Helping a rescued dog to acclimate to his new environment of safety and love can be incredibly challenging. Most of the time, dogs are pretty resilient to the emotional, physical and mental abuse they can receive through neglect, being a stray, or even being stuck in a kennel at a shelter. All of these things are damaging, and it does not take someone physically beating a dog for them to learn to distrust humans. Once the dog is rescued, though and in a comfortable, caring home he must learn to trust his new human family, and it is your job to help him do it!
Never push a dog past his limits, especially in the first few weeks! If you force a dog into petting, cuddling, or even into something like a sit position or up on your bed you are harming the ability for him to trust you. He needs to, firstly, understand that you will not cause him harm. Pushing him physically into anything that makes him uncomfortable is only making it worse. Many people, unfortunately, feel that by holding the dog down to pet them will prove that they will not hurt the dog when it really makes the dog fear you even more! Don’t do it!
If your new rescued dog does not feel comfortable letting you pet him, give him space. He will want you to pet him once he feels bonded to you, and knows you would never hurt him. To bring this feeling of trust, you must always go slow and at his own pace. If he moves away from your hand, that’s okay, he’s just telling you that he’s not ready yet. In fact, his ability to move away from you when he feels uncomfortable will actually make the trust between you two grow faster, even if it feels like it is going too slow. Don’t give up, because by not trapping him and forcing him to interact with you will let him grow more accustomed to your movements, scents and behaviors. This leads to him learning what to expect from you, thus making you safe to be around.
Simply being around your new rescued dog will give them a chance to investigate you and learn about you, but they won’t really feel anything for you during this exposure. You have to make your presence a rewarding event to occur for your new best friend, just like in training a dog. When you train a dog to sit, you give them a treat for doing the right thing. This is helping them to associate a positive emotion with the act of sitting on cue. You will be doing the same kind of association during trust building exercise by using positive reinforcement, even when the dog does nothing!
If your dog refuses to come into the rooms in which you are, such as the case that happens with puppy mill survivors or dogs that had been strays most of their lives, you want to make your presence something to look forward to. Do this by passing the area in which your dog hides frequently, but quietly, and tossing a high value treat their way. Don’t make direct eye contact during this stage, just toss a treat whenever you go past your dog. They will associate you with this treat, and look forward to seeing you. This starts a very strong foundation of trust and seeing you as a positive thing to have in their lives.
If your dog is not quite that fearful, but still avoids you, toss a treat their way each time they look at you, walk near you or acknowledge you in any way. With that treat, they will pay more attention to you. The bond will grow quicker than you think with this method, but always remember to never push them past their threshold! You could make it as far as the dog standing and leaning against you, and if you try to hug them, instead of easing into petting, they may distrust you again. Go slow, deliberate, quiet, and always reward!
It is this reward that will be the lingering effect in your dog’s mind. If everything that comes from you is positive, from food and treats to a scratch behind the ear then these are the emotions your dog will feel when he is around you even when you have no reinforcers. He will choose to be with you all on his own because you are predictable, trustworthy, and safe. Gain your rescued dog’s trust in a gentle and reward way so that the two of you will have a life long bond.