How to Heal a Skittish Rescue Dog

By Lisa McQuerrey

A skittish rescue dog who has been through a traumatic life experience will need compassion, patience and understanding as he adjusts to his new home environment.

See Your Vet

Take your pup for a full veterinary checkup to ensure he’s in good physical health and doesn't have any injuries or underlying illnesses. If the rescue organization you adopted your pup from indicates he had any type of behavioral issues to be aware of, discuss these with your vet to come up with a plan of action for handling them. For example, your pup may have separation anxiety, excitable urination or even aggressive tendencies that will need to be addressed.

Create a Safe Environment

When you bring your skittish rescue dog home, your house should be set up for him. Provide a kennel in an out-of-the-way area to which he can retreat and give him his own food and water bowls, toys and soft bedding. Your pup may be fearful at first and should be given a gradual introduction to the household, especially to young children or other animals who might make him feel overwhelmed at first. Don’t approach him with too much enthusiasm right away or he could be frightened. Instead, be present, quiet and encourage him to come to you as he’s ready.

Don’t Force, Don’t Coddle

While a low-stress environment is ideal for introducing a skittish dog into your home, you don’t want to coddle him to the point that you encourage his fearful behavior. Don't force your pup to be social right away, but reward him when he voluntarily approaches you, responds to commands or joins in with household activities. While socialization eventually will be important, your primary objective at the start of your relationship is to provide a safe and stable environment.

Your dog's confidence will grow when he starts to understand what you expect from him. Positive training sessions can lead to creating stronger bonds.

Make a Routine

Create a routine for feeding, walking and gentle training sessions in which you work on obedience and housebreaking skills that may have waned while in a shelter. Always positively reinforce desired behaviors with praise and treats and never, under any circumstances, physically reprimand your rescue dog, yell at or berate him, or otherwise inflict additional damage on what is likely a fragile psyche. Be patient and understanding. Your rescue dog may cry, cower, have accidents and even appear standoffish and wary of his new household. With time and continued gentle interaction on your part, he's likely to come around when he recognizes he is safe and loved.