Not all dogs naturally trust people. Helping shy dogs adjust to a new home – or regaining your dog’s trust – isn’t easy and can take time. Luckily, there are several steps that you can take that are surely going to help your dog trust you.
In today’s Ask a Behavior Consultant, a reader is struggling with a very skittish Saluki puppy. After over two months in the home, the dog still won’t let anyone pet him unless they corner him in a closed area or on his bed.
The loving family wants to get to know their dog and enjoy his company – and they also want their dog to feel comfortable around them.
They wrote me asking:
I have a
7 month oldwe adopted 2 months ago. He will only allow petting if in a closed area .After2 months he still won’t let anyone pet him unless he is in his bed. How can I gain more trust and make him less afraid all the time?
– Sincerely, Skittish Saluki
But this is a slightly different issue – this dog isn’t just a bit hand-shy or a bit skittish. After over two months in the home, this puppy doesn’t want to be touched at all. That’s very unusual for a teenage dog!
My first suggestion for these owners is to attempt to find a trainer or behavior consultant who can help them out. This is not an easy problem to solve when it’s this serious in a dog this young. If they can’t get help from an in-person trainer, I can still help out through remote training – that’s definitely better than just trying to read a blog post!
Why is my dog scared of me?
It’s hard to say exactly why a dog is scared of you without a) seeing the dog in person and more importantly b) asking a lot of questions about the dog’s history.
However, there are some main reasons that a dog might be scared of you (or anyone else):
- Genetics. Some dog breeds were created with the goal of being suspicious of strangers. Often generously called “aloof,” these breeds are often fearful as adults, especially if poorly bred. Shepherds, Mastiffs, and some Herding breeds are particularly prone to genetic fearfulness of “new stuff.” A genetic predisposition to fear may come from the breed more broadly or just a specific line of dogs.
- Epigenetics. On an even smaller scale, epigenetics are the changes in the expression of genes rather than a change in the actual genetic code. If your dog’s parents or grandparents lived particularly stressful lives, this could lead to portions of your dog’s genetic code that lead to suspicion or fear being more easily expressed.
- Stress from the Mother. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence out there that puppies whose mothers were starved or stressed while pregnant are more prone to fearful and aggressive behavior. A quick Google Scholar search for “prenatal maternal stress” comes up with several studies demonstrating reduced ability to deal with stress in dogs, humans, rats, and other species. If your dog’s mother was stressed or starved during pregnancy, that can contribute to your dog’s inability to cope with stress.
- Early Life Experiences. Relatively small traumas in your dog’s life can be catastrophic if they come at the wrong stage of brain development. Something as relatively simple as being spooked by a larger dog at the wrong age can have outsized influence on your dog’s behavior as an adult. You may not know about these minor traumas.
- Lack of Socialization. As dogs age, they generally become “neophobic” – or afraid of new things. If your puppy was raised in a relatively barren environment, such as a puppy farm (puppy mill), shelter, racing kennel, or backyard, it’s probable that most of the “normal” experiences in her life now fall into that “new and scary” category. Puppies start becoming more wary of new things around 12 to 16 weeks of age. So if your puppy hasn’t been socialized to strangers, loud noises, different surfaces, different types of people and dogs, and other parts of daily life by just 3 or 4 months of age, it’s likely that she’ll be afraid of those things.
- Trauma. Some dogs are incredibly skittish of new things because something terrible happened to them. These dogs may have been abused, attacked by other dogs, or severely neglected. Traumatized are certainly the minority – most dogs who are untrustful are unsocialized or “not wired quite right.” It’s generally not helpful to assume that your dog was abused just because she is skittish, unless you know otherwise.
Most really fearful dogs – like our Saluki in this case – are probably dealing with an unfortunate combination of genetics and life experiences (or lack thereof).
Try not to blame yourself if your dog doesn’t trust you. Even if you could have done things differently, beating yourself up over that won’t help now. Focus on your goals and making small, concrete steps towards achieving those goals. Look where you want to go and focus on what you can control.
How do I get my shy dog to adjust to a new home?
It sounds like this skittish Saluki never really settled into her new home. Here’s what our writer can do to help:
- Give your shy dog time and space. The more you crowd your shy or skittish dog, the more withdrawn she may become. Showing her that you respect her space is probably going to be more fruitful than trying to nag her until she likes you.
- Pro tip: Try to move slowly, keep your eyes averted (staring is scary), and talk quietly.
- Drop food whenever you’re nearby. Every time you walk near her, drop a bit of tasty food. Lunch meat is a great option here – we don’t want to be skimpy with kibble. She doesn’t have to do anything to earn this food. She’s just learning that people = food.
- Let her come to you. If she chooses to approach you, great! Reward with food or whatever else she likes. Resist the urge to get all cuddly with her – that’s probably too much, too soon. If she does seek out cuddles, great! But don’t pursue them if she’s not asking for them.
- Learn more about body language. Many people go to fast with their skittish dogs because they don’t know how to recognize the more subtle signs of stress. The Dog Decoder App is a great way to learn more about things like lip licking, whale eye, paw raises, and shake-offs and how they relate to stress in your dog.
- Play confidence-building games. Basic shaping games are a great way to build confidence in a shy shelter dog. Sit on the opposite end of the room with your eyes averted. If your dog lifts her head, sighs, shifts her weight or makes any movement at all, toss her a piece of meat. She’ll learn that her behavior can make you produce food, which is the first step to bonding and training.
These five basic steps will help your shy dog adjust to a new home! Make sure that your expectations are fair and reasonable. Going too fast or expecting too much can harm more than it helps.
How Do You Help a Skittish Dog?
Much like helping a shy dog adjust to a new home, helping a skittish dog is mostly about patience. You can help your skittish dog a lot by advocating for her space.
Many people with skittish dogs are too concerned about being polite to others. They might let others come up to “say hi” to their dog even if that scares their dog. It’s hard to tell other people no, but helping others give your dog space is so important!
While you give your dog more space around others, you can also ask them to toss treats to her rather than coming up to her for treats. This will help your dog feel safe and learn that strangers are good, without pushing her too far outside of her comfort zone.
Most skittish dogs respond best to people who are quiet and calm. Kneel with your side to the dog and toss her treats (the treat and retreat game is excellent for this). Keep your eyes averted and respect any calming signals that you see.
How do you know if your dog is scared of you?
If you see any of the following body language signs, get your dog help by reducing stress levels:
- Looking away
- Lip licking
- Whites of her eyes
- Raised front paw
- Tucked tail
- Ears pinned back
- Tightly closed mouth
- Shallow or rapid breathing
- Wide eyes
- Dilated (enlarged) pupils
- Flared whiskers
You can help a skittish dog by recognizing the body language above – that’s the first step! Then you can back away (if you’re what’s making her nervous), toss treats, or ask the Scary Person to back off. If you need to get out of the situation, do so! Your dog’s emotional wellbeing is more important than politeness.
You may also consider some of these products for helping reduce your dog’s baseline anxiety:
- Window Coverings help dogs that are hyper-vigilant about the outdoors.
- White Noise Generators help dogs that get nervous about sounds.
- Zylkene is an over-the-counter medication that can have a calming effect for some dogs (and is more effective, in my experience, than Adaptil).
- Thundershirts can help lower stress levels for some dogs.
- Calming Caps can help reduce your dog’s stressful reactions to visual stimuli.
Of course, your main goal should be to teach your skittish do that the thing she’s scared of isn’t so bad after all. You can do this by teaching her that looking at the scary thing = treats (or hearing the scary thing = treats). You have to do this slowly and carefully. Move too fast, and you’ve undone your hard work!
This process is called systematic desensitization and counterconditioning. Read about how to do that in our post on exposure and skittish dogs.
Of course, you can always reach out for further help. We offer a variety of online training services that are perfect for helping out skittish and shy dogs!