Building up the Trust and Confidence of a Fearful Puppy Mill Dog

By: David Codr

Published Date: October 20, 2015

Jersey and Dozer

Five-year-old Jersey (left) is a former puppy mill dog adopted through Little White Dog Rescue in Omaha (An amazing rescue group). As a result, the Yorkie is shy, nervous and timid, especially around the father of the family that rescued him three months ago. His room mate Dozer is a two-year-old Yorkie who over barks and gets excited when seeing other dogs.

Ive worked with a number of puppy mill, abused and bait dogs who have shattered confidence and it can be difficult to see at times. I always take solace in knowing that I can help the dog learn to trust, love and live again.

In this case, the family had done a great job of working with the dog, but they had hit a wall, especially as far as the father of the family was concerned. Any time he tried to pet or interact with the dog, it ran away.

As we were discussing the situation, the family mentioned that due to the dog’s nervousness, they had to “snatch him up” if they wanted to take him outside (He is too short for the stairs to the yard) or to go for a walk. But any time you have a nervous dog, grabbing or snatching them suddenly can damage the dog’s trust and increase its anxiety and nervousness. This is especially the case when being in close proximity to the humans (like in a area with little room).

I strongly suggested that the guardians avoid this snatching action whenever possible and instead teach the dogs to recall on command.

By conditioning the dog to come when called, the guardians can eliminate the need to snatch the dog. An added benefit is the reward for compliance can motivate a dog to come over and investigate what the reward is. This will go a long way towards helping Jersey learn that humans aren’t to be feared. In fact coming to a human results in a reward. Over time this positive reinforcement will help the dog build up its confidence around humans.

I noticed that Jersey looked up at the guardian with a lowered head, licking his lips and a smaller body stance when the father of the family called the dog over as we were practicing this recall exercise. As a large man sitting on a high chair, its possible this position was too imposing for Jersey to feel comfortable approaching.

I had the father take a seat on the floor and showed him how to use a hand movement and motion to get the dog to come to him and take a treat.

Little things like holding the treat to his side, being positioned at the dog’s level and leaving his hand in place after the dog took the treat all helped little Jersey feel less anxious as you can see by his getting and staying closer to the father as the session progressed.

One of the best ways to build up a dog’s confidence is to teach it new tricks and commands. Just like humans, dogs feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when they master a new skill. To this end I recommended that the guardians set a goal of teaching both dogs a new trick each week for the next eight weeks.

I went over a few tips and tricks that will allow the guardians to use positive reinforcement to reward the dogs for engaging in desired behaviors like sitting, laying down and recalling on command.

Because dogs get over things by literally moving forward, a walk is a great activity to get into a habit of doing every day. The father had been walking the dogs together, but I suggested we head out on a walk with just Jersey.

By walking the dog solo, the father will be able to develop his own independent relationship with Jersey. Since dogs enjoy being outside and exploring, making this a daily activity will go a long ways towards building up the trust between Jersey and the father of the family.

Because Jersey was so nervous to start the walk, I had the guardian allow the dog to go pretty much wherever it pleased, provided it was moving forward. Each time that Jersey slowed and stopped, I had him gently apply a quick tug on the leash then immediately let it go slack once the dog started to move. By removing the tension the instant the dog moves forward, we can help it understand that is what we want.

When we got back from the walk, I added a leash coupler to both dogs and we took them out into tieback yard. I have found that sometimes adding a leash to a balanced dog can help get a fearful or nervous dog moving around. The last thing you want a fearful dog to do is sit there and shut itself down.

While their actions couldn’t be classified as play, Dozer did pull little Jersey around the yard and even got him to go down the stairs, something he didn’t like doing before the session.

By the end of the session, Jersey seemed much more relaxed. He still isn’t out of the woods. His family will need to be patient and continue working on the techniques and exercises we went over to build up his confidence and self esteem. The more the father patiently interacts with and walks Jersey, quicker the dog will develop trust for him until the hesitation is gone for good.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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