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Guest Column: Retraining Bad Habits Out of a Rescue

By Samantha Randall — YouTuber, podcaster and editor-in-chief at Top Dog Tips.

“Rescue Me” is a recurring column by Samantha Randall, editor-in-chief at Top Dog Tips. She’ll provide personal anecdotes and perspective about her life as a pet lover with a passion for cat and dog rescue. Today, she talks about retraining a rescue that may have picked up bad habits.

Bringing home a new pup isn’t always an easy task, especially if your dog has learned some bad habits at their previous home(s). Don’t let the fear of bad behaviors keep you from adopting a rescue dog, however. After all, pet adoption can be one of the most rewarding things that you do, and retraining a rescue dog isn’t that hard.

Mind the Stress, Fear and Anxiety in Dogs

Bad behaviors in dogs are generally caused by stress, anxiety, or fear. For a rescue dog, this anxiety is usually way higher than that of a new puppy. Keep this in mind when you are working with your rescued pet. You don’t want to do anything that may increase fear and anxiety.

While you may be used to saying “bad dog” and swatting with a newspaper, that’s not the best thing to do in this situation. That kind of “training” will only increase the fear and anxiety of your pooch and make learning that much harder.

Even if your dog did not have bad behaviors in their previous home, they may develop some in your home. The says that the stress of new surroundings, and a new schedule, can disrupt your new pup’s routine. This, combined with the fear and anxiety of being in a new place may mean any training your dog previously had went out the window. Patience is the key to teaching an old dog new tricks.

Who’s Training Who?

Consistency is the most important thing to remember when training your dog. You must do it the same way, every time. Victoria Stilwell from the TV network Animal Planet says that “owners often get very angry about behaviors that they have, in fact, encouraged.”

You really need to think like a dog thinks to make sure you are instilling the correct habits in your pooch. This is especially true for barking issues. If your dog always sits at the window and barks at cars, animals and other dogs, and you let them out, then they have been trained that when they bark, they get to go out.

So now that you know more about your new pet, how do you make it work for you? Let’s go over several common issues and see how to apply this knowledge to retraining your rescue dog. Don’t forget to be creative. You can personalize any of these suggestions to make a plan that works best for you and your new pooch. Also, you may need to switch up treats and rewards to keep your four-legged friend interested.

Housetraining — I can tell you from experience that this is one thing that a dog usually forgets when moving from one house to another. Unfortunately, the anxiety about being in a new home makes urinating happen more frequently.

Treat your dog just as you would a puppy — establish a regular schedule, take the pup outside frequently, reward them for eliminating outside, and supervise their activity while inside. It’s the best way to go about it. Even if you are told that your pooch is housebroken, you still need to follow these rules for the first several days until you know for sure the dog has it down.

Nuisance Barking — There is nothing more annoying (especially to your neighbors) than nuisance barking. This is another habit that can stem from fear and anxiety. It can also happen because your new fur baby is just plain bored. There are many things you can do to curb this behavior.

At, Bonnie Beaver, DVM, says not to give your pet attention when barking. Don’t let them outside, lure them away with a treat, or do any other things that make it seem like you are rewarding them. Instead, keep your pet busy with fun toys. If your dog starts barking, just ignore them. It may be difficult, and Dr. Beaver says you may just need to put in ear plugs, but when your pooch stops barking, that is the time to come in with the treats and praise.

Vandalism — This usually occurs when you are not around and the dog is left to their own devices. You took a long bath, and when you came back to the room your TV remote is in pieces. Or you come home from a shopping trip and the paper towels are spread all over the house. While these things can occur for different reasons, like boredom or anxiety, the fix is always the same. You want to make sure that your pup has stuff to keep them busy. Try using toys or safe chew bones. They even make puzzle boxes with treats inside. You need something that will keep your canine busy for hours.

Begging for and Stealing Food — The first thing to remember is to never, ever give your dog food from your plate, the table or the counter. If you do it once, then your dog will expect it again. Even if it only happens once a month, your dog will beg for that rare food treat.

My dogs started begging after food fell from the counter while I was cooking. The best way to stop this behavior really is just to totally ignore it. In the case of food stealing, we often call it “counter-surfing,” and it may be one of the hardest habits to break since they are rewarded with yummy food every time they do it.

The best thing to do is minimize the time they spend with food. One of the ways I did this was to install a pet gate at the doorway to the kitchen. Kennel your pooch during meal prep and dinner time.

Stranger Danger — Your new canine family member will warm up to the other people in your household pretty fast. It will take a little longer for them to get used to company, especially if you don’t have company over very often.

With this training, you will need help from people who don’t live in your house. If you don’t know anyone who can help, going to a park will work, too. Have your helper sit in a chair. Leash your pet, and stay a few feet away. Slowly approach the stranger. If your pooch starts growling, whining or barking, then you know you got too close. Give praise and treats when you move closer and your dog does not display fear or aggression. Go closer and closer until your helper is able to pet your fur baby. Repeat this exercise with different people.

Now or Never

A new pet owner should start training a rescue dog as soon as the pet gets home. It is never too late to begin teaching your dog good manners, but the earlier, the better.

If there is more than one issue to fix, just sit down and make a list. Start with the bad habit that is most important to you, and begin helping your dog be the best four-legged family member they can be. If you are consistent and patient, it should only take a couple days to get each new behavior down. After that, always practice good habits with your canine, and you will both be happier for it.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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