• Shannon Maguire

How To Train a Rescue Dog With Trauma

Dogs are sensitive creatures. It's what we love so much about them. Their unique ability to sense and exhibit true emotions and empathy. It also makes them vulnerable. When a dog's past has damaged that emotional vulnerability, it can sometimes be a long journey back to health and happiness.

If you'd like to read more about how to break down some of your new rescue's barriers, check out my post on 5 Essentials to Bonding With Your New Rescue Dog.

However, there's more to being a dog parent than just cuddles and TLC. Canines thrive in a pack with a leader they trust and respect.

How do you define those roles with a dog whose trauma has taught them to fear any sort of discipline?

(photo: Shannon Maguire)

Potty Training

Consistency is Key:

Dogs find comfort in the dependability of a routine. Set a routine of when you'll walk, feed and train your dog. They will respect this consistency and recognize you as the enforcer. Do your best not to break it! Your dog will slowly begin to trust and enjoy their new routine. It is imperative to potty training your pup. Take them out at the same time everyday. Reward them with treats and "good boys/girls" when they go outside. They like the walks and the treats they get when they go potty outside. This motivates them to do it more.

Catch Them in the Act:

Never scold your dog for an accident in the house that you discovered after the fact. Your dog has already forgotten they pooped on mom's new carpet. Yelling and pointing at the mess will not make them understand why you're suddenly angry. They are cowering out of fear, which we sometimes misread as guilt. You don't want a dog with trauma to fear you. The only way to discipline a dog who's going inside is to catch them in the act. Even then, don't yell. Here's what you do the next time Buddy lifts his leg on your sofa:

  • Clap your hands loudly to startle and stop them

  • Say "no" in a firm but level voice

  • Immediately take your dog outside to potty

  • Reward them for finishing their business in the grass

  • Use a cleaner designed to remove the dog's sent to avoid marking- I use Nature's Miracle Stain and Odor Remover for Boots and Bear accidents and it works wonders!

Naughty Behaviors

Keep Calm and Carry On:

Echoing our rules for potty training, never ever yell at your rescue. Buddy tore up the couch while you were gone? Fido won't stop barking? These are "naughty" behaviors that usually have an underlying cause. I promise you, raising your voice and losing your cool will not get the result you're looking for out of your pup. It doesn't take much to send some rescues into shivering panic. For many rescues, their past has taught them your anger is followed by physical violence. Sickening to think about, but you must understand and empathize with your dog. Although you know you would never harm your pet intentionally, they do not. At least not at first. So the next time you're staring at feathers flying in the air from your ripped duvet, step back. Take a deep breath. Scold your dog in a very firm but calm manner. They will respect you more for it.

Plenty of Exercise:

A well exercised dog is a happy dog. While energy levels for dogs can very (I was lucky that both my pups are pretty low maintenance in this department), it's proven that a tuckered out doggo is much less likely to have excess energy to expel towards naughty behaviors. It's good for you, it's great for your dog and so many behavioral problems can be cured with increased exercise. So why not give it a try?

Bear having a run on the beach! (photo: Shannon Maguire)

Positive Reinforcement

Trick or Treat:

Ah, the dog training buzzword: positive reinforcement. However, there's a reason this method is so popular - it really works! I would 100% recommend only using positive reinforcement when working with a rescue. Remember that routine I mentioned earlier? Make sure a training session is on that schedule. Every day for no more than 15 minutes at a time sit down with your dog for some stimulating and positive training. Have small training treats on hand as a reward when your dog has completed their task. Believe me, your pup will work to please you for those treats. You can find my favorite training treats here!

Who's a Good Boy:

Every dog is different. Where some are very food motivated, others might be more affection motivated. Get to know your dog. Are they more excited for a wrestle, a cuddle, or just attention from you in general? Or do they really go wild for those tasty chicken yummies? Perhaps it's a combination of both. Figuring out what motivates your dog is essential to positive reinforcement training and will increase your success rate with your pup.


Be consistent, have a routine, remain calm, exercise, and reinforce with positive attention and treats! All these tips will lead to a healthy and happy experience training your dog, who may be extra sensitive to criticism. They will strengthen your bond and build a trusting and loving relationship with a well behaved doggo. Happy training friends!


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