Building trust with your dog can take anywhere from a few days to a few months or more. Most dogs get there pretty quickly, but if you have a rescue dog whose life experience has made him guarded, it could take longer. My dog, Max, was one of these. Whatever abuse she’d endured before she came to me, she had created a hard shell to keep people and even other animals out.
She didn’t trust me one bit at first, and also after she’d let down her guard enough to train, she stayed careful, as if she was waiting for me to disappoint her. It took a year before she started to truly relax and have a little faith that I would never hurt her or fail her. The bond we have today was definitely worth the wait.
However long it takes to establish a trusting relationship with your dog, be sure you do it with the genuine intentions to build a bond. This can’t be rushed, and it definitely can’t be faked. Unlike some people, dogs can spot a phony from a mile away. Later in this chapter, I’ll give you some suggestions for bonding activities you can do with your dog. But right now, let’s talk about what it takes to establish trust. These 04 behavioral approaches will put you on the right path:
04. Be Calm
Being loud or taking an aggressive stance is the quickest way to send a shy or fearful dog running for the hills. Everything about you needs to be steady and understated while your dog is learning to trust you.
As you get to know each other, you can show your louder, wilder, and sillier sides, but they can be overwhelming for a dog who doesn’t know you yet.
If you have a rescue, keep in mind that an abused dog has typically been victimized by an aggressive, possibly loud person, so taking the opposite stance is recommended.
03. Be Patient
Establishing trust and a true bond with any animal takes time. Before you can begin to teach commands or solve issues, you have to learn the art of patience.
That’s the first rule every animal trainer has to learn. It’s also one of the most difficult things to do because we have no control over how long an animal is going to take to accept us or to learn. An impatient trainer can take an animal back a few steps in his training, so as difficult as it may be, part of this getting-to-know-you period is letting the dog come to you.
Some new rescues come straight to me and climb on my lap or lean against my legs like we’ve known each other forever. But others need to think about it for a while. If I go to them, I’m missing the opportunity for the dogs to decide I’m okay on their own. Once a dog does that, we’re on our way to building a good relationship.
02. Be Understanding
You know the famous line from To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really know a person. Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”. That’s an excellent metaphor for what it takes to understand other people and for what it takes to understand dogs and other animals, too.
One skill any good trainer must have is the ability to get inside the mind of the animal. There’s an unspoken rule in the wild-animal world that when you train, you don’t just have to think like the animal, you have to feel like you’ve become the animal.
It’s that elemental connection that keeps us from making dangerous mistakes when we’re up close and personal. Your instincts can get you into trouble; anticipating the animal’s instincts can keep you safe.
01. Be a Friend
Spend time with your dog. Give treats. Pet and praise. All of these things reinforce the idea that you are someone your dog can count on in good times and in bad. They show you can be trusted. A three-month-old puppy may think everyone is his friend because he has no experience with the world.
But as a dog gets older, especially a shelter dog and most notably an abused shelter dog, he meets a lot of people. Some are friends; others foes. Throughout their lives, dogs gather data to understand which is which. They learn that one of the main elements that can help them survive is friendship.
A real bond with someone betters their chances of consistently eating, drinking water, being tended to when they’re sick or cold or lonely, and, most importantly, being loved. I know it sounds way too simple, but dogs are just that: simple animals.