Tips for Training a Rescue Dog to Integrate Them Into Your Life

Once you've adopted your new friend, you'll want to take these steps to help give them a smooth transition.

Published December 19, 2022
Young woman playing with her dog

When you adopt a rescue dog, you're giving a pup a new lease on life. Bringing any new dog into your home presents challenges, but rescues can present unique training issues. Even if you have experience raising puppies, training a rescue dog requires special consideration. Find out what's different, what rescues need to be successful, and what you need to know about how to train rescue dogs.

First, Build Your Bond

Many rescued dogs have issues with trust. Building a bond with your dog starts by learning about them. Every dog is unique. Read up about your rescue's breed or mix, and search online to help understand behavioral issues. The more you know about your pup's personality and needs, the better you will be able to care for them and create a strong relationship.

Start slowly, and focus on trust. Every rescued dog has different emotional needs. Building rapport starts with consistency, learn to read their body language, and show them that they are safe with you.

  • Build a routine. Many rescue dogs haven't had the benefit of regular meals. Dogs thrive on routine. Feed them, water them, walk them, and set a bedtime. When they know their needs are being met, they're more likely to settle in successfully.
  • Exercise together. A tired dog is a happy dog, so make sure you schedule at least one walk or play session per day. You don't have to go out at the same time every day.
  • Emphasize contact. Spend time cuddling with your pup while watching TV, reading, or whatever it is you're doing. Go at your new dog's pace; not all rescues feel safe with handling. Test the waters carefully, and emphasize that you won't do anything they aren't comfortable with. Over time, contact will help them feel more secure in their surroundings and give both of you something comforting to do together.
  • Pay attention to hygiene. Many rescues have been neglected when it comes to basic care. Address your dog's grooming needs. Something as simple as brushing your dog's fur on a daily basis can further enhance the bond you share.
  • Get to know their body language. Dogs communicate through their body language, so being able to read those signals will keep both of you safe during training sessions. A good rule of thumb: if you see ears up, tail wagging, and an open mouth with tongue hanging out, that means they're happy and relaxed. If they have their ears back flat against their head or curled under, tails tucked under, or exhibit stiff movement with eyes focused intently on an object, then chances are good that something may not be right and it might be time for caution.

Socializing Your Rescue Dog

Dogs rescued from high-kill shelters and humane societies are often skittish, fearful, and in need of socialization. While you want to give your new dog time to settle into their new home and routine, it's important to get started with socialization right away.

Socializing a Rescue Dog Infographic

Socializing a rescue dog is not only good for them, but also good for you. It will help you bond with your new best friend and make sure they feel comfortable in their new home. Here are some tips on how to socialize a rescue dog:

  • Take your dog on walks. Walk your dog every day so they can relieve themselves and get used to being outside in different environments.
  • Take them out in public. Allow your dog time outdoors for walks or play dates at the dog park where they can interact with other dogs and people.
  • Bring them around other animals. If possible, bring your new dog around other animals that are familiar like cats or horses, so they can learn that other animals aren't scary.
  • Introduce them to new people. Invite friends and family over to visit with your new dog. Keep introductions low-key, and do not let your rescue say hello until they are calm. At first, keep your dog in a separate area when visitors arrive, to ensure they don't get too excited or anxious. When they've calmed down, bring them to meet your guests.
  • Stay consistent. All dogs need a lot of socialization. Rescues can be especially difficult to socialize properly, especially if they're scarred of new people, other pets, or unfamiliar environments. Work on socialization daily.
  • Go slow. Don't rush the process. If your new rescue is particularly skittish or afraid, reset your expectations and work at their pace. You need to desensitize them to new people, places, and other pets.

Positive Reinforcement

The old saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," just isn't true. All dogs can learn a lot of new things, including how to behave better. They are eager to please us and they want to get along with us. You may think that it is impossible to train a rescue dog who has behavioral issues, or that you don't have the time or patience for it. However, if you use positive reinforcement in your training, it will be much easier for both you and your rescue dog.

Positive reinforcement means using rewards to encourage good behavior in your dog. There are many types of rewards you can use with your dog, including treats, toys, praise, and affection. Each type of reward will work best under different circumstances, so it's important to experiment with different kinds of rewards until you find one that works well for your dog.

The secret to positive reinforcement is to make each training interaction pleasant and rewarding for your rescue. If they misbehave, redirect the negative behavior you don't want, and encourage positive behaviors with treats and affection. Do not punish your dog for negative behavior. This is like to damage your bond, and can actually reinforce the bad behavior if you aren't careful.

Encourage Feelings of Safety

When you first bring home a rescue dog, recognize that this is a time of transition. Your new pup isn't used to you yet, and they aren't comfortable in their environment. For training to be successful, your new dog needs to adjust to their living situation.

It is important to make sure your rescue dog feels safe in your home and around you. This takes some time, but with patience and consistency, your rescue will eventually become comfortable with their new environment and the people who live there. Dogs are pack animals and they need to feel like they belong. This includes being able to walk around the house and explore without getting into trouble.

Make sure your rescue has their own space. This could be a crate or a kennel, or even just a corner in your house where they can go if they want to be alone. You should also make sure there is a place where they can get away from people if they get too close.

Always treat your dog well and give them lots of love, affection, attention, and treats when they do something good, such as sitting quietly while you eat lunch at the table, or staying calm when strangers come to the door.

Crate Training a Rescue Dog

Crate training a rescue dog is the easiest way to get them acclimated to their new home. By crate training, you are helping your dog feel more secure in their new environment and teaching them that their crate is their safe place.

Crating a rescue dog for the first time can be stressful for both of you. The dog might not have ever been crated before. You may have concerns about how to crate train a rescue dog properly so that they feel safe and secure in their crate, but with the right approach, you can achieve success in just a few days.

Start slow: Take things one step at a time and working up to longer periods in the crate over several weeks. Start by introducing the crate, without any expectations. Let your rescue dog sniff it, and go inside on their own if they are comfortable. Make sure the crate is large enough for your rescue to stand up in and turn around in without any difficulty.

Stay positive: Also, place soft bedding in the crate to make sure it's comfortable. Use positive reinforcement to help your new dog associate the create with pleasant experiences. It's OK to feed your new pup in the crate with the door open. Let them adjust at their own pace to being inside the kennel. Offer treats and toys inside the crate with your new pet while you are standing outside so that they associate good things with being inside their crate.

Be patient: Gradually increase the time they spend inside their crate, until they're comfortable spending 10 to 15 minutes inside without any distractions before opening the door and rewarding them with praise and treats when they come out again. Be patient, and make sure to let your new pup out for potty breaks, as necessary. Over time, your rescue will learn they are safe in their kennel, and separation anxiety will become less of an issue.

Implement a Feeding Schedule

Don't overfeed your dog. As a general rule of thumb, feed them once per day and only feed enough to equal about 25% of their body weight. Once you have determined the amount of to feed your dog each day, you can start creating a feeding schedule based on their age and breed. For example, puppies up to 6 months old should be fed three times per day, while puppies over 6 months old can be fed twice per day.

Don't feed your dog right before bedtime. They need the energy to run around and play during the day, and if you feed too close to bedtime, you may wake up to an accident or your dog whining to go outside after you're asleep.

Instead, give them a meal earlier in the evening. The most important consideration is, feed at the same time every day. Offer a meal in the morning, and give a reasonably long break between feedings. If you rescued an adult dog, an 8-hour break between breakfast and dinner is fine. Adust your schedule as necessary for puppies.

Free feeding is not recommended. Free-feeding means leaving food out all the time for your dog to eat whenever they want. This is unwise because it can lead to overeating and obesity, which can cause serious health problems, including diabetes and high blood pressure.

Offer Daily Exercise

Your goal is to make sure your dog gets at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, and every bit helps. The more energy your dog burns, the less they will have to get out of control in other areas of their life. This doesn't mean you should force yourself to run several miles with your rescue every day. You don't want to exhaust yourselves or hurt yourself in the process!

Instead, find ways that you can both have fun while exercising together: perhaps throw a ball around the yard, go for walks on trails through nature preserves or parks, or run through basic commands at home after they're tired out from playing hard with other dogs at the park.

Be inventive. If they seem bored with these options or if they just aren't feasible, try something new. You could join an agility class where your rescue will get plenty of mental stimulation along with physical activity. You can also take them swimming or try some light jogging if your dog enjoys running alongside you. Keep it positive and based on play. Consistent exercise can help turn a nervous rescue into a well-adjusted family member.

House Rules For All

One of the biggest challenges you'll face when training a rescue dog is that they may not know what to expect from one minute to the next. It's important for them to have some sense of order and predictability in their lives as quickly as possible. If you're bringing a rescue into a home with other dogs already established, it helps to follow house rules to keep everything fair.

  • Make sure everyone knows the rules. Dogs learn by watching what you do, so it's important that everyone in the family understands and follows them, including your other, established dogs.
  • Be consistent and fair when enforcing the rules. All members of the household should be consistent with expectations for your rescue's behavior. If one family member allows your rescue pup up on the couch, but you don't, you're creating a recipe for training misunderstandings.
  • Don't play favorites. If you allow your established dog to sleep on your bed at night, your rescue will wonder why they can't do this, too. Dogs can be jealous, after all. Apply house rules to every dog equally.

Creating a Happy Home

Above all, remember to be patient and don't expect too much from your rescue dog right away. Every dog is an individual and every rescue dog has a different life story and a different personality. Take things slowly as you get to know each other better and build trust. With a little love and attention, your new pet will soon feel right at home in their forever home, and training will be much easier.

Tips for Training a Rescue Dog to Integrate Them Into Your Life