training a timid rescue dog
Pet Behavioral Problems

How to Get a Scared Dog to Trust You Completely

A new dog should be a joyful and exciting experience. Whether they’re a rescue dog or a puppy from a breeder, you’ve spent a long time choosing him. You’ve been imagining all the fun things you’re going to do together: cuddles, walks, training, and playtime.

When your new dog first comes home, it’s natural for him to be a little scared. After all, you’ve just taken him away from the world that he knows. You’re a stranger, and your house is full of new sights and smells.

But within a few days, your new dog should be happy, relaxed and full of beans. If he’s not, it’s natural to be a bit worried. Why is my dog afraid of me? Have I done something wrong? And what can I do about it?

Today, we’ll take you through our tried-and-tested methods of helping your dog overcome his fear. Using our tips, you can boost your dog’s confidence and people skills. You’ll learn how to gain his trust, and help your dog feel at ease – both in the home and out on the leash.

So, let’s dig in and find out how to get a scared dog to trust you completely.

Table of Contents:

How Can I Tell if My Dog is Afraid?

The first step is recognizing when your dog is afraid. Although dogs are mammals like us, they’re quite different to people. Their fear can express itself in different ways. Some signs of fear in dogs can be quite subtle, and easy to miss.

If you learn to understand when your dog is afraid, it’ll be easier to help him.

The first step is to examine your dog’s body language. According to WebMD, signs of a scared dog include:

  • Ears lying flat against the head
  • Dilated (enlarged) pupils
  • Tail between the legs
  • Raised hackles
  • Tense muscles in the body and face
  • Cowering close to the ground
  • Exaggerated yawning

Your dog’s behavior can also indicate that he is afraid. A scared dog shaking or trembling is a pretty obvious sign. He may also bark constantly, whine or whimper. He may also show signs of aggression such as growling.

If your dog suffers from chronic fear, you’ll notice more severe symptoms. These may happen if your dog is severely frightened, or if they have been anxious for a long time. Such signs include pacing up and down, or in circles. You may notice excessive self-grooming, such as licking and chewing on his own feet. He may even have toilet accidents around the house.

Why is My Dog Afraid of Me?

It may be hard to understand why your dog is afraid of you. After all, you’ve taken him in and provided a happy home with everything he needs. You’ve tried to offer love and affection, but he doesn’t appreciate it.

The first thing to understand is that it’s not your dog’s fault. Dogs don’t choose to be afraid of something or someone. It’s almost always because of a bad upbringing or traumatic event in a dog’s life. This could include abuse, neglect, or just a lack of socialization.

It most likely occurred long before you entered your dog’s life. In the case of rescue dogs, it’s especially likely. That being said, puppies can be traumatized as well – especially those born in a puppy mill.

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Your dog probably isn’t scared of just you. Most dogs that struggle with fear are afraid of all people. However, a dog afraid of one person isn’t unheard of. There might be something about you which reminds him of a bad time in his life. For instance, you may have a similar voice to someone that abused him in the past. You might wear a similar perfume, or be the same height or sex.

Occasionally, dogs can have happy and safe upbringings and still become fearful. Some dogs are predisposed to anxiety and fear. But whatever the problem is, remember that it’s not your fault. Deep down, your dog is keen to trust and love you. He needs help becoming more confident.

Why is My Dog Too Scared to Walk?

If your dog is struggling with fear and confidence issues, he may be too scared to walk with you outside. If this is the case, your dog might seem visibly stressed when you produce the leash.  He may run and hide before you can put it on. If you manage it, your dog will be reluctant to leave the house. He might refuse to move over the threshold. While outside, he will likely demonstrate fearful body language or try to turn around and come home.

A rescue dog that is afraid of a leash is certainly not unheard of. Searching the web for “my dog is anxious on walks” reveals just how common the problem is.

Why is this? Well, walking can be a very stressful experience for a dog who’s already anxious. After all, you’re taking your dog out of his home and thrusting him into the big wide world. The world is full of noise from traffic, people, and other animals. There are so many new sights and smells. It can be windy, rainy or very bright. And of course, when out on walks your dog may encounter strange people and other dogs. It can all be very overwhelming for an anxious pooch.

There’s also a chance that something has happened on a previous walk to scare your dog. It might have gone entirely unnoticed by you. It could have been a car backfiring, rain or the sound of a storm, a siren in the distance or a loud group of children. Sometimes, if a dog has a frightening experience, they are reluctant to go outside again.

How to Help a Fearful Dog Gain Confidence

Fortunately, it’s not impossible to help a scared dog gain confidence. It must be said that it can be a long, hard process. If your dog has experienced a traumatic event, it’s not something he can get over quickly. If it’s his natural disposition, it’s hard to battle with genetics. You may have to persevere with your pooch for a long time before seeing much difference.

But the best time to start implementing these changes is now. We’ll take you through the most effective ways to rid your dog of his fear in the home. Then, we’ll share our guidelines on leash training a scared dog.

1) Create a Calm, Positive Atmosphere

Dogs are incredibly reactive beings. They pick up very quickly on the emotions of people around them. It’s because of their social nature; dogs are descended from wolves, which are pack animals. A wolf’s life depends on reading the emotions of his pack. If the other pack members are scared or aggressive, it’s a sign that there’s a threat nearby. So, it stands to reason that if you’re showing negative emotions, your dog will pick them up.

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Don’t acknowledge your dog’s fear by coddling him or trying to comfort him. This will encourage him to be scared – you’re rewarding him for the anxious behavior. Try not to act stressed out by yelling, being aggressive or loud. This will lead to your dog becoming even more stressed himself.

Instead, create a calm, relaxed atmosphere.

  • When walking around the home, move slowly and deliberately. Avoid fast or sudden movements.
  • Let your dog know you’re approaching by humming quietly or talking to yourself.
  • Avoid loud noises, such as yelling and screaming. Explain to children that the dog needs peace and quiet.
  • Close doors slowly and gently, so that they don’t slam.
  • Make use of scents. Use a scented diffuser near your dog’s bed, so that he comes to associate a particular scent with relaxation. Then, use this around the home to help him feel calm.

This is also the key to how to make a dog-friendly to strangers. When someone visits the house, or you meet a stranger elsewhere, act calm and collected. Behave as if everything is normal. Reacting in any way will communicate to your dog that there’s something to be wary of.

2) Introduce Quality Time

The more time your dog spends around you, the easier it will become for him to trust you. After all, he doesn’t trust you because he doesn’t know you well enough yet. A dog that has been treated badly by humans in the past may be extremely wary of all people. Let your dog know that there’s nothing to be afraid of by spending time with him.

First, it’s important to remember one thing. Never force your dog to be around you if he doesn’t want to be. If he walks away from you into a different room, don’t follow him. This is his way of saying “I’m too overwhelmed right now, please leave me be.”

When you are in the room with your dog, spend time on the floor. You’ll seem less threatening and dominant if you’re smaller. Being down on your dog’s level will help him feel more relaxed. Spend time sitting near your dog to start with. Don’t stare at him, as this might be intimidating. Hold out your hand and let your dog sniff you if he wants to.

Keep some strongly-scented treats in your pocket while you’re at home. If your dog is reluctant to come near you, the smell of treats might pique his curiosity. Occasionally, toss a treat in your dog’s direction. As he gets more comfortable being near you, introduce playtime. Playing with your dog is a great way to strengthen your bond. Try throwing a ball or playing tug with a rope.

3) Use Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is one of the best ways to help your dog learn to trust you. It’ll help show your dog that good things happen when you’re around. Eventually, he’ll become more confident in your presence.

For the reward, we recommend using a high-value treat such as a piece of chicken or hot dog. Figure out what your dog responds to best, and use that. For the best results, use something your dog doesn’t usually get very often.

With an extremely frightened dog, it’s best to start slow. Here’s how to use positive reinforcement to get your dog used to you.

  1. Begin by rewarding your dog whenever he’s in the same room as you. When he enters the room (or you enter the room your dog is in), toss him a treat. Eventually, your dog will be comfortable being around you.
  2. Next, start encouraging your dog to come closer. Show him that you have the treat, but let him come to you for it. Drop it nearer to where you’re sitting. Do this enough, and your dog will learn there’s nothing to fear. After all, good things happen whenever you’re around.
  3. Progress to letting your dog eat out of your hand. Don’t drop the treat on the floor, but instead hold it in an outstretched palm for him to take. This step may take a while.
  4. When he seems comfortable with this, give him physical affection by patting his chest. Don’t attempt to touch his head, as he might become anxious when he can’t see your hand. If he lets you touch him, offer treats again.

This process may take a while, but in due course, your dog will trust you completely.

4) Don’t Punish Your Dog

For your dog to start trusting you, he needs to learn that you’re a good person. This isn’t something you can convince him of in a day or two. Gaining the trust of an anxious dog can be a long and difficult task. Any hint that you’re someone to be scared of can reset the entire process. That’s why it’s so important never to punish your dog.

Many people think that punishing a dog when they do something wrong is a form of training. It’s not rare to see someone yelling at their dog when they jump up at someone. Or, yanking their dog’s leash painfully when he tries to pull ahead. Unfortunately, this method will not help your dog learn. Dogs respond to positive reinforcement (reward), not punishment. Punishing your dog will only teach him to be scared of you.

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So if your dog is reluctant to come near you, try not to get frustrated. If you grab at him or raise your voice, he’ll become even more frightened. Some extremely anxious dogs can suffer from incontinence, too. If your dog has a toilet accident around the house, don’t get mad. Yelling, or shoving your dog’s nose into his own mess, is the worst thing you can do.

When your dog does something you don’t like, don’t react. Instead, when he displays the correct behavior, pay him attention and give him a treat. Dogs tend to repeat behaviors that are rewarded.

How To Leash Train a Scared Dog

Once your dog has become comfortable with your presence at home, you’ve overcome the first barrier. Your dog now recognizes his home as somewhere safe and trusts you.

The second part is harder. Many dogs are initially scared of going on walks. Your dog may trust you, but out in the big wide world, there are strangers and other animals. He may feel comfortable in his home, but remain anxious and frightened outside of it. Not to mention, the feeling of being on a leash can be very restricting. On leash, your dog can’t run away and hide if he feels the need to.

Fortunately, just as you taught your dog to trust you, you can teach your dog to enjoy walks. It may take some time, but eventually, you’ll have a happy, well-adjusted pooch.

1) How to Leash Train a Scared Dog: Desensitization

It all starts with desensitization training. This is the process of getting your dog used to the idea of going on a walk.

Initially, focus on getting your dog used to their leash. The following is also applicable to a harness if you’re using one.

  1. Instead of keeping the leash stored out of sight, bring it into the room. Leave the leash lying around where your dog will see it.
  2. Offer your dog treats every time they approach or investigate the leash. Again, we recommend using high-value treats that your dog doesn’t usually receive. Eventually, your dog will become used to having the leash near him.
  3. The next step is to attach the leash to your dog for a moment and offer a reward. Repeat this until your dog is happy to wear the leash. Let him walk around the house with the leash on, and continually offer treats.
  4. Next, hold the end of the leash and walk your dog around the house. Don’t be shy about offering treats. You want your dog to build up a positive association with being on-leash.
  5. After doing this a few times a day, progress outside to the yard.
  6. Once your dog is completely used to being on the leash, start taking them slightly further away from the house. Reward them with treats any time they make progress, no matter how small.

Initially, your dog may be reluctant to go very far, but that’s OK. Desensitization is all about building up their confidence slowly over time. Eventually, you’ll be able to walk your dog further and further.

2) Make Walks Rewarding

Once your dog is used to walking with you, make sure he comes to associate walks with rewards. Always walk your dog somewhere they’ll enjoy going. For example:

  • The beach (as long as it’s dog-friendly)
  • The lake or river
  • The forest (plenty of sticks to throw)
  • An open space, such as a field or meadow, perfect for playing Frisbee
  • A dog park, if your dog enjoys making friends

Soon, your dog will start realizing that walks always lead somewhere fun. He’ll be excited enough to overcome the fear of the walk itself. Make sure to continue offering treats, too. As your walks get longer, bring bigger or more tempting treats with you. If your dog goes further than he has before, you should offer them a higher value reward.

Always offer treats for calm, confident behavior. Reward your dog for keeping pace with you, and staying close to your heel. If your dog meets another dog or human and reacts positively, reward the behavior. Bring toys along on the walk, too. Tug toys, balls, or stuffed animals are all good choices. Your dog will learn to associate walks with all of his favorite things and look forward to them.

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3) Start Slow and Be Patient

Remember that the process of training a scared dog is often long and arduous. Dogs who have suffered trauma in their lives can take months or years to trust people again.

When you’re building your dog’s confidence, you must start out small and slow. If you push your dog too hard, he’ll resent you for it. You may end up scaring your dog away even more. Any small feat should be rewarded.

Just like people, dogs will have off-days, too. Some days, you might not be able to convince your dog to make any progress. Expect this, and don’t get annoyed. It’s important to persevere, but don’t rush your dog into anything. Continue with training only when your dog seems receptive to it. Allow your dog space away from you if he needs it.

Similarly, you may be making great progress, but then something will startle your dog back into hiding. These things can’t be avoided all the time. When this happens, stay calm and don’t react negatively. Your dog will begin to trust you again in time.

Does Your Dog Need Professional Help?

Sometimes, you can persevere for weeks or months and still see no progress. This may be the case if your dog has been severely abused or neglected in the past. Some dogs have been abused so badly that they are very reluctant to trust people in the future.

In this case, take your dog to a veterinarian. They’ll be able to recommend a professional dog behaviorist to help. This may be the best idea if you’re struggling to help your dog on your own. Dog behaviorists often have years of experience with even the most difficult-to-train animals.

You can also ask your vet about medication for nervous dogs. Believe it or not, anti-anxiety dog medication does exist. Explain your dog’s disposition to your veterinarian, and tell them how long it’s been going on for. If they think it’s appropriate, they may be able to prescribe a relaxant or sedative. They may alternatively recommend a drug-free pheromone diffuser, such as Adaptil.

Whatever route you choose to go down, you will eventually see progress. It’s not easy to get a scared dog to trust you, but it’s always worth it in the end. There’s nothing better than seeing a scared, anxious dog transform into a happy, lovable companion.