This probably isn’t how you expected this to go, is it?
You adopted a dog because you wanted a best buddy, but instead, your new buddy is cowering and hiding behind the couch or -perhaps even worse- in your significant other’s arms! How rude.
Or maybe the dog isn’t afraid of you, but afraid of other people who live in or visit your home. It’s very common for dogs to be skittish around men, for instance.
Either way, here’s how I would start the process of gaining a scared new dog’s trust.
First, give the dog their own space
Before you can be best friends, Sparky needs a place where he feels safe, so he can relax and decompress from the stressful adoption experience. He may have already picked a spot – if he tends to huddle in, say, the corner of the living room, that can be his spot. Set up his bed and/or crate and food and water bowls there, and try not to bother him too much while he’s there.
Take off the pressure to interact
When you’re attempting to win over a scared dog, the instinct is to try to get closer, petting them or reaching toward them while insisting in a gentle voice, “it’s okay, I’m nice, see?”
This usually doesn’t make the dog feel much better. It can make them feel worse, because they’re being forced to interact with a stranger, and that’s scary! If the dog knows he might be forced to socialize at any given moment, he’ll always be on guard and not be able to calm down and adjust to his new home.
So, counterintuitively, the quickest way to get your dog to trust you is to lay off a bit. Don’t try to pet them. Let them control the pace of this getting-to-know-you phase.
What should you do about potty training? If Sparky is REALLY terrified of people, and rounding her up to take her on outdoor bathroom trips is traumatic, consider using pee pads or an indoor dog toilet. At least for a while, until she gains some trust in people.
And when you do interact, make your body language less intimidating, according to the rules of dog speak. Leaning forward and offering your hand is friendly in human speak, but that can be threatening to a dog, especially one who’s already nervous. Instead of approaching straight on, keep your body angled so your side is facing the dog. When you go to interact with the dog or offer him food, keep your side to him.
Make sure to never startle the dog. When coming into the room, always announce your arrival in a happy, calm voice. “Hi Sparky! how’s it going?”
So now that you’ve given Sparky some space and time to herself, this is a good time to start teaching yourself canine as a second language:
A critical skill: understanding dog body language and communication
This is my standard recommendation when dealing with any type of fear or aggression-based behavior issues. To speed up your progress and avoid making things worse, you gotta know how to read the subtle ways your reluctant new pal is talking to you. And she IS talking to you, even if she spends most of her time frozen like a statue, willing herself to sink into the floor.
Take our free online course, Dog Speak 101. Pay special attention to the lesson called Consent Tests, which is about how to build trust by letting the dog control the pace of the interaction.
Provide lots of treats (with an important caveat!) and enrichment
In many cases, the way to a dog’s heart is truly through their stomach.
By giving your dog something good every time you see each other, you’re creating positive associations with your presence.
But this can backfire, so you gotta do it right: don’t hand the dog treats.
See, if Sparky is afraid to come near you, but you hold out a piece of tasty food, his hunger might override his fear for a moment. He might walk up to you and take the treat. But once he eats it, he suddenly realizes that he’s standing very close to a scary (no offense) person! Holy crap! If this happens, in the best case scenario he’ll experience a jolt of fear and therefore be even more afraid in the future. Worst case scenario, he’ll bite you to defend himself.
What to do instead: toss treats into Sparky’s comfort zone. Every time you walk into the area, say “hi Sparky!” and toss a treat to him, and then walk away. Or if when you’re sitting on the couch watching TV in the evenings while Sparky hangs out in his little personal space corner, keep a bowl of treats with you and toss one to him periodically.
In addition to treats, provide other good things, like stuffed Kongs or bones to chew on. Chewing is a stress-reliever for dogs and it’ll help him feel better.
Giving your dog lots of enrichment activities to do will go a long way toward helping her settle in and gain confidence.
And activities that she can do on her own, without you (no offense), will help with the taking-the-pressure-off thing.
When I was an animal shelter volunteer, I walked a lot of dogs. During the Phoenix summers when it was too unspeakably hot to walk, I’d take them into the small, air-conditioned Meet & Greet rooms to hang out. With friendly dogs who loved people, we could just sit in the room and cuddle, and they were very happy!
But when I did this with shy dogs who weren’t sure about me, I would scatter lots of interesting objects in the room. Whatever happened to be nearby that I could grab: blankets, dog toys, treats, even just my leash (which was interesting because it smelled like lots of other dogs). This gave the dog the ability to sniff things and explore with no pressure to interact with me. I sat in the corner and played with my phone, letting them do their thing. That made them feel a lot better than just awkwardly sitting in an empty room with a stranger.
Usually, after all the sniffing and exploring, they would feel okay enough to come over and say hi. But sometimes they never wanted to say hi, and that was fine too. Many fearful dogs need more repetitions of these “interaction-less” interactions.
Enrichment ideas to spruce up your dog’s personal space corner
Enrichment just means providing outlets for your dog’s natural behaviors, like playing, smelling, scavenging, hunting and “disemboweling” prey, etc. Here are a few enrichment activities your dog can do while he hangs out in his corner:
- Stuffed Kongs or other puzzle toys, of course.
- For a non-food option, those hide-and-seek dog toys that come with one big plush toy filled with smaller plush toys.
- High-value chews like antlers, pig ears, and dog-safe bones.
- Slow-feeder bowls.
- Snuffle mats – this is a good way to feed Sparky her meals. You can hide treats in an old towel or blanket as a makeshift snuffle mat, too.
- Hide smelly treats in a cardboard box (it’s okay if she shreds the box. Shredding is as satisfying as chewing for many dogs).
- A “puppy pinata” – here’s a demo on our Instagram. If your dog is too nervous to play with the pinata on a string, you can put it on the floor for her to shred.
What if my dog has no interest in treats or enrichment activities?
There’s a good chance it’s just too soon. Sparky may still be too stressed and overwhelmed to care about these things. So for now, just focus on giving him a safe place to decompress. Creating a basic daily routine, so he knows what to expect from his days, will also help. Pick times for meals, bathroom breaks, enrichment activities, and walks (if applicable), and stick to this routine every day.
And as your dog gradually comes out of her shell, you’ll start to find other things she enjoys. When you discover a new “hobby” of hers, find an appropriate way to channel it. If your dog likes digging, for example, set up a dig pit in the backyard. If she likes sniffing, take walks where you let her follow her nose and sniff as long as she wants.
When I adopted my dog Merlin, he wasn’t all that sure about me, but he LOVED Frisbees. So I wormed my way into his heart by becoming his personal Frisbee thrower.
Next, check out our other articles on the subject
We have lots of resources to help you out on your adventure in training and bonding with your nervous new dog. Here are some good ones to start with:
- Whatever Tomorrow Brings: Important Things to Know Before (and After) You Adopt a Dog
- Training a Behavior vs. Changing an Emotion: What All Dog Owners Need to Know
- The Right Way to Use Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning to Help a Fearful or Aggressive Dog
- 14 Ways to Get Your New Dog to Trust, Love, and Respect You
- How Our Online Puppy Training Courses Can Help with Your Scared or Reactive Puppy