You’ve adopted a rescue dog. Now what? Instead of jumping right into training, focus on ensuring her emotional well-being and meeting her biological needs: food, water, shelter and feeling safe in her new home without any pressure to perform. Here are some tips on what to focus on first, before you even begin the training.

Get to Know Her

Rescue dogs come into our lives at various ages, with all sorts of previous experiences. Sometimes they know how to do a bunch of stuff, and sometimes no one knows what they know. Shelter and rescue organizations do not always have all the information about an individual dog’s history; it’s actually pretty rare when they truly do. That’s why you should take this time to find out what the dog knows. Don’t be surprised if she hasn’t learned as much as she could have at her previous home(s).

Show Her the Potty!

You don’t want your new dog searching your entire house for the bathroom. Take the time to show her where you want her to potty, and help her learn to consistently go there by giving multiple opportunities for reinforcement.

For me, potty training is a numbers game. On average, an adult dog sleeps 14 hours a day. If we take the new dog out every 30 minutes she is awake, that leaves us with 20 proactive opportunities to capture the desired behavior of her going to the bathroom outside. Capturing is being prepared to mark and reinforce a naturally occurring or freely given behavior. Going to the bathroom is a natural act, so capturing is a simple, effective and ideal way to reinforce the desired behavior of going to the bathroom. Where we reinforce this behavior the most will be the likely place she goes potty in the future.

All we need to do to capture where we would like our dog to go to the bathroom is:

Be prepared with something the dog enjoys being reinforced with
Mark the behavior as she completes going to the bathroom with a verbal cue/marker. I use the words “Hurry up,” while others say “Make potty.” Whatever it is that you choose, say this verbal cue as your dog finishes going to the bathroom, then reinforce that with a reward. The reward should be something tangible that your dog enjoys, like a food reward.

If your dog goes to the bathroom where you do not want her to go, do not mark it with any form of punishment — not even 1%. Your dog will not associate anything you do with her potty faux pas, which makes it counterproductive to learning. Dogs do not understand scolding. Dogs do understand reinforcement, so focus on desired behaviors as a sure way to help her with learning and retention.

Earn Touch Consent

The probability that a recently rescued dog enjoys being hugged is low. I can’t count the amount of times I have seen photographs of recently rescued dogs held and hugged displaying signs that they want to avoid the situation. No one should be put into a position where they have to react in a negative way, not physically nor emotionally. Hugging is a very human thing, but it is not a behavior that dogs do often.

When dogs hug, it is an interaction more often seen during canine predatory play than during canine social play. The behavior of hugging between dogs is when both dogs are standing on their rear legs with their front limbs wrapped around each other’s shoulders. Most often they are also gaping, which is a wide-open mouth with bared teeth when in this position.

At other times two dogs may seek comfort by lying next to or on top of one another, like with their head resting on another part of a dog they enjoy being close with. For the first behavior, most people would not want to be in the middle of. For the second one, I imagine some people think it might be a good idea to lie with a dog that way also. Although some dogs enjoy this, not all dogs will and we don’t know if brand-new dogs like it or not. Every dog is an individual.

Create a Routine

We help dogs assimilate to their new environment by providing basic needs and routine. Simple and basic things in life, like providing a healthy diet and feeding at regular times (breakfast at 8 a.m. and dinner at 4 p.m.) and giving them a safe place to sleep. Setting up a spot for your dog to sleep is a great proactive idea; then adjust this location based on where your dog eventually enjoys sleeping. Bedtime is also a big thing for our dogs and ourselves. I know everyone’s schedules are different, so just consider this: If we go to sleep at 10 p.m., our dogs settle in for a longer duration, and that routine is part of life we sometimes don’t consider.

Include regular times of play, like a game of tug or some fun with a flirt pole an hour after dinner. A usual walk before work, like a 15-minute sniffari in the morning followed by breakfast, could be a wonderful new routine. Get outside and gather information, come back inside, have a meal and maybe a little quiet time shared afterward.

Any sort of routine that works in your life, something your dog can look forward to and count on happening at usual times, is a great way to let her know she is provided for. She will come to expect having this shared time together with you, and it will make a world of difference, bringing a sense of order to her life that may have been lacking before she came into yours.

Introducing a few routines with things that normally happen at certain times will help your dog learn to predict what is most likely to happen, so she can begin to rely on what and when these things are going to happen. Routines go a long way in building trust. Reliability is one of the most important things we can provide for our dogs, especially dogs coming from a possibly unreliable environment.

Bringing home a dog you’ve rescued is a beautiful thing to do. The expression “I didn’t rescue him, he rescued me” is a sentiment many of us share. Training can happen at any time in a dog’s life, but what I believe should always come first, especially with recently rescued dogs, is ensuring their emotional well-being and meeting their biological needs.

Feeling safe, having their needs met and humans they can rely on can only make a dog’s life better. Improving a dog’s situation in life is a big reason we rescue them; a side effect of that is they in turn improve our lives.

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