Guest Column: Building Trust in a Rescue Dog

“Rescue Me” is a recurring column by Samantha Randall, editor-in-chief at Top Dog Tips. She provides personal anecdotes and perspective about her life as a pet lover with a passion for cat and dog rescue. Today, she talks about how to build trust in your new family member.

Adding a rescue dog to your household may be a challenging step for some people, and for a good reason. Adoption gives you a chance to provide a dog with a life he or she couldn’t otherwise have, but it also comes with a set of challenges. I’ve rescued many dogs in the past, and many rescues often come from troubled homes or situations. Some have been abandoned, some have been mistreated and others have lost owners. They often have trust issues!

The truth is that in the case of adopting a rescue pet, you’re rarely bringing home a newly born puppy that you can raise and “mold” into the type of dog you’ve always wanted. Statistically, most rescues are adult dogs with formed behavioral habits and their own inherent fears. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as you understand how to build trust with the animal.

I found that being mindful of the psychology and predetermined behavioral habits of a rescue dog can make life together much happier. Hopefully you’ve adopted your pooch from a reputable animal shelter — one that screens their dogs and future owners — rather than a shady puppy mill.

But how do you establish that relationship and start building trust? It’s best to start with understanding your new companion and knowing what to expect. Experts at animal shelters observed that most rescue dogs have one or more of these traits:

  • They may be scared.
  • They are often shy.
  • They may be overprotective.
  • They have severe separation anxiety.
  • They seek affection but run away from it at the same time.

All of these characteristics are understandable considering what many rescue dogs have been through. And as long as the folks at the dog rescue/shelter have done their job by screening the dog and introducing you properly, these problems are fixable. There are a lot of things you can do, either with the help of professional dog trainers or veterinarians, or by educating yourself on the subject.

Here is some general advice on building trust with your rescue dog from my personal experience.

Be calm and respectful.

For a dog to be calm and comfortable in a new home, you need to show that the pet can feel secure in the new environment. Studies have shown that emotionally, dogs are closer to humans than chimps are. This means not only avoiding negative punishment but maintaining a very calm and soothing attitude in general, for the first few weeks in particular. The dog will be in an unfamiliar environment and will look to you as a “mirror” to understanding that environment. If you are calm and collected, this will show the dog that there’s nothing to fear.

Don’t pressure the dog, and let them dictate your interactions.

It’s true that dogs don’t bite the hand that feeds them, but nevertheless it will take time for the rescue to get used to you and the new home. Expect that at first, all your actions will be carefully observed and will cause Fido at least mild stress. This is normal. When it comes to your interactions together, let the dog be the one who approaches you, who looks for affection, and who initiates the play time. It takes time to build trust with a new pooch, so don’t bother the dog needlessly. When you want to distract your pet with a toy or treat, be mindful of the dog’s space.

Be the leader your dog needs.

New studies have observed that dogs need a leader. While their closest ancestors, wolves, often cooperate, canines prefer to submit to the leader in search of protection. In your rescue dog’s new home, you’ll need to establish your leadership to show the dog that you can protect him or her. This has nothing to do with the outdated concept of “alpha dog” training but has everything to do with establishing trust with your pet. It requires you to pay attention to your dog’s emotions and step in when necessary. Dogs will often return the favor in protecting or comforting their owners.

Find out what the dog loves and focus on that.

Every dog is different, and it’s likely that your new rescue already has some likes and dislikes preset. Don’t force new toys and new ways to play on your dog when he or she clearly prefers something else. While this may work for new puppies, adult rescues often have already formed behaviors and preferences, and as long as they’re not dangerous or destructive, it’s easier for everybody to accommodate the pooch. Offer your pet choices — get the dog a wide variety of toys and see which toys, games and activities they gravitate towards.

Don’t hesitate to comfort the dog.

A lot of dog owners restrain themselves from comforting their dogs when dogs are afraid of something or experience anxiety. This is because comforting can be a positive reinforcement for the dog that he or she should be afraid, because they’re being comforted. However, the opposite is also a problem — letting your dog cower in fear. Experts say that there’s a good balance between the two — a simple petting can go a long way. Especially with a rescue dog, giving the comfort he or she needs is a great way to build trust.

Don’t isolate the dog at night.

Some dog owners don’t let their dogs sleep in their close vicinity. Even if you don’t want the dog to sleep in your bed — which is understandable — you should let a new rescue sleep in the bedroom with you, or at least close by, where the dog feels safe. Just get a comfortable dog bed, put it next to yours or in the area where the dog can sense you, and let the dog sleep and feel calm and protected in your presence.

Try hand-feeding the dog at first.

After the two of you lived together for a while, it’s best for everyone to feed the dog the regular way, from a bowl. However, when it comes to new rescue dogs, consider hand-feeding. While there are no studies proving the pros or cons of hand-feeding one way or another, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of its benefits (like in this Reddit thread). Some rescues may be afraid to eat out of a dog bowl at first because they fear punishment for approaching the food. By hand-feeding your dog, you demonstrate that there’s nothing to be afraid of and build a lot of trust between the two of you.

Gradually work through the dog’s separation anxiety.

Most rescue dogs have a lot of built-up separation anxiety. This is something to pay a lot of attention to after adopting a rescue dog. Make sure you have plenty of time to care for the pet so that the dog won’t be left home along for long hours in the first several weeks. At the same time, however, don’t let the dog get dependent on your presence — once the dog settles in and becomes calm and comfortable in the new environment, start teaching him or her to be alone for longer periods of time.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.

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