Before and after of a scared black rescue dog after being adopted into new home
/ /

20 Tips On How To Get A Scared Dog To Trust You

If you’ve just brought a new dog into your home for the first time, or if you’re trying to help a scared dog feel more comfortable, it’s incredibly important to be patient and take things slowly.

It can be a challenge, so the best way, in my experience, is to let the dog set the pace.

Always think about things from the dog’s perspective and how she is feeling. This will help you establish a connection and build confidence and trust over time.

In this post, I’m going to share 20 tips that will help make the process easier for you and your pup. While all dogs are individuals and there’s not a one size fits all approach, there should be enough ideas here to make the transition nice and smooth.

  • Short on time? We’ve condensed the highlights from this article into this video:

How do I know if my dog is scared?

The key to recognizing when your dog is scared is the dog’s body language. These are some of the signs to look for (you won’t see them all at the same time, and some of them might be subtle).

  • Panting
  • Yawning
  • Tongue flick
  • Turning away
  • Stiff facial muscles/tight mouth
  • Freezing
  • Ears back
  • Tail carriage low or tail tucked
  • Whale eye
  • Standing with back legs planted ready to run (fight or flight)
  • Furrowed brow
  • Vigilant/agitated
  • Drooling
  • Shaking/rapid heartbeat
  • Hiding
  • Peeing/pooping (sometimes a lot)
  • Excessive drinking, sniffing, also sleeping to avoid the scary situation
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Barking
Florence was so scared when I first brought her home that I built her a little tent so she had a safe place to hide © The Cat and Dog House

What should I do if my dog is scared?

If you see any of the above signs, remember, that your dog is already feeling insecure and uncomfortable, so it’s important to take things slowly and let her come to you in her own time.

Let’s forget the human perspective and start by looking at the situation from a dog’s point of view.

You’ve just adopted her, you’re all excited, you’ve got her new bed and toys and all the gear you need to take her out on all those fabulous walks you’ve got planned.

But wait! She’s not interested in the toys. She doesn’t want to eat. She doesn’t want to leave the house to go for a walk. But why?

Florence spent her first four weeks with us living in a bathroom because she didn’t yet know if she could trust us and didn’t feel safe enough to come out and explore © The Cat and Dog House

New environment

Everything is unfamiliar. Everything smells different and there are lots of new objects and sounds. She doesn’t know where she can and can’t go. She doesn’t know if it’s safe. She may never have seen a TV or an oven or a mirror before.

When we brought our Roxy home from K9 Friends in Dubai, she would bark at the newsreaders on TV and her own reflection in the glass oven door. She had spent the first two years of her life in the shelter and had no experience of life in a home.

New people

Lots of new faces, smells, and voices. And you’re all so big!

New routine

All the rules have changed – she doesn’t know what she can and can’t do in her new home. She may have had more freedom in her previous home, or she may have been kept outside or only in a certain area all the time.

She may have never been in a home before. Her only experience of life may have been on the street or in a shelter

New animals

If you have other pets, she will be meeting them for the first time too. She doesn’t know if they are friends or enemies.

Roman and Florence are now the best of friends and she relies on him for guidance and support, but we took our time about introducing them to try to ensure a better chance of long-term success © The Cat and Dog House

New food

If you’re changing her diet, she may be a little hesitant to try something new. Dogs can be creatures of habit and they like familiarity, so it’s important not to make any sudden changes.

Stick to the same food for at least the first week or two, then introduce any new foods slowly and in small amounts.

Long journey

If you’ve adopted her from another country or even just from another city, she will have had a long journey to get to her new home. She may have been in the car for hours or even days. And how did she get here? By plane? Train? Boat? No wonder she’s feeling a bit stressed out!

Unsurprisingly, all this can be incredibly stressful and overwhelming for a dog. Your first port of call is to help your scared pup feel more at ease and feel at home.

Here are some ideas, based on my recent experience of adopting Florence almost two years ago.

Florence on adoption day. You can see how scared she is from her hunched posture and low tail carriage © The Cat and Dog House

What is the dog’s background?

If you know a little about the dog’s background it may help you understand why they are behaving the way they are. But often with a rescue dog, you know very little.

Florence was 7 years old when we adopted her. No one really knew her background but she had at some point ended up in a Romanian shelter.

We didn’t know if she’d had a traumatic experience or had been an abused dog, but she was very nervous and shut down and the rescue organization in Finland, Rescueyhdistys Kulkurit, wanted to help her. I was more than happy to support them in that and so, having signed all the papers, off I drove to Helsinki to collect her.

On adoption day, Florence and 37 other lucky dogs had just made the mega road trip from Romania to Finland in a special dog transport van. The journey had taken about three days. The dogs were all stressed and had no idea what was happening once they arrived.

Their new families were waiting excitedly for them and some dogs were coping better with the whole situation than others. But who wasn’t coping at all? That’s right, our Florence!

She was the most shutdown dog in the room. She was terrified. Her tail was firmly tucked up against her stomach. She was hunched over and wouldn’t look at me. She didn’t want to come near me. She wouldn’t walk to the car so we had to carry her.

I didn’t want to pet her or hug her like some of the other families were doing (and, by the way, not all the dogs were enjoying the close attention from complete strangers).

I’m all about giving dogs choices. If Florence didn’t want to interact with me I was fine with that. It was more important that she learned that she could trust me because I wasn’t going to force her into anything.

I felt a bit silly just sitting there ignoring her, but it was essential for the success of our future relationship.

Having said that, she did take lots of treats and chewies from me. So I knew we had a starting point!

When we finally got home after a two-hour drive, she wouldn’t get out of the car. I waited there with her for an hour. She had her dinner there. She started to doze off. In the end, we had to carry her in on her bed because it was getting cold and dark and I didn’t want to stand there all night!

Fortunately, Florence didn’t display any aggressive behavior, but we did use a basket muzzle just to be safe.

When Florence arrived at our home for the first time, she was too scared to get out of the car © The Cat and Dog House

Your 20 tips for getting a scared dog to trust you

#1. Do nothing

Excuse me? Yes, that’s right, do nothing! I mean, obviously you’re going to feed your pup, make sure she has bathroom breaks and has a nice place to sleep. But that’s it. No walks, no introductions to other pets, no big outings or visits from family members.

Your dog needs time to destress and regroup and to realize that she’s safe. Give her the time to do that. There’s no rush, you’re going to have many happy years together.

#2. Provide a safe space

Prepare a quiet area or room and keep your pup there for at least the first few days. This will be her safe personal space where she can feel calm and relaxed. It should contain everything she needs; food, water, bedding, toys, and so on. Lets her eat and sleep there undisturbed.

You may want to put up a baby gate or shut the door completely to keep other family members out or use a crate if that makes your dog feel more secure. Later, once they have access to the rest of the home, always allow them to retreat to their safe space and remain there undisturbed whenever they want and for as long as they want.

#3. Don’t stare

In the dog world, staring is considered threatening or hostile behavior. It’s part of how dogs communicate. So avoid making direct eye contact with your new pup, especially if she’s feeling scared. Instead, make soft eye contact and then look away.

#4. Move slowly

Don’t make any sudden movements. Approach the dog sideways on and hunch over a bit to make yourself look smaller. Move slowly and calmly. Let her sniff you before trying to pet her.

Some dogs will want nothing to do with you initially, and that’s fine. Just give her time and space and let her come to you in her own time.

#5. Don’t corner the dog

Don’t corner, approach, or go behind the back of the dog’s head or over her head. Don’t lean over her either. This can make her feel trapped and scared.

Dogs need to be able to move away from you if they want to, so always give them an escape route.

#6. Get down on the dog’s level

When you’re interacting with your new dog, get down on her level. This will make you seem less threatening and more approachable. I used to sit on the floor at the other end of the room with Florence, sideways on, looking at my phone or reading to avoid intimidating her by using direct eye contact. Sometimes I’d play her some dog music to help her relax.

#7. Don’t crowd the dog

Don’t crowd the dog or try to kiss/hug them, even if you just want to show how much you love them. This can be overwhelming, especially for a frightened dog.

Instead, give her some space and let her approach you when she’s ready. Petting should always be initiated by the dog, not by you.

Some dogs will never want to be hugged or kissed (I’m looking at you, Florence!), and that’s okay. Just respect their wishes and show your affection in other ways.

#8. Stay calm

Dogs are very attuned to our emotions. If we’re anxious or stressed, they will be too. So it’s important to remain calm and relaxed around your new dog.

Take some deep breaths, do some relaxation exercises, whatever you need to do to stay calm. This will help her feel relaxed too.

#9. Speak quietly

Speak in a quiet, kind voice. Avoid using a high-pitched, excited voice as this can make the dog feel scared.

#10. Watch the dog’s body language

Observe the dog’s body language. This will tell you how she’s feeling and how she wants to interact with you.

Watch for signs of fear. If her body is stiff, she has her tail down and is avoiding eye contact, she’s probably feeling scared. If she’s wagging her tail and comes close to you, she’s probably feeling friendly.

It’s important to respect the dog’s wishes and give her space if she wants it.

Never force a nervous dog to do anything she doesn’t want to do, such as being petted or picked up. This will only make her more scared and less likely to trust you.

Always go at the dog’s pace and let her dictate how she wants to interact with you. Make sure it’s a positive experience for her.

#11. Understand calming signals

Dogs use calming signals to communicate how they’re feeling and to defuse situations that are making them feel anxious or scared.

Some common calming signals include turning away, averting their gaze, licking their lips, yawning, and head turns.

#12. Positive associations

Take your pup food and tasty treats but don’t make her feel conflicted by also asking her to do things she doesn’t want to do, such as being handled or groomed.

You want her to associate you with good things, not with feeling scared or anxious. You don’t know whether she’s had a bad experience with people or not. So make sure that every interaction you have with her is positive and happy.

I used to keep a treat in my hand and allow Florence to approach and sniff if she wanted to. If she did so, I uncurled my fingers and allowed her to take the treat. This way she learned that my hands predicted something good happening and were not something to be scared of. Plus she got the reward of the treat (aka positive reinforcement).

You can also try renowned dog trainer Suzanne Clothier’s Treat-Retreat protocol for the shy dog. This graphic from the Dunbar Academy explains how it works:

#13. Short exposures

When you’re first getting to know your new dog, keep exposures short and sweet. This will prevent her from getting overwhelmed or stressed.

Watch for stress signs and leave the room if your dog is starting to get stressed. Ideally, leave the room before she starts to feel stressed so you can end on a positive note. This will help with building trust.

#14. Use consent testing

We can use a consent test to find out whether a dog is saying yes or no. For example, allow the dog to approach you if they want to and be fine with it if they don’t. Let them choose if and where they want to be petted and be fine with it if they don’t.

If the dog moves away from you, she’s saying no. In this case, you should respect her wishes and give her some space. If she comes closer and sticks her butt in your face to be scratched, then she’s saying yes, so go right ahead! She may change her mind though and her yes may become a no after a while. Again, respect this.

And if she’s not sure whether it’s a yes or a no, take that as a no. If the dog is conflicted we do not want to pressure her.

Only proceed with an interaction if the dog is happy and comfortable with it and never force her to do anything she doesn’t want to do.

By using consent testing, we can build a relationship of trust with the dog based on mutual respect.

About six weeks after we adopted her, Florence elected to emerge from the room that was her safe haven and come and sit next to me on the sofa. I barely dared to breathe. But by letting her make her own choices, respecting her timeline, and never forcing her to interact with me, she eventually decided for herself that I wasn’t so bad to be around after all © The Cat and Dog House

#15. Let dogs make their own choices

Allowing dogs to make their own choices as far as possible is a great way to empower them to make their own decisions, thereby building confidence and gaining your dog’s trust.

For example, Florence was too scared to leave the house for her first month with us. When I was finally able to get her outside (on a long line so I didn’t have to get too close – because that scared her), I allowed her to explore and go in whichever direction she wanted. To start with she was so scared she would lie down a lot and not move. I spent a lot of time just standing outside in the cold, waiting for her to feel ready to move on at her own pace.

When she did so, it was her choice and in doing so, she learned that she could trust me because I wouldn’t make her do anything she wasn’t comfortable doing.

Florence spent a lot of time lying down when I first started taking her outside. She seemed to have no idea what the world was. I’d stand and wait at a distance until she was ready to move again. She dictated the pace and she made the decisions, which helped build her confidence and trust in me © The Cat and Dog House

#16. Slow introductions

When introducing a new pet to other pets in the household, you should always go slowly.

Always start by keeping the pets separated, perhaps in different rooms or even in different areas of the house/yard. You’ll already be doing this because your newly adopted dog is in her safe zone.

Once you see signs that she is starting to relax and feeling more confident, you can begin to do some controlled introductions, making sure both dogs are calm and happy before moving on to the next step.

You might need to do several of these controlled introductions over a period of days or even weeks before the dogs are ready to meet face-to-face without any barriers between them.

It’s important to go at the pace that is right for both dogs and not rush things as this could lead to a negative association between the dogs and set back your efforts to build trust and confidence.

Take things slowly and let the dogs dictate the pace.

#17. Second dog

I’m not saying rush out and adopt a second dog (and not all dogs like other dogs), but if you already have a resident dog(s) then they may be able to help boost the new dog’s confidence.

Back to me standing outside in the cold waiting for Florence to move from the wet, muddy ditch she was lying in, we called on Roman, another Romanian rescue dog we had adopted 18 months prior. He’s a calm, mellow boy who likes other dogs.

They already knew each other by this stage and so we tried walking them together. Florence* was suddenly a dog transformed. If Roman was okay with it, so was she. He showed her that she was safe and could trust us.

To help build Florence’s confidence and show her that she was safe with us, we engaged the services of Roman to help her. He’s the one photobombing here © The Cat and Dog House

#18. Establish routine

Dogs feel more secure when they know what’s going to happen next. So it’s important to establish a routine as soon as possible. This could include regular mealtimes, walks, and play sessions.

If the dog knows when these things are going to happen, she’ll start to relax and feel more secure.

#19. Harness and long line

With the help of walks on a long line, Florence’s confidence started to build. I allowed her to decide where we went (within reason, as long as it was safe) and when it was time to go home. I wanted her to know her home was a safe place she could return to any time she felt unsure © The Cat and Dog House

When you first take your new dog out, it’s best to use a harness and long line. This will allow you to keep her at a safe distance while still allowing her to explore and get used to her new surroundings.

If your dog is very scared, it might be best to get a professional dog walker or trainer to help you with this process.

Roman helped too of course. You can see here Florence has increased in confidence. Her body language is more relaxed, her tail is up, she’s busy sniffing and engaging the SEEKING system in her brain, and she is leading the way © The Cat and Dog House

#20. Play for confidence

Finally, one of the best ways to help a new dog feel at home is to play with her. Dogs love to play and it’s a great way to build confidence and trust.

Play can help a dog develop social skills and build relationships with both humans and other animals. In addition, play evokes a pleasant emotional state, and the happier your new pup feels, the less likely she’s going to stay scared for too long.

Two dogs playing in the snow
Roman and Florence at play. Play is a pleasurable activity that can help elevate the dog’s overall mood state, thus building the dog’s confidence and helping them feel more relaxed © The Cat and Dog House

Bonus tip: Be patient

Finally, the most important thing to remember is to be patient. It can take time for a new dog to settle in and feel at home. Things may not always go according to plan. This is perfectly normal in new situations.

So take things slowly and work to your dog’s timeline (not yours), and enjoy the process of helping your new pup build confidence and trust. Before you know it, she’ll be a happy, tail-wagging member of the family.

Florence as she is today. Happy, relaxed, confident, no leash, no harness, finally free to enjoy her new life © The Cat and Dog House

Don’t punish the dog

This is the worst thing you can do. By punishment I mean anything that makes the dog feel bad, such as scolding, yelling, or hitting. It’s important to understand that punishment will only make a dog more scared and less likely to trust you. Trust me, it’s never a good idea and there’s absolutely no need for it.

Instead of punishment, focus on building confidence and trust by using the tips outlined above. Be patient, take things slowly, and most importantly, have fun! Your new pup is sure to win your heart in no time.

Final thoughts

So there you have it, my top 20 tips for how to get a scared dog to trust you. It takes time, patience, and consistency but it’s so worth it when you see that tail start wagging!

Do you have a story to share about a fearful dog who is now living their best life? I always enjoy hearing people’s stories so do drop me a line and share your experience!

* You can read more about Florence’s transformation on Rescueyhdistys Kulkurit’s website (just scroll down to see my update in English). I am so proud of how far she’s come!

Resources

MORE TO EXPLORE

NEED A DOG TRAINER OR BEHAVIOR EXPERT?

If you need more help dealing with a training or behavior issue, please find professional help from a force-free dog trainer who can consult with you either in person or remotely.

GOOD PLACES TO START ARE:
- COAPE Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers
- Pet Dog Trainers of Europe
- International Companion Animal Network
- Institute of Modern Dog Trainers
- Pet Professional Guild 

All dog owners deserve to have successful relationships with their canine companions!