Three Things Your Special Needs Dog Wants You to Know

I do lots of driving on my job, and it provides really good thinking time.  I think about all sorts of things every day.  Sometimes, I wonder….if our dogs could talk to us, what they would really say.  What would a special needs dog want his owners to know? I know the list is as long as the world is wide, but I’m going to start with three small things that I think are truly BIG things that would likely be at the top of the list for dogs.

Number 1:  Trust may not come easily for him, and until he really trusts you, his behavior won’t make the progress that you’d like to see. I’ve said it multiple times before, and I’ll continue to say it, because trust is everything to a dog.  It’s the currency in which he operates to let you handle him, train him, walk on a leash, play with him, etc.  Trust is all he has to give.

Many special needs dogs are rescues who have had  previous humans blow their trust apart, so you are likely paying the price for that.  Once dogs get recycled enough times, they sometimes decide it’s not worth their effort to invest trust in humans, only to be betrayed down the road.  So they make a decision not to engage their emotions in building trust that isn’t going to last.  That may be sad to hear, but it needs to be said, because that’s really how it is for some dogs.


When people surrender their dog to a shelter or rescue, they assume that their dog is going to find a great home with a wonderful family and that he will live happily ever after.  The stats just don’t reinforce that dream.  Far too many dogs get put to sleep, or get shuffled back and forth from home to home….with trust getting harder and harder for the dog each time they move to a new home.

Another common situation that I see, are adult rescue dogs who come from puppy mills, or hoarding environments, or even older puppies who have spent their entire lives in a kennel, where they had little to no human contact.  These are dogs who have never learned how to trust, because they have never had a relationship with humans, so it’s all new to them.  They are often very skittish, terrified dogs, and progress in these situations is often very, very slow.

You may have to do targeted trust building activities and wait a long, long time for your dog to finally feel as if he can trust you.  Simple things that you can do which will help are using good submissive body language, hand feeding, creating a very predictable schedule and life with consistent times for meals, exercise, play, etc. and just letting your dog watch you do everyday things at home.  Dogs are always watching what’s going on, and that’s a great way for him to learn about you and his new home.

Number 2:  They’re doing the best that they know how to do, and they really ARE trying!!  It becomes so easy to make judgments and assumptions about what dogs are doing and why.  In my work with dogs, I find that most dogs will consistently produce behavior that I ask from them once they are absolutely sure about what I want from them.

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If I give inconsistent verbal or visual cues to my dog, I can’t really blame him if he’s not consistent in how he behaves.  That’s only fair.  I need to use one consistent word or phrase, and the same hand signal every time I work with my dog.  “Come”….”C’mere”….”Here”…”Here boy”….are all very different things, and over time, yes, your dog can learn that they all mean the same thing.  But how confusing is it when we switch things up for them?  Isn’t it just as easy to pick one consistent word, and one consistent hand signal?  Why make it harder than it needs to be?

If I want my dog to use only one area of the yard for his potty, then that means even when it’s dark, cold and/or rainy….I need to consistently take him only to that specific area.  Otherwise, how else can he know what I want from him?  Dogs are smart, but they really aren’t mind readers, and that’s good to remember!  Training a dog means doing things consistently at our end, even when we don’t feel like doing it or when it’s not convenient for us.

129I can see in a dog’s eyes when I’m training him that he’s trying.  They typically work very hard, and that means a lot of focus and concentration. For a human it may not look like much, but I can tell you….your dog is trying….he’s working….he really wants to get it right and make you happy.  He does.  Trust me on this one!  He just needs to figure out what you want.  That’s all there is to it.  He just has to figure it out.  The question to ask is: “Are you doing your part to help him succeed?”

Number 3:  You are most likely his entire world.  When a special needs dog bonds to someone or a family….those humans become their whole world.  You hang the moon every night in that dog’s mind.

You are the safe person that they feel as if they can count on.  They understand how you move, how you speak, how you play with them, and how you pet them and soothe them.  They see some predictable, consistent patterns of behavior from you, so they know what they can or can’t do.  They probably know what they do that makes you mad or turns you into someone scary, and they’ve learned where to run that’s safe and secure for them.

Don’t take this lightly.  This is the beginning of early trust, and it means absolutely everything to your dog.





  1. Denise Baker says

    This is a post that every dog owner needs to read. TRUST, just like in a hum relationship, is the glue that binds a relationship together. I can't help but think about the incredible trust Denby had in me. I held his very life in my hand each and every day and I knew it. I knew that no matter what...I could NEVER, ever give him reason not to trust me and that meant never being gone longer than 4 hours. Never missing a feeding and making sure if I had to leave him at the vets for yet another surgery...that I would be there when he woke up.

    As always Miss Sally you've made me think about something in a whole new way.

    • Sally says

      Thanks so much for your wonderful comment, Denise! I've ALWAYS marveled at the trust Denby had with you...especially because of all of the vet visits you made with him. I have trained some aggressive dogs who have had chronic serious medical issues and their trust with strangers was blown through all of the poking and prodding! What you and Denby shared together was more than just special, and I hope I've helped you understand more about that!


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