How to Care for an Adopted, Foster, or Generally Fearful Dog

The first priority with an adopted, rescue, or foster dog is to have the dog feel safe and build trust. Dogs that have had to change homes are usually traumatized. The more changes in settings and the higher number of past homes, the greater the traumatic effect on the dogs.

The resilience of each dog is different and backgrounds vary. For some dogs, your home will be the first normal, calm, and safe environment the dog has experienced. For many adopted dogs, even a safe place with friendly people can be very frightening. This may be the initial shock of the transition and decrease with time, or there may be more lasting issues. Only time will give you this information.

Expect to see changes in behavior for several months and in many cases the first year. Some things may improve as the dog settles in and some things may get worse. It’s best to be very conservative for the first few months to not create any issue that could have been avoided with a more careful approach.

What happened the first sixteen weeks of the dog’s life will have a profound effect on the development, social, and coping skills throughout the dog’s life, as well as any trauma or isolation during the dog’s life.

Some of the most psychologically damaged dogs I have encountered are dogs that have been extremely isolated in outdoor kennels, tied to doghouses, puppy mill dogs, or breeder dogs, with little exposure to new people and the sights and sounds of the world.

I recommend the book Stress in Dogs by Martina Sholz & Clarissa von Reinhardt (This book is really excellent for anyone with an adopted dog or who is fostering dogs or who just has a sensitive or anxious dog. Also for fearful dogs A Guide To Living With and Training A Fearful Dog by Debbie Jacobs. You can order these through or ). I have created DVDs of my workshops on Adopted Dogs, Fearful Dogs, and Socialization. These are geared toward the public and are available only at my site

At first, provide as quiet and peaceful an environment as possible. For many adopted dogs the effects of past traumas will not emerge for a few months, so proceed slowly and always err on the side of caution. Adding too much activity and new stresses in the beginning may create behavior problems that could have been prevented with more gradual transitions.

Think of it as rehabilitating, not dog training. Most dog training advice is for completely confident, well-adjusted dogs; this advice often does not apply in the case of the adopted/foster dog.
In my adult life, I have one way or another adopted all of my dogs. Some proved with time to be very adaptable, and others had deeply ingrained fears and anxieties along with poor coping skills. Each dog is a little different—much like people.

I recommend creating a peaceful, dog-proofed space for the dog away from outside and inside sounds. I find most of these dogs do better in an exercise pen rather than a crate. Many of these dogs have had bad experiences with confinement in crates; therefore, the added space of the exercise pen can work well for them. Put the exercise pen on inexpensive carpet or, if dog will chew it or is not housebroken, a big cut-out piece of linoleum.

Play soft classical music, I use Baroque for Beauty Sleep-Sweet Dreams for Beautiful Dreamers by Philips. Provide lots of safe and fun toys and chew items. Just like babies, dogs should not have anything that can be swallowed. Good toys for stuffing with food and treats are Kong Toys and other rubber toys. I have youtube video on my favorite activity toys and chews. Some toys I like , Kong Wobbler, Northmate Green Slow Feeder, Busy Buddy Twist n Spin, Nina Ottoson Puzzle Toys (these require supervision as there are smaller parts), Bully Sticks, Very Thick and Large Antlers, Nylabones, Tug Toys, and other softer toys. For chewers they make some tougher canvas stuffed toys.

Good foods for stuffing are peanut butter, fat-free cream cheese, fat-free plain yogurt frozen with treats in the freezer, dried meats and cheese treats, healthy small training treats. Avoid anything with chemicals and dyes and of course avoid partially hydrogenated oils. For all-natural chew items, bigger is better to prevent swallowing small pieces, like bully sticks from better small-owner pet stores or online. Get only those made in the U.S. Bravo makes some good natural treats. Balls at appropriate size and rope toys, as long as the dog doesn’t shred them, are good. These are just a few good toys, chews, and treats. Note: Some of these are hard toys, like the Kong Wobbler, that require your supervision to prevent damage to household furniture and can also set off glass break alarms.
Remember NOT to use any punishment like threats, sound makers, shock collars or any electric collar, choke chains, verbal scolding, spray bottles, forced handling, etc. I have seen these practices create huge, hard-to-repair behavior issues and often destroy the dog’s trust in people.

Chewing releases stress and will calm the dog so have lots of chew items available. Cover any windows where dog could see people or dogs outside or use baby gates to keep dog from rooms with windows where people, cars, etc. pass. You can get frosted glass looking window film from Lowes or Home Depot that goes on with water and removable. Use this to block your dog’s view. You can just do the dog’s level and leave top of window clear. This is nice as it lets in light and looks nice.

Feed the dog in his exercise pen. If you have multiple dogs, feed all the dogs separately so they can eat without worry.

If the dog is afraid and cautious in house and/or yard, let the dog get comfortable in those spaces first before going out on outings.

Note: Dogs that are timid often slink away or are reluctant to move forward. DO NOT teach down, sit, stay, away (leave it) as these behaviors will just shut the dog down more. Reward forward movement and more active behaviors since that is what you want with this kind of dog.

When the dog is comfortable in the home environment, go out to very quiet areas and for short periods initially. I usually start with a quiet park trail at a quiet time of day. Most dogs do well in a no-pull harness with clip on the front of chest. Clip your leash to the harness and to a flat collar at first to ensure the dog cannot wriggle out of the harness. I like either the no-pull body harness from the company Wiggles, Wags, & Whiskers called the Freedom Harness or the Sense-ation harness from Softouch Concepts. Read instructions for all of this stuff because there are important details in fitting. Sense-ation harness is only for walking, not running, so be sure it does not rub behind the dog’s legs. For extremely fearful dogs that are afraid of handling, use a regular harness that can stay on and clips to the leash along the back. Some dogs are so afraid of people they must wear this with a permanent short lead because of extreme fear of handling. Use a six-foot leash for most dogs. Do NOT use retractable leashes, which can lead to behavior problems, injury, poor control, and break often. Have your contact information on the dog before you even get the dog home. Use a temporary write-on tag if necessary. The most common time for a dog to run away is when in transit to new place or soon after relocation.

So for the first few weeks, when this dog is ready, bring lots of irresistible food (i.e., diced pieces of boiled chicken) on all outings, I usually bring around two cups and save any leftovers in the fridge for next outing. Let the dog sniff and take his time, so he feels safe in new environment. Detour away from people and other dogs at first, and feed while you do this. This will set you up for success. Try to remain calm and relaxed while out, and don’t scold the dog for reacting to things. Keep quiet or use a soft gentle voice.

Avoid dog parks. Dog parks are often frequented by dogs with poor social skills and people that who misunderstand bullying behavior for play behavior, or—I hate to say it—are not using good judgment about looking out for the welfare of other people and other dogs at the park. A bad experience could damage your dog and be overwhelming for an adopted dog. Wait for at least a few weeks before introducing dog friends and be sure these are mellow dogs and that your adopted dog doesn’t already have a bad association with dogs, as some do. Many dogs live wonderful lives with people and not dogs. The exception would be a dog under approximately six months old. In this case, you want to be in a very positive and controlled dog class but again, stay within the pup’s comfort level, don’t just throw him into a big group of dogs.

If you have other household animals, do gradual supervised introductions over a few weeks. The dog will do better if introduction is slow. Always, err on the side of caution.
If your new dog comes with common ordinary dog behaviors and needs some training, train without punishment. Start with a controlled setting, and use a leash if you need a little more control. Use well-timed positive reinforcement to teach desirable behaviors. Ignore unwanted behaviors like jumping up or being mouthy. The rewarded behaviors like sit, four paws on the floor, lying down, eye contact, will increase. Go to my site at and to look for videos, blogs, and links for more information. Often doing less and staying quiet, relaxed, calm, and still around dogs helps them quiet down. As famous dog expert Jean Donaldson once said, the first question about each dog is “Is the dog upset?” If yes, then use classical conditioning to gradually change a bad association with something like car rides into a good association. This solves the issue.

An example of using counter classical conditioning is to sit in the yard with a dog that gets very agitated any time a person walks by along the fence. Have the dog on leash with lots of over the top yummy food and the moment AFTER the dog looks in the direction or you hear or see person walking by you, feed the dog continuously until the person has passed. Then feed for a few more seconds and stop feeding. Do this each time someone passes. Keep the dog out of the yard when not working on this exercise so the dog doesn’t see people passing without receiving food, only to ruin the great new association you are trying to build. If the dog is not “upset,” then you can do normal training using the things that reinforce the dog, like food, toys, games—whatever the dog enjoys—to reward the behavior you want.

Introduce new things and situations gradually after a few weeks or when the dog is ready. For more fearful dogs, introduce new things when the dog is ready.

Have your dog get used to going into room or exercise pen when people arrive out of sight of guest entering. No dog should be near doors when strangers or guests enter. They should be in separate area out of sight with someone feeding them while another person gets the door or toss a bunch of great treats down on the floor or give stuffed kong for the dog to lick in another room while you get the door. Have guests sit quietly, best to start with one quiet friend, instruct them to not stare at, reach for or talk to the dog. Bring the dog out on leash and feed lots of goodies and sit a distance and not in the path of the guest. You could give the dog a chew or stuffed Kong. Just let the dog get used the presence of the guest first. When the guest stands up or starts to move that is another good time to feed your dog as this often startles them. Also feed when guest comes back in room. Don’t put the dog in situations where they will be surprised by person or in a tight space like a hallway with the guest. If going well you could have guest toss treats at distance but best not to have dog take treats from guests hands both for behavior reasons but also for training reasons. Some dogs will adapt to a new person after they have been there an hour, some three days, some longer especially with dogs from isolated backgrounds.

I don’t recommend having your dog meeting people or dogs outside on walks on leash. They are trapped and this is a bad scenario and not a good way to introduce a person or a dog. This is their walk with you, the dog shouldn’t have to worry that will have to encounter stranger people and dogs. NEVER have your dog sit and stay for meeting person or dog! You want the dog to know they can always move away from someone they are uncomfortable. Learn the dog body language (See my videos and blogs on this) and get your dog out of situations when they are even slightly stressed. Don’t wait until your dog gets really upset because you were listening and watching for their signals that they needed your help.

Never force a person, dog, or situation on a dog. Fear can create a permanent memory and cause problems in the long run. You want to avoid a behavior problem by introducing new things, people, or dogs, when the dog is ready and in small gradual steps. Patience and time work wonders with these dogs.

See my sites for more resources and

Jeni Grant BA, CPDT-KA

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