How to Help Feral Dogs Trust People

A shy dog is hiding behind a tree

Feral dogs have had very limited to no contact with people and consequently can be extremely nervous or fearful around them. Take it slowly when helping feral dogs or extremely shy dogs overcome their fear of people; there is no specific timeline as each dog will progress differently.

Building trust in shy dogs

Feral, fearful, and shy dogs often progress and succeed with a social dog companion who can interact with them and be a role model for trusting people. The most important way to build this trust and create a relationship is to give the dog space. Interact in your home as you normally would, engaging with your dog(s) as usual while your shy dog is able to move about freely. You do not want to put unwanted pressure on your shy dog, such as forcing your hand out to sniff, unsolicited petting, or direct eye contact.  

As your dog starts to warm up — following you through the house, staying in the same room with you, etc. — do not make a big deal with verbal praise or treats. You want to assure them that you are someone they can be comfortable around without forced interaction.  

With time, as your dog chooses to stay near you, you can offer some light touch if they solicit that. Keep petting time to a few seconds, and then stop. Keep all interactions on their terms to build a consent-based relationship.

Managing feral dogs

Working with a feral or extremely shy dog can be an ongoing process. Here are some more suggestions for continuing to build trust between the dog and people:

  • Leave a long drag leash on the dog if you need to be able to move them from room to room or take them outside.
  • Avoid making any gestures toward the dog that could be considered threatening, such as staring or sudden movements.
  • Approach the dog by walking on a curve rather than in a straight line toward them.
  • Turn sideways and bend down rather than towering over the dog.
  • Allow the dog to approach people on their own, rather than forcing the dog to tolerate someone.
  • If you have a yard, refrain from taking walks with your dogs until they are more comfortable. Once they begin to warm up to you, practice walking in your backyard first, so they can get acclimated to that in a quieter, more comfortable environment.