How to Help a Scared Rescue Dog Acclimate to You

January 16, 2015

By Laurie Darroch

Adopting a rescue dog is a wonderful way to bring a new canine family member into the home. However, some rescue dogs are frightened by humans because of bad experiences with previous owners or homelessness which did not give them any bonding experience with humans. It takes patience and understanding to deal with a scared rescue dog and to help them acclimate to you and to their new home.

A skittish rescue dog may show his fear by being overly timid, withdrawn and untrusting or displaying signs of depression. Some may feel threatened by new people, situations and surroundings.

Warm Up to a New Home

When you first bring home a rescue dog, keep them confined to one area so they don’t feel so overwhelmed. Let them slowly get used to the new smells, sounds and sights around them. At first, your new rescue pet may seem jumpy, unsure and unable to relax. Keep the environment stress free for them. Use gentle commands, soft voices and quiet surroundings until they feel more at ease. They will eventually get used to the stimulation, but in the beginning, keep it a controlled non-threatening environment for them. As your dog begins to explore and perhaps timidly reach out, they will learn that your home is their home and it’s a safe place to be.

Provide Consistent Food

Make sure you put your new pet on a consistent feeding schedule so they can get used to the fact that they will have food at a specific time of day without struggling for it. They have to learn to trust you to be the provider of their food and to know they can count on you when they get hungry. Feed them healthy dog food that will help to improve their overall wellbeing; CANIDAE premium quality dog food gives the proper nutrition without the unhealthy fillers.

Reward Good Behavior

Many rescue animals have to learn how to behave around humans in a normal home. It may be a struggle both teaching them the right way to behave and unlearning any inappropriate behaviors they adopted in order to survive in less than happy surroundings. The new skills may be learned in smaller steps with verbal praise, physical rewards like gentle petting, and food rewards like CANIDAE dog treats. A skittish pet may need lots of encouragement to accept their new way of life and accept you. All the positive reinforcement and rewards will help them learn that this new life is a good one in which they can be happy.

Provide a Safe Spot

Always provide a new dog with a safe spot they can retreat to when they feel overwhelmed or frightened. They need to know it is okay to retreat when they get scared or are unsure, and that this spot is a place they can go to at any time. It could be a special bed in a quiet area of your house, a crate with a comfortable interior, or a blanket they can burrow under for security. Whatever works for your new dog, allow them time in their safe spot and let them approach you when they start to feel comfortable. Don’t force it before they are ready.

Patience and Trust

Much like a human child who has been neglected or abused, a scared rescue dog needs love, patience and understanding to learn to trust you. A simple daily routine such as feeding may seem like it should be non-threatening since you are giving your new companion something they want and need, but they should be given their food in a calm soothing manner. In the beginning, they may be more comfortable with you simply putting the food out and then retreating from the area so they can eat in solitude and feel unthreatened.

Teaching a dog to be leash trained or even to wear a collar may remind them of bad experiences with those items, or they may never have had one in their life before they came to you. Think back to how frightening it was for you as a child to be thrown into a totally new situation and let that memory guide you in the treatment of your rescue pet.

Watch their behavior and their body language for clues on what is most frightening and threatening to them. Show them gentleness and love when dealing with these situations. Whether it was mistreatment or neglect they experienced before you brought them home, they have to learn that the bad experiences are not going to be repeated in this new place with people who care for them.

When you do win over your new rescue pet, it is a rewarding feeling to have achieved that level of trust and love with them. It might take time and may not be easy, but the joy of helping an animal that has experienced a previously unfortunate life is worth the effort. In the end, you will both benefit from the experience.

Top photo by zmtomako/Flickr
Bottom photo by Juan Antonio F. Segal/Flickr 

Read more articles by Laurie Darroch

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  1. Sean Granger says:

    So I’ve had my 10 month old pup for maybe a month and a half… she does so well with so many things, around people, other dogs, and even some of the training I have given her… yet when we are alone, she won’t “play” with me fetch, tug, anything like she does when there are other dogs or people around… also when I’m trying to teach her a new trick and she try’s to do a different trick, I say “noooo” in a soft voice… and she begins to feel afraid and starts to tremble… I feel horrible… when it’s just me and here she loves to curl up next to me on the couch or in the bed and she’s good… I just want to play with her get her more active and feel like she’s happy I just feel like she is depressed and I feel horrible… like I’m not doing a good enough job for her…

  2. Diane says:

    Thank you. Though I’ve adopted most of my pets, my new girl today has been in the kennel for months, and from another in the south. She’s afraid of everything, but she follows my Mason around and he’s pretty good with her. She, Samantha, is not afraid or interested in Maggie May my cat. I had her in the house, but now contain her in the kitchen as per your advise. She’s eaten and drank for the 1st time in hours. I look forward to when she knows this is a safe forever home. 🙂

  3. Margaret Gormley says:

    This is my first day with rescue dog. He definitely has been abused at some point. He weighs 6 pounds a tri colored poodle. He is so scared he tries to hide under furniture when I approach him. I keep food and water and he is taking neither. Should I be worried with him not drinking or eating. Your blog really helped. thank You

  4. Bobbie says:

    This information was great, we have an ex breeder, she is 6 yrs old, we bought her because she was so sad and frightened, her tail hard between her legs, never making eye contact, slowly we can see small changers.
    Some hints and tips have really helped me understand why she is so distant and reserved .
    Thank you
    Bobbie (Tas)

  5. I rescued a dog that had been tied to a dog house most all of his life. There were 17 other dogs seized from this home. There was no abuse just bad neglect. He was taken to the pound where I adopted him 2 yrs. later. He is over 10 yrs old and has cataracts. I’ve had him 2months and he has warmed up to me and will eat food from my hand some days. He is very, very scared. My problem is I can’t get a collar or leash on him. At the pound they carried him to my car and he had a harnesss on. As soon as I put him in my gate he slip the harness. I locked him in the bedroom and forced him to put a harness and leash so i could get him to the vet (he has never tried to bite me). He weighs 38lb. He wore the harness and leash for a couple weeks then slipped them. I know now forcing him was a bad idea. I have not tried to put a collar (he slips those real easy) or leash on him . He can go in and out of the house as he pleases. I have a big fenced in yard. My concern is if he has to go to the vet or there is a crisis how am I going to get him on a leash or harness. Can you help me with problem. I love him and want to keep him for as lng as he lives.

  6. Diane says:

    Have a 2 yr old jack russel chihuahua mix rescue for 2 months. Was letting her come to me and she seemed to be getting more affectionate and calmer but suddenly she has started snarling and barking at me for seemingly no reason. Was actually a little frightened by her outburst. Know she had a really bad life and am trying hard to remain patient.

  7. Margaret says:

    I have bought a rescue dog and I saw that it is skittish. She is a year old labrador cross. After 2 months she greets us in the morning, wants to be stroked only by myself and not my husband. She enjoys being around us and after that she hides in the farden untill the next morning. She is only relaxed early morning. I can call her, offer treats etc, she will keep on hiding until the next morning. Then she is fine and enjoy our company. I am dissapointed that I got this dog, because I don’t think she will change a lot more.

    1. Sarah Collins says:

      How sad for the dog who is probably picking up on your disappointment in her… surely you must know it takes months, sometimes years for a rescue to fully trust and relax. Imagine if you had spent the first year of your life homeless or behind bars or being beaten or abused… wouldn’t you take time to get over it!! And you’re keeping her outside in the garden ? No wonder she is not warming to you… you sound like terrible dog owners and I’m surprised the rescue allowed to have a dog… you don’t sound like you should be allowed one. I’m very sad for the dog 🙁

    2. diana says:

      When she goes out to the garden, why don’t you go out there with her and sit next to her and talk to her? You need to spend more time with your dog; or else give her to someone who really wants her.

      1. Sharon Pritchett says:

        You are not a terrible dog owner; just disappointed in the pattern this dog has carried over which is not his fault either. Consider a crate instead of the garden. Place it somewhere where there is little traffic and let him stay there until he gets used to the sounds of your household. Another thing you can try is to put a collar on him and a short 4′ leash. Little by little start walking him in the house for just 5 minutes. Encourage him with encouraging words or praise. Good luck with your rescue dog.

  8. Diane says:

    I just adopted a 2 year old Chihuahua terrier mix from a horrible hoarding situation. She lived with 276 other dogs. I have had her for 3 weeks now and she is doing remarkably well. She is eating, lets me put a leash on her and goes out to do her business. What I need help with is how to get her to let me pet her or pick her up. I have been able to touch her face and she comes up to me but that’s it. She is very skittish . Help

    1. Becca says:

      It sounds like she is doing amazing for 3 weeks. These little guys have a right to be afraid of a world that is SO much bigger than they are and so many “normal” things that can actually hurt them. You are doing the right things with her and just need to have patience please! Try to imagine yourself as her size and realize how much she has to try to take in. Try sitting on the floor/ground and letting her come to you. Try laying down on the floor and looking around at what she sees and use soft, soothing sounds to encourage her. It sounds like you are doing a good job so far. Please just offer her a little more patience and understanding and I think you will be well rewarded for the effort!

    2. Amy Fagan says:

      I know your post is from a while ago ..but I’m in the exact situation you had. We adopted Chihuahua/Terrier mix from a rescue..Same thing…unable to be touched or help…Hell I cant even get collar on him right now. Good thing we have another dog he will go in and out with so the potty training is going good. Just curious how you made out ???…If it will get better…Thank you

  9. Nancy says:

    We rescued a 4 month old hound/Shepard/? Mix. He spent two weeks in a loving foster home after being picked update in the streets of GA. We’ve been so patient and loving, and after 9 weeks, no tail wagging or excitement when we come home. He is very sweet, but still so timid, still lowers his head when we approach him, but them reaches out for us. He won’t walk off the property’s unless he’s with another dog (loves dogs), unfortunately we are only allow one where we live. If he sees another human even 30 yards away he wants to run. It’s heartbreaking and at times I feel inadequate. How long does it take to make him forget what happened in his early life. I even tried ‘return to joy’ flower essence. Any help would be appreciated.

  10. Jean says:

    Daughter rescued an abused dog. She has two other dogs same size. Labradoodle, Airdale. Summer is the rescue. She won’t let my daughter go near her. Runs from strangers but goes to her husband. She is now becoming aggressive & has bitten my daughter in butt & then calf. What do we do ?

  11. Reggie is 2 ½ yr old miniature beagle. He was found wondering on a farm and given to rescue. I have him two months and he doesn’t show excitement to see me if I leave for hours He is so weary of my husband who has never has a pet act like that. He keeps trying but not getting anywhere. Noises drive him under the bed. Now when my daughter comes over she gets all that excitement and tail wagging that I miss. He will come to me but I work at it. He’s not bad on leash except if a noise throws him off. Then he gets all upset and edgy. What can I do. I love him

    1. JiminHayward says:

      You have your work cut out for you. 2.5 years old is harder to get the fear out of. This site gave great advice! I am adopting a 6 month old with the same behavior. I am going to follow all the advise on this site and also the following:

      If the dog does not approach or seems worried as it approaches, just be cool and ignore it. Wait and observe. Look for calming signals (yawning, lip licking, sniffing the ground, blinking), and do the same thing them in return. Take the dog for a walk or offer a toy, but don’t use treats or pet it before it is begging for your touch. Many dogs will eat or freeze for petting when they are nervous, but a dog is unlikely to play or actively solicit petting while it’s worried. After that barrier is broken, the treat bag comes out and a world of new possibilities opens up.

      But rather than using treats to win the dog’s trust initially, use casual indifference and patience. Teach it: You don’t have to come to me if you are worried. It’ll be the biggest favor you can do.

      A very successful tip is the ‘umbilical’ method. Put a leash on the dog, and clip the handle to your belt loop. Go about your business of the day with the dog attached to you. Be very aware of the dog’s location in connection to your feet! Don’t go overboard trying to win the dog over, just go about your business, passing a treat every now and then, reaching down (without eye contact) to scratch behind the ears. Do this for an hour a day. It teaches the dog that you are not there to hurt it and even better, sometimes the dog gets a pleasurable thing from you!

  12. Chelsea says:

    My boyfriend and I just rescued a one year husky who lived outside and is afraid of everything. This is our first rescue dog. We are a little unsure of what to do. We also have a 9 month old husky we had before him. She wants to play with him he’s just so sacred.

  13. Art says:

    I have family who woke to a stray dog in their backyard. 2 years later this dog is still horrified and scared and avoids ALL possible contact with my family. They have been nothing but good to her as they are to all their pets (several cats). What can they do? They’ve done all these things and years later it’s like Day 1.

  14. Laurie Darroch says:

    Much like human kids who come from orphanages with major personality issues, some just are not meant for certain homes. In the dog world you definitely have to be realistic to get a good fit for dog and human alike.

  15. DMatsuura says:

    While I understand the need for good homes for special needs rescue dogs, these animals do not always make good pets for every adopter no mater how well meaning and may never be normal regardless of how much time is spent trying to fix what may have gone wrong before. Make sure you spend as much time as possible with a rescued pet before you adopt and be honest with the rescue group with what your needs are. Diane @ CANIDAE