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Training & Behavior Last Updated:

How to Train a Shelter Dog


owner training dog at the park

One of the more popular reasons people rescue older dogs instead of adopting puppies is because training a puppy is harder work. While it’s true that older dogs require less maintenance than puppies, they usually don’t come fully trained. If you’re thinking of adopting soon, keep in mind these tips for how to train a shelter or rescue dog.

When to start training your shelter dog

Training a dog begins the moment you meet. When you load your new pup into the car, reward them for the type of behavior you want to see during any future car rides. It’s exciting to bring your new dog home, but staying disciplined is key. 

It takes rescue dogs anywhere from one week to several months to get used to their new home, so it may take a while for them to show their full personality. The way they respond to training might also change over time. 

While you’re getting comfortable with each other, focus on the five basic commands:

  1. Sit 
  2. Down
  3. Stay
  4. Heel
  5. Come

If your rescue dog is a puppy, refer to our article about how to train a puppy specifically. 

Keep training sessions short, anywhere between 10 and 15 minutes, and spread out 2 to 3 times a day. Always use positive reinforcement during training.

Training a shelter dog vs. a puppy

Rescue dogs may be envied for their trainability, but they come with their own set of behaviors they’ve picked up along the way, some of which may be undesirable. Puppies are more of a blank slate, whereas rescue dogs may have certain quirks to iron out through training. 

Another difference between the two is that shelter dogs usually aren’t as socialized with other dogs and people. This may cause them to bark or growl at strangers or even act aggressively. When you introduce your dog to new people or dogs, do so carefully. Socializing your rescue is just as important as teaching them commands, so you should read up on how to socialize properly.

Sadly, many rescue dogs have a history of abuse that can explain unwanted behaviors. If you adopt a dog with a troubled background, you can take extra steps to help them adjust. The Best Friends Animal Society encourages 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. 

embark dogs dressed

Common behavior issues in rescue dogs

Dogs in shelters tend to pick up a certain set of problem behaviors. Since these issues are common, the good news is that there are great resources for how to train your shelter dog out of them. If you’re planning on rescuing, it’s a good idea to read up on the following behaviors:

  • Food aggression
  • Jumping on people 
  • Excessive barking
  • Digging
  • Jumping fences
  • Bolting out of doors
  • Separation anxiety
  • Barrier reactivity
  • Submissive or excited urinating

Serious behavior issues in rescue dogs

It’s important to know your limits when bringing a new dog into your home. Some rescues have serious behavior issues that could bring harm to themselves or others. If your rescue is showing signs of unmanageable aggression, consider bringing the dog back to their rescue. It’s an unfortunate outcome, but cases like these require very experienced handles.

Sometimes a behavioral issue relates to a medical issue. 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.

If you find your dog has a persistent behavioral problem that isn’t dangerous, get in touch with the rescue. They can offer guidance on how to train your dog to mitigate the issue and help them settle into their new home.

It would also help to speak with dog trainers in your area that rehabilitate through a boarding program. If you choose this course of action, talk with your veterinarian first to see if they have recommendations. The wrong type of training could do more harm than good.

Adapting your rescue dog to a new training style

Most shelter dogs will have had some degree of training before coming home with you, so you may be wondering how to keep your new routine compatible with what they’ve already learned. The shelter employees will give you a good idea of the training methods that have worked with the dog, that way you can build off of their experience in handling them. 

Dogs are able to adapt to new teachings quickly, though, so you don’t have to worry about disrupting their training too much. If you would prefer to use different words for commands that they already know, you can retrain them with the new word or even teach it to them in a different language

The same goes for your dog’s name. This is one of the most important decisions owners make with their dogs, so it’s understandable if adopters want to make it on their own instead of going off of the shelter’s name. It doesn’t take long to train your shelter 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.

Common mistakes when training rescue dogs

Most mistakes you can make when training your rescue dog are caused by being too strict or too lax with them. Finding a middle ground is the key to success. Avoid the following when you bring your rescue 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 reign of the house and yard before starting training
  • Not stopping 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.


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