How To Get A Timid Dog To Trust You

Working with and building the trust of a scared and timid dog will take time and patience as they develop confidence in their relationship with you.

Whether you’re volunteering at the local animal shelter or you’ve adopted a fearful dog from a rescue, you will want to understand body language, boundaries and respect to form a bond and trust that brings them out of their shell.

With all that being said, how do you get that timid dog you brought home to trust you?

This article will go over the actions and techniques for getting that rescue pup to open up to you.

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By Allison Salonko.

Allison is a Veterinary Technician in the state of Indiana. She graduated from International Business College and Vet Tech Institute of Indianapolis with a degree in Animal Science and Technology in 2011.

Building Trust With Your Timid Dog

This will most likely not be a quick process and you may think you’re making headway just to see them shy away again.

That’s okay!

These scared and unsure dogs will eventually learn with time and consistency that you are a friend and not a foe.

As a Veterinary Technician of over 10 years, I can tell you that I have run into a lot of scared and timid dogs.

I have had to learn body language and techniques for gaining trust in order to work with my patients.

While it is still sometimes a challenge, following these next steps is a well-practiced and proven method of breaking through to timid and fearful dogs.

STOP And Go Slow!

One of the first and most important bits of advice is to go slow!

These dogs are already afraid, so sudden movements and loud noises will easily spook a fearful dog.

Using a calm voice with slow movements will minimize increased anxiety.

I recommend sighing softly or making a subtle gesture or sound before doing any kind of extra movement with your body.

Essentially, we are avoiding startling the dog by getting their attention prior to suddenly standing up or moving from one place to another.

This will at least help your dog to anticipate your movements, potentially keeping the jump-scares to a minimum.

Ignore Timid Dogs. Yes, You Read That Right!

Something I learned quickly in veterinary medicine is that most timid dogs prefer it when you ignore them.

If I enter an exam room with a patient that is clearly afraid and hiding behind it’s owner, I’m not going to approach the dog, I’m going to sit on the floor on the other side of the room and talk with the owner about their reasons for their visit.

Most of the time, the dog will eventually grow curious of me and make their way over.

I continue to ignore them as they sniff me and investigate this new, weird person in this scary place.

If they choose to stay away from me the entire time, I respect that as well.

In an environment where you don’t have to handle the animal directly like I do at work, you will have all the time in the world to let your dog decide when it’s time to make friends.

Don’t force shy dogs to socialize or spend time with you, they will come to you when they’re ready for attention.

No Intense Eye Contact

In human culture, it is respectful to make eye contact with others, but in the dog kingdom, this is typically viewed as an intimidation technique.

Averting your gaze and not staring dogs in the eye, especially head on, is far less threatening for them.

If you must approach the dog, it is best to do so with your head or gaze to the side, instead of directly at them.

Approach Them By Offering Your Side

This brings up the next topic, which is again, not approaching the dog head-on but rather crouching down or on one knee and turning with your side facing them.

In dog language this is a more appropriate or “polite” way of introducing yourself.

Many dogs are much more appreciative of this type of first-time interaction and will usually warm up quickly after that.

Bring On The Treats!

Many dogs are food motivated, especially if they come from a history of living on the streets or they had a lot of resource competition with other animals.

Treats and food are a great way to many dog’s hearts and can be a fabulous tool when getting a shy or timid dog to trust you.

Not only that but food can help them build confidence, work as a distraction and ease anxiety in intimidating situations.

From here, you will use what is called the “Treat and Retreat” game.

This is where the real fun and bonding starts with your timid dog!

The Treat And Retreat Game

This game is a training technique that shelters, fosters and veterinary professionals have used for years when working with fearful and timid dogs.

It teaches your pup that you can be trusted without luring them in for food and still giving them their personal space.

A win, win, win!

To play the Treat and Retreat game all you need is you, your dog, some treats and a little time.

Oh, and I suggest using some torn up pieces of boiled chicken breast to cut back on unwanted calories in your dog during this very yummy and treat heavy game.

Key Tip: It is important to not reach out and grab or touch the timid dog while you are playing the Treat and Retreat game.

The idea is for them to be able to retreat if they want to.

You will potentially cause more harm than good if you pressure them into physical contact when they are not ready.

  1. First things first, after engaging their attention, you will simply toss a treat behind your dog (try to be sitting down or stationary). This has them looking at you, turning to get the food and ideally coming back to you for more.
  2. If they don’t immediately jump on the food, that’s okay, it may take a moment if they are very timid to accept this game and interaction with you.
  3. As they grow more comfortable with this task of getting the food and realizing you’re not a threat, they will probably start approaching you on their own for more treats.

What this game is doing is teaching your dog that it is safe to approach you (and maybe even strangers eventually) on their own, therefore building up confidence in the idea of socializing and engaging without fear.

Use The Pat-Pet-Pause Technique

So, you’ve successfully built up some trust with your timid dog by using the Treat and Retreat game, but now you’d like to try and touch them.

So, what do you do next? That’s where Pat-Pet-Pause comes in.

The point of this game is to teach the dog to enjoy being petted and touched by humans.

Dogs who have been physically abused can take a while to warm up to being petted, so this is a great method for introducing human contact.

It allows them to be petted for a moment, see if they like it and ask for more if they do, giving them control and boundaries over how much they are touched.

**One crucial note is that you should only move onto the Pat-Pet-Pause interaction if your dog is willing to approach you on their own and has taken food from you.

This game is honestly pretty easy, all you have to do is follow these few simple steps.

  1. Kneel or sit on the floor and PAT your knees or legs. Ideally, your dog will approach you on their own and come within touching proximity. If they stay away, that’s also okay. Don’t force it and let them come to you on their own terms.
  2. So far, so good. Next, PET your dog for no more than 3 seconds. I recommend petting them very gently and slowly on the chin and front of the chest. Going for the top of the head or the belly can be threatening when they are still unsure of human interaction.
  3. PAUSE and wait for them to make the next move. If they seem comfortable, move closer or even nuzzle your hand then you can proceed with more pets, maybe even trying to change it up (see if they like butt scratches).

Building Confidence And Trust With A Shy Dog

These few tips will hopefully help you navigate the unsure waters of bringing a timid and fearful dog into your home.

By respecting their space, asking them first for pets and letting them choose when they want attention demonstrates trust and helps to build a strong and confident relationship with you that will last a canine lifetime.

Photo: Darcy.

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