Behavioral problems

How to Get a Scared Dog to Trust You - Adoption Tips

Josie F. Turner
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. March 19, 2019
How to Get a Scared Dog to Trust You - Adoption Tips

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Adopting a dog can be challenging at the best of times. Although they are a loving and fulfilling addition to families, they require responsibility and resources which need careful consideration. When the dog is scared, frightened, shy or traumatized, then the challenge is even greater. It can put some prospective dog guardians off adoption altogether. This is one of the reasons the shelter system is under such a strain.

Not considered as often is the fact that scared dogs who are rehabilitated can be some of the most loving, generous and affectionate companions. AnimalWised investigates how to get a scared dog to trust you. It can be a long process which takes patience, affection and effort. Fortunately, making this effort will result in a best friend who is not only happy i themselves, but who provides limitless enrichment to your life.

You may also be interested in: How to Get a Dog to Stop Whining

Adopting a scared dog

The behavior of a newly adopted dog will depend directly on their experiences up to that point. If you have adopted a dog from a shelter, they should have provided some initial care and reassurance. Unfortunately, not every shelter provides quality care. Alternatively, you may find yourself in an emergency situation. A dog might need rescued from some particularly bad circumstances and they find themselves in your care.

Canine communication with humans largely takes the form of body language. By looking at their posture, facial expression and movements, we can work out their general state of well-being. It is understandable they will be nervous. If they have just come from an abusive situation, they may be relieved to no longer be under threat. However, their trauma can make them nervous and anxious in the presence of unknown people.

A scared dog doesn't have uniform behavior. Some may retreat into themselves, others might be a little more aggressive. There are some general behaviors which imply the dog is frightened.

Signs that tell you a dog is scared:

  • Lowered tail
  • Tail between its legs
  • Ears pinned back
  • Very drooping ears
  • Hunched body
  • Lying down protectively
  • Hiding
  • Cowering
  • Submissive postures
  • Trembling
  • Foul smells
  • Excessive licking
  • Excessive yawning
  • Avoiding human contact
  • Urinating in uncomfortable situations
  • Restless tail movements
  • Trying to run away
  • Skittishness
  • Barking when someone comes close

It's important to remember that a fearful dog isn't the same as a submissive dog. It may be the case that they share certain behaviors, such as lying down or releasing smells. A dog which is well socialised might be appear more submissive with people and other dogs in their attempt to interact with them. Certain breeds are also known for being more cautious around strangers. It won't necessarily mean they are frightened.

Any new dog which is adopted into a family needs to see a veterinarian. They will need to have their vaccination and deworming schedules assessed and implemented. They will also need to be examined for any signs of disease or other medical issues. A dog's fearful state might be due to physiological problems as well as psychological, so this will help us know how to get a scared dog to trust you.

How do we know if an adopted dog isn't adapting?

All dogs are individuals. While they will need certain basic care needs provided for, they may respond to certain situations in their own way. Some may come from a shelter and adapt intuitively to their new surroundings. This can be the case even if they have experienced past trauma. Others might find it much more difficult to adjust and do not easily develop trust with their new guardians.

The age of the adopted dog is an important factor in developing a bond. Puppies need to have a minimum of 8 weeks with their mother and siblings for the best start in life. This is when the socialization stage begins. Anxiety and fear can occur if they have negative experiences with others at this time. A lack of trust is also likely to be engendered.

Adult dogs may or may not have gone through this period of socialization, but it is not always easy to know their history. If fear, anxiety and distrust have been experienced over a prolonged period of time, it can be difficult to re-educate the dog. With puppies, it is often easier to educate them as they have more time to learn good habits. Knowing the circumstances and experiences of your dog is ideal, but it is not always possible.

Along with the initial signs we have explained above, the dog might show some more obvious signs of fear. These are most problematic when they exhibit aggression. A scared dog will often be defensive (especially if it has had to be defensive in the past). These situations are not ones which should be handled by inexperienced dog guardians. You will need a qualified dog trainer, ethologist or animal behaviorist who specializes in canine behavior modification.

How to Get a Scared Dog to Trust You - Adoption Tips - How do we know if an adopted dog isn't adapting?

Why is my dog afraid?

If you don't know the specific history of your dog, then it is still worthwhile to try to work out why they are scared. We can do this by looking at some of the general things which can frighten dogs. These are not anything which should bother a happy and healthy dog. But a dog with behavioral problems, stress and/or anxiety, they can prove to be frightening.

  • Fear of people: a dog might be scared of people for a variety of reasons, not only abuse. Poor socialization, a traumatic experience or even an accident can lead to fears. If you suspect your dog has been subjected to abuse, we need to be extra patient. We need to offer love and prove ourselves to be humans who will not treat them with such callous unkindness. However, this doesn't mean forcing them to interact with us. We need to let them overcome their fear progressively before they can trust us. Offering treats to let them approach us is encouraged within reason. If you force attention on them, you may end up worsening the situation.
  • Fear of other dogs: this may be due to poor socialization while young or even due to a bad experience with an individual dog. Fear can lead to aggression when with other dogs, one reason you have to be careful when walking dogs with fear issues.
  • Fear of certain objects: a lack of familiarity can breed fear, so your dog might become scared of things they have never encountered before. If they have had a sheltered upbringing this might be especially the case. Things dogs are often scared of include bikes, cars, garbage cans, lawnmowers, etc.
  • Others: as with humans, dogs can sometimes develop seemingly irrational fears. These fears may include being scared of the outside, travelling, other pets, the T.V. or various circumstances in which they don't feel comfortable.

How to earn a scared dog's trust

If we want a frightened and timid dog to earn our trust, then it is imperative we remain reliable and predictable at all times. Dogs are reassured by routine as it helps to quell their insecurity. We also need to ensure we interact with the dog positively. Here are some specific tips to get a scared dog to trust you and create a lasting bond:

  • Use positive reinforcement: dogs which are scared will need education to help them know we are doing things that are good for them. In doing so they will begin to lose their fear. When we show them where to go, what to eat and anything which meets their care needs, we should give them some positive encouragement. They will slowly begin to associate your presence with that which is good for them, not that which causes them fear.
  • Establish a routine: if you establish a healthy routine for your dog, then you start to show yourself as someone who is reliable. If your dog sees that you provide food, water and exercise regularly, and with consistent quality, a dog will start to trust you.
  • Five freedoms of animal welfare: there are five basic tenets which every dog guardian must meet to ensure the well-being of their canine companions. Take a look at the five freedoms of animal welfare to ensure your dog has them and begins to trust you.
  • Don't scold them: scared dogs may act out due to their anxiety. They may also take part in certain behaviors which we find annoying. Soiling indoors is a common one. Scolding them will lessen the trust a dog will build up with you, especially as we often scold a dog after the fact and they cannot equate the discipline with the action.
  • Stimulate them: as we stated above, you can't overcrowd a dog or force interaction. This doesn't mean you shouldn't stimulate their cognitive abilities. You can use toys, intelligence games and even sticks just to get them used to interaction. If they feel stimulated and you are the one encouraging this, then you can strengthen your bond.
  • Be patient: it's much easier said than done, but it is fundamental in building up trust with a scared dog. All of the previous tips require your patience to be successful.
  • Be observant: keep an eye on the dog's body language and reactions to various stimuli. A scared dog should become less scared if you are kind and patient, but there are some thing we might do unwittingly which upset them. Take a look at our article on canine body language and calming signals to know what to look out for.
  • Get help: if your dog is very scared and their behavior is destructive to both your life and their own, there is no shame in getting help. A dog trainer or canine ethologist can help start us off on the right foot by both assessing the dog's state of well-being and giving us practical advice on how to gain their trust.
How to Get a Scared Dog to Trust You - Adoption Tips - How to earn a scared dog's trust

It is likely after a while your dog will stop being scared and start building their trust in you. They can then relate to you like any other dog. How long this takes and to what extent will depend completely on the individual dog and their circumstances.

Some dogs do overcome their fear with the help of their human guardians quite naturally. Some close bonds we have with dogs can't be well-explained, we simply get on better than others. Some dogs will need help from a specialist as their behavioral problems are just too great to be handled without support. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

Some dogs, especially those who have been abused, may develop their trust with you. This doesn't mean all of their fears are completely alleviated. They may still struggle when being outside or around strangers. You shouldn't assume that because they are comfortable with you, they will be comfortable in any circumstance. You still need to be careful in new and over-stimulating situations, especially if the dog has shown aggression in the past.

If you want to read similar articles to How to Get a Scared Dog to Trust You - Adoption Tips, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.


  • Don?t allow your scared dog to run outside off the lead, as it could run away.
  • Don?t ever make it do something that it doesn?t want to do.
  • Be patient and use treats to earn its trust.
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1 comment
Susan Hunt
I volunteer at a shelter and there is a stray that was brought in about a month ago. She is terrified and displays so many of the abuse signs. I hate seeing her trying to escape in fear when anyone gets near her. I have been able to pet her, but she is terrified. I really want to help but don't know what to do. Any suggestions would be great.
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Susan,

It is very tricky, but it may be possible. Along with the tips in this article, this one might help shed some light:

Have you talked to the people who run the shelter? If they run a shelter, we hope they have some expertise and experience which will be able to help you with this stray.

Good luck and let us know how it goes!
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How to Get a Scared Dog to Trust You - Adoption Tips