Training your Rescue Dog

Being responsible for your new best friend’s behaviour can be a little daunting. Many rescues come from settled backgrounds suffering a change of circumstances, others may have had a tougher draw in life. All will have had a period of stress while in kennels at the rescue centre and have a period of adjustment to settle into their new situation. Some may take a little extra training to help them be good canine citizens. Here are a few hints and tips to help you along the way.

Building Love, Trust, Respect and Obedience

It goes without saying that you will want to shower your dog with love and affection. Building trust is vital, but that alone won’t create a happy fulfilled obedient canine friend. Its important to remember that dogs aren’t human human beings. Dogs communicate and operate socially in a different way to humans and value consistency, rules, routine food, exercise as well as love and cuddles to feel secure and happy about their place in life.Bright Eyes

Giving of food is an important ritual in a dog’s pack or family and will be one way of forming lasting bonds and building trust. Likewise shared family “pack” walks are key in relationship building of the family unit.

A key thing to remember is the old adage that a dog is the wolf in your living room and not a human. Like wolves, domestic dogs are very much social animals and their behaviour is influenced by their relationships and roles in the pack “family”, with the group usually following the direction of a pack parent.

Put simply, to enjoy full respect and love from your pet, like any parent, as well as caring, you need to establish and maintain some clear ground rules for ok behaviour, and be the “responsible adult”.

Tips for being an effective dog parent:

  • Positive reward based training methods are the most effective approach to obedience training in almost all situations.
  • Adopt a calm, positive assertive approach to life and relationships, these are parenting traits that a dog will gladly follow naturally.
  • Work on your own wellbeing, the more emotionally well balanced you are the more well balanced and relaxed he will feel too!
  • Start as you mean to go on: Establish a set of “ground rules” and boundaries on day one and stick to them. eg he’s not allowed on the bed, is always allowed, or is sometimes allowed on, but only when invited with a consistent signal.
  • Maintain your rules consistently and ask other members of your household do the same. Dogs don’t understand the idea of holidays or special occasions. Even if meant as a treat, you may confuse him and cause stress and uncertainty – the last thing he needs when trying to fit in and settle in with his new pack.
  • Dogs are highly sensitive and pick up on emotions easily. A dog is a mirror of your state of mind, so if your dog is not responding positively, ask yourself if you are frustrated, anxious wound up or having a low patch, take a break and revisit the exercise when you have a good frame of mind.
  • Establishing a consistent routine to feeding your dog can be reassuring to unsettled or nervous dogs
  • Don’t let your dog “own” anything too possessively – if he likes playing with toys structure the play and include training on dropping and giving back items. Let him have them during play time and put them away after
  • Don’t let your dog get overly possessive about food or territorial about an area, if he shows a strong preference for one end of the sofa, make him sit the other side for a change
  • Ensure your dog is calm before you leave the house for a walk, he will behave more responsively if not over excited. If he’s dragging you out the door, he thinks he’s walking you!
  • If your dog gets excited at the door, practice walk in and past your dog without looking or speaking. Then give him permission to come over and share affection as a reward.

Health and Exercise

  • Ensure your dog gets enough exercise, pent up energy leads to mischief, anxiety or destructive behaviour. A lot of young high energy dogs end up in rescue homes because of previous owners failing to do this. A good exercise regime to meet your dog’s age and breed needs will avoid a lot of problems before they even start.
  • Feed your dog high grade dog food and avoid products with artificial colours in (they have the same negative effects on dogs as they do on kids!)

Training your Dog

Here are some more general tips for training your dog. There is a vast array of different training techniques and methods out there all many of which vary greatly. Every dog is unique and what works well with one may not be effective with another. Do invest some time in reading up on training and consider trying out your local dog obedience classes:

  • Use positive reward based methods
  • Make training sessions short fun and frequent so neither of you get bored.
  • Your dog will be most receptive to training when you are in a calm assertive state of mind
  • Your dog will be most responsive to training after he has spent pent up energy on a walk.
  • Always say a command once only, then make him follow through, eg say sit once clearly then put him firmly into the sitting position
  • Use reward and encouragement as incentives, treats are fine, but don’t bribe – if you reward him every single time you’ll end up with a fat, spoiled dog!
  • Learn to observe your dog’s body language carefully and you will start to spot when he is obedient and attentive and to catch the early signs of impending naughtiness or disobedience so you can nip it in the bud
  • Use short, consistent words and visual gestures for the same command all the time, eg only use “down” to mean lie down  or “off” not “get down off that bed you adorable rascal “
  • Keep your dog calm, excited dogs (like children for that matter!) will jump around and be far less able to control themselves or pay attention to what you want
  • Rewards don’t have to be food – they can be a ball game or verbal praise or just a quiet pat on the head
  • Work out what motivates your dog – for some its ball play or favourite toys, for others its just food, food, food!
  • A lead should only be a communication tool and hang slackly and loose never taut. Try using short tugs to indicate your request to walk to heel but allow the line to go slack then allow him to come into line with you. He needs to make the move for the training to be succeeding.
  • If your dog just doesn’t “get it”, and you start to get angry or frustrated, take a break and try again another time, breaking the activity into smaller steps

If your dog misbehaves

  • Focus on rewarding positive behaviours and ignoring negative ones.
  • Always address the behaviour straight away,
  • There’s no point telling your dog off if you return to find a shoe chewed. Its likely to be a symptom of separation anxiety or boredom. Think about preventing the anxiety (doggy sitters, extra exercise, anxiety training)
  • In the moment correct the unwanted behaviour calmly with clear consistent instructions (“no”, “leave” etc)
  • Never shout or get angry at a dog. Shouting at a dog will never work. Wolves in the wild are quiet stealth hunters and communicate more with non verbal signals, energy, scent, body language, posture and eye contact.
  • Your body language and visual signals from a calm assertive human is what will get your dog to pay attention.
  • If your dog is ignoring you, deliver your command in a more firm, confident, assertive manner.
  • In delivering a command your energy and projection need to match or slightly exceed the state of the dog for it to pay attention. Your dog understands the tone more than the word, speaking in a soft gentle hushed or conversational tone is effective communication among humans but wont get your dog to listen!
  • If you discover an accident some time after it happened never punish your dog – he won’t understand what he did wrong or what behaviour not to do again
  • Don’t avoid difficult situations, the problem area will only become entrenched and could worsen or intensify
  • If a dog has minor anxieties with people or dogs enlist the support of the people involved, or get a friend to help re-enact the situation and address the worrisome behaviour, with the help of a trainer
  • Try distracting a dog by tapping his thigh or shoulder just enough to  get him to look away from what is distracting him and focus back on you.
  • If your dog is highly strung consider a change of diet to veterinary pure food – food additives in cheap supermarket dog food can be an underlying cause of behaviour problems. A diet a change can make a surprising amount of difference

Never Abuse your Dog

  • Never Ever hit, hurt, kick to punish the dog for its mistakes – these actions are outbursts of your anger or frustration. Such actions constitute cruelty, may harm your dog and are completely ineffective.
  • Your dog should trust, love, admire, obey and respect you but never fear you.


Your rescue centre will have assessed your dogs and flagged any common likely issues. Do not attempt to tackle signs of aggressive behaviour without seeking professional advice

  • If your dog is reactive seek expert advice from the centre and or an experienced qualified trainer
  • One technique where a dog has gotten into a wound up state where it has lost its self control, become over-excited is to hold the dog at the loose scruff (this will not hurt it is a loose flap of skin where their mother used to carry them) and place him onto his side on the ground and let him calm down. Do not let him get up until his state of mind has reverted to calmness and his body has physically relaxed
  • Holding your hand fingers spread near his shoulder should calm him.
  • Never forcibly restrain or hold a dog down this will keep him in a pent up stressed tense state.
  • Do not praise the dog or stroke a dog in a negative mindset, wait until he is visibly relaxed and his mental state has changed, your dog’s breathing can be a good indicator.
  • Learn to watch for the early signs of agitation or trouble (pricked ears, hackles, upright stance, eye to eye contact etc) to catch it before it escalates out of control and his behaviour kicks off. Also keep an eye out for your own level of tension (which can be a trigger for your dog) and act to calm yourself through breathing or other techniques
  • If your dog takes a submission posture, eg crouching head down or rolled on his side with his belly and neck exposed you have made your point and he’s got the message.
  • Don’t every respond to a dog’s misbehaviour in a state of frustration or anger, the dog will feel your emotional state, be distressed and not listen to you, you could even make the problem worse.

Unexpected Issues

The vast majority of dogs in shelters are just unlucky and have simply stopped being cute puppies or are the victims of their owner’s change of circumstances, be it, housing issues, divorce, ill health.  Only a small number of rescue dogs do come with a little more baggage and require a more patience and commitment than may appear at first sight.

  • If your dog displays signs of aggression or serious neurotic behaviour contact the rescue home or a professional dog psychologist immediately and do not attempt to address the behaviour yourself without professional advice and support.
  • If you are finding it hard to train your dog or experiencing more serious problems seek help and advice early on.
  • If you feel very unable to cope with your dog’s behaviour problems contact your rescue home and discuss alternative options. Occasionally you don’t find the right dog for you first time and there is no shame in making the right decision for you both if its not working out – there will be another dog out there perfect for you whose needs you can meet.