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How to Train a Rescue Dog: Shelter Dog Training

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David Adams

March 01, 2024

Dog Training

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* All Sniffspot articles are reviewed by certified trainers for quality, please see bottom of article for details *

All dogs deserve an adjustment period–time to relax and decompress when they undergo a huge environmental change — like becoming part of a new household. Dogs who have lived in shelters deserve some extra consideration as they adjust to home life after living in a very stimulating (and sometimes frightening) environment! The sights, sounds, smells, routines (and chaos) of a shelter can take a toll on a rescue dog, especially if they lived there for a long period of time (or during a critical time in their own development, like part of puppyhood).

Additionally, much of a shelter dog’s life is unknown, including a history of abuse or history of neglect. While these things aren't the most common experiences — most furry friends in the rescue world are surrendered due to circumstances like their guardians moving or having financial struggles — they are something to keep in mind as you try to set up a calm environment for your new dog.

Anyone adopting a shelter dog, especially if you are first-time dog owners, should be prepared to ask lots of questions. If you need help before you bring a new dog home from the shelter, talk to a credentialed trainer who utilizes modern, science-backed, humane training methods to prepare you and work through any behavior obstacles you may face when your dog comes home.

When they are introduced into their home with care and compassion, shelter dogs can make some of the best happy, well adjusted family members!

Before you bring your dog home

Talk to the shelter staff about the dog you’d like to bring home to see if they are a good fit for the lifestyle you (and your family) live. Some important questions to consider:

  • How is the dog with bathing and grooming activities?
  • How do they feel about putting on gear (collar, harness, etc.)?
  • How do they react to body handling?
  • How do they feel about getting in/out and riding in a car?
  • What kind of activities do they enjoy?
  • How energetic are they?
  • Do they have protect/guard resources (food, toys, spaces, etc.)?
  • Do they have any injuries or health conditions?
  • Are they house trained?
  • Has the dog met children and how did they react?
  • How does the dog do with other dogs and other animals?

Some shelter dogs are brought into a foster program. If this is the case, the foster should be able to answer most of these questions. This information is useful for you to transition a dog into your home and as you begin working with a trainer.

Remember the importance of socialization

Socialization in dogs refers to being exposed to new stimuli and, ideally, making positive associations. Some shelter dogs lack socialization through no fault of their own. The window for socialization closes between 16 and 20 weeks of age. This is when having positive experiences with as many sights, sounds, smells, and sensations is the most important. Adopting an adult dog means the window for critical socialization has closed for them. While providing positive experiences that help build an older puppy or adult dog’s confidence is possible, this is no longer considered socialization. Unless the information has been provided when the dog is surrendered, you are unlikely to have information on life with their previous owner, or how a shelter dog was socialized as a puppy. 

Not all dogs have been socialized to children. This is a very important consideration before you decide to adopt a shelter dog–the last thing you want is to put a child at risk. Talk to the staff about the best way to introduce children to a new dog, or contact a trainer to help guide you through the slow introduction process to ensure everyone, furry and human, is safe. 

Fearfulness, anxiety, and related behavior issues require counterconditioning and desensitization (and possibly medication) before the dog is able to learn. In other words, training by itself does not fix behavior issues. An experienced trainer, behavior consultant, and/or Veterinary Behaviorist may be necessary. It’s worth noting here that not all behavior issues are caused by trauma. Genetics, lack of proper socialization, health issues, and learning history are all factors. A puppy is not a blank slate, and these same factors apply to their development. Dogs experience stress, and those experiences affect their ability to learn. 

training a shelter dog

Expect an adjustment period

You may read about the “333 rule” for shelter dogs. Three days to rest and decompress. Three weeks to settle in and establish a routine. Three months to become integrated into the home. This is a general guideline, and some dogs may take longer to feel comfortable. Remember that shelter environments can be stressful for dogs, and they may simply need space and time to rest during their first few days home. 

Provide comfortable, separate but accessible spaces for your new dog to enjoy quiet time away from other pets using gates, pens, crates, or separate rooms. Introductions to other pets should happen slowly over a period of weeks. 

Decompression refers to spending time away from frightening or triggering stimuli and focusing

on rest and relaxation. The main focus of decompression is reducing baseline stress. Make sure your new dog’s needs are being met as far as nutrition and rest, or any medical care they may require. The first few weeks after your shelter dog comes home should be very low key. Avoid busy places (dog parks, cafe patios, friends’ houses, gatherings). It is best to limit human interactions to immediate family if possible. 

Go at your dog’s pace, especially if your shelter dog is fearful. Step into your dog’s shoes. Everything in your shelter dog’s world is new when they come home with you. Try to imagine how overwhelming it might be for them. Be patient and adjust your expectations so you can help your dog in each new situation they encounter. 

Get on a schedule

It doesn’t have to be perfectly timed or rigid, but providing your newly adopted dog with a predictable daily routine may help them settle in faster. If activities and social interactions are consistent and predictable, they may have an easier time. 

Provide regular enrichment such as food puzzle toys as part of your dog’s daily routine. This may include outdoor time in a safe, private space like a Sniffspot

Find out what makes them tick

While your dog is adjusting to your home, start reinforcing behaviors that you appreciate. This is not the time to think about “obedience.” The easiest way to begin rewards-based training methods with your dog is to keep small containers of treats around the house. When you spot them doing something great, say “yes,” toss them a treat. By providing a treat, you are increasing the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated. This is how positive reinforcement works. 

Kathy Sdao’s See Mark And Reward Training (SMART) is the best example of this simple type of training. Eye contact, responding to their name, resting in one of the comfy spots you’ve made for them (a crate or a bed), are all great behaviors to reinforce. 

Once they’ve had some time to get used to your household, figure out what your dog likes to do. What kind of toys do they like? What’s their play style? What is interesting to them if you’re going on a walk? Provide your dog with activities they enjoy and observe their behavior afterward. What activities help them settle and rest? When do they seem most engaged with you? Keep track of what kind of treats they like the best for when you begin training in earnest.

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Find a class

If your dog is not fearful of other dogs or people, a group training class, such as puppy class,  is a great way to learn the basics. A good rewards-based/positive reinforcement trainer will help you understand how your dog learns and how best to teach them some skills that are useful for a life in a human household and world. This may include learning to use a clicker

Group classes are as much (if not more) for the human end of the leash as they are for the canine end. You may be assigned homework. Group classes are generally structured so each session builds on the next, so remember to do your homework. Although the class may be called “obedience,” the purpose of group classes with a humane, positive reinforcement based trainer is to strengthen the bond between human and dog. You’re in it together! You’ll learn cues (basic commands) like sit, down, stay, begin the journey of walking together with a leash, and other basic obedience-related behaviors. If a formal obedience class is your thing, there are many that use rewards-based training methods. 

Once you learn the basics, your dog may enjoy a tricks class or other more advanced training program. Most training facilities offer a variety of classes, so if you find a trainer or facility you like, see what else your dog might enjoy. Any dog can learn new skills or cool tricks as long as they are having a good time!

Find a trainer

If one-on-one training works better for your dog or your schedule, seek out a credentialed trainer who utilizes modern, science-backed, humane training methods. Whether they train in a facility or in your home, private training sessions are also great for learning basic skills. Private lessons also allow you to focus on specific skills or do some troubleshooting that you couldn’t do in a group class. Your trainer will develop an individualized training plan for you. If your dog displays challenging behaviors, private lessons are best.   

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Small, frequent sessions are better

Whether you’re working in a group class or privately with a trainer, keep your at-home training sessions short and positive. Short, frequent training sessions help to prevent your dog from getting frustrated or failing at an activity. If this happens, make the exercise easier by breaking it down into smaller steps, or going back to something you know they are already good at. Short, frequent sessions are the best way to work on any homework you are assigned by your trainer(s) from class or private sessions. 

Use small, soft, smelly treats that are appealing to your dog and easy to chew. You’ll go through a lot of them during your training sessions. Dry treats require more chewing and often don’t work well for class, but this is where finding out what treats your dog prefers comes in handy. 

Get professional help if you need it

Shelter life is hard, and so much is not known about dogs who end up in them. Whether they were found as strays or surrendered, there is a lot of background information on a shelter dog that you simply cannot know. If you adopt a dog from a shelter and they struggle with behavioral issues related to fear or anxiety, or display aggressive behaviors, seek professional help from an experienced trainer. They may recommend a behavior consultant or Veterinary Behaviorist. A team, including a veterinarian, is necessary for behavior cases. It takes a village! Please note that credentialed trainers, behavior consultants, and Veterinary Behaviorists utilize science-based methods. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior recommend against the use of aversive equipment such as choke, prong, and shock collars. 

Sniffspot Dog running on field

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Final Thoughts

Dogs that find themselves in a shelter are amazing, resilient, complex, fabulous dogs. When they first come home, they need and deserve time to rest in comfortable spaces that are just for them, and make choices on how and when they interact with family members. Let them come out of their shell at their own pace, provide positive reinforcement for behaviors that you appreciate, and get to know them before you and your new friend begin your official training journey together. 

It is worth noting that just because a dog exhibits nervous or fearful behaviors when they first come home, they may not have a behavior issue. You should, however, monitor the dog’s body language closely. This is very important information for an experienced dog trainer, behavior consultant, Veterinarian, or Veterinary Behaviorist should you need additional help.

Dogs, like humans, enjoy lifelong learning. So don’t just stop with the basics. Learn and grow together!

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.  

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Olivia Peterson, CCS
Owner - Sound Connection Dog Training WSU Bachelors in Animal Science Business Management. Northwest School of Canine Studies (NWSCS) Certification

Get your dog the safe enrichment they need by renting a Sniffspot

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David Adams photo

David Adams

March 01, 2024

Dog Training

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