Adopting a dog from a shelter is an act of kindness that's extra special because it's rewarding for both you and your pet.
I don't think I can't overstate how happy I feel every time I looking at my dog knowing that I saved her from a rough life that she'll never have to go back to. And in return, she showers me with more affection than I know what to do with. Everybody wins.
But rescuing a shelter dog isn't all sunshine and rainbows. These dogs, for all their many wonderful qualities, tend to have a lot of past traumas that frequently lead to one or more tough-to-correct behavioral problems.
This guide looks at 8 common behavioral problems among shelter dogs:
- Aggression toward people & pets
- Resource guarding
- Destructive behavior
- Housetraining regression
- Poor social skills
- Leash reactivity & barrier-related aggression
- Constant whining
While this article provides possible tips to help correct each behavior, there's more to say on each issue than can fit in a single guide.
The good news?
Your dog isn't broken!
With enough love, patience, and proper training, you can correct your shelter dog's behavioral issues, freeing both you and your dog to live happy, fulfilling loves.
Above all, I encourage you to work with your vet to discuss the best ways to help your dog learn new, positive behaviors.
Anxiety, especially separation anxiety, is one of the most common behavioral issues with shelter dogs. There are many reasons a dog can develop anxiety, but they all stem from the same root causes:
- Lack of structure
- Lack of stability
- Lack of comfort
While you can't always know what a dog's history was pre-shelter, you probably can imagine what it was like for your dog while they were at the shelter.
Cold concrete and chain link confines. Loud sounds, weird smells, different people and dogs coming and going. Thick walls isolate them from all of the commotion so they can never fully see what's happening. Strangers come up to their enclosure, eliciting forceful tail wagging and joyful yips, only to walk away to the next dog on their list.
It's a traumatic experience.
When you finally take your rescue dog home, how do they know they can trust you? And how eerie the deafening silence of your cavernous home must be after who knows how many sleepless nights in a tiny cage being woken up by the shelter's louder and less friendly inmates.
Given full freedom to roam in their new home, many shelter dogs take to following their owners everywhere they go. And if you ever leave them alone, the panic they feel is absolutely heart-wrenching to watch unfold.
We set up a baby camera after we adopted Olive. Every time we left the house, Olive had a full-on freak-out.
- Running from window to window to find us
- When the running subsided, constant pacing for over an hour
- And howling the likes of which I hope to never hear again
Having a dog with anxiety, especially separation anxiety, can feel like having a massive anchor tied to you at all times. "Which one of us is going to stay home?" is a question my wife and I asked countless times.
While not all shelter dogs suffer from this type of anxiety, a lot of them do. And truthfully, it's going to take a few lifestyle changes to accommodate the emotionally scarred animal you welcomed into your life.
The good news is there are things you can do to help a dog with anxiety.
Tire them out
A tired dog is a happy dog. Anxiety often is exacerbated by excess energy, so give your dog plenty of exercise and mental stimulation, especially if you know you need to leave for an extended period of time.
You don't run a marathon without training for it.
(Unless you're me and you're an idiot. A story for another day.)
Similarly, you can't just leave your dog alone for 8 hours every day and expect them to get used to it. Practice by walking out the door for 1 second and returning before your dog has time to panic. Praise them for being a good boy or girl! Gradually increase the separation time over the course of the next few days and weeks.
But don't rush progress!
Seriously. Do not try to push things too fast. One bad experience is enough to cost you weeks of work, so go slowly. Only when you're pretty darn sure that your dog is ready to wait a little longer should you even consider doing so.
It might take two whole weeks to work up to one minute apart. Don't quit, have faith, and give it time.
Olive used to go absolutely bonkers for a full hour every time we left the house. After just three months we could be gone for a full 6-8 hours and she'd be totally fine. Your mileage may vary, but it's very possible to desensitize your dog to separation if you put in the work.
Crate training is another great way to teach your dog to be OK on their own. By helping them feel comfortable in their own cozy den while you're out of reach, you're helping them build the skills to successfully manage your time apart.
Give them distractions
Olive loves a well-stuffed Kong, so we started giving her one every time we left the house. She'd do her usual pace and panic routine, but after about 5 minutes she'd be curious enough to check out her delicious toy and go to town on it for the next 10-15 minutes. Generally, that was enough to keep her calm until we got home.
This sounds hippy-dippy but I swear it works. Open up Spotify (or your music app of choice) and search for "calming music for dogs." You'll probably find several playlists with classical and piano music (plus some nature sounds) that actually helped our stressed-out pup relax.
Calming vest, jackets, and creams
Almost every pet store has a section for anxious dogs with all kinds of vests, jackets, creams, and oral treatments meant to help dogs calm down. The jackets supposedly work by making your dog feel like it's being hugged. Do they work? Some people say yes, some people say no.
I've never purchased an anxiety vest, but I was desperate enough to spend $10 on a topical ointment from Sentry for Olive's nose. Honestly, while it didn't do anything drastic for Olive's anxiety induced by outside sounds, I can't help but think it did take the edge off a little. But maybe it's just the placebo effect? You be the judge.
I have no qualms with medicating a dog that needs it. Olive's anxiety and leash reactivity (more on this below) were so bad that we couldn't go anywhere without her freaking out at something. And once she had one freakout, many more were sure to follow.
Our vet prescribed Olive trazodone in 100 mg tablets. Trazodone is a serotonin antagonist and reuptake inhibitor (SARI) that prevents the reuptake of serotonin in the brain and helps dogs (and people) who suffer from anxiety and depression. The full 100 mg tablet was too much for Olive, but 50 mg with breakfast helps calm her down enough on our walks so we can practice desensitization and good behaviors. The hope is that Olive remains calm enough for some of her training to stick so that one day she can be a happy, well-adjusted dog without the medication.
2. Aggression Toward People & Pets
There are many different types of aggression, from territorial aggression to fear aggression to social aggression. The ASPCA website has a great breakdown of all of them.
For shelter dogs, it often comes from a place of fear and anxiety because, as discussed above, shelters breed both. Aggression in dogs can take multiple forms, but usually it's to people and/or other pets.
Speaking frankly, this is one place where you really need to look for a shelter dog that fits your family and your lifestyle. If you have other playful dogs or children in your home, it's probably best you don't bring an aggressive dog into the mix.
When my wife and I were looking for our last shelter dog, we had our hearts set on a sweet dog named Van Gogh at Austin Pets Alive. However, after meeting with their adoption specialists, we learned that Van Gogh had some minor aggression issues. Because we have a young nephew in the family and would like to start a family ourselves, we opted to pass on Van Gogh (who, I am happy to say, found a new home not long after we adopted Olive!).
Dealing with aggression can be both challenging and frustrating. In many instances, you can't cure the dog of its aggression, you can only manage its exposure to things that set it off. Because aggression is so difficult to deal with, and the aggressive dog a legitimate danger to others, it's best you consult your vet or a behaviorist to discuss root causes and proper treatment.
3. Resource Guarding
If you've ever seen a dog snarling up from its food bowl as you get too close, you've seen resource guarding in action.
Generally, resource guarding arises when dogs fear they'll lose something valuable to them. In many instances, it's a response to past traumas the dog has suffered. Because shelter dogs often have histories of being mistreated, it's no surprise resource guarding is so common among them.
Like with many problematic behaviors, you have two choices when it comes to dealing with resource guarding:
- Correct it
- Manage it
Managing your dog's resource guarding usually is the easier option, but that doesn't mean it's always the wrong one. Resource guarding is an important survival trait your dog inherited from its ancestors as it fought for the things it needed to survive and reproduce. If you live in a home with no children and few other pets, management may be a fine course of action. Perhaps feeding your dogs separately and exchanging treats for items they're holding in their mouths is enough to keep everyone happy.
If you're looking to modify your dog's resource guarding behavior, you can follow the same basic desensitization process discussed above with separation anxiety. Whole Dog Journal has a great method for helping dogs with resource guarding issues, which I'll summarize below:
- Tether your dog to a fixed point on a wall or pole with their food bowl or high-value toys within reach.
- Walk by your dog, about 6-8 feet from the end of the leash/rope, with high-value treats in hand like meat or cheese. Stay far enough away that they aren't lunging or snarling.
- Toss treats to your dog as you walk past making sure he can easily reach them.
- Repeat step 3 until your dog starts to look happy when you approach.
- Move a little closer and toss more treats with each pass until they begin to look happy again.
- Keep moving closer until you're within arms reach. When he's happy at that distance, try to slowly feed him from your hand.
- When he allows you to feed him, begin to linger a little longer each time, starting at just 1-2 seconds and working your way up to 10 seconds.
- When you can pause for 10 seconds, begin dropping treats into his bowl or near his toy.
- If he's still fine, increase how much you bend down.
- Only when your dog seems tension free should you advance to this next step: Try trading your treat for his item.
- Congrats! You did it. Now, start from the beginning with a different member of the family.
Like aggression above, you should be very wary of adopting dogs with a history of resource guarding if you live in a home with kids.
4. Destructive Behavior
A certain degree of chewing is natural in dogs. It keeps their jaws strong and teeth clean! But when it elevates to the level of, say, eating a couch, then there's a problem.
Destructive chewing has many causes, but there are some common ones:
- Lack of exercise
- Lack of mental stimulation
Unlike resource guarding, destructive chewing isn't something you should have to live with. Usually, it's just a matter of figuring out why your dog is being destructive and solving that issue.
But while you're helping your dog through their anxiety, stress, or boredom, there are some things to keep in mind that you should never do:
- Yell or hit them in response to their chewing
- Muzzle them
- Crate them for extended periods
Dogs are terrible at connecting your punishments to their actions even minutes after the bad behavior happened.
And even if you're able to act quickly enough for your dog to connect the punishment with the action, they're also horrible at generalizing. They probably won't get that you're mad about their chewing in general. They'll probably figure you're just mad they chewed that one thing.
5. Housetraining Regression
We all figure that, when we adopt an adult dog, they'll already be housetrained. It makes sense, and usually the dog you adopt was housetrained at some point. But many shelter dogs experience housetraining regression whereby they "forget" they're only supposed to eliminate outside.
But thinking about both dog psychology and their shelter environment explains why many adopted dogs struggle to remain housetrained:
- Because dogs are terrible at generalizing, they may not understand that "indoors" is off limits, just that their last home was off limits.
- When locked up in their kennels at the shelter, they probably were forced to eliminate inside their enclosure.
- Your new home has a ton of new smells, especially if you have other pets, and it's part of your dog's nature to mark their territory.
Thankfully, re-housetraining your dog is one of the easiest behavioral problems to correct on this list. Here are some easy tips to help:
- Establish a set feeding schedule.
- Establish a set routine and take them outside at the same time every day.
- Establish a bathroom spot and go directly there every time you go outside.
- Praise them every time they eliminate outside.
- Try to associate a word or phrase like "potty" every time they eliminate so that you can use it in the future to encourage them.
While you're re-housetraining your dog, it's also important to observe proper crating procedures. Don't give your dog a crate that's longer than their total length (plus a couple of inches) to discourage them from eliminating in their crate while you're gone.
6. Poor Social Skills
Many shelter dogs don't know how to interact with other dogs, especially upon first meeting. Usually, there are two reasons:
- Limited exposure
- Lack of positive experiences
I don't know which is Olive's problem, but she absolutely doesn't know how to say hello to other dogs. Whenever she sees a dog, she tries to run straight over to its face at full speed to see what's going on.
Other dogs, as you probably guessed, hate this. Invariably, it results in nasty snarls from the other dog, which scares Olive and causes her to bark. Before I know it, I'm trying to pull 50 pounds of adrenaline-soaked muscle away from a fight.
Sadly, there's a critical social window that closes around the time a dog is 6 months old after which it's very hard for them to unlearn these social instincts.
Olive may always be a social idiot. While we'll continue to expose her to other dogs in safe environments (our friends and family with dogs have committed to helping), the truth is that Olive may never get much better.
But like almost everything else on this list, it's about desensitization and repeated good experiences. If your dog struggles with poor social skills, don't put them in positions where they're set up for failure. Work within their comfort zones at a slow pace and play the long game.
It's also important to remember that dogs interact differently on and off leash. We know Olive is a playful pup and means no ill will, so off leash experiences with calm dogs are crucial to her development.
Speaking of on and off leash behavior, that leads us to our next common behavioral problem.
7. Leash Reactivity & Barrier-Related Aggression
This has been our most troublesome problem with Olive. She's an otherwise lovable (albeit high-energy) dog that wants nothing more than to play constantly.
Off leash she bounds with endless energy and plays with every person and dog she meets.
On leash? It's something out of Hulk as Olive instantly transforms from a smiling, tongue-flopping baby to a terrifying, rabid-looking monster determined to devour every person and pooch unfortunate enough to cross our path.
We've been working with the adoption center where we got Olive to help fix her issues. Like many of the issues above, correcting leash reactivity isn't a quick fix.
The key to fixing leash reactivity and barrier-related aggression is understanding that your dog isn't reacting out of anger, but rather fear. Your dog feels trapped by its leash and can't move away from potential danger (such as another dog in the distance). Because it can't flee, the other half of its natural fight-or-flight instinct kicks in and your dog hulks out.
Correcting leash reactivity begins by finding the literal edge of your dog's comfort zone. How far away from a bark-inducing stimulus can your dog be without freaking out? For Olive, that distance is 200-300 yards.
(Seriously, she can spot a dog through the trees and across a pond and still lose her mind.)
Whatever that distance is for your dog, start there. When they see their stimulus and don't freak out, reward them with a high-value treat like boiled chicken, hot dogs, or deli meats. Over time, move them closer and closer to their triggers, constantly rewarding each improvement.
Fixing leash reactivity and barrier-related aggression is more nuanced and time-consuming than I can explain in just one part of an eight-part post of common shelter dog behavioral issues, but that's the gist of what I consider to be the most annoying behavioral problem out there.
Well, except this last one.
8. Constant Whining
Oh. My. God.
Olive whines constantly. If she isn't eating, sleeping, or playing, she's whining. Usually, it seems like she's whining for absolutely no reason at all.
Truthfully, there are legitimate reasons dogs whine. They can't talk to us, so it's just one of their many tools to communicate their needs. Some commons reasons dogs whine include the following:
- They need or want something, such as to go outside to use the bathroom.
- They're scared or stressed.
- They're in pain (though this is more of a whimper).
- They know they screwed up and are being submissive.
- They're bored and want attention.
In Olive's case it's almost always the last one.
Yes, Olive, I'm aware that both Mom and I work from home. No, that doesn't mean we can play for eight hours every day. Shut up and go do dog things!
But Olive's just an energetic 18-month-old puppy. She has limitless energy and no other friends to play with while we work. Plus, she's way too reactive to run around outside all day with potential triggers around every turn, so we need to find ways to keep her mind active while we're busy.
Every dog is different, but here are some easy ways to help keep your dog entertained.
Durable chew-time toys
Every time I bring home a new "most indestructible toy ever," Olive takes it as a personal challenge. That said, there are some toys that have managed to keep her busy for more than a few hours before getting ripped to shreds.
Most dogs I know will lick every molecule of peanut butter out of a Kong in under 3 minutes. If your dog is like this, try stuffing the Kong with a kibble and peanut butter mixture and freezing it. This takes far longer for your dog to finish and is especially good on hot days.
Other frozen treats
You can freeze more than just stuffed Kongs. Some people will tell you to freeze a bowl of water with treats in it. Your dog can drink the water as it melts and may be intrigued enough by the treats inside to speed the process along with some diligent (and time-consuming) licking.
Other puzzle toys
Kong isn't the only brand of puzzle toy. Olive has this hamster ball-looking thing that has a network of plates with holes inside it. You put some treats inside, put it in front of your dog, and stand back as they whack the plastic ball with full force against your furniture, walls, and cabinets. It's a small price to pay for a few minutes of whine-free existence.
Hide treats around the house
Play a fun game with your dog by hiding treats around the house for them to find. Start by using treats with extra strong smells and hiding them in relatively easy locations. Encourage your dog to find them and praise them when they do. Over time, mix up the locations, ramp up the difficulty, and set your dog free on a scavenger hunt that would make 11-year-old you jealous.
And it doesn't even have to be treats! Those "indestructible" toys that Olive destroys? We save their squeakers to keep Olive occupied.
My wife and I will stand or sit on different sides of the room, each of us with a salvaged squeaker in hand. We'll take turns squeaking one behind our backs, under Olive's belly, in our pockets, or anywhere Olive can't see. When she zeroes in on one of us, the other takes up the squeaking. After about 5 minutes, we don't even need to keep squeaking anymore for Olive to keep hunting down the source of the squeak. This game usually buys us about 20-30 minutes of whine-free time.
YouTube for dogs
It's hilarious watching dogs do human things. One of our favorites is when Olive snuggles up on the couch with us as we watch Netflix's Dead To Me only to turn her head to the screen every time Christina Applegate swears at someone (which is basically the whole show).
The Internet, being the incredible place that it is, has a variety of YouTube channels designed to keep dogs occupied. If your dog likes squirrels, well, buckle up, Sparky. Here's 8 hours of squirrels and birds uninterrupted!
Open a window
But maybe your dog isn't a TV watcher. That's fine (and, if they were human, a good thing). As a last resort, you can always open up a window to give them a taste (and smell) of what's happening outside.
Or, you know, you could always adopt another dog to keep your bored dog company!
(Just don't get two puppies at once. Littermate Syndrome is a real thing.)
Living with any of these common behavioral issues can be challenging, but it's what you sign up for when you adopt a shelter dog. Is it worth it? In our opinion, absolutely. Just remember to consider your lifestyle and living situation before adopting a dog that displays any of these issues. Not every shelter dog is right for you and your family, but somewhere out there is a dog that needs a home just like yours.