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How can I get my dog to trust someone?

Border collie with paw raised up to owner

Getting a dog to trust someone can take some time and a few techniques.

© Shutterstock

Meeting new people can often be nerve wracking, and it can be the same for dogs too. Here are some great tips for getting your dog to trust someone.

By Karen Wild, CCAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist

Updated on the 08/02/2021, 13:26

Some dogs love greeting and seeing new people, while others may be slightly hesitant. Whatever their temperament might be, it is important that a dog feels safe and comfortable when they meet another person for the first time. To ensure that a dog learns to trust other people, and of course, you, here’s everything you need to know.

How to introduce your dog to someone?

Your dog starts to establish trust from the first moment they smell, see and meet a new person, therefore it is important that your friend or family member is introduced to your dog correctly. Start by finding the right location where your dog is most comfortable, for example a local park, at home or even in their favourite dog bed. Never force a dog into a greeting situation!

Before the meet ensure that the guest knows of any behaviours to look out for or to avoid, such as not to ring the doorbell as a dog may get over excited, or not to look directly at the dog or try to stroke the dog until the dog is calm.

In advance, you can teach your dog to sit and relax when you ask, followed by a tasty food reward. This means that when they hear the cue to ‘sit’, they are already expecting a nice outcome. When the person they are to meet is also there, the dog can then share that positive feeling and outcome with the person’s presence.

How to get your dog to like someone?

When meeting, make sure that everyone stays calm. It is also recommended that the guest avoids direct eye contact with your dog, as ‘staring’ is considered as a threat or a challenge.

It’s also good practice to allow the dog to approach the visitor slowly, never the other way around. Leave a small distance between them. This means that your dog can choose to approach the guest first, or stay at a distance if they wish. Then, when they approach, the person can let them have a good sniff at their leg, or even their hand which can be held lightly at their side rather than outstretched. Approach and sniff is a polite dog’s way of saying hello!

It’s a good idea to allow the ‘Wait-and-See’ approach, which involves the guest ignoring your dog and letting the dog gain confidence by seeing the guest positively interacting with their owner. When your dog is ready they’ll come over and give your friend a sniff and maybe even ask for some attention!

Whatever approach method you choose, make sure that you use reward-based training techniques to get them accustomed to your new visitor. Keep a happy tone of voice, of course. Use treats or toys when they’re showing good behaviour and body language around your friend, and let your guest give your dog a few treats too - perhaps toss them over to your dog rather than trying to use them to coax your dog closer.

Routine and repetition is the key. The more often your dog sees your new guest, dog walker or family member, the more comfortable they’ll be - particularly if they associate them with positive experiences, like treats, a long walk in their favourite park or even training sessions. So why not get your new friend to teach your pooch a new trick? It’s a perfect way to solidify their new found friendship.

What are the signs that a dog trusts you?

Once your new friend has spent all that time with your dog, is there a way to know your dog trusts them? There are a few things you can look out for to see if a dog is feeling comfortable and happy around you:

  • Dog licks - sometimes they can be annoying, but a slobbery kiss from a dog is a sign of affection and is in fact a good sign!
  • Waggy tail - a happy pup will hold their tail in its natural mid-range position and often wag it gently from side to side. If their whole tail, or bottom, is wagging they are very happy!
  • Eye contact - If a dog is trying to get your attention by gazing (not hard staring, which could be a problem) at you or making prolonged eye contact it’s a good thing and you’ve definitely made a new friend. If the dog doesn’t want to look at you, that’s okay. Give it time and they may decide to once they know you a little better.
  • Body language - a few signs of a dog showing trust include; jumping up and down, leaning on you for cuddles, intent to play and a relaxed/open mouth.
  • How about showing you their belly? Sometimes if a dog rolls over in front of you, they definitely trust you and are asking for tummy tickles. At others, the dog is feeling overwhelmed and is trying to appease you (which means they see your behaviour as a bit much, perhaps). The easy way to tell is to back off and give the dog some space. If the dog gets up and follows, you know they are comfy with you.

Now that we know what to look out for when a dog is happy, calm and relaxed, it’s important we detect what behaviours to look out for when a dog isn’t so happy and has trust issues. A fearful dog, or one that is at unease, may show some of these behaviours:

  • Lowering their head or ears
  • A worried expression
  • Averting their gaze or turning their head away
  • Lip licking or showing their teeth
  • Growling or cowering
  • Rolling on their back (see above)
  • Tail tucked hard underneath their body
  • Stiffening of body/freezing

If they are showing any of these signs, give them more time to get used to you and respect their space.

Trust exercises for dogs: How do I build my dogs trust?

Dogs are social creatures and learn a lot from interactions. They build trust with familiar friends. Whether you’re trying to build trust with a new puppy or a rescue dog there are a few things and activities you can try.

The first, most important thing is respecting a dog’s physical space and also staying calm. Try to leave some room between you and your dog, and give them the opportunity to approach you first. Being relaxed is essential, although the temptation is to greet a dog with excitement and fuss, the calmer you are and the more you pay attention to the dog’s body signals, the more you can build trust and confidence with a new dog.

A great way to earn a dog’s trust is to go for a walk together. You can share the fun of the walk, point out interesting places for the dog to sniff, and play little games where the dog learns to follow your movement. The more often and regular your walks are the more they will enjoy your presence and feel like you are fun to be around!

Another great exercise to help build trust with a dog is a training session. Teaching a dog a simple cue, like sit or come to you, promotes a strong bond between you both. The best way to train commands is with positive reinforcement techniques - reward good behaviour with praise, treats, toys, or whatever motivates your dog the best.

Why does my dog have trust issues?

Dogs have associative memory, meaning that they learn to connect one action with another, and will always look for the outcomes, whether positive or negative. A good example of this is when a dog owner picks up the dog’s bowl - the dog knows they are about to get their dinner! However, dogs can also learn that some events lead to negative results, meaning they lose trust in future.

If they’ve had negative experiences in the past meeting strangers or, for example, some dogs may even fear other dogs after perhaps being attacked in the past, then they learn to associate these with bad things.

How to repair a relationship with a dog?

You may have used punishment or harsh techniques with your dog in the past, and this may have caused problems. The dog needs to feel safe again, and perhaps you need to learn about positive reinforcement and how to use rewards to train your dog instead. Repairing this relationship may need professional guidance, so ask your vet to refer you to a clinical animal behaviourist.

How to build trust with a stray dog, rescue or abused dog?

Rescue or shelter dogs may not have had the chance to build confidence with some situations, through no fault of their own. They may have learnt to be wary of humans either by being badly treated or by simply not being socialised as a puppy. It may all be very new to them to meet kind, caring humans or certain ones such as children! Therefore building a new relationship with humans can take time and preparation.

You can work on a few techniques mentioned above to try and build a bond with a dog, however if your dog is really struggling and you're concerned try seeking help for a clinical animal behaviourist. They can identify the root cause of the dog’s behaviour, and their stress threshold, by doing so they can suggest the best possible solution for you and your dog.

As with us humans, establishing trust with a dog can take some time. However your efforts will definitely pay off when your dog and your new friend has a blooming friendship and you have someone that not only your dog trusts but you do too!