A veterinarian discusses how to help build trust bonds with a new rescue dog. Dealing with a shy dog, timid dog, rescue dog, foster dog, or any frightened dog can be difficult if they are extremely unsocialized or shy. Most dogs settle down nicely in a few days, but some are longer projects and the initial foundation work can set the stage for quicker more solid success in helping the dog thrive in its new home.
Patience is a Virtue with any Rescue Dog
The very first step is not to expect too much too fast. This article is ultimately aimed for assistance with extremely shy dogs that do not warm right up within a week or so. Those dogs will need more help in establishing a trust bond than the average foster or rescue dog. But ALL rescue dogs are stressed initially and often expected to be instantly ready for a new life when they walk in the door to their new home. That is unrealistic.
A good rule of thumb is to expect decompression for the average dog coming into a brand new home to follow the 3-3-3 rule. Two resources for more information on that decompression period and the usual expectations can be found at UKUSCAdoggie and iheartdogs. In short, the first 3 days they need quiet time to adjust and fully decompress from the stress. The first three weeks you will gradually see them relax and see more of their natural personality begin to show rather than just fear and appeasement behavior. And most have adapted well by the 3 month mark in their new home.
However, dogs that come from extremely neglectful backgrounds where they may never have been properly socialized to people or even living inside a home may be more profoundly distressed and shut down. These dogs tend to have an extended decompression period and it will vary on the dog and the conditions they came from.
These severely scared, shy, anxious dogs are seldom a sprint to a happy ending. They tend to be marathon projects that require a great deal of patience. The ideal home or foster will understand they will be a long term project requiring a lot of work and a lot of understanding. Their improvements will be small and take time, and they often take one step forward and two steps back. Slow going, slow evolving, but rewarding in their own way.
So first=patience. Second=understanding. Third=Adjust the timeline of your expectations.
Understand the Extremely Timid Rescue Dog Reaction Base
Often times people make an assumption of active abuse when working with extremely shy dog. While that can certainly happen, more commonly these dogs are poorly socialized. If kept in isolation and not exposed to new things and new people for months or years then you end up with extremely anxious, easily frightened, very reactive dogs. That is why socialization of a puppies is extremely important!
A dog that is never spoken to kindly, never touched, and never exposed to anything but a cage or limited contact in run or backyard has no real frame of reference for ‘normal’. Being suddenly thrust from their very limited exposure to things into a full active household can be extremely overwhelming, and panic inducing. Most people cannot imagine that level of stress. Imagine perhaps living in a cabin in the woods far removed from all humanity since birth and then suddenly being thrust into a New York Subway at rush hour as your new home.
Trying to overcome a complete lack of socialization is difficult but not impossible for most adult dogs. Some dogs have a genetic component to their anxiety, and often come from parentage where one or both of the parents have history of being very reactionary. Those dogs can be more difficult. Ultimately the why does not matter as much in determining the how of moving forward to help them.
For some of these dogs, every single new person is always Godzilla for varying period of time. That period of time can be years in a few cases. Fortunately many of them get nearly normal about meeting new folks and being exposed to new things over time. Each of these cases is very individual. In the severe cases, most folks beyond a special 1-2 people they interact with a lot remain some level of Godzilla to these dogs.
Even with a severely anxious rescue dog, you can usually move all the routine household into the ‘baby godzilla’ category at the very least. If a foster dog or rescue dog has not significantly warmed up after 1-2 months then the expectation that the dog will turn out to be fine and ‘normal’ needs to be adjusted. They are not normal ‘reactive dogs’. They are a world unto their own sometimes. Helpful techniques are the same but usually the time frames to ‘success’ are extended and the definition of ‘success’ will need modification
A severely anxious rescue dog or profoundly neglected foster dog are often marathon lifetime projects, NOT happy sprints to a fairy tale ending. It is important to build a very strong foundation of trust and make frequent deposits into that trust bank, far more solid and more often than the average happy rescue dog needs.
How to Build Trust Bonds With A Frightened Rescue Dog
Be Aware of Body Language
All dogs are excellent at reading body language as a rule. It is their primary form of communication. And frankly most well socialized dogs read human body language like a book as well. If they were human, the read body language so well that people would accuse them of being psychic. Not kidding.
So it is important for you to be aware of what YOUR body language is staying to them as well as for you to learn to read their subtle body language expressions. To help a severely anxious dog build trust bonds, then they have to be able to TRUST that YOU will intervene when they are stressing out. If you do not recognize that and keeping pushing their boundaries then they cannot and will not begin to trust people.
To that end it is very important that you learn dog body language. And we have great set of resources accumulated to help you start with that: Dog Body Language: Guide to Successful Communication with Your Dog
It is also important that you remain aware and teach everyone that will approach a very timid dog in your care how to do so appropriately in the least frightening manner! Our complete article to help with that can be reached here: Greeting Dogs: How Best to Support a Shy Dog or a New Rescue
Routine Care and Husbandry
Whomever takes care of these dogs’ basic needs routinely always gets less scary much faster. So whomever wants to develop a better relationship should help feed, water, and walk the foster dog some on leash.
When feeding, it actually makes a difference many times if they will handle the food physically after putting it in the bowl. Simply run their fingers through the dry food or smoosh the wet food up in their hands. It is not recommended that you try and hand feed them if they are extremely anxious. Trying to force that will only make them more reluctant to eat. The ONLY thing you are after at this point is to provide the person’s scent for a clear positive association with a meal.
In general, the new person should do all these routine caretaking things VERY nonchalantly. So, just handle the food and then put down their bowl to let them eat. Do not spend a bunch of time trying to force interactions. There is NO trust bank at this point so do NOT try to make your interactions transactional with the shy dog. Just casually caretake for them until they decompress and begin to relax.
Initially, let them just watch and realize that nothing bad ever happens when the new person is around. Recall that Godzilla (the new person) trying to greet and touch to them = bad to them right now. We want them to realize that only good things (food, water, treats, care, opportunity to go outside) come from this Godzilla person!!
Remember to be patient and do NOT push the dog to go quicker. Not initially. BE PATIENT and let them decompress.
Begin to Interact and Build More Positive Associations and Experiences
Once the dog has decompressed and is eating well and showing some interest in the caretaker’s arrival and departure rather than pure fear, you can start figuring out what sort of treat (if any) is able to tempt them. Initially, the severely anxious rescue dog may not take treats from anyone standing near. With them you will have to offer treats into their bowl and leave them alone and see what they liked from afar (or via nanny cam).
You will need to figure out what the most insanely high value thing they cannot ignore is – perhaps cooked chicken, special made meatballs, bacon, garlic bologna, whatever they find irresistible. Experiment. Once the dog will take treats from their preferred person inside and out = fabulous. You have a path forward at that point to continue training with a clear reward basis.
When trying to introduce anyone to them initially, then the dog’s most favored awesome treat is what the new people start out with as their good will offering. Go back to what we talked about above in the Greeting Dogs: How Best to Support a Shy Dog or a New Rescue article. The people wishing to develop a trusting relationship with the dog need to do so sitting down whether they are inside or outside. While sitting, they should nonchalantly and gently toss the awesome treat to the side toward the dog if the dog will not approach for the treat in their hand.
You will need to figure out what the magic ‘threshold safe distance’ is for the dog to feel comfortable and safe enough to approach and take the treat from the ground. In the initial stages, the treat feeding/bribing will go better if the new person is prepared to sit and chill and actually primarily ignore the dog. Have them bring their phone so the human can be occupied, and periodically pitch a treat to the ‘magic distance’ off to their side. Patience remains key in this process.
The initial goal is not to touch the dog. Only to develop positive associations that are as non stressful as possible. So basically they should ideally ignore the dog, softly toss a treat to the side. Rinse and repeat. Every day see if you can decrease the magic distance a little. The ultimate goal being for the rescue dog to take the awesome treat from the new person’s hand while they are sitting down.
When that is easily and solidly accomplished then you move to standing and go through the same process. Once the new person can give them a treat standing from their hand – things are looking up for making more progress in time.
Once the foster dog starts to relax more clearly, then gradually try more things. If the rescue dog will play with one person, then have the others that wish to build a relationship be there during play. Once again nonchalantly at first, not participating, perhaps just being there nearby without anything scary happening. Just being present while the shy dog enjoys good times with their favorite person. Again, no big deal. But also do not be loud or boisterous. Just be there then gradually and calmly participate.
After being accepted more, the new people can participate by going with the foster dog when walking on a leash. If the shy rescue will only walk on leash with one person, then the new person should go with them. The favorite trusted person can casually hand off the leash to the new person, and walk alongside them both for awhile, while both have awesome treats in hand. Be certain you pick quiet places to practice walking on leash that do not cause the dog distress.
Gradually, you both can work on the new person going away with the dog on leash a small distance away. Just enough for the dog to realize that the new person has them and then turn around and come back to their favored trusted person. The goal is for the new person to be able to keep walking the shy dog once the leash is handed off without making a big deal of anything. If the rescue dog will not eat a treat while walking, that is fine as long as they are reasonably comfortable. Just walk without trying to touch the dog, but rather just let them be and let them keep walking with the new person.
Once the dog will sit on command and stay calmly waiting and take a treat from the new person while standing, then you just build from there.
Medication for Severely Anxious Rescue Dogs
The severely anxious dogs that do not settle into a more ‘normal’ state of being with a 2-3 weeks, but remain severely reactive and anxious will almost always benefit tremendously from a daily, long-acting anti-anxiety drug. These severe dogs tend to be hypervigilant and waste most of their mental space on trying to watch EVERYTHING and EVERYBODY all at once.
These dogs commonly shut down entirely, refusing food or even the highest value treats when there are just too many different things going on at once. If they get overwhelmed and they cannot watch -everything- then many times they shut off. In severe cases like these, proper medication tends to make a huge difference.
By daily, long acting, anti-anxiety med, I mean drugs such as fluoxetine or clomipramine, and others. Trazodone alone is seldom helpful for these severe general anxiety dogs as it tends to sedate a little more than alleviate anxiety and it is not particularly long acting. The shorter acting drugs such as trazodone, clonidine, or alprazolam are often used in addition to the long acting drugs for known events (when you know you have a stressful event for the dog coming up) to excellent effect.
Proper medication shuts down that super hypervigilant mode, which allows these anxious dogs to focus on the big picture rather than wasting all their mental energy on every dog, person, blowing leaf, jumping cricket, tiny sudden sound, or moving blade of grass at the same time. Too much going on at once just flips their anxiety switch and hypervigilant reactive mode into high gear.
The beauty of the proper medication for them is that allows them the mental space to learn while being exposed to new things, rather than just react with ever increasing anxiety. That is the ultimate goal for these dogs, finding the best way to allow them to learn in a calm positive environment. Medication can be an extremely valuable tool to help accomplish this in severely anxious rescue dogs.
Medication should be used with extreme caution in dogs displaying overt aggression tendencies unless an experienced veterinary behaviorist is overseeing the treatment plan. There are many different drugs and combinations that can be used without aggravating aggression and they will be aware of the best choices.
The typical scared quaking non aggressive dogs that just want to flee the scene, are usually profoundly improved with an appropriate medication. They begin to move more easily from reacting to every little change into pausing more easily to listen and process and learn. After awhile they have processed enough about new things so that less stuff freaks them out initially.
Over The Counter Products that can help decrease stress on dogs:
There are many that can assist decently in mild to moderately anxious animals. You need to have a realistic expectation of them though. They tend to assist your other efforts nicely, NOT magically make for a calm dog on their own. The more severe the anxiety, the less obvious the assistance of OTC supplements will be. Some things to consider are:
- Adaptil collars and Adaptil Calming diffuser – a calming pheromone for dogs. I would recommend both collar and diffuser for early, mild dogs.
- Vetriscience Composure treats for dogs
- Purina Calming Care Probiotics
- CBD – can it help, some with mild cases, but do seek out a quality product. There is too much wild variation at present for me to have noted one that seems to do consistently decent.
Final Tips for Working with an Anxious Rescue Dog
For the rescue dog that has been well socialized with other dogs (street dogs and often most puppy mill dogs have been well socialized to other dogs), an easy in for training these dogs is to bring along a nice friendly relatively bomb proof dog. If you have access to a dog friendly well trained dog, then you can let the extreme anxious dog watch the happy ‘normal’ dog work the cues and commands.
These dogs are usually incredibly observant. They are not unlike children or adults with PTSD with their level of extreme hypervigilance about their surroundings. A healthy happy dog to pattern after helps them tremendously if they have been well dog socialized.
Also with new people or old, beware of wearing caps and hats. Invariably anxiety ridden dogs dislike caps or hats even on people they know, especially if their preferred person does not always wear them. Something odd that suddenly changes a person’s physical appearance or physical outline makes that person a brand new “Godzilla” super easily to these severely anxious dogs. They get over it, but they have to learn that the cap wearer is not in fact a brand new Godzilla in their space.
The moderate to severely affected dogs do tend to always fret about new things in their environment and they are crazy good at recognizing changes. Our household joke is that our anxiety ridden dog Cissy, even though calmer now, would likely notice my spouse got a haircut before I worked out what was different, and it is probably true.