Gaining the Trust of Your Rescue Dog

Dog is looking at a treat but not coming
Some rescues may feel untrusting, even with treats involved. Photo by Noelle Otto from Pexels

Why is my rescue acting like this?

Have you recently brought home a rescue that shies away from you, or startles very easily? Don’t you wish your new dog was more confident and trusting of you and your family members? Gaining the trust of your rescue may not be easy and will take time and patience on your part, but it can be rewarding!

Continue reading to find out reasons they may act this way, and what you can do to help them get over their mistrust!

Past treatment influences present behavior and trust

I always say that dogs are some of the best people I know. Given the opportunity to live in a loving household, it seems that dogs tend to give even more love and loyalty than a lot of people. Considering the beautiful nature of dogs, they should all be given a chance to live in a home like this.

But, we know this is not always the case. Sometimes a dog ends up in a home where there are no treats, no gentle pats on the head, no loving words, or worse. No dog should live a life of mistreatment or neglect such as this. But some do, and they still try to love their owners the best they know how.

Unfortunately, dogs like this many times end up in our pet rescue centers. Maybe the owner was at least good enough to actually drop the dog off at the shelter, or maybe it was just left on the road to fend for itself.

(Please don’t get me wrong. I understand completely that there are legitimate reasons a dog may be left at a shelter, such as a decline of health or death of the owner. That’s not what I am talking about here.)

Some of us are lucky enough to encounter dogs like this and bring them into our lives. With love and patience, we can provide them what they need, and gain their respect and love. In time, they can become one of the best friends we will ever have.

How does a dog with trust issues act?

Some friends of ours adopted a wonderful little Shepard mix, and named her Holly. They gave her a great home with lots of love and attention. Holly was a very sweet, loving dog with one problem: she didn’t trust men.

Whenever I (or any other male) would enter their home, Holly would tuck her tail and shy away. Although we may never know her history, it seems she had been mistreated by a male figure in her past. Holly did finally warm up to me, but it took a long time.

A dog with trust issues may shy away from you or your visitors. They may show this reaction only when people of a certain gender are near or even when they see a particular feature like uniforms, glasses or beards.

They might be fearful when taking food or treats. Or, maybe they will take treats from you, but be very hesitant to take food or treats from anyone else.

Your rescue may also show signs of resource guarding. They may growl or snap when you approach something they feel is important to them. Food is a big trigger for this, but you may also see it with certain people, bones or chew toys. Their past owners may have made them feel threatened in these situations.

Dog hiding
A rescue may shy away from noise or other things that make them feel uncomfortable Photo by Tookapic from Pexels

They may also startle easily, like when you make rapid movements or loud noises. Maybe it’s a loud noise coming from the outside or from the TV that makes them cower and hide. Of course, this can be a reaction of many dogs, but you should be able to tell if yours takes it to extremes.

As I researched issues associated with mistrust in dogs stemming from neglect or abuse, I couldn’t help thinking about my dog, Max. Many of the symptoms I saw mentioned in his case matched the behavioral traits I noticed in them. With time and patience, most of these have gone away completely, or are much less pronounced than they once were.

Be attentive to your dog’s triggers, and try some of the methods below. With the time and patience, your fearful rescue can become a much more confident member of your family.

How can we help our rescues overcome these issues and gain their trust?

I have used some of the methods below when working with my rescues. They have had a very positive impact on them and may do wonders for your dogs.

Give the dog their safe space

We all wish that the dogs we adopt would bond with us immediately. We would love it if they would cuddle with us as we watch TV or read a book, but that’s not always the case. Some dogs will need to do this on their own time, and you can help them with proper preparation.

There are several reasons to prepare for adopting new pets. It can definitely make the big day go smoother. A little preparation can make your new friend feel much more comfortable, too. When you have a nervous, anxious dog it’s really good to start off on the right foot!

One of the more important things you can do for your new dog is to give them a safe space to retreat to. If you know your dog has issues, have it all prepared for them before they arrive at your home.

A safe space allows your rescue to slowly acclimate to your home and the people that live there. It allows them to do it on a time scale they feel comfortable with. This way, they are not forced to be somewhere they are not comfortable.

A crate with a bed in it can be a great place for your rescue to feel safe. This crate should be placed away from high traffic, noisy areas. You can leave the crate’s door open so that they are free to roam if you feel comfortable doing that.

Make sure that your dog has water bowls close at hand to the crate. Also, place a couple of safe toys nearby.

Hall with dog bed and water bowl.
Max’s safe space is in our hall! He loves it in there.

My wife and I used our downstairs hallway for Max’s safe space. Whenever he would hear a loud noise such as thunder, that’s where he would head. He has gotten somewhat more tolerant of loud noise, but we still have that space available if he needs it.

Use a low, quiet voice around your new rescue

As mentioned above in how dogs with trust issues act, loud noises may frighten them. When around your dog, especially in the beginning, try not to make sudden loud, disturbing noises. This doesn’t mean you have to whisper, but try to keep the volume to a non-threatening volume.

Firecrackers, thunder, and loud noises on the TV may be enough to send your dog to their safe space. And, if you do expect a lot of firecrackers like during certain holidays, you may want to ask your veterinarian for his advice on how to keep your dog calm. They may suggest medicating your dog depending on the severity of their condition.

When we first adopted Max, and for a number of months after that, we tried to be cognizant of loud noises while watching TV. There was a show we were hooked on that had gunfire in it sometimes. We tried to keep the TV volume low but never could keep it low enough. When Max would hear the opening credits come on, he was off to the hall and his safe spot. What’s funny is when the closing music came on, he was right back in there with us!

With the passing of time, Max has gotten much “braver” around things like this. I am so proud of him!

Maintain a calmness around the dog

Dogs emotions feed off of ours. That’s one of the things that make them so awesome. When we feel down, many times they are right there with us because they want to make us feel better.

But, with many shelter dogs, this empathy can work against them. They may pick up on our excitement, and possibly stress levels.

It’s important that we try to maintain a calm attitude so that they can pick up on our “chill” feeling. This is especially true when picking them up, and the first days at home.

Gain your rescue’s trust with gentle corrections and positive reinforcement

(Note: these suggestions are meant for dogs that have trust issues, not for dogs with very aggressive tendencies. If you have an aggressive dog, you should seek professional therapy. Always remember – safety first!)

Correct gently!

Depending upon your rescue’s previous situation, they may not know what’s expected of them. Maybe they weren’t socialized properly, or have never been potty trained. Maybe they were yelled at, or beat for their actions.

You have a chance to change your dog’s life, and show them that not all humans are bad (there are just a few bad apples!).

In most situations, (and if your dog is not showing aggression to people or other dogs) a firm “No” should suffice when they mess up. There is no need to yell. If you are consistent, your dog will eventually learn the word “no” means to stop what they are doing.

If you catch them having a potty accident in the house, just say “no” in a firm voice at normal volume. Then, take them outside right away. If they are not afraid of a leash, use that to take them outside so you can stay close to them. Then once they go potty outside, make sure to shower praise.

I used to give Max gentle pats and tell him “Good boy!” when he went potty outside. We also gave him a small treat sometimes. It wasn’t long before Max knew where the bathroom was, and it’s very rare that he has accidents now.

Be aware of where they are and make sure that you are taking them outside on a regular basis. Don’t give them the chance to have an accident if you can help it. Fewer accidents inside and more praise outside will give your dog more confidence!

If your rescue is chewing something they shouldn’t be, again use a firm “no”. Then try to trade them something better in exchange for what they are chewing, such as a treat they love. While they are distracted, pick up the item they were chewing on.

Also, make sure you leave enough toys and chew treats laying around so that they go for your shoes and books less often! Again, the fewer times we have to correct them, and the more we can praise them, the better!

Gain your rescue’s trust, but use common sense doing it!

Some dogs that resource guard may bite! You know your dog’s tendencies and how they might react in some situations. If your dog is aggressive you need to seek help for them. Unless you are a professional, don’t risk an incident by trying to acclimate and train an aggressive dog yourself!

If your dog is not aggressive but is just scared or untrusting, the methods mentioned above should help. I know that they did with Max. We have far fewer incidents with Max than we used to!

Max still isn’t perfect. If he is eating, I know not to start petting him or anything like that. His food is a trigger. I understand that and manage negative situations by giving him space when he eats. We are working with him to get him over this, but he still has a way to go. I know he will get there!

Because, time and love heals many ills!

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