Basic Training Plan for Shelter Dogs

Below are simple, fun ways you can boost shelter dogs’ adoptability and get them ready for a home! Always be looking for rewardable behaviors and catch the dog doing something good. The more we reinforce the behaviors we want, the more likely the dog is to repeat them.

Kennel Protocols

Promote calm, healthy behavior in the kennel by following these simple plans:

  • I Love My Kennel protocol.
  • Kennel Routine: Teaching the dog a good “kennel routine” creates a dog who shows well to potential adopters and is a joy to take in and out.

Teach key skills

Focus on loose leash walking everywhere. It is key to adoptability and focus on the handler. We specifically recommend “Be A Tree” for a dog who has focus issues.

Each dog should know these 5 Basic Cues. In addition to staples like Sit or Down, these 5 basic cues are invaluable ways for adopters to communicate with their new dog right off the bat:

Marker cue: For a dog to learn what we want from him, he needs to know the exact moment he’s done it right. The instant the dog does what you lured or asked him to do, say “Yes!” to mark that he got it right, and then give him a treat.

Or take it up a notch:

  • Find It and/or Catch: Show your dog you have a treat, toss it a few feet from you in any direction and say “Find It.” As your dog moves toward his reward, mark his movement with a click or “Yes.” If he doesn’t see where it goes, help him find it! The purpose of Find It is to help a dog focus on the handler. It is a simple game with only one rule, so the dog doesn’t have to think about anything. It may help him settle in stressful situations, helps dogs who have trouble with Loose Leash Walking settle into a walk, and can help you work with a mouthy dog or a dog who takes treats too roughly.
  • Down
  • A cute trick like shake or roll over
  • Wait at the door

Release cue: It is just as important to teach a dog when he can stop doing something as when he should start. “Free” is our release word that tells our dog when to move on to the next task.

Calming Activities

Gate Games: From outside the kennel, reward sits, downs, and eye contact by providing treats and verbal praise each time the dog executes the task. If dogs in the nearby kennels fall quiet and begin to work for the treats, include them in the game! As the dog(s) master these basic games, increase the duration of the behaviors and the distance from which you can ask for them.

Downtime: Studies show that shelter dogs get less than half the amount of sleep they need. Help dogs relax in their kennel space or on field trips using TTouch, massage, gentle petting, softly talking or reading aloud, playing soothing music, misting a scent into the kennel, or even doing some simple stretching. Focus on relaxing yourself and inviting the dog to join you.


All the Toys: In addition to interactive feeding toys (Kongs, Kong Wobblers, Buster Cubes, Atomic Treat Balls, PVC Pipe Toys, etc.) dogs should have a variety of playthings in their kennels: at least one comfort item to carry around (the stuffed toys, durable for heavy chewers) and at least one toy to chew (ie. Nylabones for more orally focused dogs). Rotate toys frequently to offer variety & keep dogs interested in them.

Fun in the Shelter: You can have lots of fun outings right here in the shelter! Take a stroll through The Thinking Walk out front, play fetch or work on recall in the playpens, make use of the agility equipment throughout the shelter, hide treats in cardboard boxes and do some simple nose work, borrow an interactive puzzle toy or play some training games & build adoption skills!

Field Trips: Field trips are awesome!!!! They give you fantastic bang for your buck by naturally setting up varied training scenarios and socialization opportunities while giving the dog a break from the shelter and making them visible to a whole new set of potential adopters. Do be aware of the dog’s individual needs and make sure the field trip will be a positive and safe learning experience.

Further Reading for Volunteers & Staff: