How to train your shelter or rescue dog?

Lily Nimchuk
Updated on

Rescuing a dog is a noble thing. And giving a dog a second chance can be very rewarding for both pet and owner. If your new furry companion is a match for your needs, your personality, and your lifestyle, you both win. When a new pet-owner relationship starts, getting to know each other is the way to go. Take the time to figure out what your new dog likes, dislikes, their habits, which things you can live with and which you can’t.

There is an important rule to remember with rescue dogs called the 3-3-3 rule. This rule refers to the fact that, for the first 3 days, your new rescue friend will be adjusting, feeling overwhelmed, and likely not acting themselves. The best thing to do here is to keep the environment calm and routine; training doesn’t have to start the second they step in the door! During the first 3 weeks, you’ll notice your friend starting to settle in, learn your routine, and you may also see them begin to test some boundaries. By the 3-month mark, your rescue dog will start to feel truly settled into the home.

This might seem like a long time, but moving from a shelter to a new home, or one home to another, is a massive adjustment for a rescue dog. It’s during this period that most people notice the more serious behavioral problems, and when those pop up, it’s really important to reach out to a specialist if you can’t deal with it!

Which dog to pick when adopting from a shelter?

Before going to a shelter or viewing any potential rescue dogs, it’s really important that the whole family sits down together to discuss what they want from their future dog.

Questions to ask yourself include:

  • How much exercise are you prepared to do each day?
  • What are some of the rules and boundaries you want your dog to follow?
  • Who will be paying for the dog’s food, vet bills, etc.?
  • Who will be taking on most of the responsibilities?
  • Do you have the time, financial means, and expertise to handle an older dog that may have behavioral problems?

Once everyone is on board with what type of dog would suit the family, it’s time to start viewing potential rescues! Remember to stick to your plan and lead with your brain, not your heart. Really try and get a feel for the dog in front of you by asking the previous owners or kennel staff about the dog’s behavior, walking them outside their living area, and seeing how they behave around other dogs/strangers. Make sure to go back and visit them on at least two different days to check if their behavior is consistent each time before making your decision.

A dog’s behavior in the kennel can give a good insight into how they’re feeling. For example, dogs that avoid eye contact and position themselves towards the back of the kennel likely lack trust in humans and will exhibit more fearful responses to new people. Whilst this may not matter for someone who works from home, is experienced with dogs, and can dedicate time to training, for a busy family with children, this would be the wrong choice of dog. On the other hand, a rescue who is jumping all over you and super excited to meet you might be a safe choice for someone living in a more urban environment. You will still need to train them to be a little calmer around strangers, but training out this behavior is far easier and quicker than working a dog through fearful emotions.

The key here is to pick a dog based on your current lifestyle and their behavior (try not to get caught up in how cute they are!). The most common problems arise when a low-energy family chooses a high-energy dog that needs more time and exercise than they’re able to give.

Prepare for training

You should actually start training before your new dog gets home. How's that possible? In most responsible shelters, you'll have the opportunity to meet several different dogs before making the big decision. Take them out, interact with them, and get to know them. Plan a few field trips, and I’d also strongly suggest hiring a behavior consultant or shelter trainer to get their input regarding the dog’s behavior, general character, and reactions to everyday stimuli, such as other dogs and people.

Some shelters/rescue groups have records of their dogs’ backgrounds (history) if they could get that information. Sometimes, dogs have been recovered from unfortunate situations like hoarding, abuse, or neglect, so knowing at least a bit of their history would be a good start. Unfortunately, some owners lie to get rid of their dogs through a shelter, so the background information may not be entirely true. Don’t listen solely to your heart; remember you have to live with your new friend for the next 10-12 years, on average.

When dogs show behavioral problems, owners should be guided on how to help them through specific exercises. Most success stories involve vet behaviorists/consultants/trainers, as each case is different. It works like when a person has a therapist/counselor who advises “minute by minute” therapy as things are dynamic and can change, just as owners need to change their actions as their dog’s behavior changes. Owners don’t usually have a toolbox full of resources, so professional help can really make a difference. Remember that Google can only tell you things in a general way, and your situation is unique to you and your dog.

Training an adult shelter dog vs. a puppy

Puppies are clean slates, a blank page where we can write down all new experiences (controlled preferably), do many choices of training, and develop social guidelines for better everyday interactions. Puppies offer a world of possibilities and will generally grow parallel to your efforts and dedication, as with everything else: you reap what you sow.

It is important to note that genetics play a huge role in behavior and will dictate up to 50% of our adult dog’s personality! We need to learn about our particular dog’s genetic makeup and consider this when training our puppies. For example, a gun dog breed (spaniels, labs, etc.) will be far more prone to behavioral problems such as stealing items and resource guarding.

Knowing this is key in ensuring we create a training plan that mitigates the chances of these behaviors surfacing and causing problems later down the line. Appeasing their natural genetic instincts (for example, teaching gun dog breeds a proper retrieve) is crucial to training a puppy effectively. A good breeder or trainer can help you understand your puppy’s needs, so when thinking about starting your training, reach out to them and ask what areas they think you should focus on. Different plans will be needed for each stage of life, and those stages go fast, so we need to keep up with the changes and adjust to them as needed. Puppies grow and change very fast, so teaching them how to learn and creating a solid foundation will strengthen mental and physical fitness, which can be directed toward home training or casual games/sports. Controlled exposure to different environments will also help make them environmentally sound.

Now, on the other hand, we’ve got adult shelter/rescue dogs. It’s pretty difficult to find a shelter puppy that hasn’t already gone through the socialization window (up to 16 weeks). What that means is that shelter dogs are already carrying baggage that could be affecting their current behavior in more ways than one. Situations like bad genetics, poor socialization or lack of it, negligence (intentional or not), physical and psychological abuse, bad experiences during crucial phases, no training, and no treatment for behavioral issues. This doesn’t mean that all rescue dogs are bad, but a good number will show behavioral issues that could have developed from many different sources.

To train your shelter dog, it’s a very good idea to get an assessment of their personality, character, temperament, and the behavioral problems they’re likely to develop. Maybe you can even do a DNA test to help you understand some common behaviors, personality traits, or tendencies that are typical for a particular breed, group of breeds, or certain mixes.

To ensure you create a comprehensive plan that’ll cover all your dog’s needs, all training plans should include the following considerations (not all of which are directly training-related, but still impact behavior):

  • Medical and nutritional care.
  • Exercise (walks, swimming, treadmill, dog sports like agility, herding, treibball, etc.).
  • Stimulation (visiting new environments, creating new experiences).
  • Play time (fetch games, tug-of-war, interactive training).
  • Bonding/interaction personal time (grooming/brushing, petting while watching TV).
  • Social guidelines: let the dog know the role they play in your home (walking through doors, hand feeding, respecting furniture, personal space, learning to earn and to defer).

Common behavior issues in rescue dogs

There are many behaviors (this doesn’t pretend to list all possible problems) that should be addressed, and you won’t be able to just live with them, as odds are they’ll only get worse. If you see yourself in any of the following cases, we’d strongly suggest consulting a behavior specialist for guidance. Don’t try to solve your problem through social media or watching random videos online.

Separation anxiety (fear of being home alone). This is probably the most frequent issue that affects rescue dogs: hyper attachment with one or more members of the family and fear of being alone and/or being confined are the most common manifestations of this condition. _You may notice this fear through your dog displaying intense vocalizing, peeing/pooping where they shouldn’t, intense salivation, and destructive chewing to the point of hurting themselves. A behavior modification plan and medication may be needed alongside each other if the situation is extreme.

Anxiety. Situational (only during certain events) or generalized (all the time). Often mistaken as fearfulness. Anxiety is an emotional condition characterized by anticipation. Fear, age, and separation/confining/isolation are the most common factors that could elicit behaviors like aggression, soiling inappropriately, drooling, panting, excessive barking, pacing, restlessness, compulsive/repetitive behaviors, and destructive behaviors.

Barrier frustration or reactivity(on leash, in the car, behind a fence). Lunging, barking at the stimuli. Normally toward other dogs. Hyper reaction when the dog can’t get from point A to point B (point B being another dog) because they’re physically constrained or separated from the stimuli. This situation creates frustration which, in some cases, can escalate to aggression, particularly when dogs have reached social maturity (18-36 months old, depending on the breed). This is a very common problem caused during puppyhood when puppies don’t get the socialization and interactions they require.

Check our new course to know how to deal with most common shelter dogs issues.

Serious behavior issues in rescue dogs

We need to be prepared for the eventuality that our rescue dog may need specialized professional help when we find issues that are getting worse or we can’t resolve alone. Definitely, and by far, the worst problem we can find in dogs is aggression. This could be interspecific (toward other dogs) or intraspecific (toward humans and/or other animals), and it could be anxiety-induced or anxiety-inhibited. Even though there are multiple aggression classifications (territorial, defensive, maternal, play escalate, resource-guarding, pain-induced, etc.), we’ll stick with a simpler definition that covers all of them.

In this particular scenario, it’s a must to have professional guidance, as your dog could really hurt someone. With the right help, there are many things that we can do to help our dog besides the usual ways (use of a muzzle, restrictive head collars, use of a crate, physical barriers at home, etc.). Every dog in this situation is different, but overall, the most important thing is keeping everyone safe. Sometimes, the right amount of stimulation, exercise, environmental enrichment, and, eventually, practicing a dog sport can improve aggressive behaviors. However, there’ll always be a need for some form of control to prevent any accidents from happening. Aggression doesn’t have a cure as it’s a genetic trait, but it’s manageable to a significant extent, as long as there’s no aggression directed toward the owner.

Compulsive behaviors:

  • Flank sucking, air snapping, chasing unseen objects, acral lick granuloma, tail chasing, or spinning.
  • Pacing, circling, incessant or rhythmic barking.
  • Licking objects or owners, freezing and staring, polydipsia, tonguing or licking the air, and some forms of self-mutilation.

Your dog might have a genetic predisposition toward compulsive behaviors. If you suspect this is the case, you might need to check with a vet to see if there are any underlying medical problems.

There are a lot of specialists you can use to help you in this case; for example, a veterinary behaviorist will consult and offer a diagnosis of the problem. Sometimes, they’ll recommend establishing a psychoactive medication plan together with a behavior modification plan. The behavior consultant will implement this plan, and the trainer may also bring some other things like exposure and repetition.

Common mistakes when training rescue dogs

Believing that an obedience course will cure serious issues is a myth.

If a rescue dog has behavioral issues, consulting a dog trainer isn’t going to help much. A veterinary behaviorist can offer a diagnosis of your dog’s problem and decide if they need medication. A behavior consultant will also better know how to mitigate and control the aspects of the problem behavior by offering a behavior modification plan and training, as well as recommending appropriate activities and environmental changes.

The adjustment period for a shelter dog is around 2-8 weeks, then they will show their true colors (after adjusting to their new home), so taking action as soon as possible is a must to prevent or identify pre-existing behavior issues so that they can be dealt with sooner rather than later.


Getting all possible information regarding your dog’s health, keeping up with their daily needs, training them, and giving them the best possible life will be amazingly rewarding for both of you. Put the time in, have patience, get help when it’s needed, and find out everything you can, and your rescue dog will always love you.

Written by

Lily Nimchuk

Dog lover with dream to create first truly dog-centric app

Reviewed by

Annie-Mae Levy.png
Annie-Mae Levy

Experienced dog trainer with Bachelor of Science Degree in Animal Behavior. Diplomaed dog nutritionist. CFBA Accredited Canine Behaviorist