How to Prioritize Training for a New Rescue Dog: A Guide

So you brought home a new best friend, and you’re not sure where to start with training your new rescue dog. Here are some tips.

A large mixed breed (GSD/Rotti) is lying down and looks at the camera. Tips for bringing home a new shelter dog
Photo: Geartooth Productions/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD.

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There’s a lot to think about when you bring home a rescue or shelter dog. How should you decide what kinds of training to do with them, and what to prioritize? This article includes general tips on training method, routine, management, house training, pulling on leash, and alone time. As well, there are some special considerations for puppies, jumpy/mouthy dogs, fearful dogs, and senior dogs. 

It can take a little while for a dog to settle in. If they seem a bit quiet or boring at the beginning, remember they are probably stressed by the transition. Their real personality will come out as they adapt to their new home.

Use reward-based training methods

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to commit to using reward-based training methods with your new rescue dog. Even if you have previously used methods such as leash corrections, prong collar, shock collar, etc., don’t do that with your new dog. These are outdated methods and the scientific research shows they risk harm including fear, anxiety, aggression, and a worse relationship with you. (See: seven reasons to use reward-based training methods for more on this). 

You will need to reward your dog for good behaviours, and food rewards work really well. If you’re in need of suggestions, see my post on the best dog training treats.  

A mixed breed dog sits and looks happy. A guide to bringing home a new rescue or shelter dog
Photo: Catherine Sheila/Pexels

Be prepared and have a routine

Ideally, even before you bring the dog home, you will think about the dog’s routine.  Which family members will walk the dog and when? Who is responsible for things like pee breaks, feeding the dog, and taking them to the vet? What are the house rules about whether or not the dog is allowed on the settee and bed? It helps dogs to feel more safe and secure if they have a routine.  As well, if different rules apply with different people, that’s just confusing.

Before your dog comes home, make sure you have everything you need: A collar, harness, and leash; poop bags; at least one dog bed; some toys including chew toys and food toys like a Kong; food, and food and water bowls; a crate, if you’ll be using one; a pet pen and/or pet gates, as needed; and pee pads or puppy pads if you’re planning to use them. Also consider how you will transport them in the car (e.g. in a crate or with a seat belt harness). Be aware that many of these are not crash-tested. The Kurgo Car Harness is crash-tested, while the Sleepypod ClickIt Sport and Clickit Terrain harnesses are certified by the Center for Pet Safety, as are the Sleepypod Pet Carrier and the Gunner Kennels.

When you first bring the dog home, bring them into the house on leash, and walk them around. Also take them for a walk around the neighbourhood. Try to make their first experiences at your home positive. In the first week, you’ll want to take them to the vet for a check up (and to get a microchip if they don’t already have one), and you’ll also need to get a dog licence.

So you know when your new dog will be taken for walks and get fed. What’s next?

Safety and management

Most people are very happy with their new shelter dog, but it’s normal to have a few things to work on. If there are issues, it’s important to be aware that the solution isn’t just training, but also management.

It’s especially important to think about safety. If you have young children in the home, make sure the dog is kept separate except when you are able to supervise them closely. And always let the dog have somewhere they can go (like a crate or a bed in another room) if they want to get away from the kids and have a bit of quiet time and a snooze instead.

Use pet gates or pens as needed to keep the new dog separate from children and other pets, and away from areas that aren’t dog-proofed. Also ensure that your yard (if you have one) is securely fenced so that they can’t escape from it.

Another thing to remember is to leave the dog alone while they are eating. Never try to take food away from them. Giving up food willingly is a behaviour that you have to train, and it’s probably not going to be your priority in these first days and weeks. If the dog has something (food or a toy) that you need to take off them because it’s dangerous, swap it for a tasty piece of food or another toy. You can make it seem more interesting by playing with it or talking excitedly about it. Once the dog is distracted by the replacement food or toy, safely take the item away.

Of course it helps if dogs don’t have the opportunity to get into mischief in the first place, so tidy everything away that is precious to you or dangerous to them. Especially for puppies and young dogs, be careful not to leave anything out that you don’t want to get chewed – and ensure you have chew toys they can chew on instead. And make sure cupboards are not openable by dogs and that food is not left out on counters where it will be a temptation.

House training

One of the things that can easily go wrong in the first few days and nights with a new dog is house training. Sometimes, even with a dog that was house trained in their previous home, there will be a mishap, whether it’s due to stress or not knowing the routines yet. And some dogs will simply not have been properly house trained in their previous home, so don’t make assumptions. If your dog needs house training, that’s obviously going to be top of your list.

The main tips are to take your dog out often enough that they always pee and poop outside, and to throw a little party for them with treats and praise when they do. At times when they can’t be considered empty, don’t leave them loose in the house; confine them to a pen, crate, or keep them on leash or on your lap. If there are any mistakes, unfortunately you have to see it as your fault for not taking the dog outside in time; don’t punish them, simply clean up the mess. For more on house training, see my post don’t punish your dog for peeing in the house.  

Coming when called

To put it bluntly, your new dog doesn’t yet know that your place is their new home. They’ve just had a big transition, and it’s a bit scary. Also, they don’t know their way around the neighbourhood, and they probably haven’t been taught yet to come when called. So teaching recall is likely to be high on your priority list.

Start by training this in the house, and then outside in a safely enclosed space such as a fenced yard. You don’t want to let the dog off leash until you’re absolutely sure they will come when you call them. As well, use really amazing treats for teaching recall. Believe it or not, scientists have shown that dogs will run faster for better quality treats

It’s more common than you might think for dogs to go missing during those first few days and weeks in a new home, so this is also a time to be extra vigilant. Make sure everyone will keep external doors closed, that any gates to the yard or garage doors are kept closed, and the dog is always on a leash when outside. Also try to walk them round the neighbourhood (on leash) so that they know where home is.

Your new rescue dog should have a microchip that has been transferred to you, but make sure the information is up to date and correct, just in case.

Pulling on leash

Pulling on leash is one of the most common complaints people have about their dog. In a way, it’s nice to have a dog who likes being outdoors and enjoys finding things to smell and people to meet. But, while you train them to walk nicely on leash, and probably even after that, it’s a good idea to use a harness. That’s because if a dog pulls on their collar (or you pull), it can be bad for the dog’s neck.  

For dogs that pull on leash, you want a harness with a front clip (a clip on the back can help the dog pull more). Great options include the RUFFWEAR Front Range Dog Harness, and the The Sense-ation No-Pull Harness. In some cases you might want to train your dog to wear a head halter.

Alone time

Even if you are at home most of the time right now because of the pandemic, at some point you will want your dog to be okay when left alone. So do some practice sessions and make a point of everyone going out, even if it’s just for a drive round the block or a short walk. And feel free to make a big fuss of your dog when you return; doing so doesn’t cause any problems.


If you just adopted a puppy, you probably already know that it’s important to socialize them. The sensitive period for socialization is from 3 until 12-14 weeks and you want to make the most of this window. One of the best ways to do this is to sign up for a good puppy class. See my post on what to look for in a puppy class and how to choose a dog trainer.  

 House training is of course important for puppies too. Although we often use a crate in house training, you can’t just shove a puppy in a crate or they will hate it. You have to train them to like it. So you’ll probably have a few nights when you can’t yet crate them all night. See some tips on how to crate train your puppy (my article for Modern Dog).  

For more tips on puppies, I recommend the books Life Skills for Puppies: Laying the Foundation for a Loving, Lasting Relationship by Helen Zulch and Daniel Mills, and Dog Care for Puppies: A Guide to Feeding, Playing, Grooming, and Behavior by Vanessa Charbonneau. As well, of course, my own book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy

Jumpy/mouthy dogs

Many dogs need a bit of a tune-up of their manners. With a jumpy-mouthy dog, you are going to want to teach them to do something else instead; and you’re also going to want to ensure they get enough exercise and enrichment, because these dogs are often very excitable. 

Something your dog could do instead of jumping and mouthing is to sit, or to have all four paws on the floor. Decide which you want and train it using positive reinforcement (treats!). If the dog does jump or start mouthing, stand completely still until they stop. Alternately, you could leave the room for a few seconds and then come back in. 

Don’t expect ignoring the dog’s behaviour to work on its own. You should also be using positive reinforcement to train the behaviours you want.

Exercise doesn’t just have to come in the form of going on hikes or accompanying you on a jog. Food puzzle toys, snuffle mats, other types of scent work, training basic obedience or tricks, are all things that can help to tire out your dog. You could also look at the kinds of classes dog trainers near you are offering and see if there is a sport, like agility, Rally, canicross, Treibball, dock diving, scent work, etc., that you feel like trying with your dog.

Sometimes a dog can be so excitable that it’s difficult to get a harness on them. If that applies to your dog, check out the videos on the Pet Rescue Resource for some tips and videos. Although the website is aimed at shelters and rescues, you may find it helpful to look at some of the tips.

Fearful dogs

Sometimes dogs can be fearful, whether just a little or a lot. If you have a fearful dog, you’re not really going to be thinking about training right away. Instead, you need to concentrate your efforts on making the dog feel safe. See my posts on how can I tell if my dog is afraid, eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe, and desensitization and counter-conditioning.  

Sometimes very fearful dogs will be terrified to come near you and it won’t be possible to put them on a leash for toilet breaks or walks. Then you’ll need a way to let them in and out of a securely fenced yard. 

If you’ve adopted a dog this fearful, hopefully the shelter or rescue has already given you some helpful tips. Reach out to them for advice if needed, or hire a good dog trainer to help. As well, consider seeing your vet or veterinary behaviourist to talk about medications. When dogs are so fearful, they can have a hard time learning because everything is just too stressful. So you might need to make some modifications to the environment and wait for meds to kick in (if prescribed by your vet) before you start to see much progress. 

Dogs like this may be former breeding stock from puppy mills, sled dogs or greyhounds who are not used to living in a home environment, or dogs from hoarding situations. If you’re adopting this type of dog, do your research first so that you are prepared for what to expect. Dogs from a very difficult background (such as from a hoarder) may have lifelong issues – but if you’re the right kind of home, can still be very rewarding as pets.

For example, dogs re-homed from puppy mills can be fearful of dogs and strangers, have compulsive behaviours, be sensitive to being touched, and need to be house-trained.  The good news is that many of these dogs can still make good family pets  if you are prepared to put the work in. Similarly, in beagles re-homed from laboratories, the most common behaviour issues are house-soiling, separation anxiety, and fear of loud noises. But again most people are happy with their pet, and it helps if they do obedience training using lots of rewards.

The important thing is to be aware of the issues and make a plan for how to deal with them. As well, consider whether you have the right experience to adopt this kind of dog, and whether you are willing to learn how to provide what they need. 

My book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy has lots of tips that will help you understand your fearful dog, and chapter 13 is about fear and other problems. Modern Dog calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy

For further reading on fearful dogs, I also recommend The Cautious Canine-How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears by Patricia McConnell, From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog from Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias by Marty Becker et al, and A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog by Debbie Jacobs. 

Senior dogs

Senior dogs find it harder to cope with stress, so you’ll want to make their transition as stress-free as possible. Make sure they have a quiet room to spend time in so that they don’t get overwhelmed. It may take a senior dog a bit longer to adjust to their new home, so give them time to adjust.

Senior dogs typically don’t need much training, but remember they can be trained, despite their age. And you can’t assume that they won’t need some training or a tune-up of their house-training. As for all dogs, use positive reinforcement to teach them what you need them to know. 

You may need to make some adaptations for senior dogs, such as having a ramp or step up to the settee, and making sure you’ve got non-slip surfaces so they don’t skid across your floor. They will need a bed that’s nice and comfy, such as an orthopedic bed. You might also need to block off stairs with a pet gate to keep them safe.

Chapter 14 of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy has tips for senior dogs and dogs with special needs.

My own training priorities with my new rescue dog

Many of you know that I recently welcomed a 10-year old Shih Tzu, Pepper, into my family. So maybe you are wondering what my training priorities are for him. Well, he’s a little dog so even though he sometimes pulls on leash it really doesn’t matter, but it does mean he needs to wear a harness so as not to apply pressure to his neck. Although he let the harness be put on him, he did a lot of lip licking and yawning which suggested he found it a bit stressful. So I’ve been teaching him to like the harness. 

As well, being a Shih Tzu, even though he has a puppy cut he needs to be brushed regularly (especially his ears where his hair is longer) and to have his eyes wiped. Again, he lets all of this happen but there’s lip-licking and yawning that shows he’s not really happy with it. So that’s been something to work on too. Luckily, his stress about this was only mild and now he is already coming running when it’s the time of day for him to be groomed. In fact, if you want to make sure you never forget to groom your Shih Tzu, I recommend brushing at the same time each day and following it with a treat. He will make sure you never forget! 

We’ve been reinforcing house training by taking him out often and rewarding outdoor toileting. And since we work from home and the pandemic means we rarely go out, we have left him home alone for short periods of time. Now that he’s got to know us, we get a wonderful welcome home!

Of course, he is still settling in so we may not be seeing his full personality yet, but so far he is cuddly, playful, and not interested in the cats, which is all great news. He’s a very sweet addition to the family.

Summary: Settling in your new shelter dog

Those first few days with a new dog can sometimes feel stressful, but it helps when you’re prepared. Most issues are relatively easy to deal with once you know what to do. Remember to have a routine, use positive reinforcement, set your house up for success, and make a plan to work on any problems that arise. It can take up to six months for your new dog to fully settle in, so be prepared to give things time.

If you need help with your new rescue dog, find a good dog trainer, and check out my book, Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy for lots of evidence-based tips on caring for them. 

Congratulations on your new addition!

P.S. Sign up now to get my free guide, Seven Secrets to a Happy Dog and learn how to have a better relationship with your pet. 

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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