 published study was due to behavioral issues (59.9%). The sad part about this statistic was that most owners knew about the shelter’s supportive services but chose not to use them.

How Long Does it Take for Rescue Dogs to Adjust?

Stray dog peaking through an opening in a wooden fence. Take me home!
New rescue dog hiding out.

The First 3 Days: There is a phrase called the 3-3-3 Rule that is often used by shelters and trainers. See my post First Day in My New Home through a Rescue Dog’s Eyes for more information about this. Newly adopted dogs are often overwhelmed in the first three days in their new home. Your new furry friend needs to get used to new routines, rules, smells, and noises. Where he eats, sleeps, and poops will be different. And he needs to get used to you, your family, and any other pets in your home. He has a lot to take in during those first few days.

After 3 Weeks: Your new friend will not reveal his true personality until at least three weeks. So give him some time to adapt. He may initially be frightened and hide or seem overly shy or even a little aggressive. But once he begins to get used to his new home and learn that it is a good thing, he will begin to let his guard down and relax and his true personality will emerge.

3 Months Later: At the three-month point, both you and your dog will be getting used to one another. Hopefully, you will not still feel like you can’t cope with your new rescue dog! At this point, the two of you should have established some trust and the long-term bonding process can begin.

See more about adopting rescue dogs and the adjustment period in my post, Everything You Need to Know About Adopting a Rescue Dog.

Will My Rescue Dog Ever Settle?

In some cases, the 3-3-3 Rule may not apply, and your new rescue may take a much longer time to settle in and become comfortable. This is especially true for dogs who have been badly abused or neglected. Some dogs have never known kindness from humans and have a good reason not to trust anyone. Even so, dogs do adapt and even the most severe cases of emotional stress can often be resolved over time.

Don’t be surprised if your new dog hides under the bed for a while, barks at strangers, or shivers at strange new sounds. A dog’s life is totally dependent upon his handlers. Most dogs have little control over their life circumstances, so it is no wonder that they may learn to be on guard and protective.

The biggest mistake new pet owners make is to only spend two to three days home with their new friend and then go back to work or be gone for long hours. This is really unsettling for a dog who is trying to adapt to a totally new environment. Instead, plan to take a least a week away from work or your normal routine and spend as much time as possible with him. This additional time will help a lot with your dog’s feelings of safety and trust in his new home.

What Do I Do if I Just Can’t Cope with My Dog?

First, Do All You Can

If you find that things are still not going well after a few weeks or your new dog is dangerously aggressive, get some help! Take him to a vet to make sure he does not have medical problems that could impact his behavior. Your vet can give you the name of a licensed behavioralist or a certified dog trainer who may be able to help. Also, be sure to check back in with the shelter where you adopted him. Shelters are eager to help their adoptees and new canine parents make a smooth transition. They often can provide both medical and behavioral support. Get more information in my post How to Heal and Comfort a Rescue Dog.

You may need to take some initial corrective measures such as a muzzle or a bark collar for constant howling to protect your family and neighbors. If you have other pets, you may need to keep them in separate rooms for a while and slowly allow them to meet and interact.

However, it is much better to get to the heart of the problem and try to discern what circumstances create anxiety or stress for your new dog. Often, a good trainer can help to identify these triggers and provide tips. You may also find it useful to take your dog to obedience training classes. This will help a lot in establishing clear communication and expectations for your dog. Working together in classes is also a great way to bond and build trust. Most dogs are fearful due to uncertainty or have negative associations with certain things due to their past.

Sometimes it Just Doesn’t Work!

However, if you have done everything you possibly can and it is still not working out, then you may need to return your dog. But just be sure to take him back to the shelter where you adopted him. Do not pass him on to someone else, especially a stranger or someone on the internet. He may end up in a bad situation like being forced to do horrific dog fighting!

Take him back to the shelter, because they will know his history and can prepare him for a new owner. You may not get your adoption fees back, however. Shelters often make that clear in the signed agreement. But unless they are too full, a reputable shelter will usually take a dog back. Afterall, they are concerned about his best interest.

A returned dog can still have a chance at a good life. Another owner may be in a better position and have more resources to deal with the dog’s unique needs. We all make mistakes and sometimes things simply don’t turn out as we expect. You are not a bad person if you have to take your dog back. Just do it in a way that will still give this dog his best chance.