Top 5 Shelter Dog Behavior Issues

By Kathy Santo | Updated: May 14 2019

Congratulations! You’ve just adopted a dog from the shelter and are so excited to begin your new life together. While I’m certain that you and your new canine best friend will have many exciting times ahead, I also want you to be aware of a few potential roadblocks to the success of your relationship. Knowing what they are (and how to deal with them!) ahead of time will make them easier to correct, should they occur.

In no particular order, here are my Top 5 Behavior Issues in Shelter Dogs:

“Hello? Hello?? Anybody home?”

Not all dogs arrive at the shelter with a name. Most times the volunteers name the dogs, and unless the dog was in foster care or in a very small shelter, he probably doesn’t respond to his name.  Which is a good thing (if you detest the name he’s been given), or a bad thing (because you’re wondering if he’s deaf because he doesn’t respond to his name), depending on your point of view.

GOOD NEWS ALERT:  You can change or reinforce your dog’s name using a very simple game that I call “The Name Game” (genius, I know).  It starts with you and your dog in a distraction-free area, leash on (him!) and a generous supply of whatever soft treats he finds most compelling (warning: the treats can’t be the same old ones he gets during the day, just for looking cute – they have to be high-value treats, as in deli turkey breast, bits of cheese, etc.). Those of you with dogs who aren’t foodies can use a favorite toy; however, the toy must be kept out of the general toy population during the time (could be days, could be weeks) you’re trying to teach him his name. Otherwise, the value of the toy as a reward is lessened. Hold the leash (sitting on the floor if you have a small dog or puppy) and say the dog’s name. When he looks at you say “Yes!” and give him a treat (or a brief play session) and lots of verbal praise. Repeat until he looks at you every time, and gradually increase your distance away from him. In addition, you’ll want to start adding distractions to this game, because it’s vital that your dog responds to his name no matter what else is going on around him. The final step is decreasing the food/toy rewards, but leaving the “Yes!” and verbal praise in place forever.

Sled Dog For Hire

Sure you love his enthusiasm for walks, but he pulls so much that one of your arms is longer than the other, and you’ve noticed people diving out of your way as your dog walks you down the block. No doubt you’ve fallen into the trap (as has others before you) of allowing your dog to do what feels good to him because you’re sympathetic to the fact that he had a tough go at life and ended up in a shelter. Completely understandable. However, the result is a dog that you’ve allowed to believe that pulling as hard as he can on the leash is an acceptable way of walking (you).

GOOD NEWS ALERT: With the addition of a proper collar (check with a trainer to be sure yours isn’t adding to the problem) and a new attitude (yours), pulling will be a thing of the past. Here’s the deal – he pulls, you stop moving forward. He stops, you praise and move forward. Champion pullers may need you to actually back up a few steps in order to impress upon them that not only does pulling end the forward momentum, it actually causes them to lose ground! Expect a look of complete shock (from your dog) the first few times you do this, and be prepared to reward with praise when he stops moving as well as when he walks more calmly.

Begging at the Table, Jumping on the Couch and other things that You’ve Taught Him To Do…

Stand up and repeat after me “I’m the owner of a shelter dog, and I’m overly permissive.”  There, don’t you feel better now? Look, I understand where you’re coming from – the majority of kind-hearted people who’ve opened their homes and their hearts to a dog in need see no harm in initially spoiling the heck out of the little guy to make up for whatever injustices – real or imagined – that have befallen him.  But, at the end of the day, someone is going to have to look at all the things their dog is being allowed, nay encouraged to do as a payback for all the unfairness of his past life, and ask themselves “Can I endure living with my dog doing that for the rest of his life?” What feels good now, may not play as well six months from now when he’s engaging in behaviors that aren’t as endearing as when he was a poor waif just home from the orphanage. And then that someone is going to have to re-write the house rules and stop allowing the behaviors to happen, while at the same time teach the new, appropriate behaviors. Sounds like a lot of work, right?  It is, and if you haven’t fallen into this trap, take my advice – DON’T.  The bottom line is that being adopted into a loving home was the prize for your dog; teaching him manners that make him acceptable from Day One will make his life happier and easier, I promise! 

GOOD NEWS ALERT:  This is an easy one to remedy – for your dog!  You, on the other hand, may be plagued with guilt because you’re instilling (gasp!) rules. Resist the urge to fall back into your old pattern of allowing your dog to do behaviors that are clearly unacceptable and begin a program of restructuring his understanding of your new expectations. For example, a dog who’s been begging at the table can be taught to “Go to your place,” so that you can enjoy your dinner, while he’s on a comfy dog bed nearby, enjoying a special treat. Remember, most dogs adapt to new situations quickly! The only thing that stands between them adapting or not adapting is YOU. Keep up a happy, cheerful demeanor throughout the retraining process, and in no time you’ll have the (trained) dog of your dreams.

Mailboxes and People, and Hats, oh my!

Sometimes, the dog you adopt will have fears.  In some cases, the fears were a part of the dog even before he entered the shelter; in others, they developed because of being there.  In either case, intervention is necessary. You’ll never get anywhere trying to piece together the life story of a dog you have little to no history on. Asking the question “Maybe he’s afraid of my husband because he was abused by a man?” is of little help unless you know for a fact that he was, indeed, abused by a man. Perhaps your dog is afraid of your husband not because he’s a man, maybe it’s because he wears glasses. Or because is he’s a red-head. Or tall. Or, or, or……And so you spend precious time concocting theories that may or may nor have any relevance to your dog’s behavior, but meanwhile, your dog is still fearful.  Do yourself and your dog a favor: hire a dog professional and get the help your dog needs today.

GOOD NEWS ALERT: Speak with your vet to get recommendations about trainers and behaviorists in your area, because working with them to relieve your dog’s anxiety will help you achieve a calmer, more confident dog.

You say “couch,” He says “tree.”

If your adopted dog had been a “road warrior” before beginning his domesticated, indoor life with you, then there’s a fairly good chance that he subscribes to the “when you gotta go, you gotta go” motto. As always, before beginning any training problem, check with your vet to make sure a medical condition (for example, a bladder infection) isn’t at the heart of the problem.

GOOD NEWS ALERT:  By monitoring your dog’s whereabouts AT ALL TIMES (and confining him when you cannot), you’ll eventually teach him that the only acceptable potty area is the great outdoors. Corrections of any sort for housebreaking digressions should never occur, for whenever an accident takes place, the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the humans in the house. By never allowing him to have an accident in the house, you’ll end the pattern of using the couch as his personal Port O Let. And it should go without saying that when he does go in the proper place outdoors, be sure to follow up with lots of praise.

More Good News…..

Adopting the right dog from the shelter will be the most gratifying thing that you ever do.  The relationship and the bond that forms between the two of you will be greater than you’d ever thought possible. That’s not to say that there won’t be ups and downs – there are in all relationships. But it’s because of those challenges, and the process of working through them, that your relationship will strengthen and grow.

Happy Training!

If you have any doubt about whether or not you can train your dog, you can! Everything you need to train them can be found right here!

Kathy Santo has spent her entire career as a dog trainer and handler, training dogs and winning over 500 obedience, agility and Canine Good Citizenship titles. Working with her own dogs, she has achieved every competitive obedience title the American Kennel Club (AKC) has offered and earned the prestigious AKC “Obedience Trial Champion” title (OTCh) multiple times.

In Waldwick, Kathy teaches classes, private lessons, and oversees the training of her student’s dogs using her extensive knowledge, experience and intuition to handle problems from the benign to the serious. Her engaging personality has won her the respect and friendship of her many students, who now consider themselves part of her extended family.


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