Q&A: My adopted dog was abused and is afraid of men; how can I help him?


I just adopted a two year-old male dog who was clearly abused by a man. He is scared to death of my husband, but he is a totally different dog with me.

Do you have any advice on how to get him to understand that my husband would never hurt him?

- Jo-Ellen


Hi Jo-Ellen,

Your dog may have been abused by a man, or may simply have not had previous experience with men.  That is, some dogs are more prone to be uncomfortable with people and things they have not had previous experiences with. In either case, the goal is to help your dog learn to see your husband as a non-threatening person, and as someone who is the source of things he wants. Further, some simple training exercises can help build your dog’s confidence and help build a social bond with your husband.

Firstly, for the time being and as much as possible, your husband should be as neutral as possible with the dog. Many people tend to respond to a fearful animal by trying to talk to, approach, and touch them. In some cases this might work. But, it is really much better to allow the dog to have the social space they need and to make social contact when they choose, rather than when forced to do so. Again, this can include something which might seem as innocuous as eye contact. For some dogs, this can be perceived as very threatening.

Have your husband become the main source of good stuff such as meals, treats, and toys. Even calmly placing your dog’s food bowl on the floor and then walking away can be impactful. When your dog seems confident eating the food at this level, see if your husband can place the food down, and walk a little less far away. Likewise with treats. He may need to start by calmly dropping or tossing them near your dog. But, with time he should be able to place the treats closer and then eventually offer them from his hand (with no eye contact to begin, if necessary).

You can also work on teaching your dog to hand target. This means teaching your dog to touch their nose to the palm of your hand. It is a great foundation for come when called 9imagine your dog running about in a safe area and you putting your palm down and saying “here,” “come,” or “touch” and your dog running over to touch your palm. It is also a great social skill. Once a dog masters this with someone they are comfortable with, you can gradually work on them practicing it with other people so they are learning to approach, to touch the person’s hand, and to get rewarded for doing so.

Start when your dog is hungry (i.e. just prior to meal time). Place your hand with flat palm facing your dog about 6 inches away from him. Odds are he’ll touch it to investigate. Say “yes” and give a tiny treat. Repeating this in 3-5 minute sessions will result in your dog learning that touching your palm is a good thing and that the word “yes” means what they did at that moment is what earned them a reward. Gradually increase the distance your hand is away from your dog. You can eventually place or toss a treat across the room, and once your dog has eaten it, you can have them run back to you to hand target.

Once have set a hand targeting foundation, and your dog is feeling more comfortable with your husband, he can start practicing this behavior as well. Remember, dogs are specific learners (they learn things in one environment, context, and/or with a particular person) and need time to generalize behaviors. So, your husband will need to start with the baby steps you did. That is, with his hand just a few inches away to begin.

With time and patience your pup should learn to feel more comfortable with your husband and the steps outline above should help facilitate a bond.Best,