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How to train a Rescue Dog

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

Firstly, if you’re reading this because you’ve taken on a rescue dog, perhaps from the Dogs Trust, or a Dog Shelter, I would just like to start by thanking you. I’ve been lucky enough to work with rescues from Bournemouth, to Yorkshire, even to Salt Lake City and I’ve also spent a brief amount of time with the street dogs in India, so I fully understand the impact when you adopt a rescue dog. If you haven’t yet rehomed a dog from a dog rescue home or adoption centre, but you’re thinking about it my advice would be go for it! #adoptdontshop

Taking on a rescue dog, and training them so they become calm and balanced, is one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do. My advice would be to always work with a dog behaviourist to ensure you don’t unknowingly make any mistakes that can be easily prevented. At Calm Down Dawg we even offer a discounted ‘Rescue Rate’ to help you out. Unfortunately, I usually get called in after a number of months of adopting a rescue dog because mistakes have already been made, and unwanted behaviours have developed. When it comes to rescue dog’s, prevention is definitely better than cure, and we’re here to help you.

So how do you train a rescue dog? Well, as humans, we often apply our psychology to dogs - this is the biggest mistake, and why many dogs have behavioural problems. Most rescue dogs are what we called ‘kennel stressed’ and have a build-up of cortisol in their blood stream. This can take up to three months to drain away and it’s essential in this time period that we don’t ‘over love’ the dog because they’re likely to develop something known as ‘hero worship’ which often comes out in aggressive dog behaviour or anxiety.

Rescue Dog: Lesson 1

The best lesson to teach a rescue dog on day 1 in the home is distance. This means essentially your dog needs to become comfortable on their own, in their new home. In the early days rescue dogs, especially stressed ones, benefit from clearly set boundaries and limitations; these could be as simple as only allowing access to one room for the first few days and not being allowed up on the sofa. On top of this, other game changers for rescue dogs that have been adopted are the following: a raw food diet that has a calming influence on dogs, mental stimulation (scent training is great for this) which drains a chemical from a dogs brain that calms them down, and of course as much physical exercise as you can give, ideally in the morning. Out of the home, teaching a rescue dog not to be pulling on the lead and to train a loose lead walk is key, perhaps even long line training. Until you can trust your dog’s recall, this will often take months.

Leadership before Love

Adopting the approach of ‘leadership before love’ is key in shaping a calm and balanced rescue dog. One of my frustrations is the perception that rescue dogs just need to be loved. Although in a small percentage of rescue dogs this is true, for the majority this type of relationship is what causes all the un-wanted behaviours that we see too often in rescue dogs.

To shape a calm dog we need to get the balance right in the following 5 foundations: -

- Owners influence

- Mental stimulation

- Exercise

- Environment

No one area is more important than any other. For some rescue dogs one area may become the key to a calm and balanced life. However overall, we need the right balance in each of the five foundations.


My Story: Rex’s story

This is a good point for me to explain Rexs story and how we got him to be the incredible dog that he is today (as I write this, we’ve had him for 9 months). I was working at ‘Helping Yorkshire Poundies’ when I walked past this incredibly unique looking dog. ‘WOW!!’ was my initial thought.

He was jumping all over one of the volunteers and she invited me in to say hello. Rex was now jumping all over me! A big 33kg Mastiff cross with claws like talons - you certainly could feel his power!!

He was just so majestic and I was in awe of him.

Rex was found with no microchip living life as a stray at around 7 months old in Hull. He spent a month or so in a dogs shelter and then a family took him on and shortly gave him back. ‘Too much of a handful’ they said.

When I set eyes on him in January 2019, he had been in the rescue home for nearly 4 months. Like most rescue dogs, he was only lead walked and didn’t get huge amounts of mental stimulation. I can only describe his behaviour as being wired and all over the place. Still though, something drew me in and after walking him for just 20 minutes I phoned my wife Laura and said, ‘I have to bring this dog home’. After some initial resistance Laura could sense that he must be a special dog. Even though we were not looking for a new dog (we already had two) Laura trusted me and said yes. After all, I work with loads of rescue dogs every week ,and no other dog had had this impact on me… he had to come home.

Because Rex was so big, strong and powerful, as well as being incredibly stubborn, the dogs shelter only wanted him to go to an experienced owner who could handle him. A qualified Dog Behaviourist was the perfect fit.

Even I can say that Rexs journey to becoming calm and balanced and off lead was not an easy one. Many times, in the first couple of months I asked myself ‘what have you done Will??! This dog is crazy!!’. I would return from a consultation working with another rescue saying, ‘I wish Rex was as balanced as their rescue is!’

Although there was something very majestic about Rex, something that just drew you into his world, he was also clearly kennel stressed, wild and lacked focus. He had been taught no rules or boundaries. Rex was extremely confident, self-sufficient and highly prey driven! When I had him on the long line one day, he saw a squirrel and lost the plot as well as nearly ripping my arms out of my sockets. It took him nearly 10 minutes to calm down. 0% focus on the world, 0% focus on me, 100% focused on getting the squirrel!

Rex kept trying to escape out of our back garden and one day he even jumped out of our bathroom window (1st floor) and luckily landed on the garage roof where we found him contemplating jumping further. He would swoop in and steal food from your hands and he was also a professional counter surfer meaning no food was safe. One day I caught him eating out of a big saucepan of very hot spag bol that was cooking on the hob. It was a battle to get him to even sit for food. Stubborn doesn’t even come close to how reluctant he was to follow commands! As soon as you stepped outside it just got worse. No interest in food or toys, no way of getting his attention, all he wanted was to do was follow the scent of squirrels and cats.

‘Recall training’ was a no go because he would just run to the end of the long line and pull to try to run off. I was reeling him in like a shark but when he got to me the lights were on, but no one was home.

For the first month I just focused on loose lead walking him and calm assertive leadership. I walked him on a lead by my side and took him to Wild and Free for off lead exercise as often as I could. From day one of Rex joining the Calm Down Dawg family we gave him hardly any love and attention. We never had him on the sofa and we got him used to being in different rooms, with doors shut, on his own for 1-2 hours even when we were in and watching TV. We restricted him to one room at a time. Distance really is one of the kindest gifts that you can give a dog. Tough love is key. We switched him to raw food. Within a few weeks Rex started to calm, settle and become more focused.

We gave him a daily job to do – ‘find it’ in the garden two times a day for mental stimulation.

Because Rex was so stubborn, we became more stubborn than him when we were asking him to do things. It’s the only way to get results with stubborn dogs. We always rewarded behaviour that we wanted to see and either corrected or ignored the unwanted behaviours. We used lots of high value treats to get him to do things to condition good behaviour in him.

Rex was really bad for barking at things in the garden, noises he could hear in the distance. I couldn’t even tell you how many times we had to go out in the garden and stand in between him and what he was barking at and say ‘NO!’. It took weeks for him to listen to us when he was in this mindset. He just zoned out and had no focus on us. What he wanted to do, he wanted to do! It was like he was saying ‘Get out of the way humans you’re disrupting my fun… I don’t even need you in my life! I survived perfectly ok on the streets on my own!!’.

Sometimes I used to think Rex was so self-sufficient and able to look after himself that he didn’t even need humans to look after him. He would survive perfectly well out on the streets by himself, in fact he did at just 7 months old. Regardless of how stubborn he was, regardless of how many times we had to get out of our seat when we were relaxing to stop him barking, our energy was always calm assertive and we were always more stubborn than he was.

It took 3 months before Rex really started to settle and become a noticeably different version of himself for the better. This was when our friends and family started to say how relaxed he looked. It was like they were looking at a different dog.

In truth it took Rex 6 months to become the dog that we wanted him to be, and the calm and balanced dog that he is today. Rex is now a working dog and helps our clients teach their dogs right from wrong, anything from puppy socialisation to seriously dog aggressive dogs.

He’s just amazing, we love him far too much (he’s my wife’s favourite and Laura openly admits it) and yes, he now gets cuddles on the sofa (of course though, only when we invite him up, and never when he invites himself up). More than anything he’s loving his calm and balanced life in and out of the home.

In truth taking on a rescue is stressful for both humans and the dog. However, as the saying goes ‘nothing worth having comes easy’. Helping rescue dogs to become calm and balanced is one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do.

For further information and to see how we can help you please contact us.

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