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Helping a Dog With Trust Issues

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Dog with trust issues may slowly bloom under your eyes.

Dog with trust issues may slowly bloom under your eyes.

My Dog Doesn't Trust Me!

If you recently adopted a dog from a shelter, you may notice signs of trust issues in the dog. You may notice how your new dog is very tentative when taking food from your hands. Maybe he startles as soon as you move. If this is the very first day this new dog has been welcomed into your home, chances are that things will get better as the days go by. Truth is, many dogs do not do well with change. Being exposed to new sounds, new smells, and new people takes an adjustment period. Those who work with shelter dogs are familiar with the term "honeymoon period," which is used to depict the initial subdued behavior seen in recently adopted dogs. After a few days, these dogs may open up more and manifest their true colors.

Trust Issues in Boarded Dogs

I see trust issues unveil over and over in dogs when they are boarded with me, especially on the very first days. Some dogs startle when I cough or if I get up too quickly from the chair. Some may be a bit hesitant in taking treats from me. Many bark as they hear military planes flying low or the FedEx truck noisily pulling into our dirt road. Some startle when they hear coyotes barking and yipping in the evening. Noises at my place are quite different than noises they are used to at home. It takes a couple of days to get a hang of these new changes, but most act quite normal after the second or third day, often with the use of calming aids and strategies I employ. I always try my best to move slowly and talk calmly while working on desensitizing them to any novel stimulus that seems to concern them. Each dog is different and reacts to different stimuli.

Once trust is established and environmental adaptation takes place, I am happy as this is when I can actually start working on the dog. But I often stop and wonder, what are really trust issues in dogs? What causes trust issues? It's easy to label a dog with trust issues as having a history of abuse or neglect; surprisingly often though, it's most likely a fear of the unknown, the stress of being in unfamiliar surroundings, and being around unfamiliar people. Not abnormal at all, especially after being expelled from the safety of their homes and familiar people.

What Is Neophobia?

Neophobia is a term used to depict a fear of new things. Affected dogs are uncomfortable when they find themselves in unfamiliar environments and around unfamiliar people. These dogs may freeze and go into avoidance when faced with novel stimuli. This predisposition is often observed in dogs who have missed out on good experiences during the brief window of socialization taking place roughly between the ages of 4 and 16 weeks. However, despite receiving adequate socialization, many dogs may still be stressed and manifest a lack of trust in new people and new environments. Certain breeds are also more genetically predisposed than others to be more aloof towards unfamiliar people requiring more time to warm up. This doesn't necessarily make the dog neophobic though; the dog may simply lack trust because he doesn't know how a stranger may react to them.

What Happens When Dogs Lack Trust?

At times, when dogs lack trust, they may chose fight over flight. This means that instead of engaging in avoidance behaviors, these dogs may choose to use aggression when they are over their stress threshold. I am very attentive to dogs I do not know and respect their needs for space. I never force interactions. In the next chapter, we will discuss the importance of establishing trust in order to allow training and behavior modification to take place.

How to help a dog with trust issues.

How to help a dog with trust issues.

The Importance of Establishing Trust With Your Dog

If you are working on a dog with a behavioral problem, it's most likely that you won't get anywhere if you failed to establish a certain level of trust. How to establish this level of trust? Well, for starters, you ensure the dog that you are not a threat. You do this by avoiding engaging in behaviors your dog finds intimidating. If your new dog is scared when you walk noisily with your high heels on a tile floor, try taking off your shoes. My last boarder had issues with me coughing. Every time I coughed, he got up to check on me. This was quite a peculiar behavior... If he was sleeping near me and I coughed or cleared my throat, he would leave. I soon understood that the cough must have sounded threatening to him since upon hearing one of my dogs cough from another room, he got up suddenly and went into a barking frenzy. He must have thought it was a growl. Desensitizing him to my coughing took a bit of time, but we got to a good point where he would sleep through my coughing fits. I couldn't do much to desensitize him to my dog's coughing though as they were obviously rare and unexpected.

Establishing trust is important if you want to attain a layer of bond. If you don't have trust, you have a dog that is hyper-vigilant and defensive. A dog in this state is unable to learn. Some dogs, like my boarder, may also be stressed and reluctant to take treats. By instilling a basic layer of trust, and praising for any subtle signs of confidence, no matter how small, you should be able to create a piece of safety history. Try your best to create a safety net by managing your dog's environment and preventing sensitized responses from being rehearsed. Here are some tips on establishing trust.

Tips on Establishing Trust With Dogs

  • Provide the Reassurance of a Structured Schedule: We mentioned earlier how dogs don't like change and having their schedules disrupted. You can greatly help a dog with trust issues by simply allowing him to predict future events. Perform the same actions on a daily basis. When you get the leash, clip it on and go for walk, when you wake up take him outside to potty first thing in the morning. Work on consistency, following a precise schedule that provides Rover with the reassurance of knowing what happens next.
  • Invest in Calming Aids: If you have a new dog and he is wary of you and his environment and lacks trust, you can use calming aids to your advantage. DAP diffusers, collars, or sprays may at times help some dogs who are particularly nervous. If the dog doesn't mind being touched, T-Touch may be a good way to calm him down, but don't force it if the dog doesn't seem comfortable. Other calming aids include soothing music and calming supplements.
  • Make Yourself the Source of Good Things: There's no better way to gain more trust than teaching the dog that you are a source of great things. Don't waste food by leaving it out all day so the dog eats it and cares less about who provided it. Take advantage of using the dog's food to instill trust. Let the dog know that food comes from you and use it in your daily interactions to reward all the behaviors you like. Just think that a bowl of food often contains about 20-50 pieces of kibble depending on your dog's size. Those are about 20 to 50 opportunities to train and bond that are lost each day!

    Save a portion of your dog's food to instill trust each day in your daily interactions with him at home. Skip training at this stage, just classically condition your dog that great things happen when he's near you. You want to toss the treats behind the dog rather than near you at first. You may need to use higher value treats though for when you go on walks and in distracting environments. If your dog doesn't take food, it may be a sign he's not yet comfortable in his new surroundings and around you. When he starts taking food though, make sure you praise him lavishly for that! Also, don't forget about giving him toys. You want your dog to associate your presence with great things happening.
  • Adjust to the Dog: You may need to make a few little changes in the first few days to help your new dog adjust and trust you more. Notice what makes him wary and uncomfortable. Do you walk too loudly? Is your new dog sending calming signals when you loom over or make eye contact? Is he scared of the dishwasher? Does he go to hide when you laugh? Recognize what is concerning your new dog and try your best to buffer these stimuli and make them less intense. When you make a stimulus less intense by walking more quietly, laughing less loudly you are desensitizing him to it. If you make no changes, you may risk sensitizing him which is the opposite, in other words, you are increasing his fear and creating setbacks in progress with the end result of affecting his trust.
  • Change the Emotions Around: When you add counterconditioning to desensitization, you are boosting the chances for a fast recovery. So let's say your dog is worried when you cough? Cough less loudly and toss a treat after each cough. Your cough will soon become a cue that great things happen instead of a concern! The same can be done with any other worrisome stimuli your new dog is concerned about such as fear of making eye contact. The basic rule is to present the stimulus at a less intense level and make great things happen.
  • Establish a Safety Record: Most importantly, you want to initiate a prevention and management program that prevents your new dog from rehearsing fearful behaviors. This means do your best to not allow bad things to happen to your dog. Protect him from feeling fearful. If your new dog is fearful of men, don't let men approach him—for now. Once a safety record is established, you can then start working on behavior modification programs such as LAT-look at that. Always screen the environment for dangers ahead. Let your dog feel that he can count on you and that you are there to be his safety blanket. Remember that in many cases, aggression is fear-based and that dogs are often just asking for distance between themselves and the trigger. Learn how to get yourself out of a sticky situation through my article on U-turns and emergency exits.
  • Reward Coping Mechanisms: Make sure you are there to always reward those positive default behaviors as they unfold. If your dog used to lunge at strangers and now your dog manifests better impulse control by turning his head away or sniffing, reward those. You can learn more about this by reading my article on BAT, Grisha Stewart's behavior adjustment training.. Behaviors that are rewarded tend to repeat and hopefully, with time, you'll see your dog add more coping strategies to his repertoire of behaviors so he can make better choices.
  • Instill Confidence Through Training: Of course, trust isn't something that can be instilled in one day. In the first days, as your dog starts warming more and more up to you, you are not really yet creating the bond you see in people who have owned dogs for years. At first, your new dog is just learning that you are not a threat. Not only you are not going to hurt him, but on top of that, you are a provider of great things. As time goes by, your dog learns that you can be a safety buffer, that you prevent any harm from happening to him on walks and are that you're willing to place yourself in between and the perceived threat. After some time, you will notice your dog will seek you out more and look at you for guidance. At some point, you can start training and building confidence through clicker training and confidence-building exercises. You can also work more on behavior modification under the guidance of a behavior professional. Soon, you will see the results of your hard work as you watch your dog happily interact with you and his environment more and more and flourish.
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: I adopted a one-year-old mix from a shelter. She is very sweet but has serious trust issues. I've had her for 2 years now. If I tell her to lie down, for example, she’ll yelp as though I’ve hurt her which I have never done. I feel sorry for her, what else can I do?

Answer: You can try several of the tips outlined in the article and in addition, you can try training her to lie down on cue by associating it with treats. Here's a positive reinforcement based guide:

Question: We adopted a new dog on the weekend, he immediately bonded with my son and me but is very fearful of my husband (not all men, just my husband). How do we overcome this dog's fear of my husband?

Answer: Newly adopted dogs go through lots of changes and may feel stressed in a confined place with people they do not know well. Some dogs also are naturally inclined to fear certain types of people. I am providing a link to a behavior modification technique used with my clients with success. You will likely need to enlist the help of dog behavior professional for safety and correct implementation.

© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 16, 2013:

Thanks a bunch, I hope it will turn out helpful. These poor dogs need loads of help!

Eiddwen from Wales on June 15, 2013:

So very interesting and I am sure many readers will benefit from this gem. Voted up,


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