How to earn a scared dogs trust
Some people still don't understand our process and because of that I get a lot of social media hatred. I get it, I would be upset too if I seen someone's pet looking the way Lou does sometimes. Over that past two years, I've learned so much about his past. In fact, it's been a lot more like this past year that I've learned the most. From the beginning, I was told he was a junkyard dog who's owners didn't care if he wondered. Let's just say that I've become that "owner" people talk about when they ask about him now.
Louie has become more of a home body pup the last few months. Not all that much wondering, that I know of. I get a few photos here and there of him walking through a neighboring community. To be honest, I think the ladies just aren't smelling like they used to so he sees no reason to head to a particular location. Louie has taught me that you don't need to be close for him to smell your lady "in heat". In fact, "close" is five miles to dogs. That's right, they will travel five miles if the scent is right and this can cause a lot of dogs to follow their noses and wind up lost. I hate that he has had a few rendezvous with local ladies who's owners weren't expecting. And although they have some great genes from Louie, it's not ideal for him to continue that process around town. So let's talk about the process of earning his trust and get that and other necessary things taken care of.
When Louie first showed up and I tried to give him a peanut butter cookie, he got up from the bush and walked away. I'm pretty sure he thought some profanities as he trotted back down the street towards his next destination. I was certain I wouldn't see him again. So when almost he showed up again, I was pretty excited because he is such a beautiful dog and I really wanted to pet him and give him belly scratches. Isn't that always the reason we try to make friends with puppers? These are the steps that I have personally taken to get us this far.
(Please remember, I'm not a professional and Lou and I have been doing this process unrushed so results can be a lot quicker based on your approach and pup.)
At First Sight
I see so many lost dog posts on Facebook that have to say, "Don't chase" and it seems so weird to me that it has to be said. No matter the type of animal you see outside of a home, you are not familiar to them. Sure they might be friendly while in their comfort zone however they are in unknown territory now or have even taken ownership of this new location. Instead, snap a picture if you can and post it with location and even your phone number. This will help the potential owner know where to search if they come across your post and even return to the same location if needed later. For Lou and I, I remembered scrolling passed a photo of him on Facebook. So I went back to that group and searched the photos to see if he was lost or found. Turns out it was a "sightings" post, so I posted another one to note he was around my street now.
Whether they're just lost, stray or even feral, most dogs are nervous at first when a new person is in their space. Although you might know their name or have a yummy snack for them, they don't know you. Try lowering yourself to their level, for your safety I suggest a squat and not fully sitting on the ground just in case you need to sprint into running away from danger. If you're lucky they will come to you right away and be reunited or feel safe quickly. Unless they are in immediate danger, don't allow yourself to pressure them for too long as this might scare them off into another location. If they end up leaving while you're there, make sure to note the direction they went and update any "finding" posts you've made. When Louie and I first started, I squatted down in front of the bush, giving him enough space to leave if needed, which he took.
This is more for stray and feral animals. Although the saying goes "the more the merrier" that's not always the case with feral or stray animals. Sometimes the more people there are in a rescue situation the more scared you can make them. Remember, your internal fear and anxiety of something happening to them vibes through them. Most pets will respond to your demeanor because they mimic your feelings and reactions. For most animals, you will get the notion if you need to stay there day and night with them to ensure their safety, for others, like Louie, they will tell you when your time is up and they are heading out to just take that time away from you.
Routines work wonders
Even though I failed my first attempt and pressured Louie to take the stupid peanut butter cookie, he still felt if was safe enough to return to the same bush and then to under my back porch. We created a routine from that point.
One of the most important things to developing trust to a stray animal is food. Unlike pets, they usually don't have a steady source of food coming in so they don't know where and when their next meal might be. By developing a feeding routine in the same location each time, you will become someone they trust to be there. Louie and I had an eight o'clock feeding schedule, which has pretty much remained the same our whole time together. With each feeding time start to bring yourself a little closer to them. A scared or timid animal might not want to eat next to you at the beginning so you'll have to start with a good distance between you. Each feeding or day, whichever you feel is right, cut off a foot from your distance. If they don't trust the small change enough, move back half a foot. Continue this until you're able to feed them and sit next to the bowl.
Step it up
As feeding becomes a routine slowly start adding "high value" treats to the meals. Bring treats such as lunch meat and put a small piece on the outside of the dish as well as half the distance between you. During this process it's important to not pressure them, just sit. Look at your phone or read a book. You get two things out of this step, it will extend their confidence that you are not there to force them into anything, you're just there to feed them and will get them closer to you on their own will. By making it a high value treat, they recognize that by taking their trust further, they get better things to eat. You might even get lucky and have a pup who enjoys peanut butter and that's all you'll need to reward them with, Lou not so much. Spending time in their space just sitting or going about your regular routine is important. It builds trust that you're not there to hurt them. As Louie laid in the yard, I would sit on the porch and just play a game on my phone, clean the pool or talk to my mom on the phone. Eventually he didn't jump as much when I got up walked to the backyard or into the house.
Now that you've earned trust to be close to the animal, try putting your hand out. If they allow you to pet them, you're in. Give them head scratches, belly scratches or anything their heart desires. Now it's time to introduce them to a leash. Take a little time getting them comfortable with the leash, show them it and let them sniff it. Try putting a slip leash around their neck. They may react to the attempt, remember they feel your anxiety so be patient. Once the leash is around their neck, they may jump back or wiggle to get out of it. You can calm them in a gentle voice and reassure them you're not there to hurt them. Once they are calm, you can bring them to your car and take them to the vet to be assessed and checked for microchip.
"Thank you, you did everything. You accepted me for who I am and not for what you wanted me to be" - The Vow
Louie and I haven't gotten to the finale yet. Even though he trusts me to sit next to him while eating or takes treats from my hands, he's not ready for pets. It's taken a year for him to recognize me outside of the yard. It's been four months that he's remained "home" and I didn't have to wait for him to return for mealtime. It's time for a haircut to relieve him from the weighted heat that he will endure this summer. He needs the mats removed so that he can live comfortably. Probably needs a good ear cleaning too. Because of this, we're working to get him comfortable with a leash. Showing him they aren't bad and working to find a calming supplement to help with his anxiety. Our finale will be one to remember.
What tips did you find useful for getting a lost or scared animal to trust you? Share your suggestions below!