Large tan rescue dog looks very startled as someone reaches out to pet him

How to Help a Scared Rescue Dog Adapt to His New Home

Last updated on August 27th, 2023 at 04:57 pm

Helping your newly adopted rescue dog adapt to his new home may be a challenge in the beginning. If your new rescue dog seems terrified, it may be for good reason. Dogs who have been rescued or who end up in a shelter have often faced many challenges. He may have been subjected to cruelty or neglect or abandoned to fend for himself. Mistreated or injured dogs have learned to run away from strangers and duck from the touch of an extended hand. So it is no wonder that helping a frightened dog feel comfortable is not always easy in the beginning.

Over time, you can help a scared rescue dog adapt and eventually settle into his new home. You will need to give your new dog his own space or room to decompress; keep a safe distance between you and your new dog; do not force him to come to you or do anything he does not want to do; use food enticements; and be very, very, kind and patient.

Keep reading to find out how you an help your scared dog settle into his new home.

Moving to a New Home is a Big Deal for Anyone!

Happy Young Boy Holding Dog in front of house with for sale/sold sign

Transitioning to a new home can be a stressful period for a dog. First, your new furry friend was placed into a shelter, possibly a foster home, and now he is moving in with you. Try to remember the last time you moved to a new home and had to adjust to a lot of new things at once–a new neighborhood; a different work commute; finding new local services and retailers; and the weather may have even been different.

Even if you were happy and excited to move, everything probably felt a little strange in the beginning. You most likely did not begin to feel really comfortable in your new surroundings for several months.

If all of this felt a bit overwhelming to you, try to put your feet in your dog’s paws. Additionally, moving was not your new pup’s choice even if it was a really good thing for him. And, because you cannot talk to him like you would to a human child, he will have a hard time understanding what this move to a new home means for him.

He may have also had some past trauma as well. So, added to a change in residence, he could also be dealing with a challenging past. He may even be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome if he was abused or badly neglected. Therefore, if you find yourself dealing with an extremely scared dog who seems to be frightened of everything, please be extra patient, kind, and intentional about how you help him adjust. See this great article from the Wisconsin Humane Society about Bringing Home a Fearful Dog.

Steps to Help Your Scared Rescue Dog Adapt

Prepare a Quiet Room or Area for Your New Dog

White dog with brown ears sound asleep with back feet up in the air having a nightmare.

Dogs who are fearful and anxious need some time and space to be able to calm down and become more relaxed. This process is often referred to by trainers and rescue staff as a decompression period. Just as with humans, stressed dogs will be more contracted and tense and will need a nice long period to stretch out, get more comfortable, and begin to feel safe.

Your new dog might not only be scared but he could also be exhausted from the stress of living in a shelter and then being transported in a bumpy car. So, help your new pooch feel safe and secure by creating a cozy den. Speak to him in calm tones and minimize outside distractions. He may just want to sleep for several hours once he is settled in.

To help your scared dog adapt, prepare a separate room or area in advance where your dog will have a cozy, safe place to retreat to. Fill the room with a den-like crate or bed, stuffed toys and chewies, and lots of blankets. Allow only family members to visit with him initially. Introduce each person in your household one at a time. If he becomes fearful, back off and let him only interact with just one person.

The most important thing is to go slowly! He may need several days just to get used to his special room and sleeping area before he explores the backyard or other rooms of the house.

Allow Him to Make Choices

Colorful box of dirty dog toys that need to be washed!

Pay attention to what your dog really seems to like. Offer him an array of different treats and let him choose which ones he likes best. You can also do this with toys and chewy bones. If he does not show any interesting in food or toys when you first bring him home, he may be too frightened. You may find him hiding under the sofa or behind a potted plant in the beginning. Just let him do this for a while. You can put a bowl of food and water in the corner of the room and sit outside his room or several feet away. Let him eat when he chooses to.

If he has never had toys before, he may not know what to do with them. But you may notice that he loves to jump on top of a pile of blankets. Or at night he may snuggle up to close to a stuffed animal. Let him enjoy the things he seems most attracted to and leave the other toys for later. You can probably help your scared rescue dog the most by giving him some freedom of choice.

Give Your New Rescue Dog Plenty of Space

Tan rescue dog relaxing on the couch in her new home

Some rescue dogs are terrified of everyone. Unfortunately, they may have good reason to be frightened. You can help your new rescue dog adapt more easily if you give him plenty of space. Show him that you are not a threat but a friend who will give him good things.

Just let him hang out in his safe area and don’t get too close. Talk to him calmly and gently and never in harsh tones. Sometimes just sitting and reading to your dog in a quiet voice may help calm him. See my post about studies that demonstrated that reading to dogs in shelters can be very beneficial.

Try not to scold him if he pees in the house. He may not be housebroken or he could just be unsure of what the rules are in your house. He could also just be really scared and prone to have an accident or two.

You can help your scared rescue dog the most by showing him where he can potty and reward him with praise and treats. Remember, he is just trying to figure out what you want him to do and he needs a chance to learn the rules. So, be forgiving and give clear direction.

Don’t Force Your Dog to Do Anything that Seems to Terrify Him

Scared small black rescue dog hiding under sofa

Don’t force him to do anything or go anywhere that seems to really frighten him when he first arrives. Dogs do have memories of their past. A dog’s memory may not work quite like a human’s but they do remember certain smells, sounds, textures, or places. They associate feelings of happiness or fear with certain things which can set off a positive or negative reaction.

I friend of my mine adopted a dog who had been in a shelter for a long time. She discovered that he hated bathrooms. He seemed to dislike the tile floors as well as the scent of a bathroom, most likely the cleaning products. My friend speculated that bathrooms probably reminded him of an animal clinic or a shelter with hard floors that was disinfected a lot. She just kept him away from bathrooms for several months and he eventually became less fearful.

Your new dog may not be eager to have a lead put on him in the beginning. This would be a loss of control and could remind him of negative past experiences. If this is the case with your dog, forego the lead for a while and just let him hang out in your home and yard for the first several days or weeks if need be. Then gently introduce him to either a slip lead or attach one to his collar and go for a short walk down the street.

Over time you can walk farther, but pay attention to his stress level as you increase his exposure. Eventually, you will want to introduce him to a harness when he is ready. Harnesses are safer and don’t put a strain on a dog’s neck. They give you better control as well in a more humane way.

Slowly Build Trust

Probably the most important thing to help your rescue dog adapt is to gain his trust. This may take several days or weeks depending on his current stress level. Show him that you are not a threat when you first bring him home. Speak softly but give clear, firm direction and guidance.

If he seems really frightened of you, sit on the floor with him but stay several feet away. Place treats between you and your new pup and let him eat them when he feels like it. Do not hand feed him at first. That may feel too threatening.

Let him make the choice about approaching the food and don’t make him eat from your had. Leave the food on the floor and back away. Let him eat it when he feels like it. Also, let him make the choice about approaching you as well. Don’t force him to you or move toward your dog. If he does come to you just let him sit close for a while.

Eventually, you can see if he will let you pet him under the chin or on the chest. Don’t pet his head or touch vulnerable places like his ribs, neck, tail, or paws. Most dogs are very protective of their feet, so avoid grabbing or trying to hold onto their paws. Things like nail trimming do not need to be done immediately. Please take a look at my post about why dogs don’t like to have their paws touched.

If he backs away stop petting him. Give him his space and see if he approaches you again later.

Eventually, your new rescue dog will see that your are not a threat. Not only that, but he will begin to associate you with good things–food, safety, verbal praise, and comfort. One by one, you can introduce other family members. He may be more comfortable with some members of your household over others especially if he has some past associations regarding gender or age.

Signs that Your New Dog is Frightened

When you bring home a new rescue dog, it may not be clear at first that he is really terrified. His exuberance to be out of the shelter may mask other underlying emotions. There are several signs that he may in fact be very scared if he:

  • Trembles a lot
  • Seems happy but is extremely hyperactive
  • Shrinks back when you try to pet him
  • Hides under the sofa or bed
  • Licks his lips a lot or yawns frequently
  • Whines, growls, or produces muffled barks
  • Seems very despondent and will not eat
  • Barks incessantly
  • Chases his tail or spins
  • Pants exessively
  • Tucks his tail and cowers

Any of these behaviors could signal a deeper emotional problem if they continue without signs of improvement despite your best efforts. If so, consult with your local vet and get a full medical exam. It will be important to also make sure he does not have any medical problems. Dogs who experience ongoing pain from an injury or chronic illness can sometimes exhibit signs of stress. Aggressiveness, as an example, may come from a place of feeling vulnerable due to chronic pain. You may also need to consult with an animal behavioralist and can probably get a referral from your vet.

Reasons Why Rescue Dogs Be So Frightened

There are three primary reasons that dogs become fearful:

  • Transport to and from a shelter
  • Being in a shelter for a long time
  • Loss of former family
  • Lack of socialization
  • Abuse or neglect
  • Genetics

Dogs who have lost their family and are grieving will certainly feel more vulnerable. And, any dog who has been in a shelter for a while, no matter how good the care, is bound to feel frightened and uncertain. They have little idea of what their new life will be like.

Dogs who have not been socialized at an early age may be fearful of people and other dogs. Dogs in puppy mills are often isolated in cages or taken too soon from their litters. The first 8 weeks of a puppies life are very formative and this is the time when they should be learning to interact with other dogs and humans as well.

Dogs who have been chained up in a yard can become very fearful due to the lack of social interaction. They are often trained as guard dogs to be aggressive and wary toward strangers. Dogs who have been abandoned may have a hard time trusting other people who are simply trying to help them.

Stray, abandonded, or neglected dogs who have had to fend for themselves have learned to fight for what they need and to be distrustful of a lot of humans. Packs of stray dogs are sometimes regarded as threats in some communities that do not want them around and try to drive them away.

Resilience is a trait that can vary from breed to breed and genetics can also play a role. Some dogs simply bounce back better than others, and some dogs are just anxious by nature. Therefore, despite your best efforts, your new pup may always have some degree of anxiety.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of a dog’s background or genetics, a frightened rescue dog needs your help to overcome his fears and adapt to his new home. You can help him a lot through your understanding, patience, and kindness, and by allowing him enough space and time to feel safe and loved. Be sure to see my extensive post Everything You Need to Know About Adopting a Rescue Dog for much more in-depth information.

Most scared rescue dogs do adapt over time. It may not always be easy, but in the end, the rewards are great and the bond you will forge with your new pooch will be priceless.

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