Training

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One of the most important things you can do for your foster dog is give her a strong, positive foundation in manners and basic obedience commands.

It is likely that you will not have the foster dog long enough to teach much beyond the basics, and maybe not even that much. In my experience, it takes about four to six weeks to instill what I call the Obedience 101 curriculum: Sit, Down, Stay, Come, loose-leash walking (sometimes in a more-or-less formal Heel, sometimes not, depending on your foster dog's natural tendencies), one or two cute tricks, and general good manners. Correcting specific issues, such as barking at the door or jumping/mouthing in over-exuberant greeting, may take a little longer. Since your foster pup may be adopted within days of coming to your home, there is a very good chance that you won't get through the entire list before it's time to say goodbye.

Nevertheless, I think it's critical to make the effort and get as far as you can in the time that you have. Good manners and basic training are literally lifesavers for rescue dogs. Here are a few reasons why:

  • A well-behaved rescue dog is a walking advertisement to adopt, not shop. While many people have gotten the message that shelters are a great place to find loving companion animals, many others still labor under the misimpression that there must be something "wrong" with such pets to explain why they were dumped. A polite, well-trained puppy is a walking refutation to that idea. The better we can present our foster pups in public, the more likely people are to adopt them -- either the foster pup you're trying to place today, or some other homeless pet a few years down the line. Furthermore, you want your adopters to brag to all their friends and family about how smart their new dog is, so they'll adopt too!
Pepper, pulled from Liberty County AC by Carpathia Paws. Adopted by a lovely older couple in September 2011
  • A polite dog is easier to place. I don't just mean that more prospective adopters will want a well-behaved dog, although that is certainly true. What I mean is that a polite dog can live with a broader range of people. A large, exuberant puppy who likes to jump on people in greeting is not a good candidate for placement with frail, elderly owners or young children who could be knocked over and hurt. But if that same puppy doesn't jump, and has learned to sit politely for attention instead, he might be able to live in those homes. Suddenly he has more options than he did before.
  • A trained dog is more likely to keep her new home. Many of these dogs have already lost one or more homes because their people couldn't be bothered to teach them anything. And while most people who adopt dogs do so with the best of intentions, they may not be prepared for the real-world work of training, especially if their lives are already crowded with other commitments. Between work, family, and everyday life, even the best-meaning adopter may find it overwhelming to train a puppy or adolescent from scratch. No one wants the dog to be returned, but it can happen. And every time a dog gets bounced back into rescue, she becomes harder to place. People are wary of dogs who have been returned multiple times; the dogs are prone to developing separation anxiety and behavioral problems as a result of that instability. Giving your foster dog a strong foundation in the basics reduces the odds that she'll be returned.
  • Training your foster dog with positive techniques encourages the adopters to continue with those methods. We live in a time of great flux in the dog-training world. Positive, scientifically sound training techniques are rapidly gaining ground, but there are still many people who adhere to old-school methods that punish a dog for "wrong" answers without teaching him how to find right answers. Not only are these methods inhumane and less effective, but they are particularly hard on rescue dogs, many of whom have already experienced plenty of mistreatment in their lives. If you can show that your foster dog enjoys and responds quickly to positive training techniques, and that these methods are much more fun and efficient than punishment-based ones, the adopters are more likely to use positive reinforcement in their own training.
  • Positive training builds the dog's confidence. It's as true for dogs as it is for people: you become more sure of yourself when you know that you're good at something. Developing new skills, and earning lots of praise and rewards for using those skills, really does seem to boost a dog's self-esteem. Many foster dogs, having been dumped by their old families without understanding why, really need that confidence kick. Don't underestimate the power of positive training to give it to them.
  • Learning new things makes the dog smarter. New research continually confirms that lifelong learning preserves neural pathways in the brain and stimulates new ones to form. In other words, training your dog literally makes her smarter.
  • Positive training helps you bond with your foster pup. Good training is about communication and mutual respect. That is really all it is. Most dogs are happy to do what their people want, if only they can figure out what that is, and are thrilled to meet someone who can convey this information to them in a way that they understand. Your job is to communicate as clearly as you can. Understand the dog's confusion and respect her limitations, when either of those things arise, and help her work past them at her own pace. This exchange of positive communication and mutual respect forms the basis for the human-canine bond. It helps you bond quickly with your foster pup, and it will help your foster pup bond with her forever family, too.