Shelter Dog Training -Turn Training Sessions into Fun Play Sessions

Every time we interact with a dog, or any living creature, training is taking place. This is important to keep in mind when working with dogs at the shelter. The behaviors a dog practices and learns while in the shelter environment can make a huge difference in whether or not the dog will be adopted and remain in his new home.

It’s a simple matter of behavioral science …dogs will repeat behaviors that are rewarded! We can teach a shelter dog to bark, jump, and drag us to the play yard. Or we can teach him to wait quietly for a treat, sit to be petted, and walk nicely on leash for the reward of play time. Formal training sessions are rarely necessary and can actually increase stress in a shelter dog that really just needs a bit of guidance, attention and love. Here are some fun, simple ways you can incorporate training into the time you spend with adoptable shelter dogs.

Start by preparing for your visit ahead of time. The very least you’ll need is a slip lead, tug toys, a couple of tennis balls, and lots of treats. Consider purchasing your very own slip lead, leather is best - it’s much gentler on the hands than webbing, and it just gets nicer as it ages. A fanny pack is perfect for keeping your treats and toys handy and provides a safe place for keys, phone etc. If you like to train with a clicker, bring that along too.

When choosing treats, consider using “real” foods like steak, turkey, liver, bacon, hot dogs, etc. instead of commercially prepared treats which can be loaded with chemical preservatives, artificial colors and flavors. Many of these “junk foods” cost as much or more per pound than “real” foods. Cut your treats into tiny pieces about the size of a pencil eraser.

If you prefer to purchase ready-made treats there are some healthy options available at pet stores. Look for Zuke’s Mini Naturals, Cloud Star Tricky Trainers or Charlie Bears - just to name a few. Make a “doggy trail mix” of a few different things then throw in a handful of kibble - it will soak up all the other good smells and flavors and make your treats go a bit further.

Now you’re set to go! As you walk through the kennel area, give a treat to every dog that is quiet and ignore the barkers - they’ll catch on eventually. Feed low so you don’t encourage jumping. If the dog you plan to bring out is a “door charger,” open the kennel door just enough to get your arm and leash inside. Use your foot and knee to brace the door from being pushed open any further. Try to quickly slip the lead over the dog’s head when he is not jumping (four on the floor). Once you have the leash on the dog wait for him to be calm before opening the door to let him out. You may only get a split second of calmness at first, so be ready to reward by opening it at that second. The dog is learning what it takes to get the door to open and will improve each time if you are consistent. With enough repetitions you’ll soon have a dog that will sit and wait to be leashed when the door is opened.

Head towards the play yard (or where ever you’re going) as quickly as possible, try to avoid allowing the dog to engage with any of the dogs in the kennels on the way. Once you have passed the kennels, continue to move forward, but only when the leash is loose. Don’t allow the dog to drag you to the yard. Stop when the lead goes tight - call him back to you with a fun, playful voice - and as he turns around to come toward you the leash will go loose - as soon as it does, start moving forward again. Continue to do this until you get to the yard door where you will again wait for that split second of calmness before you open it.

Once inside the yard turn the dog loose immediately and just let him do his thing. Don’t call him or try to engage him in any way right now, just wait and let him choose to come to you - and when he does, reward with praise and treats. Then let him go off and choose to come back to you again and again, rewarding each time he does. If the dog jumps on you, turn away from him and ignore, wait for “four on the floor” then quickly reward. Ask for a sit or a down here and there, rewarding each with praise and treats. If the dog does not know these behaviors yet, use a piece of food to slowly “lure” him into position, then reward. Continue doing this for a few minutes then invite him to play.

If the dog is not over excitable, a game of tug of war can help burn excess energy as well as teach “give and take.” Encourage the dog to take hold of the tug toy while you continue to hold it. Let him tug for about 10 or 15 seconds then put a treat to his nose as you say “give.” Most dogs will release the tug toy to take the treat. Now encourage him to “Take it” and start the game again.

Fetch can be taught using two balls. Throw one, wait for the dog to retrieve it then show him the other just before you throw it. Most dogs will drop the one they have to go after the second one. Eventually you can encourage the dog to bring the ball closer and closer to you by waiting a bit before you throw the next one.

Initiate a game of chase as long as the dog is not too rowdy. Waggle a toy in front of him then take off running. Let him chase you a bit, then reward him for catching up with you. Do it again, but this time call his name as you run from him.

Many dogs become leash-wise and will play the "catch me if you can game" when they see you pick up your leash.  Who can blame them ...that leash in your hand is a signal that the fun is over and it's back to the kennel. You can avoid that problem if you simply carry your leash with you and feed a few treats through it here and there. Now when it’s time to go back to the kennels, leashing him up will be a breeze.

Remember to keep a loose leash as you head back to the kennel. Go into the kennel with the dog and shut the door. Remove his leash and take a minute or two to give him some friendly one on one attention. This is also a good time to look him over for lumps bumps, etc. and gently touch his paws, ears, tail etc. to help him get accustomed to being handled.

When you are ready to leave, toss a handful of treats to the opposite end of the kennel and exit while the dog is distracted.
Using simple exercises like these with consistency, a dog can easily learn 10 to 15 good behaviors that will help turn him into a super star that anyone would be proud to have as a member of their family.


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