How to Connect with a Skittish Dog

How do I bond with a nervous or fearful dog?
By Karen B. London PhD, February 2020
Skittish Dog

Photo by Helena Lopes

The Bark’s advice columnist answers readers’ questions about canine behavior. Got a question? Email askbark@thebark.com

Dear Bark: We live out in the woods, and sadly, people often dump their animals on our lonely road. Recently, a beautiful young Husky appeared and seems to have adopted us. We named him Buck, and we feed him, give him lots of encouraging vocals and so on. At first, he would not come closer to us than about 30 feet, but now, after we’ve worked with him, he will come to within about 10 feet. On occasion, when our three dogs are gathered around us, he’ll join them and get close; once, he even licked my hand! I try to avoid direct eye contact with him, as I know that dogs can perceive this as threatening. Do you have any ideas/advice on how to get him to actually let us pet him?

Answer: It is sad that people are abandoning their pets, but I’m sure glad to know there are people like you who reach out to these animals and help them! You have already made lots of progress, and that’s wonderful.

As you already know, patience is your best friend in this situation. A skittish, shy dog only gets better if they are allowed to go at their own pace. By being patient, you are giving the fearful dog the best chance to trust you and to approach more closely, and (we hope) to eventually accept being petted. The more you can resist the perfectly natural desire to get closer or to interact when the dog is not yet ready, the more likely they are to continue to make progress. As the dog becomes less fearful and more confident, they will be more willing to engage with you.

Here are some tips for helping skittish dogs Learn to Trust

• Use the best possible treats. The purpose of the treats is to get a skittish dog to associate you with positive emotions, and the better the treats are, the easier that is. Experiment with a few kinds to see which are most appealing to him.

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• Try toys, though it might be a bust, at least at first. Some dogs really love them, and opportunities to play with them can open pups up to joy and fun after they’ve had rough times in their lives. Other fearful dogs who have had a tough time are too preoccupied with the basics of food, water and safety to act playfully. Try calmly offering a few different types of toys and see if he is interested. Also, understand that while he may not be interested now, that could change as he gets more comfortable and relaxed. If he doesn’t take to toys right away, don’t give up on them, and try again in the future.

• When Buck is around, walk in big, broad circles. Some dogs do better with activity and motion than with the inherent tension of everyone standing still. Keep moving and let him follow you and your other dogs. Allow him to accompany you—or not, as he chooses—without paying any particular attention to him. This creates a low-pressure situation for many dogs, who will often join the movement of the group.

• Make a conscious effort not to be scary to skittish dogs. Stay calm, speak in a soothing voice and continue to avoid staring at him. Skip wearing a hat or backpack or carrying things when he’s around, and let him approach you rather than you going to him. Turn a little to the side or crouch down, which will make you less intimidating. Be predictable; if Buck knows what’s coming, he’ll be better able to handle it. Fearful dogs, including those who have not had a lot of interaction with people, do not like surprises. Buck will let you know how close he wants to be to you.

• Realize that although Buck has improved, and will likely continue to improve, he may always be less sociable than your other dogs. His early experiences and his genetics—factors that are beyond your control—may limit his capacity to interact. Continue to accept him for who he is as an individual, respecting his limits and his timeline rather than pushing him to be like most dogs Not all skittish dogs become comfortable with being petted.

In summary, be patient and gentle, letting Buck determine how far you can go with him. Keep doing what you’re doing, try a few new things, and hope that his trust in you grows and his fear diminishes. Trust your instincts, and the knowledge that you have become Buck’s family and his home. You have already made his life so much better!

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.