5 common shelter dog behavior problems

5 Common Shelter Dog Behavior Problems

Abandoning animals is one of the worst things that anyone can do. Yet, there are countless animals, especially dogs, that get separated from their owners either by accident or due to a deliberate action by the owner. There are even cases of owners abusing their dogs and later leaving them behind to fend for themselves.

These dogs are saved by rescue organizations world over, and they do their best to provide shelter, food and care for these abused and abandoned dogs. Once the dogs have recovered mentally and physically, they are given away for adoption.

shelter dogs behavior

If you have adopted a dog from a shelter or planning to adopt one, it’s important you understand their background. They do not come from happy families and have gone through abuse and neglect. Though they may have recovered physically, many of these mental wounds continue to remain and could even shape the way they think including their very personality.

In this sense, you’re taking a little bit of a risk when you adopt from shelters. It is best you understand the dog’s background, possible behavior problems and the best way to handle them, so you can give it the best care possible.

Here are the five most common behavioral problems you can find in dogs from sheltered homes.


Some pets have gone through a great deal of stress and anxiety in their previous owner’s place. There have been instances of pets getting neglected or even abused so much, that it makes you wonder why those owners even decided to have a pet in the first place.

Unfortunately, these negative experiences remain with the dog forever.  They can get anxious when they hear new voices, see new people or a new environment or object. They are scared because they have been tuned to fight for their survival, so this makes them suspicious of anything new. They are always in high-alert and in a suspicious and stressed out mode.

The moment they see something new, they react either by running away or by getting ferocious. In fact, all pets will exhibit some degree of anxiety when you bring them home from the shelter. After all, everything is new and they don’t know they are in safe hands, considering their past experiences. So, this is a natural reaction.

What Can You Do?

  • Understand what they’re going through

The first step is to understand what they’re going through and empathize with them. Never react strongly. Just remain calm, and they will eventually get over their fears and will start trusting you.

  • Give them space and time

As soon as you bring them home, give them a small space with a cozy bed and food to eat. Let them spend some time there and get comfortable with the sounds and voices in your home. Once they are sure of their safety, they will start exploring the rest of your home. Until they are ready, don’t force them.

  • Be kind

One of the things that these dogs are not used to is kindness. So, be kind and give them a word of praise. They can understand your tone and emotions and will eventually start trusting you.

With patience and kindness, you can transform these dogs and make them truly happy again.

Aggression Towards Other Pets

Another common behavioral problem you’ll see is aggression, especially with other pets that are already living in your home.

Again, this is a common behavior and stems from the fear and insecurity that these dogs have, considering their life with the previous owner.

Sometimes, your pet that has lived with you all its life can also show aggression to the new entrant, again out of fear and insecurity. In a way, it is protecting its territory from the newcomer, and this is a natural trait in all animals.

What Can You Do?

  • Introduce your pets in a neutral area

The best way is to introduce your pet dog to the newcomer in a neutral area. This way, your pet doesn’t find the need to protect its territory. Ideally, both the dogs should be introduced in a place that they have never been to before, so it makes the first interaction stress-free.

If you have cats, keep them within a barrier for a few days until your new pet has settled down and is ready to accept you, other family members and pets. Maintaining this barrier will protect your cats, especially if the new entrant is aggressive.

  • Choose pets that have lived with other animals

Another thing you can do is talk to the rescue organization volunteers and look for a pet that has lived with other animals in its previous owner’s place. This can greatly help to reduce fights between your pets because the dog is already used to living with other animals and knows the equation.

shelter dog attacking another dog

On the other hand, if you do choose to bring a dog that has lived alone, just give it some time and be patient. The friendship between your pets will blossom.

Eliminating Issues

When pets come into your house for the first time, they are unfamiliar with the physical geography of your place. As a result, they may poop anywhere in the house.

You may also like our article on the Best Indoor Dog Potty.

Other reasons for this behavior include:

  • The dog you brought home hasn’t been trained for house breaking
  • Some dogs tend to urinate when they are completely stressed or are feeling overwhelmed. They be scared because of the abuses meted out to them in the past or they may be too excited with their new life. Either way, they can eliminate right where they are.
  • Some male adult dogs would want to mark their territory especially if they feel threatened by the pets living in your home. Again, it is done purely out of instinct and to protect itself.
  • A few dogs go through separation anxiety, especially if they have been close to a volunteer or another dog at the shelter. It will take some time for them to overcome this separation anxiety and eliminating inside your house can be an expression of this anxiety.
  • Above all this, your dog could eliminate because of some health issues. Make sure you thoroughly check the dog with a vet to rule out any physical ailments.

Check out our review of the Best Carpet Cleaner for Pets.

What Can You Do?

The best way to handle this problem of elimination is to be patient and kind to your dog. Remember, it is already emotionally bruised and all that it is looking for is some care and kindness. So, be gentle and train it to house break.

If it’s an adult dog that is familiar with house breaking, there’s nothing much you can do except be patient and allow it to get familiar with its new surroundings. On the other hand, if it is a small puppy or a young dog that is not trained yet, you’ll have to do the training without getting frustrated.

Guarding its Resources

Your new dog probably had to fight for food and space in its shelter home, so it may continue this behavior even after you bring it home. It will be possessive of its food and its things, especially if there are other dogs around.

What Can You Do?

  • Feed alone

Give the new dog food in a dog crate or bowl and don’t disturb it until it finishes eating. Over time, the dog will understand that it doesn’t have to fight for its food anymore and will even start enjoying family meals.

Read here our article on Grain Free Dog Food.

  • Avoid common things

Until your dog feels safe, avoid sharing dog beds or dog bowls with other dogs.  Keep everything separate for your new dog for a few months and once it is familiar, sharing will come naturally.

Take a look at our guide on the most comfortable dog beds.

feeding shelter dog

Destructive Behavior

Many times, dogs are left alone. So, they tend to eat the couch or other household items to curb the boredom. Over time, this leads to destructive behavior.

In some cases, the brain is not fully developed in some dogs and this causes them to bite at anything. This symptom is called rage syndrome and can be particularly dangerous if you have other pets or young children at home.

What Can You Do?

Unfortunately, nothing much. You can bring the dog home and hope it can get over its problems. You can also try some medications from the vet.

In short, bringing a dog from a shelter home is one of the best things you can do, as you’re giving the dog a new leash of life. Sadly, these dogs have gone through a lot and the emotional scars remain with them. So, they tend to be scared, anxious and aggressive – but all as a way of protecting themselves and not with an intent to harm you or any of your other pets. Understand this aspect and be patient till they get used to the new place.

Through it all, give them lots of love as this is what they have been missing. Everything else will fall in place and you’ll soon have a happy and loving pet.


  1. Susan C. Kahler, Unmasking The Shelter Dog, American Veterinary Medical Association
  2. Position Statement on Shelter Dog Behavior Assessments, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Leave a reply

Please enter your name here
Please enter your comment!