If you just adopted a rescue dog from a shelter, congratulations! As you welcome your new dog into your home, you’ll likely be thinking about how to train them. Training a rescue dog is a rewarding experience and an important responsibility. It requires being mindful of a dog’s unique needs, history, and previous homes they may have lived in, while also helping them learn to be confident and comfortable in their new home.
Top tips for training a rescue dog
We spoke with certified professional dog trainer Peter Herrera, CPDT-KA, owner of Umwelt Dog Training, about the best approaches to training a rescue dog.
Always use positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement helps dogs maximize their confidence and comfort by rewarding them for good choices. Often associated with “force-free” training, positive reinforcement is the process of rewarding a behavior to increase the likelihood that it will happen again. In dog training, this term is also used to describe a training method that deemphasizes punishment. The goal is to find the least intrusive, minimally aversive way to work with your dog.
Start with the basics
While you’re getting comfortable with each other, focus on the five basic cues. Your dog may have learned some or all of these with a previous trainer or at their foster home, so in that case, you’ll have a head start.
Keep training sessions short, between 10 and 15 minutes, and spread them out two to three times a day. For puppies, aim for three to five minutes per training session.
Use management strategies
When training a rescue dog, managing your dog’s environment is key. Management techniques can prevent your dog from engaging in unwanted behaviors (such as jumping on visitors) and from accessing certain areas of the house (such as a child’s room). Crates, gates, and exercise pens are great ways to set physical boundaries within your home.
Stick to a routine
Start establishing a routine when you bring your dog home—and stick to it. A consistent routine will help your dog learn when to expect mealtime, playtime, or a walk. When setting a routine, don’t forget to include dedicated enrichment time to help your dog’s brain stay active, too.
Training your rescue dog to respond to a new name
Choosing a dog’s name is one of the most important decisions pet owners make, so it’s understandable if you want to choose a new name for your dog after bringing them home. It doesn’t take long to train your rescue dog to respond to a new name, even if they’re older. Just use the “Name Game” to associate the name you picked out for them with positive rewards.
How to house train a rescue dog
Follow these tips to get started with potty training a rescue dog.
- Start with management: Introduce your dog to smaller areas of the home first before giving them free rein of your home. Use crates, gates, or exercise pens to keep your dog in smaller areas until they are house trained enough to roam without supervision.
- Stick to a schedule: Keep potty times consistent. Adult dogs should have at least three to four chances to relieve themselves every day. Add more walks or potty breaks if they’re having accidents in the house regularly.
- Reward them for successes: Keep treats on hand, and give your dog a treat or two when they successfully relieve themselves outside.
- Gradually decrease management: As your dog gets more successful with house training, give them more space to roam inside.
How to crate train a rescue dog
Follow these tips to get started with crate training your new dog.
- Make crate time fun: Place treats or enrichment toys (like puzzle toys) in or near the crate. This will help your dog associate the crate with positive experiences.
- Practice closing the door: Once your dog is comfortable spending some time in the crate, start to close the door and immediately open it. This will help you assess how they feel about the crate. Notice if they panic and bolt when you close the door—that means you’ll have to do more of step 1.
- Gradually increase time in crate: If your dog is comfortable with the door closed, start leaving your dog in the crate for longer periods of time. Every dog is different, but 30 seconds to one minute is a good place to start. Slowly increase the amount of time they are left in the crate.
- Stay calm: Don’t make a fuss when you open the crate door. You want to show your dog that time in the crate is not a big deal—it’s just a normal part of life.
How to leash train a rescue dog
Follow these tips when getting started with leash training your new dog.
- Use a harness: Start with a harness instead of a collar, slip lead, or head halter. Adjust the harness so that you can comfortably fit two fingers under each strap.
- Practice indoors: Before you take your dog outside, start practicing being on the leash while indoors.
- Reward your dog: Take a few steps together, and reward your dog with a treat whenever they look up at you. If they get distracted, go back to standing in one spot and try again with just one step.
- Work your way up: Gradually increase the number of steps you take before reinforcing with a treat. Once you see success indoors, you can move to a hallway or a quiet spot outside. Follow the same steps above and gradually increase the number of steps you take, just as you did indoors.
- Stop and wait: Your dog is likely to be more distracted in this new environment, so be patient. If they get very distracted and start to pull, stop walking and wait until they offer their attention again before continuing the walk.
- Leave time for sniffing: Don’t forget to let your dog sniff and explore between check-ins—it’s an important part of their walk!
Socializing a rescue dog
Just like any dog, socialization is an important part of training a rescue dog. The right techniques can help you gradually introduce your dog to new people, environments, or other dogs.
As with other types of training, positive reinforcement is key throughout the socialization process.
- Find the right type of reinforcement: The best kind of positive reinforcement is one your dog is excited about. High-value treats are ideal, but toys, play, and affection are all forms of reward.
- Be mindful of triggers: Remember that many things may be brand new (and potentially scary) for your dog. Triggers could include other dogs, people, cars, bikes, doorbells, and more. Be mindful to pair these potential triggers with reinforcers. If your dog is having a fearful reaction to any of these triggers, don’t wait for them to calm down before offering a treat or praise. Pairing the scary trigger with a reward can help them learn that the trigger is actually a predictor of a good thing, not a bad thing.
- Double up: Consider pairing your training with a clicker or a marker word. Before offering reinforcement, click or say a positive word you haven’t introduced before (such as “yes” or “great”). This allows you to “double up” on reinforcement with an auditory signal. Your dog will start to associate this sound with a reward and likely turn to you when they hear it.
Sadly, some rescue dogs have a history of abuse, neglect, or other past experiences that can contribute to fearful or anxious behaviors. These special dogs might require a training approach that uses the same positive reinforcement techniques, but at a slower pace. The Best Friends Animal Society encourages pet owners to “strive to help your dog get comfortable with everything he may encounter, such as going to the groomer, taking walks, meeting other dogs and people.” They even recommend pairing your rescue with a “role model” to show them good behavior, so it’s helpful if you already have a dog in your home.
The Best Friends Animal Society also offers training resources that can help address some specific behaviors, such as jumping on people, digging, or submissive or excited urination. These pointers can be helpful for training any dog, regardless of their history.
Some behaviors can indicate underlying medical issues. If a dog has chronic pain, a thyroid imbalance, or neurologic abnormalities such as seizures or tumors, they may act more aggressively than usual. A veterinary behaviorist can help identify these issues.
Common mistakes when training a rescue dog
Recent adopters often make one of two mistakes when training a rescue dog: either moving too quickly and expecting perfection, or not providing enough structure while their dog is learning new habits. Finding a middle ground is the key to success.
Do your best to avoid the following common mistakes when you bring your rescue dog home:
- Introducing them to other pets immediately
- Introducing children immediately without educating them on how to behave around your new dog
- Giving the dog free rein of the house and yard before starting training
- Not addressing problem behaviors because of sensitivity to a dog’s history of neglect or abuse
- Trying to do too much from the beginning without giving your dog time to adjust
- Allowing anyone to approach or pet your dog when out for a walk
- Expecting perfection in training from day one
Pay attention to your dog’s needs and focus on building a relationship with them and getting comfortable around each other as you go through training. Take it one day at a time and soon you and your dog will start racking up training wins.