Training Shelter and Rescue dogs

Training shelter and rescue dogs…
Boy could I go in a million different directions, but let’s start with something simple.  Who am I?  Well, my name is Bethany and I started training dogs in basic obedience when I was very little in 4-H and for dog shows.  This definitely did not prepare me to work with behavioral issues or dogs from ‘the system’ as I like to call it.  When I moved out at 19 I headed to the big city and got a difficult pup of my own.  That truly was my first introduction to animal shelters and rescue dogs.
I know it’s hard to imagine, but there was no social media or smart phones.  Just me, growing up on a farm and playing ‘Oregon trail’ on the computer.  I never knew anything about them and now I’m surrounded by people that need my help with dogs with “difficult pasts”.  I wasn’t ready and started to do some serious research, studying with other trainers, books and eventually the world wide web became everyone’s go-to.  I became very skilled using different methods and approaches to different dogs and issues.  Over the years I realized something incredible.  People who raise dogs from puppies have the same issues as the shelter dogs with “difficult pasts”.  How can that be?  All of these abandoned animals are much more difficult and require more love to feel like they fit in, right?  
That misconception is what has drawn me to working with rescue organizations and countless clients with rescue dogs over the years.  I work very hard to change the perception of adopting a shelter dog or rescue dog so they have a better chance at succeeding in the home.  
Disclaimer!  I know there are special cases of abuse or neglect with dogs from bad pasts or poor genetics that require more attention to training.  Those exceptions are not what I am talking about.  The vast majority of dogs that owners adopt and then struggle with have to do with leash reactivity/aggression, excessive barking, neediness, destructive in the home, pulling on a leash, jumping on people, anxiety, the same issues people who raise puppies deal with.  Raising puppies is HARD!  It can be fun and rewarding, but very challenging.  The adolescent months can be difficult to navigate.  They often leave dogs stuck in an aroused mindset they cannot control themselves.  This is the same thing I see with dogs that have been adopted, except they have the excuse of being adopted therefor they must be more difficult.  
That is the misconception I work hard at helping owners navigate.  So let’s get to the good stuff!  What do you do?  How do you get a dog to settle into the home without having that “honeymoon phase” of good behavior disappear just after a few weeks?
  • Structure
  • Boundaries
  • Calmness
  • Properly timed rewards
  • Consistency
  • Meet with a trainer right away if you need experience.
Dogs don’t just settle in and be dogs.  They need boundaries to learn the rules in a new place, even if they had rules at their last place.  Now I know what you’ll say!  You adopted this one dog that just settled in, was respectful and did great without all that stuff.  Well, I had that dog too.  His name was Charlie and he was from German Shepherd Rescue in Burbank, CA.  The bad news is I have worked with enough dogs and had enough shelter dogs to know that Charlie was actually NOT the norm.  Dogs need to know where they can and can’t go from day one.  They shouldn’t be allowed the run of the house and the yard in the beginning just because you want them to be comfortable , because in 3 months they will be so comfortable they will be barking at knocking on the door, jumping on guests, chewing couches or worse.  Before being showered with hugs and kisses and thinking they are the head of the house, they need to know what they can and can’t do from day one.  Dogs want to know where they should sleep, where their food and water is, and to be taken on walks.  Let them settle in for a while and get to know all sides of you, before they meet the side that just wants to pet them.    
Boy do I know that is difficult, especially with sweet and friendly dogs.  Our most recent rescue, Dakota, pictured, is that type.  She is just happy go lucky all the time.  The problem is, many happy go lucky dogs love people and because of that it can be difficult to see their stress and anxiety being in a new place.  Jittery excitement often masks nervousness.  It was so important to just let her settle in, learn the routine of the house.  I bonded with her by walking her and training basic commands before snuggling on the couch.  This was so important for her to learn to be calm, respect my family and be comfortable being alone when I leave for work.  Because of that solid start, she now gets a ton of freedom and affection. We started with rules and boundaries, a calm attitude when working with her.  She earned her affection.   We stayed consistent for several months before loosening up the reigns in the house.  That way she was allowed to really blossom.  Any boundaries she might naturally push are now more easily reeled in.  
It’s my goal to help everyone do the same.  I don't want to hear anymore stories about sweet, loving, affectionate dogs that end up biting a child on their first couple of days in their new home while everyone was on the floor petting and playing with the new dog.  I don’t want to hear  anymore stories of people returning dogs for pulling on the leash or barking at other dogs.  I am working hard for the day when people start training from the beginning instead of using it as a last resort because they now have no other choice but to either train or return the dog.  
I can only hope that this resonates with some of you out there who are struggling with your dog or thinking about adopting vs. purchasing a puppy.  Whatever decision you make, know that both require effort, discipline and patience and when done well, the pay off is huge and you will develop a deep bond with your dog, of any age.
-Bethany Wilson

IACP #P 6707

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