The Considerate Canine: Shy Dogs Part 1
Several weeks ago Lowcountry Dog received and forwarded a reader question about a shy dog. While writing a reply to that specific question, I thought that more information about shy dogs might be appreciated, so I’ll do a couple of short articles offering information and suggestions for helping these dogs and their humans.
Most of us envision a happy, well adjusted, easy going dog when we open our hearts to a canine companion. We don’t always get that dog. Shy dogs require patience, understanding ,and time. Their needs are very different from the social butterflies. In my personal experience, they are well worth all of the time and adjustment needed to help them. It is interesting what you learn about yourself while helping these terrific dogs gain confidence and bloom.
As with any other creatures, shy dogs are all different. Some are worried about new people or places, while others are frightened of the entire world. Just this past week, I talked to two people with newly adopted dogs that were extremely fearful. In one case, the dog found a corner of the living room, decided he was somewhat safe there, and refused to budge. The other dog discovered his doggie bed and couldn’t be persuaded to leave it, not to eat or go to the bathroom.
So what do you do? The dogs need to eat and go out to the bathroom, at the very least. In one case, the owner put papers down on the floor, left food and water close by, and allowed the dog to explore without them being in constant attendance. For this pup, it was a good beginning.
Gradually, the owner began to sit in the doorway while the pup was eating, occasionally tossing a really tasty treat to him. In very small increments, she moved ever closer, tossing treats to help the pup equate human proximity with something pleasurable. Each session was kept very brief: in the beginning, well under a minute. If her dog showed any signs of distress, she moved away, slowly, or left completely. In a few days, she was able to sit on the floor next to the doggie bed and give tasty treats directly from her hand. Her next step was to put the tasty treats slightly off the bed so the pup needed to move on his own to get the food. Initially, she put the food down and left the room, allowing the pup to move without being worried about his owner’s presence. At each step, she made it as easy and stress free as possible for the pup to succeed.
She is also moving the paper farther away from the bed to encourage the dog to move about the space more. Her next step is to use a litter box with grass sod inside to transition from paper to the approved surface for potty breaks.
This pup feels comfortable around other dogs and we are able to use a friendly dog to help him explore his world. When a friend’s dog comes over, he is happy to leave his safe zone for romp and play time.
How long does this take? Will this pup ever be “normal”. Like many questions regarding canine behavior, the answer is that it depends. This particular pup has made a lot of progress in a short period of time. Once his human understood that her efforts to “force” the pup to interact was creating more stress and took a less invasive, more pup friendly approach, he started to warm up. He is now happily accepting treats from human hands (family only, on his terms) and beginning to venture out of the bathroom that had become his safety zone.
The most effective and humane way to work with shy dogs is to take it slow and to throw all of your personal expectations out of the window. Look for tiny, tiny signs of improvement and rejoice when you see them. It may start out with the pup being willing to look at you instead of turning his head in avoidance. Protect your dog from well meaning people that are sure that they can help, because they are good with dogs and all dogs love them. Create situations that help the dog remain comfortable when they are exploring their world. If your dog suddenly decides that he needs to take a break and return to his safe zone, allow him to do so.
Forcing a shy or fearful dog to interact with something or someone scary is not productive. It can be cruel and create a worse problem. Don’t allow unknown people to go up to your dog, even with the tastiest treat in the world. A frightened dog MAY take the treat, then lash out when they realize how close the person is. Always, always try to look at the situation from your dog’s perspective. How would it feel to have a stranger reach out and pat your head, even if they were offering you chocolate? Remember to intersperse something easy into the process instead of constantly raising the bar. If you are moving gradually closer to the dog, move back to a greater distance from time to time, taking the pressure off of the dog.
Shy dogs come in all sizes, shapes and backgrounds. They may be rescue dogs who have had little or no socialization. They may be puppies that are genetically predisposed to fearfulness. Regardless, take your time, learn to watch for signs of stress, and honor the dog.
Watch for some tips on ways to help your shy dog as he begins to venture out into the world.
Cindy Carter, CPDT-KA
Mindful Manners Dog Training
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