How to Train a Shelter Dog

Bringing home a shelter dog is an exciting and wonderful time. You’ve just saved a life and you are about to embark on a wonderful adventure with your new best friend. Almost all shelter dogs need some training, which is probably first on your to do list. That is a fantastic start. But your excitement and enthusiasm can quickly be replaced with disappointment and frustration if the training doesn’t go well.

I have noticed that those working with new dogs, myself included, will blame the dog whenever training is not going well. We think to ourselves:

  • He’s not listening
  • He doesn’t get it
  • She is going through that “teenage” phase
  • She’s stubborn
  • He’s not smart
  • He has self-control issues
  • She doesn’t like doing this sport
  • She’s scared

The list of excuses or blaming goes on and on, but never once do we stop to think maybe it’s us. True, sometimes it is the dog, but most of the time it’s the trainer. See what happens when you change the above reasons just a bit:

  • He’s not listening because he doesn’t understand what I am saying
  • He doesn’t get it because I am not explaining it in a way he can understand
  • She is going through that “teenage” phase, so I need to train more
  • She’s (acting) stubborn because she doesn’t understand what I am asking of her
  • He (seems) to be not smart because I am telling him in a way he doesn’t understand
  • He has self-control issues so I need to work on that more
  • She doesn’t like doing this sport because I don’t make it fun for her (or me!)
  • She’s scared because I am not building her confidence
Kristina with Merlin
Kristina and baby Merlin won the day.

Learning to Change

The point of the above exercise is to help you to step back from your current training technique when you hit a wall and try something new to bring out a different behavior in your dog. If he keeps giving you the same unwanted behavior over and over again, you are to blame. Why? It’s because you are obviously not giving him clear signals about what you want or you are creating an environment that is hostile to the desired behavior.

Everything you do relates directly to how your dog acts! I traveled, literally, all over this country trying to figure out the right way to train my dog Merlin in herding. I used every one of the above excuses when he failed. Worse than that, I had other trainers reaffirm these excuses.

It got to the point where Merlin and I were not even working sheep because I had convinced myself that would somehow help him herd sheep….yeah, I realize how that sounds, but it’s the truth.

Then… one day… I took a really good look at my dog. I had been thinking for some time that the way he was reacting was not fear, but frustration at having a fence between him and the sheep. His behavior looked a lot like his guarding and kennel aggression behaviors we had been working on. It did not look like fear reactivity. No one else believed me when I told them this. Well, I was at home with my own sheep so I could do as I pleased.

I wanted a calm dog that could focus and work. I have a high-drive dog that wants to work but is being kept from it by a leash. OH.

I stopped putting a fence between him and the sheep and I unclipped the lead. Nervously, I’ll admit, I opened the sheep pen, brought him in, put him on a down stay, unhooked the lead, and let him free. That first day was chaotic, obviously. He had months of frustration pent up and he really wanted to chase those sheep. But, even on that first day, there were tiny moments where he looked at me, or slowed down, and he was clearly keeping the sheep together and near me, even if there was no “order.”

One week later…

  • He is looking at me when he gets confused with what to do
  • He is responding to almost every cue immediately
  • He is walking calmly behind the sheep roughly 60% of the time
  • He checks in with me now and then

It’s not my dog’s fault. I was causing the frustration. I was causing the “over-the-top” behavior and had created an environment that couldn’t possible allow him to settle down and work, because I wasn’t allowing him to work!

Don’t Forget Their Baggage

You are not the first person to come in contact with your adopted dog. Even a young puppy has already had prior experiences with several different people and unfortunately these are often negative experiences that have left their mark both literally and figuratively. So aside from all of the above reasons, your new dog may not be responding well to regular training because they have other issues that need to be worked through first:

  • Fear of people, new surroundings, or other dogs may be keeping them from being able to concentrate on training.
  • They may have been taught using other methods and are therefore unsure of what you are asking them.
  • Dogs that have been corrected for getting things wrong are often hesitate to try anything for fear of punishment. This creates a “shut down dog” that just sits there when you try to engage them in training.
  • They don’t know how to bond with you due to past experiences of abuse, abandonment, being passed around, etc.
  • They’ve spent years just doing what they had to do to survive. They’ve never had to listen to a person. You are going to need to break that barrier first.

These are just a few of the many experiences your dog may have had that can impede training with your new adopted dog. The bottom line:

“When training isn’t working, don’t blame the dog.”

– Kristina Lotz

Instead, step back and assess your training session. Videotaping it so you can watch later really helps. You can then watch your dog’s reactions and find out what is going on. Then, you can adjust your training to fit your dog’s needs. Maybe you need to work on him fear first, or build up a bond with him through play before trying to get him to sit. It will depend on the dog. But I’ve learned that blame won’t get you or your dog anywhere. Instead, a willingness to work on what your dog needs will create a successful training partnership that you both enjoy.

This article was written by our treasured contributor Kristina Lotz and edited by Aascot Bohlander. Kristina is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) who uses positive reinforcement to create lasting bonds between dog and owner. Her website, A Fairytail House, focuses on dog training and more. Aascot is the Content & Email Marketing Manager for Core Paws.

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