5 Common Shelter Dog Behavior Problems

No pet is perfect, especially a dog who’s been in the shelter for a few months. Try these solutions to remedy 5 common shelter dog behavior problems.

If you show your new dog too much affection too quickly, you could stress him out after his shelter experiences. Instead, let him come to you when he’s ready. By: Austin Kerr

When you adopt a dog from an animal shelter, you’re doing a great thing, but you’re also taking a bit of a risk, especially if the dog hasn’t been in the shelter long enough for the staff and volunteers to assess him. You won’t know what kind of behavior is normal for the dog, nor will you know what you’re getting until you’ve had your pet for at least a few days.

Not all dogs are perfect, especially shelter dogs who have been turned in by their families for a variety of relatively minor behavioral problems, almost all of which can be fixed with proper training and care. Of course, some dogs were perfectly fine before their incarcerations but acquired bad behaviors while in the shelter.

Regardless, you can expect that a shelter dog will have a few foibles. After all, he’s been through hell.

Fortunately, most of these common shelter dog problems are simple to clear up.

Anxiety and Fearfulness

You would think that your pup would be so happy to be out of the shelter that he’d be dancing around the room, so why is he cowering under a chair?

He’s scared. His world has been turned upside down because of his shelter experience — and whatever may have come before it — and he doesn’t know if his new home is good or bad. He’s stressed out, and he needs a place of safety.

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Although it’s possible this dog anxiety won’t clear up without medication, in most cases time and patience are the cures. Don’t force your pet to come to you. Set up a crate covered with a blanket and leave it in the area in which the dog is hiding. He may crawl inside, where it’s safe.

Ignore him for a while. I know you’re probably itching to cuddle with your new pooch, but if you move too quickly, you could stress him out more. Instead, let him come to you, even if it takes a couple of days.

Food Aggression

In the shelter, your new pet may have had to fight to get a bite to eat. In his new home, he may not understand that his food is his own and you won’t let anyone else have it. In this case, he may react with snarling, barking, lunging and even biting when you or another dog gets too close to him during mealtime.

This is easy to solve. Feed your dog in a crate or bathroom, and don’t disturb him until he’s done. In time, he’ll come to realize that he has no need to guard his food.

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Resource Guarding

Like food aggression, resource guarding — a dog acting protective about “his” things, including food, toys and people — is common for dogs who have had to share everything in the shelter, sometimes having nothing of their own until they get out, including the love of a good person.

When your dog gets home, he may try to guard you from another dog, family member or guest. You belong to him now, and he’s not going to let anyone near you or sometimes a favorite toy.

This behavioral issue is also relatively easy to fix. Whenever your dog shows signs of resource guarding, remove his access to the resource. This includes food, toys, beds, blanket and people. For example, if your new dog is cuddled on your lap but then turns into a raptor when your spouse approaches, place the dog on the floor.

Feed your new dog in a separate area (like a bathroom) until he sees there’s no reason to protect his food by snarling and snapping. By: mackarus

Once your pup realizes that acting like a jerk isn’t going to get him anywhere, he should stop. If not, consider consulting a dog trainer.


When your new dog gets home, he’ll want to sniff every corner of your home and yard. There’s a good chance he’ll also mark everywhere, especially if he smells another canine around. Don’t confuse this behavior with being not housetrained. Dogs with perfect potty manners can still mark.

Eliminate this behavior by squirting the dog in the face with water when you catch him marking. It won’t hurt him, but he sure won’t like it. He’ll stop in the act and probably sprint away. When this happens enough times, he’ll hopefully catch on that he should knock it off.

Be sure to use Nature’s Miracle or some other enzymatic cleaner made for cleaning up pet stains. When you remove the scent, your dog won’t need to mark over it.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety (SA) in dogs is a behavioral condition in which the dog is so traumatized by being left alone that he barks, eliminates inappropriately or destroys the house when left alone. Unfortunately, SA is a pain to fix, and you may need to ask a veterinarian, trainer or behaviorist for help.

Mild cases of canine anxiety are usually resolved with a regular schedule and crate training. When a dog knows he has a safe place to go until you come back, he’s less likely to act out. Once he truly trusts and believes you’re coming back, he should calm down and be more comfortable spending time alone.

This mercifully short video shows some young pups who cannot stand the thought of their family leaving:

The important thing to remember about SA is that it isn’t automatically cured by adopting another dog to keep your anxious pup company. Dogs with SA want to be with you, not another dog. You’re better off extinguishing the SA before you adopt a second dog.

For severe cases, consult a professional about your pet behavior problems, and follow every bit of advice he or she gives you. Try not to get too frustrated — your pup may not have had this fear of abandonment even before his animal shelter stay.

I don’t want to put you off the idea of adopting from a shelter. Just be patient and focus on what’s important: sharing your life with a wonderful companion.

Tamar Love Grande

View posts by Tamar Love Grande
Tamar Love Grande, former associate editor, is a Crazy Dog Person who has fostered and found homes for more than 200 dachshunds in the past few years. Tamar lives in Los Angeles with her husband, her cat and far too many wiener dogs.

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