The ManyPets Guide to Training a Rescue Dog

13 November 2023 - 6 min read

There’s a big difference between buying a puppy from a reputable breeder and bringing home a rescue dog.

Your breeder puppy typically arrives as a frisky eight week old after a comfortable and uneventful early puppyhood. She’s happy and well-adjusted.

Rescue dogs can also be from happy, comfortable backgrounds, but that’s not always the case. Your new best friend might be several years old already. They might have experienced neglect or even abuse. They’ll have spent time at a rescue centre, which is a very different environment from a home one.

Although puppies sometimes find themselves in rescues (some are even born there), you’re probably more likely to rescue an older dog, which means they can be a bit set in their ways. They might even have behavioural issues stemming from a traumatic past.

Are rescue dogs harder to train?

Training a bright-eyed puppy is challenging enough. But training a rescue dog can be even tougher due to them likely being older and having an uncertain history. If they’re of an unknown mix of breed it can be harder to understand their traits than for a pure-bred puppy.

Of course some rescue dogs will have had good previous training and you might find that your new friend arrives familiar with the basics of ‘sit’ and ‘stay’.

But whether your adopted dog has suffered the horrors of neglect or they’re just reeling from the stress of a stay in rescue kennels, the move to your home is likely to come with some fear and anxiety.

If they’re an older dog, training comes with its own set of challenges.

Learn about your rescue dog

One of the biggest challenges with training an adopted dog is that you just don’t know that much about them. That makes it harder to adapt training to their needs.

There are steps you can take to find out as much as possible about your rescue dog’s history and this can really help with making a training plan.

1. Ask questions

The adoption centre should provide you with at least some basic information about your dog when you take them home as they will have been assessed before rehoming. They should also be able to tell you about their previous homes and owners, as well as how the dog behaved at the shelter.

Make a list of everything you need to know. For example, what commands do they respond to? Do they react well to food as a reward or praise? Take notes if you need to, or even ask to record their answers to listen back to later.

2. Get a training history

Ask how much training your pup has already had.

A lot of rescue dogs have already been trained to some extent – it all depends on how old the dog is and how responsible the previous owners were. 

If they arrived at the rescue with little previous training, they will be given some basic training before being put up for adoption. Get a detailed history of how they’ve been trained in the shelter and their progress so far.

3. Get a medical history

Medical problems and pain affect training. The rescue centre will tell you about your pup’s veterinary history and will give you documentation for past vaccinations and health conditions.

This information helps you to understand your dog’s likes or dislikes, whether they have a history of trauma, and what might trigger anxiety or behavioural issues.

Prepare for your rescue dog

Do not underestimate the importance of being well prepared for the arrival of your rescue dog. A 2021 US study sadly found that as many as one-in-five rescue dogs are returned to shelters. That figure might be a lot lower if owners made sure they were perfectly prepared.

Take some steps to get yourself and your home ready for life with a rescue dog:

1. Dog-proof your home

Lots of the same advice for puppy proofing your home also goes for rescue dogs:

  • Cover or remove loose wires that could be chewed

  • Check toxic plants and foods are out of reach

  • Make sure medicines, lotions and cosmetics are safely stored

  • Put away any choking hazards – e.g. the toys of young children

  • Use stair gates and puppy playpens to section off areas and rooms.

2. Buy food and treats

Make sure you buy the right food and treats for your furry friend’s age group. You should also check the medical history the shelter gave you to make sure your rescue dog doesn’t have any food allergies or anything that upsets their stomach.

The rescue centre staff may be able to tell you what food your dog has enjoyed there. In fact, if you introduce your dog to a new brand of food and treats and they refuse them, returning them to the diet they had at the rescue could kick-start their appetite.

3. Make a schedule

Work out a regular daily routine for your dog, from walks to meals. All dogs thrive on routine — but with rescue dogs it's especially important.

Bringing your rescue dog home

Preparation done, it’s time to bring your rescue dog home at last.

Just remember, their stress levels are likely to be higher than for other dogs. They could have been abused, found as a stray or may have passed through several homes.

Even if they’ve previously been in a loving home, they will still have passed through rescue kennels or a foster home and the change in environment can be very stressful.

That’s why rescue dogs need a firm, even rigid routine. When a dog is used to chaos and unpredictability, a continued life of unpredictable day-to-day experiences will perpetuate – or even increase – stress and anxiety levels, making training much harder.

Put in place a routine with:

  • Set time and duration of walks

  • Set meal times and size

  • Set times and duration for training and play

How to train your rescue dog

Positive, rewards-based training is always the best way to teach dogs new behaviours. That means treats, praise and encouragement — never corrections, punishments or raised voices.

Avoid these things for training:

  • Aversive gear, like prong collars or shock-collars – they are banned in all parts of the UK from 2024.

  • Shouting

  • Hitting, grabbing or pinching

  • Pretty much any other negative action

This is especially important with rescue dogs where you need to establish a strong, positive bond. Punitive training will only result in anxiety, fear and mistrust. It can even cause aggression.

How long does it take to train a rescue dog?

Although many rescue dogs come equipped with some training, being bounced around homes and rescue centres can undo a lot of that good work.

Don’t count on adopting a dog as a shortcut for getting a ‘ready trained’ dog. You need to be prepared to invest as much training time into a rescue dog as you would a new puppy.

That means you’ll need to start with the absolute basics. If it turns out they’re already ahead of the game with things like sitting or walking to heel, you can quickly move on.

If you overlook the basics, your dog could end up with an incomplete patchwork of knowledge and skills.

House training a rescue dog

Even a previously trained rescue dog can have accidents in the house. In fact, it’s probably best to expect it as your dog is going through a challenging transition.

Again, preparation is key. Provide puppy pads and limit their space to a supervised area with easy-to clean floors.

For rescue dogs, just follow puppy toilet training techniques. That means once again, routine is your friend – let them out for supervised garden time at very regular intervals, increasing gradually.

Should you crate-train a rescue dog?

You might feel some guilt at confining a rescue dog to a cage because they’ve spent time locked up in kennels already. But many dogs find the security of a crate very comforting.

In fact, dogs that have experienced significant stress and anxiety may have the most to gain from crate training. For these dogs, crate training can create a safe, sheltered space that’s for them and only them – and that may be something they’ve never had before.

Some top tips for crate training:

  • Pick a crate that’s the right size — not too big or too small for your pup

  • Line the crate with a soft blanket

  • Leave the crate door open so your dog can make their own decision to go inside or leave

  • Have your dog eat some of their meals and treats inside the crate so they associate the crate with positive things

  • Don’t increase the amount of time they’re spending in the crate until they’ve demonstrated that they’re totally comfortable and secure inside it

Training an abused or traumatised dog

Training an abused dog can be an immense challenge. You’ll need to work extra hard to earn your pet’s trust – and that takes time, patience and kindness.

Dogs with a history of abuse or high anxiety may even need the help of a professional dog trainer or behaviourist, for example if they:

  • Won’t stop barking at inappropriate times

  • They become aggressive when food is put down – a behaviour known as ‘resource guarding’

  • Have severe separation anxiety, which can accompany constant barking or household destruction

Ask your vet for a recommendation for a properly qualified behaviourist. Your pet insurance might help to cover the cost – all ManyPets dog insurance policies cover behavioural treatment where you’ve been referred by your vet.