Helping a Shy Dog
By Jaime Van Wye, CMDT
Shy dogs can present challenges for their guardians, many of whom are completely mystified as to how to react to their canine wallflower. The good news is that there are steps you can take to help your dog with his shyness.
It’s hard to own a dog that is terrified of traffic, men with beards, the lawnmower, strangers, cats, the universe, you name it. Luckily, behavior modification can have lasting and dramatic effects on shy dogs, and all you have to do is invest in some delicious treats.
Shyness is caused primarily by two things: genetics and socialization (or rather, the lack thereof). Studies show that shyness is an inherited trait, and so dogs whose parents are shy are far more likely to exhibit the same behaviors. In addition, a lack of socialization during the critical period of puppy development (before sixteen weeks) can contribute to shyness. During this time, puppies should meet all kinds of people and have lots of different experiences with new places, loud noises, strange dogs and gentle handling. If puppies are isolated during this time, some will grow up to be fearful adults.
Usually, some combination of genetics and socialization will cause shyness in adults. With adopted dogs with unknown histories in particular, it’s sometimes difficult to ascertain whether the cause is genetic or social.
Regardless of the cause, the “cure” for shyness is a multipronged approach, which requires patience, understanding and a lot of delicious cookies. Realize at the outset that if your dog’s shyness is caused by genetics, you will be able to improve it, but probably never completely fix it (if your dog is having a particularly rough time, you should consult your vet about medication that can help). Rather, the goal should be to help your dog feel better and more secure in stressful situations, so that you both can enjoy experiences together.
Since dogs with shyness issues are particularly prone to developing aggression problems, it’s important to work with your shy dog sooner rather than later. Shy dogs, though sweet, may become so fearful of new situations that they end up snapping, barking aggressively, or lunging on leash — all of which can escalate to bites.
The first thing you’ll want to do is cut out the corrections. If you are using any type of aversive collar (choke chain, prong collar, etc.), switch to a flat buckle collar or head halter. Leash corrections can inadvertently create a painful association with new things. For example, if your dog darts forward out of fear when a strange dog approaches, a leash correction coupled with an already terrifying situation only reinforces the negative feelings your dog has and makes the situation much worse.
Instead, what you’ll want to do is begin to associate scary things (whatever your dog is nervous of) with tons of delicious goodies. This is called “counter-conditioning.” It’s not enough to simply expose your dog to frightening things over and over again; instead, you are also going to couple these experiences with positive things your dog likes, such as chicken, liver snaps or string cheese.
Start carrying your dog’s favorite treats with you whenever you’re together. In any stressful situation where he acts shy, regardless of his behavior, begin offering treats. You are not “rewarding” him for good (or bad) behavior, rather, you are working on a much more fundamental level. You are creating powerful associations with new things. If your dog is shy of strangers, begin unloading the treats as soon as your dog notices a new person. When that person walks away, stop feeding the treats. Your dog will soon begin to associate scary strangers with treats — a positive association.
Once your dog seems more comfortable around strangers, you can move on to face-to-face greetings, which are a big challenge. The first step is to teach proper greeting techniques to anyone that wants to say hi to your dog. Dogs find direct eye contact threatening, and many people will try to greet your dog by towering overhead and touching his face. Instead, the proper way to make friends with a shy dog is to avert your eyes, stand sideways, and crouch down while offering a cookie in an outstretched hand. If your dog won’t say hi to someone, don’t push it. Keep your dog and the stranger safe and move away. If your dog stops taking cookies, chances are that the situation is too much for him and you need to remove him from the area to reduce his stress.
With lots of patience, you can really change your dog’s view on the world and help reduce shyness. Try enrolling in an activity where your shy dog can be exposed to new things in a controlled environment. Classes specializing in helping shy dogs can really help, but a tricks class or agility are great for getting your shy dog out of his shell.
Remember, by emphasizing positive associations, you’ll reduce your dog’s fear and increase his confidence — even if you do have to carry cheddar cheese around in your purse.
Jaime Van Wye is the owner and founder of the Zoom Room, a dog training franchise specializing in obedience and agility based out of Los Angeles. She is also the Dog Daycare chair for the Pet Care Services Association. Visit www.zoomroomonline.com.