Whether you’re the new owner of a shy shelter dog or the well-meaning neighbor of a scared canine next door, you’d probably love to become one of that pup’s new friends.
As more and more people choose to adopt dogs from shelters rather than purchase from breeders, more people are finding themselves sharing their lives with very scared dogs. It’s fantastic that more shelter dogs are getting a chance! However, many people are wholly unprepared for getting a scared dog to trust them.
Unfortunately for new owners, love is not all that these dogs need. Most scared dogs, in fact, will actually open up more quickly if they’re given space. Dogs are not humans, and they often do not find comfort in hugs, nose-to-nose kisses, and baby talk.
So how do you get a scared dog to trust you?
Exercises to Build Trust With Your Dog
Helping to teach the dog in question that they can trust you is important for that dog’s emotional safety as well as for your own physical safety. A dog who’s perpetually scared is not a happy dog!
Potentially worse, the vast majority of dog bites that I’ve personally witnessed were due to a well-meaning person invading the space of a nervous dog.
There’s a pervasive (incorrect) belief that dogs can tell when you mean well – they can’t. Just because you have friendly intentions does not mean the dog will automatically trust you!
Let’s discuss some exercises that will help build trust between you and a dog.
These exercises and tips can all be combined into a single fluid training session- alternatively, thePlate Game, Treat and Retreat, and Pat-Pet-Pause can all also be treated as separate exercises.
1. Slow Down
One of the biggest mistakes that many people make is that they just move too fast. Before you stand up, lift your arms, or make any other potentially alarming movements, try to sigh or otherwise get the dog’s attention subtly.
This will help the dog anticipate your movements and not feel so scared when you do stand up or reach for something in the upper fridge. The goal is to not surprise your dog – make sure they know when you’re about to move or do something.
2. Avert Your Eyes
In many human cultures, it’s polite to meet someone’s eyes. But for most other animals, eye contact (especially if it’s sustained) is a threat.
Staring at the dog, especially head-on, is very scary for the dog. Approach the dog in an arc instead of head-on – if you approach the dog at all.
3. Offer Your Side
Some scared dogs will feel more comfortable approaching you if you kneel with your side or back to the dog, rather than approaching a dog head on.
This indirect approach is more “polite” in dog culture. Approaching head-on, like down a hallway or on a sidewalk, is very threatening and direct.
Of course, don’t turn your back on a potentially dangerous aggressive dog – assess the situation and decide what is best.
We talk more about how to politely greet strange dogs here – don’t be a rude human!
4. Talk Less
Some dogs respond well to baby-talk. But many scared dogs are less receptive to our talkative primate ways.
Feel free to test it out with your scared pup – do some soft baby talking and then watch. If the baby talk seems to perk up her ears, good. If she thumps her trail, great! Keep at it. But if the baby talk doesn’t have a measurable positive impact, cut it out. Odds are that it’s not helping, and it may even be hurting.
Rather than talking, just stay quiet and use your body language to show you’re not a threat. If the dog approaches you, great! If not, that’s ok too.
5. Observe Closely
The number one thing that you can do to help a scared dog trust you is to watch her closely and respond to what you see.
If a certain movement makes her pupils dilate, flares her whiskers, elicits a backwards weight shift, or sparks a calming signal, stop doing it. If you get a little tail wag, softening of the eyes, or forward movement, reward that behavior with something your dog wants (usually food).
Many people make the mistake of attempting to reward bravery in a nervous dog with petting, cuddling, or praise. This is often too much too soon and can actually backfire. Let the dog do the talking and let the dog make the moves. Your job should just be to reward the good behavior that you see.
6. Let the Dog Approach You
Most people are far too quick to approach a scared dog, even if that dog is their own. When I share my home with fearful foster dogs, I try my best to ignore the dog unless I’m playing one of the games outlined below.
If the dog approaches me, I drop a few treats to reward bravery. But I don’t turn to her, praise her, or attempt to pet her.
If the scared dog tries to engage with you, great! Reward that in a way that’s rewarding for her (not for you – again, this probably means giving food rather than giving cuddles). But if she chooses to keep her distance, respect that. If you try to chase her around forcing her to interact with you, you’re not building trust.
7. Play the Plate Game
The game is quite easy: put a dish, plate, or bowl on the ground somewhere between you and the dog.
It’s best to pick a spot near where your dog is already comfortable, such as near her bed. Place the plate far enough from you that your dog will be comfortable standing up and walking towards you to the plate, but not so close to your dog that you approaching the plate will be scary.
Now you simply walk up to the plate, drop or toss in a tasty morsel (boiled chicken breast is a favorite for both canine tastebuds and waistlines). Then back away until your dog feels comfortable walking up to get the treat.
Take a break, then repeat. Essentially, your dog is learning that you approaching means treats and that she can approach to get the food.
This game is similar to Treat and Retreat (below), but the action of allowing the dog to focus on the plate instead of you seems extra-soothing to anxious pooches. It’s also a bit simpler for non-trainers to grasp – you’re just walking up, offering food in a predictable place, and retreating. There’s less room for error!
8. Play Treat and Retreat
This game is somewhat similar to the Plate Game above, but it’s a bit more dynamic, which can introduce added difficulty.
The game works like this – if your dog looks at you or moves towards you, your job is to toss a tasty morsel behind her. She’ll turn around to go eat it, and then will ideally turn back to you for another treat toss. This game generally goes well if you’re sitting down and therefore stationary.
Quickly, your dog will learn to approach you (or other strangers) of her own accord, then go get the treats. Your dog also learns that she can retreat if she’s nervous, helping to reduce the likelihood of defensive or fear-based aggression. Over time, your dog can learn to fully approach people through this game.
Old advice has taught owners to lure dogs to us with food. Unfortunately, food can tempt dogs into scary situations where they feel pressured. Once the dog eats the food after being lured in, they get scared and may lash out. Many people also can’t help themselves but to try to cuddle the dog after luring her in – a huge no-no!
Instead, let the food act as a motivator that pushes your dog in the ideal area outside of the comfort zone that’s still safe. The goal is to bring your dog outside of her comfort zone just enough, but not so much that the task becomes overwhelming or frightening.
This concept applies for humans too – new, challenging experiences should always happen within that magical orange area.
9. Try Pat-Pet-Pause
Once you’ve gotten the scared dog to choose to approach you, now what? How do you keep building friendly behavior in your scared dog? Pat-pet-pause is a great tool to build up a scared dog’s enjoyment of petting.
This game is pretty easy – but be sure not to start it until after your dog already approaches you readily in Treat and Retreat.
Start by patting your knees to call the dog over (pat). Then gently pet her under the chin, on the chest, or on the butt (pet).
Avoid going straight for the belly or over her head – that can be intimidating!
After 3 seconds of petting, stop for a moment and put your hands in your lap (pause). Watch to see what the dog does. If she comes back for more petting, repeat. If she moves away, you’re done. If she stays put but her body language is neutral, try petting again in a slightly different way (chin tickles instead of butt scratches, for example).
I have used Pat-Pet-Pause to teach my own dog to enjoy petting. He learned that if he doesn’t like how I’m touching him, I’ll pause and respect that. If he does like it, I’ll keep going. He’s in control, which makes him more comfortable and eager to go in for some doggo-approved cuddles.
These 9 tips will help most scared dogs trust you much more. The main goal is to demonstrate to the dog that you’re trustworthy by respecting her space, asking for permission to pet, and letting her choose when to approach. Of course, you’re rewarding the dog for making friendly choices – but there’s no “or else” in this training.
How Do You Get An Abused Dog to Trust You?
Abused dogs have been through a lot. They’re often flinch away from handling and are easily scared.
Most of them also display a lot of appeasing behaviors, like rolling onto their backs, peeing themselves, lip-licking, and groveling with bent knees and a fast-wagging tail.
The majority of really scared, abused dogs are undersocialized, which makes the world a more frightening place in general.
However, abused dogs often have experience living with people. Paradoxically, they’re often more human-social than stray dogs because they often were treated kindly in some ways (whereas a stray dog has never needed a human for anything). After all, even in situations where a dog has been abused, someone was feeding and caring for the dog at some point.
While this is still a heartbreaking situation, starting from some kind of relationship with humans can be easier than working with a stray dog who has never seen any kindness from a human.
The nine tips outlined above will work very well for abused dogs, but there are additional precautions you’ll want to take.
Most abused dogs are most afraid of:
- Fast movements
- Loud noises
- Being approached head-on.
Unlike undersocialized dogs, abused dogs often won’t have issues with things like blenders, cars passing by, and shiny floors.
If you can demonstrate your kindness through treat-giving, consent-asking, and slow movements, your new dog will likely warm up quickly, despite any history of mistreatment.
My Dog Was Abused by XYZ Sort of Person – Or Was She?
Some abused dogs are also more afraid of certain types of people. That said, most dogs who are afraid of men, people in hoodies, or people of color were not abused!
While some dogs do seem afraid of people of a certain race, they’re not racist and they probably weren’t hit by an X person. More likely, they’re simply undersocialized.
They may have been raised by a young white woman or on a rural farm where they never met many people outside of their family members.
My own dog used to bark at bearded men wearing turbans. He was raised by an urban white family, and doesn’t exhibit traits that would suggest past abuse. He’d just never seen a turban before, and he thought it was concerning. We did some practice walking past temples where he got a treat for every single turban that walked by, and now he’s happy to see the turban treat-predictors!
Many dogs are afraid of men because men are just scarier than women. The vast majority of shelter workers are female, meaning many shelter dogs just don’t get much exposure to men.
Men are taller, and beards and deep voices are extra-intimidating. Assuming that your dog was hit by a man or by a certain type of person also makes you more likely to get tense and defensive in those situations, which alerts to your dog that it’s time to be “on guard.”
Of course there’s a chance that your dog was abused by X or Y person, but in all likelihood your dog’s behavior is a result of lackluster socialization as a puppy. With enough treat-dispensing, you may be able to correct some of that fear.
How to Safely Gain the Trust of an Aggressive Dog
While the main principles of working with an aggressive dog are actually almost identical to the exercises outlined above, stakes are raised when the dog might bite. Of course, all dogs can bite if pushed (and their definition of pushed too far can change day-to-day).
It will come as no surprise that I recommend working with a trainer if your dog is aggressive. The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) is a great place to start. Even if their closest consultant is a bit too far from you, email her and ask if she knows of anyone in your area. She probably will have a suggestion or two for you.
When working with an aggressive dog, it’s important to add in extra safety measures.
While you can still play the Plate Game, I’d recommend playing it with the dog wearing a comfy basket muzzle and on a tie-back. Tie-backs allow you to tether your dog to a door, the couch, or another secure point to ensure that your dog can’t reach you.
Generally, aggression trainers recommend using two layers of protection with aggressive dogs (hence the muzzle as well as the tie-back).
At the shelter, we generally did Treat and Retreat through the kennel door with aggressive dogs for the safety of volunteers. We’d start by just walking by and tossing treats into the kennel each time we passed – even if the dog was barking and lunging at us.
Once the dog could let us pass without lunging, we’d start to pause a bit longer. Keeping our eyes low and our sides to the dog, we tossed treats behind the dog and then rewarded if the dog looked back to us.
Over time, we build up enough rapport with the dog that we could enter the kennel and take the dog out.
You can use these same skills to help build trust with an aggressive dog. Just remember to use safety precautions and get the help of a professional, even if things seem manageable. It’s always better to be safe than sorry in these kinds of situations.
My Dog Is Scared Of Me Because I Hit Him – What Should I Do Now?
It’s not uncommon to lose your temper and hit your dog. Many old school trainers still recommend swatting your dog in the name of training (spanking your child hasn’t gone totally out of fashion either), and lots of ill-advised training techniques suggest using pain, fear, and intimidation to stop dogs from doing unwanted things.
However, make no mistake, this is not the method you want to rely on for training your dog. Hitting your dog undermines her trust in you, especially if that trust was already shaky. Some dogs also paradoxically seek comfort from their owners after their owners lose their tempers.
My own dog, Barley, does. If I yell at him (something I strive not to do), he often cuddles up to me and tries to lick my hears. Some people interpret this as your dog “apologizing.” I disagree – this sort of behavior is your dog’s attempt at diffusing a situation because they are really scared!
While you never want to rely on fear or pain as a method of training, we are all human and sometimes make mistakes. We may lose or temper, lash out at our dog, and instantly regret it.
If you’ve hit your dog in a moment of weakness and now she’s avoiding you, go back to basics. Move slowly, toss treats behind her, and reward bravery.
If you and your dog have a decent relationship, she’ll probably recover relatively quickly – as long as this doesn’t become a habit.
Making Sure It Doesn’t Happen Again
Going forward after hitting your dog, the most important thing is to focus on your own behavior. What caused you to hit your dog? How can you avoid that situation again? What behavior can you do instead?
Generally, it’s best to replace an unwanted behavior when you go forward.
For those who aren’t familiar with the spoon analogy commonly used in counseling, there’s a concept that each person has 10 spoons at the beginning of the day, with each spoon as a unit of energy. Every time something stressful or trying happens, you’ve lost a spoon. You’re more likely to have a problem – emotionally or physically – once you’re “out of spoons.”
I used to have a problem with my own dog – I would swat Barley across the nose when I was ultra-frustrated with his barking at the door. This usually happened after a long day at the shelter and when I “had no spoons left.”
I’d spend all day coaching and demonstrating patience with tough dogs, yet I still lost my temper with Barley sometimes.
I wanted to stop this behavior in myself (and fix Barley’s barking at the same time).
I decided that if I heard something outside that would make Barley bark, I’d tell Barley to go get his tug toy. That was my replacement behavior (telling Barley to get his toy instead of swatting him) that got me the same result (no barking) in the same situation (noise outside).
Now he’s learned to go get a toy instead of barking and I’ve learned to cue him to get a toy instead of swatting at him.
If you’re frustrated with your dog but want to try to learn not to react in anger, try replacing yelling or hitting with these skills instead:
- Putting your dog in the crate with a Kong if she’s driving you nuts.
- Taking a deep breath and walking away from your dog.
- Asking your dog to sit or hand target and giving a treat.
- Ending the training session and playing tug-o-war instead.
- Ending the play session when your dog nips you and going for a walk.
Having a clear replacement behavior makes it easier to change your own behavior. For me, the “go get your toy” replacement command became automatic, so I could do it even when I was frustrated, rather than resorting to an impulsive action that I might regret later!
Getting a scared dog to trust you isn’t necessarily rocket science – but it takes time. Some dogs are never going to be outgoing Air Bud types.
Many truly traumatized shelter dogs may take months to warm up to their owners. Heck, they might always be nervous of strangers. Try to accept your dog for who she is and support her needs, rather than pushing her into situations that are too difficult for her.
What tips did you find useful for getting a scared dog to trust you? Share your suggestions below!