How To Train Your Shelter Dog

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

Adopting an adult dog from a rescue or shelter is very different from adopting a young puppy or purchasing one from a breeder. These dogs come from shady situations and we almost never have all the facts. We do know one thing 100% for certain. A rescue dog is no longer a "blank slate" come to us pre-programmed to easily and very quickly learn everything they need to know within a few short weeks by means of lure reward training. This mean's having a pocket full of treats and a smile on your face might not cut it anymore, depending on the particular dog. So what do we do instead with the more difficult ones?

This is where the concept of "all or nothing" reward training comes in. Adult dogs already have a variety of bad habits built-in be it form kennel frustration, fear, or just not knowing how to be in the world as they've been in a cage for 5 years. These dogs might be chronic barkers, jumpers, or complete lunatics when you put them on a leash and they trip you with every step you take. They might get "the zoomies" 24/7. A dog like this just isn't going to give a hoot about the chicken skin in your pocket. They might just take it and go right back to being out of control, having learned nothing, or ignore it altogether. The dog must comply completely and show the appropriate behavior in order to be rewarded. There will be no rewards for almost, or "good try," it has to be all or nothing.

The good news is if you know how to properly train this type of dog, you can skip to the part where it gets better fairly easily. First, understand your dog is not giving you a hard time, your dog is having a hard time. Remember, they've been cooped up away from the world for months or even years. Almost everything around them is overwhelming and overstimulating. Next, let's focus on one of the common problem behaviors such as jumping up on people. When your dog jumps up, that's excitatory behavior. He's hyped, and jumping up on you is so self-rewarding, so satisfying!

To fix the jumping, your dog needs to learn that calm behavior will bring rewards, and excitatory behavior will win them diddly squat. If your dog is small and it won't really hurt you to have them jumping up on your legs, go ahead and let them do it. They are looking for your attention, they aren't going to get it that way. Keep ignoring them, don't look at them, don't even move. Your dog will quickly realize they need to try something different. Usually, after a minute, they'll sit and tilt their heads. That's when you smile at them. Give a treat and praise, but do it calmly, "Good sit Fluffy, well done," model that nice calm behavior for your dog. Simply repeat the exercise whenever your dog is hyped up. You'll find the jumping episodes will get shorter and shorter as your dog begins to learn that sitting quietly is how they'll get attention. From here, as your dog gets better you can simply ask your dog to sit when it's time to greet you or your guests and they will know exactly what to do. If you have a large and powerful dog who has the potential to hurt you when they jump up, tether them to something so they can't actually jump on you or have someone else hold the leash while you teach the exercise. Just remember not to even breath in your dog's direction when they are hyped up and jumping.

This "all or nothing" exercise will work with all of those unwanted behaviors. It's the same concept and process no matter what the behavior is. Chronic barking? Wait for patiently for the dog to be quiet, then reward. It really is that simple. In fact, I have a puppy boarding with me right now whose number one hobby seems to be sitting in the middle of the room and barking at literally nothing. He's not hungry, he's not sick, doesn't need to go outside to potty, he's just bored! He's an active puppy who doesn't seem to understand that a play session can't last forever. So what does he do? He barks and barks in an effort to get attention. So of course I don't give him any, that behavior is not acceptable. Even asking him to shush or stop would be rewarding him because what he wants is attention and even if it's negative attention, he's still getting it!

Yesterday he sat there and decided he was going to bark for hours, yes hours. I did nothing. If he stopped, we played and he got rewarded. Today, after play sessions he lays in his bed quietly and I call out "good boy" from across the room every now and again to reward him for doing nothing and being quiet. The chronic barking issue is solved. You just need to be strong and determined. I know it's tempting to ask your dog to be quiet or to stop jumping or to get off the counter, but trust the girl who has been solving these issues for years, you're making it worse! Just wait for a gap in the noise or a change to more appropriate behavior and praise! Also, praise your dog when they're doing nothing at all. You'll be rewarding nice, quiet, and calm behavior. Behaviors that are rewarded (good or bad) get repeated. Keep that in mind.

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