Question: I have recently taken in a small, frightened dog that roamed our neighborhood for weeks. She is very shy and still doesn’t let me pick her up or pet her. Any suggestions?
Answer: First of all, kudos to you for opening your heart and your home to this little dog, who obviously is in desperate need of both. When working to earn the trust of a shy and withdrawn dog, you must go very slowly and be extremely patient. You will learn to measure your successes in the tiniest of increments.
You’ll want to give this dog plenty of opportunities to reach out to you, but you must refrain from reaching out to her. Direct eye contact, walking directly toward her, reaching to pet or pick her up, and trying to call her to you should all be avoided, as they currently put too much pressure on the dog.
The bonding process can be helped along by providing the dog with plenty of opportunities to check you out. Spend as much time as you can sitting on the floor, while focused on something other than the dog – like reading the paper or watching television. You’ll notice in time that she will stretch out toward you for an occasional sniff, which you need not respond to. When this becomes commonplace, you can begin to talk to her in a soft voice, but continue to avoid eye contact and don’t reach for her.
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Another way to indirectly encourage some closer encounters would be to offer some tantalizing treats – smelly, moist chicken or small pieces of cooked beef would be great choices. Begin by tossing some goodies in her general vicinity while you are sitting on the floor; gradually – over a period of days – those goodies can be tossed closer to you, so in order for her to eat them, she will need to move a little closer to you.
As she gains more trust in you and learns your habits, she should gradually attain more courage in checking you out. The most magical moment is when the frightened dog takes that leap of faith and makes a physical connection. It may come in the form of curling up beside you or venturing into your lap. When it does happen, rejoice within, but remain calm. Once she makes this physical connection you can begin to slowly attempt to touch her as well. Avoid the head; aim instead to lightly touch or caress her at the shoulder.
The time line for all of this to occur is totally up to the dog. You don’t know how much interaction this dog has had with people, or how other members of our society may have treated her. Give her plenty of time to learn to trust you. When she makes the decision to do so, you will have earned this dog’s utter devotion for the rest of her days.