The little dog was shaking in her skin, cowering beneath her bed in the shelter. So scared that she’d peed herself, this little dog wanted nothing to do with me. But it was my job to help this dog trust people again so that she could be adopted. And we just had a few weeks to do that, because the shelter had limited kennels.
Building the trust of a shy dog can take time. No matter how skilled you are, helping a traumatized dog bond with you is almost always a slow process. That said, there are many things that you can do to help a shy dog trust you.
During my time working at Denver Dumb Friends League (the fourth largest animal shelter in the United States), I spent 40 hours per week essentially helping shy dogs learn to trust people. Sometimes it was a matter of learning to trust again, and sometimes our goal was to teach a street dog that people were not scary for the first time in that dog’s life.
We always used treats for this process. Giving a dog food when she’s nervous doesn’t reward the fear – it helps to change the chemicals in her brain, making her less afraid. We’ll use lots of treats throughout this process!
Whether your roommate has a shy dog that just doesn’t quite want to be around you, or you’re the foster parent for a seriously traumatized dog, there’s a lot that you can do to help build a bond with a fearful dog.
Let’s go through a few key components of helping a shy dog trust you.
Make Yourself Unthreatening
It’s always smart to focus on what you can control. In the case of working with dogs, this includes your own body language and behavior. It will always be easiest to control yourself!
You can help make yourself unthreatening to the dog by:
- Kneeling down to make yourself smaller.
- Keeping your back or side to the dog.
- Averting eye contact – look to the side rather than directly at the dog.
- Speaking quietly, if at all.
- Keeping your movements smooth and slow – jerky or fast movement is scary!
When working with dogs at the animal shelter, I spent most of my time kneeling with my side or back to them. Sometimes, I’d just sit on the other side of the kennel door and toss treats towards the dog. Often, ignoring the dog is the best way to help her trust you.
As tempting as it is, don’t try to call the dog to you right away and don’t lure it over to you with treats.
A hungry dog might come over to get food when she’s really not comfortable with that. I’ve actually seen people get bitten when they lured a dog over too close! Luring the dog over can lead to the dog becoming suspicious of treats and doesn’t teach her that strangers are good as effectively as the methods outlined below.
Pay Attention to the Dog’s Body Language
Body language is the hands-down best way to know what a dog is saying. Many shy dogs will simply move away from you if they’re nervous, but others hide and bark. Aside from these obvious signs of fear, it’s important to be able to tell when the dog is a bit uncomfortable.
If you can tell when the dog is just a little nervous, you can back off then – this will help the dog trust you because you’re going to respect her space! Violating your dog’s boundaries will just teach her that you’re scary (and can lead to learned helplessness, which is not trust).
In particular, pay attention to calming signals (click the link to read a whole article on the subject). These are a dog’s way of saying that she’s a bit unsure about something – give her extra space if you see them.
Keep an eye out for:
- Lip licking
- “Whale eye” where the dog looks at you without moving, showing the whites of her eyes
- Excessive sniffing
Of course, your dog might also yawn right after a nap. Part of the trick of being a good dog body language reader is paying attention to context. If your dog is yawning while you pet her, she’s probably nervous rather than sleepy!
Other signs of nervousness include a backward weight shift, wide eyes, furrowed brows, a tightly closed mouth, a fear grimace (mouth corners pulled far back without a lolling tongue), and pinned-back ears.
If you see any signs of nervousness during an introduction or a training session, it’s time to take a break. Toss the dog a piece of food (chicken or hot dog) and walk away. You can try again later!
Give The Dog Space
Whenever you’re working with a fearful dog, it’s always best to let her come to you. Give the dog ample space (at least 10 feet for most dogs, sometimes much more is needed) and ensure that she doesn’t feel trapped.
This means that if the dog is in her crate, under a bed or table, or in a corner, you should give her extra space. When approaching a dog on a leash, keep in mind that this dog is also trapped.
As I said above, my go-to with fearful dogs is to sit or kneel (kneeling is best if the dog is a bite risk) with my side to the dog and let the dog approach me.
Be patient and don’t approach the dog.
Use Treat and Retreat
Now it’s time to start talking about the “real” training. So far, all we’ve done is kept the dog from getting more scared of you. Now it’s time to reduce that fear. Suzanne Clothier pioneered the “Retreat and Treat” or “Treat and Retreat” method – and it’s extremely powerful for working with shy dogs.
Treat and retreat is an excellent way to help teach a scared dog that you’re not a threat. Rather than trying to lure the dog over with food, we can reward the dog for engaging with us and then give her the space she needs most.
Here’s how it works:
- Approach the dog with your side to her, eyes averted. Give her as much space as you can.
- When she notices you, toss a treat behind her. If she doesn’t move to eat it, back up and reset. If she does, great!
- When she looks back towards you, toss another treat behind her.
- Gradually start tossing the treat for the dog looking at you for longer periods of time.
- Start varying where you toss the treat. One toss will be between you and the dog, the next goes behind the dog again. This keeps the dog moving but alos gives her frequent “breaks” from being close to you.
- Most dogs will quickly start to approach you between treat tosses. Reward every single weight shift, paw movement, or step with another treat. Again, toss the treat behind the dog.
This method is also extremely effective when working with dogs that might bite. It shows the dog that you’re not a threat, you won’t push boundaries, that you bring good things, and that they can move away if they’re uncomfortable.
Treat and retreat will often do the trick to get dogs comfortable near you. But what if the goal is to pet the shy dog?
Don’t move on to pat-pet-pause if the dog isn’t readily approaching you and taking treats from your hand. That can take quite a while – but don’t rush it!
The pat-pet-pause approach is a popular way to assess how a dog feels about how a person is handling her.
- Pat your knees to call the dog over. If she doesn’t come over, she doesn’t want to be petted. Leave her alone. If she does come over, go to step #2.
- Pet the dog for three seconds.
- Pause for three seconds. See what the dog does.
- Watch – if the dog stays put and looks relaxed, (or moves towards you) pet more. If the dog moves away, averts her gaze, or looks tense, stop petting and walk away.
- Repeat. Try the pat-pet-pause game again later (at least 5-10 minutes) with a different type of petting.
- So if you were roughly slapping ribs (a favorite sort of petting for my old lab, but not one to try with unknown dogs), try rubbing the dog’s ears or muzzle with an open palm (my border collie loves this, especially rubbing over his eyes). Or try scratching the dog’s rump or gently massaging ears.
- You’ll figure out what your dog likes and when she likes it in no time!
- Just like you, not all dogs like the same touch all the time. My border collie really only likes belly rubs early in the morning when he’s most relaxed and sleepy. The rest of the day, he prefers face rubs or no petting at all.
This approach lets the dog dictate how, when, and for how long she’s being touched.
You don’t have to be a dog body language expert, and it avoids situations where the dog freezes in place while being touched. This fear response in some dogs can create the appearance of tolerance, but is actually a warning sign!
Pat-pet-pause teaches dogs that they can simply move away and that we’ll respect that decision.
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, and as a private dog trainer. When not working on Journey Dog Training, Kayla works at Working Dogs for Conservation. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her border collie Barley.