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June 4, 2021

Helping a Rescue Dog to Overcome Trauma: How to Build Trust

  • Rescue Dog
  • Trauma
Large dog in field with owner

Did you recently adopt a dog from the shelter? Is your adopted dog showing signs of trauma? Is settling in more challenging than expected? You are not alone - many newly adopted dogs struggle with adapting to their new home and schedule, and some might even show signs of separation anxiety or trauma.

The good news is that with the right approach, patience, and consistency you can help your dog adjust to their new life and start to trust you!

Let’s look at the best ways to bond with your new and anxious pup.

Understanding the dog’s trauma triggers

An important step towards helping your dog settle in is to recognize and understand his triggers. Every dog, especially traumatized rescue dogs, have certain situations, sounds, and smells that can remind him of past trauma. Your dog will show you what these are. For example, by tucking his tail when he sees you sweep or running away when he hears a loud noise.

It is important that you take note of these triggers – and one way to do this is by making a simple list when a new trigger pops up and what it was in reaction too. This will help you predict what scares your dog and avoid situations that may cause him stress.

If your dog fears the sound that the garbage truck makes, assume that he is also scared of delivery trucks, large pickups or busy streets in general. If possible, avoid these places to not repeatedly expose him to what he fears.

Stress is cumulative in dogs (and in humans as well). The more often your newly rescued dog gets scared, the longer it will take for his trauma to subside. On the other hand - the better you get at predicting and avoiding stressful situations, the faster your dog will settle in.

Routines build confidence and trust

The reason many rescued dogs are so scared is that they do not know what to expect – from people, different environments, and life in general! They have gone through a lot of change, and along the way they have lost a sense of safety and security.

Routines are perfect to restore a sense of safety for dogs. They allow for predictability and enable your pup to anticipate what is going to happen next.

Routines can come in many different forms, such as:

  • Always taking your dog for a walk along the same path, at the same time every day.
  • Playing repetitive and easy-to-understand games, such as hiding treats throughout your house for him to find.
  • Giving your dog a massage every night when you sit down to watch TV.
  • Going to the same park several times a week to let your dog play with doggy friends.
  • Having a training session every afternoon, in which you work on tricks and obedience skills.

What the routine consists of is not what matters most, rather it is more important that you follow it diligently. The better you are about implementing predictable elements into your daily routine, the more your dog can rely on you – and start to trust you!


Hand-feeding requires time and commitment. However, if you want to really jump-start the relationship with your new dog, there is nothing more impactful than this. Feeding your dog from your hand (either part of his food or all of it) will create a strong bond almost immediately.

Every single piece of food your dog eats can be used to teach him something. Why not use it to teach him to trust you and appreciate you?

The easiest way to hand-feed is to measure how much food your dog should have for a given meal and then feed him this amount from your hand. Sit with your dog in a quiet spot and hand individual pieces of kibble to him. You can gently pet him as you feed him and talk to him in a friendly, reassuring voice. Soon he will look forward to your feeding times and be eager to get all this attention and love from you!

Taking it slowly

Do not make the mistake of trying to rush your dog’s adjustment process. “It takes how long it takes” is absolutely true when it comes to rescue dogs adapting to their new life. There is no expected timeline - every dog is unique and will have a different learning curve. Do not try to push your dog to do more than he can (if he fears strangers - don’t take him along to the state fair).

Remember that your dog needs rest every day, and he should have a quiet spot in your house where nobody bothers him. And, if you are wondering whether you are asking him to do too much - chances are that is probably the case. To adapt well, your dog requires a balance of routines, bonding times and a lot of rest in between. But with your patience and understanding, he will come out of his shell and become an amazing companion for you.

For more information on the best training tips for your dog visit Spirit Dog Training.


Guest blogger Steffi Trott, founder of Spirit Dog Training

Steffi Trott

Founder of Spirit Dog Training

Steffi Trott is an accomplished dog trainer who has trained with thousands of dogs online and in person. She specializes in game-based training and working with reactive and fearful dogs.