Having a dog with trust issues can be challenging in many ways. Not only does it make it difficult for the dog to be cared for by anyone other than its owner, but it also can escalate into other fear-based negative behaviors such as fear biting or incontinence. Training distrust out of a dog is important not just to make the dog easier to handle, but also to make it more mentally healthy and comfortable.
If a dog only trusts one person, it’s important to take up positive reinforcement training that teaches the dog to enjoy people. This is done by rewarding the dog for being close or interacting with them. This kind of training needs to be done gradually so that the dog can become emotionally secure and build confidence at their own pace.
It may take some time to train a dog to trust people other than yourself, but doing so can not only improve the dog’s socialization, it can also make the dog more laid-back and friendly to be around in general.
Causes for Dogs Only Trusting One Person
There are many reasons why a dog might only trust one person (or even worse, may not trust people at all). Here are some of the reasons why a dog might latch onto an individual and become suspicious—or even aggressive—towards others:
- Protective nature: Some dogs are especially protective of their owners and can come to see other humans as a threat to them. Unfortunately, many people make this problem worse by pretending to strike another person to draw out this behavior for laughs, which only reinforces it and makes it harder for the dog to be friendly with all strangers.
- Past abuse or neglect: Stray dogs that were once feral or had to live on their own may be less trusting of people in general, and while they might trust their owner, that doesn’t mean that they’ll trust just any human. Dogs that have undergone physical or verbal abuse in past homes may also be distrustful of certain types of people, such as men with beards.
- Lack of socialization: Dogs that went through puppyhood and adolescence without being exposed to any people other than their owner can develop an extreme aversion to unknown and new scenarios such as seeing new people, places, or objects. This is a fear-based reaction that is the result of poor socialization. To avoid this issue, dogs should be socialized from puppyhood on with various people, objects, and sensory stimuli.
- Separation anxiety: Sometimes, distrust of people other than the dog’s owner isn’t so much an issue of trust; it’s more of an issue of the dog just not wanting to be separated from its owner at all. Several factors can cause separation anxiety, but it can lead to a dog that doesn’t trust anyone but its owner to take it anywhere.
- Breed personality: Some dog breeds are naturally more distrustful than others—these are typically dog breeds designed to be either watchdogs or household guardians. While these dogs may tolerate strangers in the presence of their owner (and with their owner’s approval), they may be very suspicious of strangers without their owner’s presence.
As you can see, there are many different reasons why a dog may only trust a single individual. If a dog has general trust issues, it can take a lot of time and patience to get them to the point that they will trust others.
Positive Reinforcement and Trust Training
When it comes to training dogs to trust, the best way to do so is with positive reinforcement. Punishing a dog for not accepting attention from other people only causes the dog to be distrustful of you. It does not encourage the dog to want to interact with other people. If anything, the dog will avoid other people so that it can avoid being punished.
Instead, trust training should be done with positive reinforcement training as the central pillar of the training program. This means that the dog is rewarded for the smallest steps toward a positive interaction with people other than its owner. After the dog has gained confidence and openly approaches other people, this reward training is eventually weaned off. This leaves positive attention from other people as the lasting reward for a dog that learns to trust.
Here are some of the supplies you’ll need to implement positive reinforcement trust training for a dog that doesn’t trust anyone but you:
- Treats: When doing treat-based training, it’s a good idea to focus on a treat that the dog loves. For some dogs, this can be balls of cheese or pieces of boiled chicken. For others, it may be peanut butter or little bits of chopped up steak. It’s worth finding a treat that your dog goes nuts for, as this will help encourage them to pursue training activities.
- Clicker: Clicker training helps to reinforce positive reinforcement by attaching a strong sensory signal (the sound of the click) to the action that you want the dog to reproduce. By clicking the clicker at the exact instant that the dog shows positive or trusting body language toward a stranger or chooses to get closer to them voluntarily, it clarifies the dog exactly how you want them to act around strangers. (Source: American Kennel Club)
- A volunteer or five: To do trust training, you’ll need at least one volunteer stranger that you want to teach your dog to trust. If you live in a multi-person household and the dog only trusts one person, it’s wise to make this volunteer a non-trusted member of the family. Otherwise, getting neighbors and friends involved can help accelerate this process. The more strangers the dog learns to interact positively with, the better.
Once you have these supplies, you’re ready to start training your dog to trust people.
Training a Dog to Trust Other People
Training a dog to trust other people is a gradual process, so you can expect it to take several weeks or even months, depending on how distrustful your dog is of others. With some dogs that were raised feral or suffered severe abuse, trust-building exercises may need to be maintained consistently for several months to see any positive change. For other dogs, just a few sessions can help radically shift their trust of people outside the family unit.
Here is the basic process you can use to teach a dog to trust people:
- Bring the stranger that you want your dog to trust into the room and have them sit down on a chair or couch. The person should not wear a hat or any strange clothing that might trigger the dog to be suspicious. It’s also important for both the stranger and yourself to be completely calm during this process, as the dog may pick up on any nerves.
- Without looking at the dog or engaging it in any way, have the person drop a treat on the floor near them. If the dog moves to get the treat, click the clicker and verbally praise them. Repeat this exercise several times until the dog is confident taking food from a stranger as long as they aren’t socially engaged. If the dog won’t take food at first, reward them as they move closer to the stranger and hand them a food treat directly.
- Each time the stranger enters the room, have them drop a treat for the dog while not greeting the dog or interacting with it. Greeting the dog can lead the dog to become anxious or fearful if it does not trust people. Instead, the dog’s focus should be on the food that gets dropped when people walk through the door. The purpose of this process is to create an association in the dog’s mind that strangers equal good food for the dog.
- Whenever the dog displays body language that is relaxed or friendly around the stranger, the clicker should be used, and a food reward should be given. Remember to keep treat pieces small so that several can be given in a session without impacting the dog’s nutrition.
- Strangers that the dog doesn’t trust can also feed the dog. In some cases, you can reduce the amount of food fed to the dog and have part of its daily intake of food come only from being hand-fed by either its owner (as positive reinforcement for socialization) or by strangers that you are teaching the dog to trust. This teaches the dog that it must rely on all people—not just its owner—to be fed.
- Make sure that any people you are trying to get the dog to trust understand how dog body language works. This means knowing when to get closer to the dog and when to back away and give the dog its personal space. Many people have been bitten by misreading a dog’s anxious or fearful body language. If in doubt, the strange person should keep their hands to themselves. However, petting the dog as it becomes more confident can reinforce socialization.
- Get the dog to focus on trusting one other person—especially another member of the household—before you start introducing more people for the dog to get to know. This can prevent the dog from becoming overwhelmed by new faces and possibly having a social regression out of fear or anxiety.
- Make sure that the dog is well exercised every day. Lack of exercise can help contribute to anxious and nervous energy in a dog, leading to disruptive behaviors when combined with a fearful attitude toward strangers.
Each dog is an individual, and it takes some dogs much longer to learn to trust than others. But taking the time to reward a dog for baby steps in the right direction can help move the process along much more smoothly regardless of the dog.
Tips for Teaching a Dog to Trust People
Teaching a dog to trust people isn’t always an easy task, and some dogs find it a hard thing to learn if they’ve led a hard life. Here are a few tips you can use to help teach your dog to trust people:
- Be consistent. As with any dog training, making sure to put in several training sessions a week can help build up your dog’s socialization skills much faster than just sporadically attempting to address the problem. Dogs also react positively to stable routines and taking on these training sessions in the same way each time can help the dog learn what is expected of them around strangers.
- Be patient. Some dogs have a hard time trusting humans, and this is usually through no fault of their own at all. So it’s important for people who own dogs like this to be patient with them and let them progress with trust socialization at their own pace, even if it takes a bit longer than their owner would like to make real progress.
- Keep training sessions short. You don’t want to burn your dog out doing socialization training, as this can put them under strain and can increase their chances of having a regression or acting out during a training exercise. Training exercises should begin at around fifteen minutes and gradually build up to around a half hour. Following up training with a rousing game can be a good way to keep things light and entertaining.
- Make it fun. Keeping your body language and your voice loving and positive can have a huge impact on your dog’s attitude toward training exercises. You’d be surprised at how quickly some dogs will progress once they figure out that it is something their owner wants them to do. Most dogs, regardless of their breed, are happy to please.
- Know when to contact a professional. If your dog’s distrust of other people escalates to the point that they growl or snap at strangers or at people who enter the household, then it’s probably time to get involved with a professional dog trainer. Like people, dogs can suffer from mental health issues, and some aggression problems may need more serious intervention than an amateur dog trainer can do safely at home.
Training a dog to trust can be difficult, but if you have a dog whose life is hindered by a lack of trust in other people, it can be one of the most humane things you can do for them.
Signs That a Dog Trusts (or Doesn’t Trust) Others
To reinforce positive behavior when it comes to trusting strangers, owners need to know what trusting behavior looks like in a dog and what a distrustful dog looks like.
Here are some of the signs that a dog is trusting (Source: Rover):
- The dog’s mouth is slightly open, and its tongue is lolling and relaxed.
- The dog’s attention may be on some other aspect of the room other than the stranger in it.
- The dog’s tail is wagging gently from side to side.
- The dog has a relaxed facial expression.
- The dog rolls over on its belly (this is a sign both of trust and submission).
- The dog is willing to make eye contact.
- The dog seeks out affection and moves closer to a person.
If a dog displays any of the above signs, this means that they are relaxed and are developing trust in the stranger they are sharing a room with.
However, there are also some telltale signs that a dog is anxious or distrustful. Here are some danger signs to watch out for that say your dog is uncomfortable in a social situation (Source: Pet Cube):
- The dog’s tail may wag stiffly (a sign of fear, aggression, or anxiety) or may be tucked between their legs (a sign of fear and submission).
- The dog’s ears are lowered and tilted back on its head.
- The dog avoids eye contact.
- The dog may growl, lift its lip, or snarl.
- The dog may retreat to the furthest point of the room from the stranger.
- The dog may actively avoid social engagement or physical contact.
- The dog may have wide eyes with the whites showing (this is a sign of fear or anxiety).
- The dog may lift its lips in a submissive grin.
Depending on the personality of the dog, their distrust of other people can range from avoidance to overt fear-based or protective aggression. It’s up to the person training the dog to recognize when the dog’s boundaries are being pushed too far and to dial the training interactions back in response.
Most Dogs Can Be Taught to Trust
Even dogs that were raised wild or were severely neglected and abused growing up have been successfully taught to trust and love people other than their primary caregivers. So, no matter how distrustful your pup is, it’s worth taking the time to attempt some positive reinforcement training to socialize them. You may end up with a dog who is a social butterfly, after all!