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Adopting a pet from a shelter

Most shelter dogs come with some ready-made behavior problems, and those that don't will usually develop a few out of sheer ingenuity. And the stress of adapting to a new living situation and a new family is especially likely to bring out new bad habits or exacerbate old ones.

Don't panic, and don't take it personally; your dog isn't doing anything unusual, incurable, or ungrateful. She's not being “bad” out of spite, so don't correct her in spite; your goal is to stop her improper behavior calmly and authoritatively, not to get revenge. Remember, she may never have had to abide by anyone's rules before, but that doesn't mean she can't learn yours.

We've listed a few of the more common doggie problems here, but a few overriding principles apply to all of them:

1. Don't ask for trouble. If you know your dog likes to chew your socks or dig in your plants, don't leave your socks and plants where she can reach them just yet. If she only causes trouble when she's left unsupervised, don't leave her unsupervised until she's trustworthy.

In other words, give her as few chances as possible to be bad during these early weeks. But don't go overboard and lock her in her crate all day either; that's not fair to her, and besides, she'll never learn if she's never allowed to make mistakes.

2. Be consistent at all costs. Set rules, and stick to them. Correct your dog every time she errs, not just when it's convenient (and not just when you happen to catch her – which means you need to oversee her activities constantly at the beginning).

Hold a family meeting to make sure that everyone in the household is correcting the same problems in the same way; don't let anybody try to play the “good cop” by being soft on your pup's uncouth behaviors. That won't earn anybody points; it will just result in a very confused and unmannered dog.

3. Catch her in the act, or don't catch her at all. Just as in housebreaking, you have to correct a mistake as it's happening, not a minute or an hour later. You can scold your dog if you find her chewing up your favorite book, but not if you find your favorite book chewed up on the floor and no dog in sight. If you wait too long to make the correction, she'll have many happy memories of eating your book and no idea that your anger is in any way related to it. Guess what that means? Yep. Supervision.

Entrapment isn't illegal in dog training. Suppose you're having trouble catching your dog in the act of stealing food from your counters. Why not set her up? Leave some irresistible tidbit where she can see it, and be ready to correct her with your shake can or spray bottle and your sharp voice when she goes for the goods.

Cheating? Maybe – but it works. Don't forget to tell her when she's good. You don't want to be a naysayer all the time; if you've told her she's naughty for pouncing on your house plants, then tell her she's terrific when you see her resisting the urge to do so.

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