How To Help a Skittish Dog

First and foremost, I want to say that I am NOT a professional. I have been trained in skittish dog recovery, but this Note is written based on my own personal experiences and the techniques that I have found to be effective in safely capturing a skittish dog.


It’s happened to many of us before. You’re out for a walk or a drive when suddenly, you see a fearful looking dog running down a sidewalk or standing in the road. Many peoples first reaction is to try calling out to the dog. “Come here, pup!” If you’re lucky, it works and the dog will come running to you… But unfortunately, it usually results in the dog looking at you for a moment before bolting away from your general direction.
So what the heck do you do now? How can you rescue a dog that wants nothing more than toget away from you? To answer this, it’s important to first understand Doggy Body Language.
A lot of canine body language is often misinterpreted by humans. For example, a dog yawning doesn’t always mean they’re tired or bored. Dogs will yawn in stressful situations as a way of showing that “Everything’s cool, I’m relaxed so you can be, too.” This is typically seen between two dogs, one dog will yawn or lick its nose. This is the dogs way of saying that they are calm, so the other dog can be calm too.
If you’ve attempted to call out to the dog before realizing how skittish the dog is, it can be very difficult to get another chance…because the dog is now in Fight or Flight mode and only has one thing on its mind…getting away and finding someplace safe to hide. To be honest, I’m not sure how other people work in this situation…but what I have done (that usually works), is finding a way to get ahead of the dog in the path they’re running.
For example, if the dog takes off and is running down a sidewalk, drive far enough past them that they don’t see you, get out of your vehicle, and sit or lay on the sidewalk or off to the side in some grass (but don’t hide from them!!) and make sure that your body is NOT facing the direction of the dog. If you’re lucky, the dog will continue running in your direction, and once they see you they will hesitate. It is VERY important that you do NOT make eye contact with the dog, and you do NOT have your body facing their direction. Do not call out to the dog again if it has already scared them once.
Bear wanted nothing to do with me when we first found him in the mountains. We could drive past him and he wouldn’t run, but the closest he would get was to grab a hot dog from my hands before slinking away from me in a hurry. I got out of the car and laid down with my back to him. In having my body facing away from him, it was showing him that I was in no way a threat and that he was in control of the situation. As you can see, he stayed far away at first…but eventually his curiosity got the best of him and he inched closer and closer to try to figure out what the heck was wrong with me.
There was a spot on the side of the road with some grass and brush around it that he had been nesting in. After he had sniffed me for awhile on the road, he had eventually gotten bored and wandered off. (This all took place over many many hours of just being in the same general area as him, so that he could see that I wasn’t there to harm him and that I wasn’t going to try to grab him.) I laid down near his nest and he again came to see what was wrong with me. I started to make little whining noises, and lip smacking noises.13087845_1068426053222594_8420278390282883_n
As I stated above, yawning and licking of lips is a major Calming Signal for dogs. Whenever I could feel his tension rising, I would yawn and whimper and loudly lick my lips…letting him know that it was okay, I wasn’t up to anything and I wasn’t trying to trick him.


After what felt like forever, Bear finally trusted that I was just a pathetic human in need of help, and he came right up next to me. In the last photo, you see that he finally trusted me by turning HIS back to ME. We had both now established enough trust in each other to know that it was okay to let our guards down.
Big, exaggerated yawns and lip smacks are key when showing a dog that you mean them no harm, and equally important is having your body facing away from them until you’ve established some trust.
If you have treats on you (dogs love bologna and hot dogs and any kind of meat, really), you can offer them to the dog. I find it’s best to do this while your back is turned to them. By reaching a treat out behind yourself and not looking at the dog, it tells them that you are the one trusting them. The ball is in THEIR court.


McDonalds cheeseburgers are a life saver. They’re cheap, and if the dog is close enough to you, you can start to unwrap a cheeseburger to catch their attention. Crinkle the wrapper and make “yummy” noises as you do so…but when making any noises, or speaking, I always do so like I’m talking to myself. I’m not telling the dog “OH YUMMY LOOK WHAT I HAVE!” I’m saying softly “Mmmm yummy, this cheeseburger looks so good! yum yum mmm” to myself..but loud enough that they can hear. You can try to gently toss pieces of the food behind yourself. This way, you aren’t forcing the dog to go out of its comfort zone by taking the food directly from your hands.
You can slowly start to toss the pieces closer and closer to yourself, luring the dog in. If I have been sitting this whole time, this is when I will typically lay down and stretch my arm out behind myself slowly so that the dog can smell me if they want to, but they don’t have to. Continue crinkling the wrapper and making yummy noises. Eventually, the dog will start to trust you. This could take only a few minutes, to a few hours, and maybe even days to get to this level of trust.Patience is key.


Just because the dog is now eating from your hand or sitting close to you, does not mean you should attempt to grab the dog. With Baby Bear, I had a leash in hand and eventually I was laying cuddled up to him and petting him for warmth (it had started to snow)…but I continued to pet him and cuddle him for a few hours before I even attempted to put the leash on him because I did not want him to feel like I was tricking him all along, and lose all of the trust that we had built. Eventually, I slipped it on him and we became friends, and he trust me enough to let me put him in the truck.
There are many situations that you may find yourself in, and some are tougher than others. For example, if a scared dog is hiding under a car or in a corner of some kind, do NOT corner them or try to invade their space. Think about how terrifying this would be if you were in their position.


In cases like this, it’s best to sit or lay with your back to the car they are under…and at a distance. Put yourself in their mindset…think like a scared dog. The car is now their safe spot, and if they feel like you are trying to use their safe spot against them, or as a way to trap them, they may get aggressive or run away and no longer feel like they have a safe place to be.
Follow the same steps as before. Lots of lip smacking, loud calm yawning…crinkling of treat bags or wrappers. Let them know that YOU will not try anything that they aren’t comfortable with, and it’s their move on if they want to inch out from underneath the car (or boat, or deck etc) or not.
Sometimes, a dog is too scared for these tactics to do any good. In these cases, it might be time to consider using a Humane Dog Trap. These can usually be rented from Humane Societies or Shelters so you don’t have to buy one yourself.
The key to successfully trapping a dog in a Humane Trap is to camouflage the trap so that it looks like a nice safe place to hide. Dogs that are THIS scared are usually too cautious to approach a random cage in a field. I know that if I were a scared dog, there’s no WAY I would get near some foreign metal box.
With Humane Traps, you will want to get something super smelly to use as bait…such as Tripe or chicken. You can use broth to lead a scent trail to the trap, and sometimes I will break up little tiny pieces of the food and scatter a few of them around the general area of the trap so they realize there really is food. The food should be placed in the back of the trap, so that the dog has to physically enter the cage to get to the food. This will trigger the plate that closes the trap door behind them. There are tons of YouTube videos out there that will teach you how to set a trap properly, if you’re unsure of how they work.
Wildlife cameras can also be VERY helpful. Even if you don’t catch the dog, you can see if they were at least in the area of the trap. I believe you can find a place to rent these as well, or you can always post on Lost & Found Pets Wa State to inquire about cameras or traps to see if anyone has a spare that you can borrow.
If the skittish dog is YOUR dog, please don’t let it break your heart if your own dog doesn’t come running when they see you. They are in full survival mode, so they likely will not recognize you, your voice, or your scent if they are terrified…that’s why patience is so important in gaining their trust enough until they are able to calm down and realize “Hey, that’s my MOM/DAD!”
This is a great article explaining in more detail why your own dog may not come to you.
Here is a wonderful example of what to do in a situation like this. This was posted with us in 2013.
From the owner: “We weren’t sure if we should bring her big brother along to help find her today. Would she recognize him or would he terrify her like we did? After fretting about it all night we decided to go ahead and bring him. Early this morning we took Big Sully out to “the area” with treats etc. and her favorite ball. I let Sully march around where ever he wanted on the trails on his (loose) LONG leash (my horse’s lunge line). He peed on everything while he sniffed around. In a clearing we started to play keep-away with him with May’s ball. (Laughing and having fun=”calming signals”.) After about 5 minutes of keep-away, May appeared down the trail crouching. Then she ran away. Then she reappeared and ran away. Finally she reappeared and slowly made her way toward us. (We kept playing with Sully and ignored her–as we were told to do by the experts.) Once Big Sully saw her, he ran straight for her. I thought she would bolt again. But instead, she ran to him too!! (Like those corny made for tv love stories) We knelt down right away, (again, as the experts advised us to) and she ran up to us and kissed us all over the necks and faces!!”
If you have another dog that is bonded with your missing dog, bring them along when you search for them. They will pee along the way and mark their scent all over the place, like dogs do, and there’s a good chance that at night when your dog feels comfortable enough to be out on the move, they will pick up on that familiar scent and it may even help to bring back their other senses and memories.


Remember… don’t give up no matter how discouraged you get, your dog WANTS to be back home, they are just so scared and lost…and this is why you can’t give up on them!!
Think like a scared dog. That is what I always do. I think about how I would feel if the roles were reversed, and I act according to how I think the dog will react to whatever it is I’m doing. If I can sense that the dog is not getting comfortable with my presence, it’s time to give them some space and to respect their comfort, or lack of comfort.
I hope that this Note is helpful to you. Please share it with your friends and family. Knowledge is power, and the more you know about skittish dogs behavior, the better chance you have at successfully rescuing a scared lost dog! Remember. CALMING SIGNALS ARE KEY.
IMPORTANT: Please, if you are trying to rescue a scared loose dog, do NOT put yourself in a dangerous situation. If the dog starts to show aggression, do not put yourself at risk!!
Love and all the luck in the world,