How to train a rescue dog

January 27, 2022 - 6 min read
woman training dog

Let's imagine two scenarios:

First, that joyous moment when you bring a new puppy home for the first time. She’s a sprightly 7 weeks old, frisky and slobbery. She’s just come from a highly ethical breeder where her early puppyhood was uneventful. Happy and well-adjusted, she bounces over the threshold into your house and into your heart.

Now the second scenario: Your dog is three years old, and she’s joining your home after two-and-half years in an abusive household followed by several months in an animal shelter. Where the puppy’s mind had all the malleability of an infant, the rescue dog is a bit set in its ways. Where the puppy was unburdened and stress-free, the rescue dog is laden with anxieties stemming from a traumatic past.

Either way, now it's time for training — and the second scenario is tougher. Training a bright-eyed puppy is challenging enough. But training a shelter dog — even one that comes pre-equipped with some basic training — is often a different animal. Whether your new adopted dog suffers from an abusive past or is merely reeling from the stress of a shelter stay and the move to a new home, they’re almost certainly experiencing fear and anxiety. And if they’re an older dog, their age carries challenges of its own.

Read on to learn the do’s and don’ts of training a rescue dog.

Curious Dog

Learn About Your Dog

When it comes to training a rescue dog, one of the most crucial steps comes before any, well, training. Before you even adopt your preferred pup, you should pose detailed questions to the kind professionals at your local animal shelter. Indeed, any shelter worth its bark should be able to provide you with at least some information about your new dog, and often quite a lot.

Shelter professionals should be able to tell you about your pup’s veterinary history, and even have some documentation on hand regarding things like past vaccinations and health conditions. They should also be able to tell you about the dog's previous homes and owners, and how the dog behaved while living at the shelter.

This information is extremely important. It will give you a sense of your dog’s likes or dislikes, whether they have a history of trauma, and what might trigger anxiety or behavioral issues. It's also a good idea to learn how much training the pup has already had. Some 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.

The bottom line: Before your new pooch even trots into their new home, you should know just what it will take to train them, and what the biggest obstacles will be.

Dog on walk

Plan Ahead

Once you’ve got a better understanding of what makes your pup tick, it’s time to make plans. (It’s pretty remarkable how much preparation you have to do before your furry friend even sets foot in your home.) Far too often — perhaps as frequently as 20 percent of the time — adoptive pet parents return their new dogs to the shelters from whence they came. That number would go down a whole heck of a lot if every new pet parent were perfectly prepared.

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Dog-proof Your Home

Here are some tips for creating a dog-safe home:

  • Keep loose wires out of reach

  • Keep toxic plants and foods from your dog

  • Make sure medicines, lotions and cosmetics are safely stored

  • Clean the floor of the garage to get rid of chemicals like antifreeze

  • Make sure heating and air conditioning vents are covered correctly

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

Make Sure You Have the Right Food and Treats on Hand

If you bring a new dog home from a breeder, it’s safe to say you’ll need food and treats designed for a puppy. But adult dogs and senior dogs have different needs when it comes to calories and protein, and their food reflects that.

Just be sure you buy the right food and treats for your furry friend’s age group.

Oh, and the nice folks at your pup's shelter may be able to tell you what food your dog has responded favorably to in the past. In fact, if you introduce your dog to a new brand of food and treats and they don’t appear to be eating, it’s possible that returning them to the diet they had at the shelter will kickstart their appetite.

Make a schedule

You’d be well advised to map out your pup’s routine ahead of time, from walks to feedings. All dogs thrive on routine — but with rescue dogs it's especially important.

Speaking of which…

Dog getting treat

Routine Is Key

Even the newest and happiest of dogs can benefit from a strong routine. But the stakes are especially high with a rescue dog, who is likely trying to overcome a stressful and chaotic past. Once upon a time, your dog may have lived in a hectic or abusive home environment. She may have been a stray. Or she may have had several different owners.

Even in the best case scenario, when a loving family is forced for one reason or other to deliver their pup to a responsible shelter, the new home will still be welcoming a pup who just spent time in a shelter (not the most calming of environments), and who now must adjust to a new family and environment.

Any pup in this scenario needs a firm, even rigid routine. It’s the only thing that will help them leave problematic behaviors behind. When a dog is used to chaos and unpredictability, a continued life of unpredictable day-to-day experiences  is essentially guaranteed to perpetuate — or even increase — stress and anxiety levels. That makes training much, much harder.

Here some key routines you should lock into place ahead of time:

  • Plan the Time and Duration of Walks

  • Plan the Timing and Size of Meals

  • Plan the Time and Duration of Playtimes

Dog getting sit command

Use Rewards — Never Punishment

Rewards-based training is always the best way to teach dogs new behaviors. That means treats, praise and encouragement — never corrections, punishments or raised voices. Use positive actions, not negative ones.

Here are some things you should always avoid during training:

  • Aversive gear, like prong collars or e-collars

  • Yelling

  • Hitting, grabbing or pinching

  • …Pretty much any other negative action.

This is especially important with rescue dogs. Punitive training techniques will only yield more anxiety, more fear, more mistrust, and possibly more aggression. And it’s highly likely that your dog is already struggling with at least some degree of anxiety, which means that punishment may be particularly traumatic.

Dog on leash sitting down

Start with the Basics (Even if They’ve Been Trained Before)

Fortunately, many rescue dogs come equipped with some training. But keep in mind: A dog that’s bounced from a previous home to a shelter can forget things in the interim. Plus, life in their previous home may have been different from life in your humble abode. Maybe their previous parents taught “sit” but not “come.” Or maybe their previous owner let them jump on living room furniture or eat table scraps, whereas you’d like to enforce stricter rules.

In any event, it's not a good idea to train your dog in only the areas where they clearly have more to learn. As annoying as it sounds, you should start by training your rescued pup with basic commands and behaviors, even the ones they seem to understand already. (If it becomes clear at the outset that your pup already has already mastered the art of the heel (or the art of the sit), you can move on quickly.

But if you don’t cast the widest possible net at the beginning, you may miss some pretty important areas of training where your dog has more to learn than you initially realized. If you overlook the basics, your dog could end up with an incomplete patchwork of knowledge and skills.

Dog on rug

House Training: Accidents Can Still Happen

Keep in mind: Even a previously trained rescue dog can have accidents in the house. In fact, it’s pretty much to be expected at first — your dog has just been through a stressful transition.

Now, to bring back a running theme: Don’t yell or punish. Just do what you would with a brand new puppy: Praise your dog and give them treats when they do things right. Make sure you’re walking them enough. And place pee pads on the floor of your home, at least at first, if need be.

Keep in mind: With an adult rescue dog, inappropriate potty behavior in a new home is usually due to stress. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve forgotten their previous training. If you do your best to train them in a stress-free way, the problem may go away quickly. On the other hand, punishing or yelling at anxious or fearful dogs will only make it likelier that they continue to do their business indoors.

Dog sitting

Crate Training: Creating a Safe Space

Dog crates get a bad rap. Sure, some new owners might be uncomfortable with confining their dog to a small space — but it’s only damaging if they break the rule we keep emphasizing here: Don’t use crating as a form of punishment.

You should think of your crate as a safe place for your pup. 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.

Here are a few good rules of thumb on the road to effective 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

Dog lying down outside

Training an Abused or Traumatized Dog

In the world of dog training, there’s little that’s more difficult — or more high-stakes — than training a dog who’s been abused or traumatized. First and foremost you’ll need 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 behaviorist. You might consider seeking a licensed canine behaviorist if:

  • Your dog won’t stop barking at inappropriate times — for instance, in response to loud noises, when the doorbell rings, when they see people or other dogs, or out of jealousy

  • Your dog consistently exhibits aggression, especially when eating — a behavior known as “resource guarding”

  • Your dog suffers from severe separation anxiety that triggers behaviors such as constant barking or household destruction

A dog who suffers from from past trauma or abuse can even become aggressive or dangerous. The sooner you take intensive steps to correct problematic behaviors, the easier it'll be to keep things from getting out of hand. In some extreme cases, it may simply be impossible to make positive strides without the aid of a professional trainer.

Dog being walked outside

Parting Thought: Avoid Extremes

Many dog owners that have rescued a furry friend from a stressful life will do one of two things: Pamper them to try and make up for their tough experiences, or be overly strict to try and correct ingrained behavioral problems. Neither of these is an effective strategy.

Parents of new rescue dogs need to set up rules, boundaries and routines. But they need to do so in a positive environment full of love and rewards, and never punishment. That’s the only way to train a rescue dog effectively.

David Teich
Lead Editor

David oversees content strategy and development at ManyPets. As Lead Editor, he focuses on delivering accurate information related to pet care and insurance. David’s editorial background spans more than a decade, including a pivotal role at Digiday, where he wrote content and managed relationships with media and tech companies. As an Associate Editor at Cynopsis Media, David wrote the Cynopsis Digital newsletter and interviewed executives and digital marketing experts in the TV industry. His background also includes film journalism. His diverse experiences in journalism and marketing underpins his role in shaping content within the pet care industry.