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Dog Gone Problems: Tips to help a puppy mill survivor learn to trust men

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Dog for July 15, 2020

Dog Gone Problems is a weekly advice column by David Codr, a dog behaviorist in Omaha. David answers dog behavior questions sent in by our readers. You can reach him at

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Dog Gone Problems,

We need some advice regarding our Maltese dog who we rescued a few months ago. She was rescued from a breeding facility and is pretty skittish. She has no issues with my wife or my daughters but she's not a big fan of myself or my son. I'm guessing she was either abused or neglected at the breeding facility and doesn't know what it's like to be a pet, so we are trying our best. She is not a fan of leashes, so we don't take her for walks, as we have a pretty large yard for her to roam around. She's not into toys or anything, except laying in her kennel or on the tile floor now to keep cool.

We rescued her over the weekend of spring break for my kids this year and then they never went back to school and my wife and I have been home working as well due to the coronavirus pandemic. I'm wondering what will happen when my wife and I go back to work and the kids return to school in the fall. Whenever we go somewhere as a family, she is kenneled and then will howl and bark. She's not trustworthy yet to be alone and not kenneled, as she still has accidents. After reading your article about separation anxiety, I wonder how we can prevent this for her since she doesn't like walks (leash) and she's not into toys or anything. Do you have any suggestions we can start to try?

Thanks in advance,



Hi Jeff,

I've found that when helping a dog from an abused or neglected situation, you need to do two things. First, demonstrate you are not going to harm them and second, give them a voice.

Many people think since petting or hugging a dog are done with loving intentions, that it's OK to give them to any dog at any time. But if the dog doesn’t want or is fearful of the interaction, it's going to cause him or her to become frustrated and, in some cases, more fearful.

One way to help check to see if a dog wants you to pet him or her is to reach out but stop an inch or two short of making contact. If the dog leans in, he or she is saying, “Yes, I'd like a pet.” If the dog turns away, backs up or lowers his or her head, the dog is saying “I don't want you to touch me.”

Listening to this conversation from your dog and respecting her wishes is the first step in establishing trust and helping that dog know you are listening. This can be a breakthrough moment for many dogs. The more a dog turns his or her head and has the human stop trying to reach them, the more trust the human earns. The more that happens, the more of a voice the dog has.

The same thing applies when picking a dog up. If your son goes to pick her up and she growls, she is saying, “Leave me alone.” If he picks her up anyway, your dog is kind of powerless so she surrenders and accepts she has no choice. This leads any creature to resentment.

After a week of practicing reaching out to your dog to see if they lean in to be pet, I'd recommend you and your son start hand feeding the dog. This is a powerful connector when successful. Make sure to sit on the floor and offer the food off to your right or left side at nose level or lower. Front facing is confrontational to dogs. It may take a meal or two before the dog eats from your hand. If she refuses to eat after a few minutes of offering, put it away and wait for the next meal to try again.

It's not ethical to withhold food, but it's OK to offer it with conditions to motivate the dog to do something that isn't egregious. Without seeing your dog, I can't say how fearful of you she is. If she refuses to eat from your hand and is not showing signs of fear or distress, I'd put the food up until the next meal and perhaps repeat the same the next day. If she won't eat after three days of doing this, go back to normal feeding and practice the following videos. 

— This video includes an exercise your wife and daughters should lead. It's important you start out motionless and only start moving once the dog sits and lays calmly when doing the exercise. Basically, this rewards the dog for simply looking at you. With practice, you start to become an indicator of something the dog likes.

— This second video features a trick that can help the dog like being picked up. I'd recommend you practice it to success first, then repeat the same with your son.

Additionally, having amazing treats on you can help if you reward things with good timing and technique. A really easy way to do this is wait for your dog to do a command you like (sit, come, lay down, etc.) on her own. As soon as the dog sits, offer her a treat and if she takes the treat, say “sit” once. Avoid using multiple words or saying it too excitedly.

The idea is to offer amazing rewards when the dog does things you like without you or your son asking. After a while, the dog will think, "These men are my fans. I like these guys, as they support what I do and don’t try to make me do things I don’t want."

Another tip is to try to sit on the floor at times the dog is nearby and invite your son to do the same. Don’t call your dog. If she comes to investigate you, let her sniff you as much as she wants without reaching to pet her. Wait for her to stop sniffing and linger nearby before you reach out and wait for her to lean in.

It will be tempting to reach out and grab or pet the dog, but make sure you don’t. If you are patient, one sniffing visit will become two and eventually the dog will linger nearby, making it easier to reward those voluntary actions.

Remember, this dog isn't just fearful of you. It's likely she's fearful of all men and many other things, too. Once she gains confidence in you, her anxiety will diminish and she may not need to work on her separation anxiety. If she does, then you can cross that bridge together when she trusts you and your son.

Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.


Submit your pet questions to David Codr by emailing a photo of your dog and question to Visit for more from David.

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