How To Help Your Scared Rescue Dog Warm Up

The hardest-won snuggles are the sweetest.

helping a scared rescue dog

If you’ve recently rescued a dog from a shelter, first thing’s first: CONGRATULATIONS!

Rescuing a dog is one of the most rewarding things you can do. But while being a rescue parent is beyond fulfilling, it helps to be ready for any challenges your pup might be facing.

While tons of rescue dogs are happy-go-lucky from the beginning, others take a little more time getting warmed up and adjusted to a new environment — but who can blame them?

Think about it — most rescue dogs go through one of two scenarios:

1. They were surrendered by their owners, meaning that they were given up by a family they knew and loved, taken from their own beds and routine and placed in a completely new environment with new people, smells, sounds — and other dogs.

2. They were saved from the streets or a bad environment, and may not have known any real human love.

Some rescue pups have the benefit of living in a foster home before getting adopted. But after experiencing at least a couple of major changes, it’s no wonder rescue dogs can seemingly be scared of everything — they just want to know that it's all finally going to be OK.

Patience and rescue dogs

“The most important part of bringing a shy dog out of its shell is patience,” Shelby Semel, head animal trainer at Animal Haven rescue in New York City, told The Dodo. “The more you force or push, the longer it will take to build trust.”

According to Semel, it’s best to expose your rescue to whatever she’s afraid of — other dogs? people? outdoors? loud sounds? everything? — very, very slowly.

How to bond with a dog who’s skittish around you

If your pup seems to be timid around you, know that this is normal behavior and something that can be worked on with a bit of patience and a lot more love.

Dogs who have been abandoned over and over can build trust again, but it just takes some time — and the right owner. While it might take a while for your new dog to understand that you aren’t going to leave her, the bond that you’ll have once you help her love again is going to make it all worth it.

When you first bring your new rescue home, there are some steps you can take to help get her adjusted to her new home — and her new family:

1. Give her plenty of space. 

Bonding with a rescue dog is all about taking it slow. While you might want to give her plenty of attention and snuggles to let her know it’s all OK, if your rescue pup has anxiety or trust issues, in her mind, you’re just another scary new thing who might disappoint her. Allow her time to get adjusted on her own schedule.

2. Let her come to you.

In the beginning, it’s best to let your rescue decide when you’re going to interact. Rather than bombarding her with affection, let her approach you when she’s comfortable.

3. Watch where you pet her.

While you’re still building trust, try to avoid petting your rescue in sensitive areas like her ears, tail, paws or head. Avoid hovering over her and don’t hug her tightly into your body just yet. If your rescue has fears of being trapped, getting physical too quickly might give her more anxiety.

4. Try bringing her toys or treats and just leaving them on the ground.

Depending on how skittish your dog is, she might display anxiety if you move around too quickly, or if you hand-deliver her treats. To help this, you can get her used to you by making sure she associates you with positive experiences. Try walking close by and setting a tasty treat down and continue walking away. Repeat this daily, building up to you sitting close by when she’s enjoying her treat. If you keep it up, she’ll begin to relax when you’re near.

5. Use games and training to build her confidence.

Once your dog is comfortable around you, start using basic training exercises and games to build her confidence. A confident dog is able to shed anxious behavior because she can better control her emotions.

Management for stressed-out rescue dogs

While working to help your dog open up more, Semel says, stress management can help lower the tension for you and your dog, and help create an atmosphere favorable for training and behavior modification.

“Management is avoiding the scary stimulus,” Semel says, “like not letting strangers pet your dog, walking on the other side of the street when a dog is coming, having your dog in another room with a bone when the maintenance man is over — and can help ease your dog's stress levels.”

At the same time, doing training and fun tricks can help build confidence! Don’t force your dog into scary situations in an effort to make them “deal with it” as this will often have the opposite effect and make them more afraid.

How to help a dog who’s “scared of everything”

If your dog is scared of specific triggers — or even if they seem to be scared of everything — there are steps you can take to help them gain confidence.

1. Make sure you’re not encouraging the fear.

While your first instinct might be to comfort your dog when she’s scared, doing so might actually make your dog think this is a reward for acting afraid, or that her fears are valid. Rather than immediately petting or picking up your dog, remain calm and keep your energy steady. Your dog feeds off the energy you put out, so keeping yours under control and staying relaxed can help her realize that the situation is OK.

2. Expose them to their fear in a controlled setting.

If your dog is afraid of certain sounds or objects, you don’t want to scare her further by forcing her to confront her fear before she’s ready. However, you can help desensitize her by introducing the scary sound or object in a controlled environment while keeping your energy calm and soothing (for example, if your dog’s scared of the vacuum cleaner, try letting them spend time with it turned off in the same room while you offer some treats).

3. Talk to a specialist.

Depending on the types of fears and how your dog reacts to them, it might be best to consult with your vet or a pet behavioral specialist, or reach out to the rescue you adopted your dog from for tips.

While some rescue pups take a little bit more time than others to warm up, the love that you’ll build together is worth it. The bond between rescue dogs and parents is unbreakable, and all of those cuddles will be extra special knowing how far your dog’s come — what could be better?