Published: December 11, 2023  

Last updated: February 6, 2024  

This is a complete guide to training your rescue dog, based on my experiences with my own dogs and foster dogs. 

Training a new rescue dog is not much different from training any other dog. Building trust is always your first priority, followed by socializing, basic obedience, and general good manners. You need to stay positive, patient and consistent throughout your dogs life with all interactions, training included.

It’s important to understand the 3-3-3 rule of rescuing a dog. Giving your new dog the time and space they need to decompress is key to a successful transition to their new home. But that doesn’t mean that training can’t start from the moment you bring them home. You can read more about bringing home a new dog and the 3-3-3 rule here

Let’s dive in to some specific training steps and tips that I recommend to anyone adopting a puppy or adult shelter dog. 

brown dog on leash taking treats from owners hand.

1. Build Trust and Bond with Your New Dog

The very first step you need to do is build trust and create a strong bond with your new best friend. There are many techniques to bonding with your new dog.

  • Learning your dogs’ body language will allow you to communicate with your dog in their language.
  • Taking walks together will help your dog learn to trust you
  • If your dog enjoys playing with toys, sit down and play together. A game of tug or a simple puzzle are great ways to bond.
  • Feed your dog from your hand. There is no rule that your dog needs to eat from a bowl. Use your dogs meal as rewards for training time, being brave or doing something good.   
  • Sit and just BE with your dog. Give them calming pets or a massage to help them connect you with feeling good and comfort. 
  • Mediating with your dog can have tremendous effects on how your dog learns to trust and bond with you. Give it a try, even 5 minutes a day will have a huge impact on your relationship. 

📚 Resources:

2. Teach Your Dog Their New Name

Yes, you can change your dog’s name. In fact, I recently had a trainer tell me that it is a good idea to change their name so that you can change the meaning of it. For example if your dog was accustomed to their name used as a punishment, or their name means “I don’t have to listen to you”, now is a great time to change that. 

Plus, dogs are very adaptable, they don’t care what you name them, just as long as you are consistent once you do choose their name. 

Teaching a puppy or adult dog their new name is easy, it’s the same as teaching them a new command. In fact, calling their name should be a command for them to look at you. For example, Spot Sit. Spot is the command to look and pay attention to you, Sit is the command to sit down. Get it?

If the shelter used a generic name for a short time, just start using your new name. If the dog has had the old name for a long time, then you can use their old name and new name combined to start with. For example, when we adopted Nala, her old name was Midnight. We called her Nala-Midnight for a couple of days, transitioning to Nala as she started picking it up.

If you do not know the dogs old name, simply start with the new chosen name. A leash and treats can help keep their attention on you for the first few days.

📚 Resource: Need to Find a New Name? Visit our Dog Name Library

3. House Training or Potty Training

It’s totally normal for a new rescue dog to have potty accidents during the transition period. Your dog is stressed and confused, so be patient and give them time to adjust. Usually within the first week, previously potty trained dogs will stop having accidents. 

If your dog was a puppy mill dog, or has other pasts experiences where they were never house trained, you may have to start from the beginning as if they were a new puppy. 

📚 ResourcePotty training a rescue dog

4. How to Be Alone

Separation anxiety is the number one problem rescue dogs face. It’s important to teach your dog that being alone is okay. 

Start by leaving your dog home alone just for a few minutes at a time to see how they react.  I like to take my dogs for a long walk before leaving them home alone for any length of them. 

PRO TIP: Using a nanny cam is the best way to watch them to ensure they are safe. We have a few TP-Link Tapo Pet Cameras and they work great.

📚 ResourceRescue Dog Separation Anxiety Solutions

5. Crate Training

Some people feel a crate is cruel. But in my experience it can be a life-saver. Crate training will keep your dog safe while you can not watch them, avoiding destructive behaviors. 

Show your dog that the crate is a safe and comfortable space. Gradually increase the time spent in the crate and use positive reinforcement to create a positive association.

📚 ResourceHow and Why Crate Train Your Dog in 3 Easy Steps

6. Collar Grab

There will be a time in every dog’s life that you will need to grab their collar for one reason or another. As your dog starts to learn to trust you, incorporate the collar grab game. I do this by holding a treat in one hand, allow the dog to take the treat and touch their collar at the same time. Go as slow as needed to keep the dog comfortable. You do not want to scare them. 

7. Recall

Having your dog come when called is the one life-saving skill ALL dogs need to know. It’s also the one skill that many dog owners struggle with…. me included. My dogs will come with no distractions, but add a squirrel or rabbit to the picture and game over! Something we need to work on 😊 

Some great tools to help train a recall are: high-value treats, a long line, time, consistency and lots of patience!

8. Learning to Wait

Having your dog learn how to wait to go through doorways is a good safety measure. I’ve heard too many stories of dogs running away during the first few days in a new environment. 

The best way to train the wait command is by using a leash. Start by standing directly in front of your dog, hold your hand in front of their face and command, Wait. Then treat. Slowly increase your distance, and change locations to practice and proof the behavior. 

9. Teach your Dog How to Walk on a Leash

Taking your dog for walks is imperative to their mental and physical health. Teach your dog to walk on a leash without pulling. Use gentle guidance and rewards to encourage good leash manners.

📚 ResourceHow Often Should I Walk My Dog and Why?

10. Basic Obedience Training

Your rescue dog may or may not have had previous training by their previous owner. If not, don’t worry, an older dog can learn new tricks! 

And if your dog has some bad habits from their past experiences, then now is the time to create new good habits. 

Keep training sessions short, in fact, shorter the better. Start with basic commands such as sit, stay, come, and heel. As with any training, be consistent and reward for good behavior. Rewards can be treats, praise or even a toy.

Taking an obedience class at your local dog training school can be helpful. Or check out SpiritDog Online Training Portal

📚 Resource:  5 quick dog training techniques and ideas to start training your dog today

11. Socialization Skills

Many people think of socializing their dog means they need to learn to play with other dogs. While that can be part of it, there is so much more to socializing your dog. 

The purpose of socializing your dog is for them to feel comfortable and confident in different environments and around new people, animals, things, and sounds.

Many rescue dogs miss out on proper socializing as a puppy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause. The good news is that dogs never stop learning, so you should work on your dogs socialization skills every day for the rest of their lives! Use the resource below as a guide. 

📚 ResourceSocialization Checklist

12. Build Confidence in Fearful Dogs

Some people automatically assume a fearful rescue dog was abused in their past life. But in reality, it’s more likely that the dog was not socialized as a puppy. Genetics also play into why your dog is so fearful. If your dogs parents were fearful, it’s likely your dog will be too. 

Here are a few key steps in helping your fearful dog:

  • Make sure you are giving your new dog enough time to decompress. Read the 3-3-3 rule.
  • Get a full health checkup by your vet to ensure your dog is in good health and not in any pain.
  • If you haven’t taken the time to learn your dog’s body language yet, now is the time. 
  • Continue building your bond, so they can learn to trust you. 
  • Be a confident and strong leader. Your dog feeds off your energy. Your dog needs YOU to be confident and set rules and boundaries to navigate life, just as our human kids do. 

📚 Resource: My dog is scared of everything… how can I help?

person walking a brown dog on leash.

Pro Tips in Training Your Rescue Dog

1. Be Patience  

Training a rescue dog takes time and patience. Your dog has started a new life, learning a new daily routine and getting to know their new owners. You may want instant results, but this all doesn’t happen over night. 

2. Stay Positive

There are times you will find it easy to stay positive and other times you will get frustrated. Even during those times of frustration it’s important to always use positive reinforcement techniques to encourage good behavior and discourage unwanted behavior. 

Always reward your dog for exhibiting desirable behavior. Treats, praise and play are all great ways to reinforce the good.

3. Always Be Consistent

Be consistent with your training methods and expectations to help your dog understand what is required. If one day you allow your dog to get away with a behavior and the next you tell them no, it just causes confusion.

4. Create a Schedule

Dog’s thrive on routine. It helps your dog feel safe and builds confidence. Establish a schedule so that you both know what to expect. 

5. Seek Professional Help

Sometimes adopting and raising a dog can get overwhelming and you may encounter challenges or behavioral issues that are more than you can handle alone. Consider seeking help from a professional dog trainer or behaviorist who has experience working with rescue dogs. I highly recommend SpiritDog Training

6. Your Dog is Unique

Remember that every dog is unique, so be patient, understanding, and adaptable in your training approach. No two dogs or situations are identical. It’s great to get advice from others in similiar situations, in fact, that is why I created our private Facebook community. But never get in the comparison trap. Go with what works for you and your dog. 

About the Author

Debi McKee

Debi McKee is the expert behind Rescue Dogs 101 where she guides you in your journey of adopting and raising a rescue dog every step of the way. She is a mom of 3 human kids and 4 dogs and volunteers for a local dog rescue and Humane Society. Click here for more about Debi and her passion for helping you and your dog.

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  1. My rescue pup was scared of everything when we got her she is so much better now, 2 yrs now. Just recently, she’s 2 1/2 now, she has decided she can defend the house or when a dog comes very close to me she barks growls and lunges at the other dog. Jealous I guess. Is this going to turn into a problem going forward?

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