Socializing the shy and fearful dog

Dog owners can help their dogs mature into confident, stable dogs by carefully but consistently introducing the dog to various stimuli.

Shyness and timidity can develop as a young dog matures. Most often, the root of the problem is a lack of proper introduction to different people, animals, places, and things during the prime puppyhood socialization period. Other causes include emotional trauma, physical abuse, or simply not getting enough social interaction.

Typical signs of shyness and fear vary.  There are many degrees of severity.  Responses may be minor, with the dog exhibiting signs of avoidance or appearing uneasy.  More heightened fear responses are panting, pacing, agitation, or anxiousness.  More severe responses may include growling, nipping, lunging, or biting.  It is important to treat the fear and not just the dog’s reaction to the fear.  If the root of the behavior is not corrected, the dog’s responses may worsen.  It is quite common for shyness and fear to lead to aggression and biting.

Owners can help their dogs mature into confident, stable dogs by carefully introducing the dog to other people, other friendly dogs, and new environments outside the home. Daily walks on leash are often the most practical way to do this.

If you live in the country or quiet suburbs, you should still get the dog acclimated to busy environments, crowded sidewalks, noisy traffic, and big diesel trucks at an early age since you will eventually be visiting such places from time to time. For very young puppies who have not had vaccinations, you might carry them, so they are not exposed to germs on the city sidewalks.

If your dog is exhibiting signs of aggression, you should consult a professional trainer for assistance.

Positive controlled situations

The key to helping a dog learn a new, positive response is to set up controlled situations in which your dog will succeed. But, of course, a good foundation of obedience is also important.

Controlled exercises should be used to retrain the dog.  The dog should have a strong understanding of basic obedience commands and a trusting relationship with you built on respect.  For example, the dog must already understand he should SIT when asked and hold until released.  Before beginning socialization exercises, the key is for the dog to understand when he is in command. He must sit calmly.  This must be achievable consistently on command.  If the dog does not respect your control in non-threatening situations, you will not control and settle your dog in problem situations.

Why obedience and agility classes are helpful

Obedience training and agility training are excellent ways to help a dog feel more comfortable and confident in public and with other dogs and people. Just as with people, learning new skills improves the dog’s outlook on life and self-confidence. For many dogs, problems result when the brain and energy levels are underutilized.

The more skills your dog learns, the more positive things your dog will have to focus on and will distract the dog from dwelling on things he previously feared. Start by teaching “Sit,” “Stay,” and “Down.”  These commands are handy to help the dog gain a sense of accomplishment and have something to do to earn your praise.

If you have recently adopted a timid dog, you may want to spend the first week or two working on bonding with the dog and developing trust before starting training. However, it is good to start teaching a dog desired behaviors and healthy, positive responses to new people, dogs, places, and things as soon as possible.

The first goal is to gain your dog’s trust. Next, build confidence. To encourage desired behaviors, always reward those behaviors with gentle, happy verbal praise and small tasty treats (if needed). For those behaviors, you want to eliminate, try ignoring the behavior.  Should the dog persist, issue a calm but firm “no”.

Desensitizing and counter-conditioning

Fear of greeting new people

Enlist the help of people you can trust to follow your instructions. This exercise should take place indoors.  Do not force the dog to approach the person. Instead, let the dog initiate contact and approach when he feels ready. Have your helper avoid eye contact with the dog, stay quiet and still, and keep an ample distance from the dog.

The helper can crouch down or sit on the floor, maintaining a non-threatening sideways stance to the dog and eyes still averted. Give the helper some small, tasty, high-value treats (i.e., liver cookies available at pet supply stores, bits of hot dog). Have the helper extend a hand in the direction of the dog and drop a treat. The helper should leave the hand extended but not reach the dog. Eventually, the dog will sniff around and slowly approach. Most likely, the dog will take the treat and retreat a bit to eat it. Next, have the helper keep the treat in his extended hand.

The owner has a role to play during these exercises. Project a happy, relaxed body posture and tone of voice. Make it clear that you welcome the helper’s presence. However, avoid too much chatter with your helper and avoid distracting your dog. Ignore your dog if the dog tries to cling to you or beg for attention. Also, make sure not to comfort the dog, verbally or physically, when the dog displays timidity or fear since you do not want to reinforce these undesirable behaviors. You want your dog to get the clue that during these practice sessions, your helper is the only source for treats and positive interaction.

Eventually, the dog will show signs of budding confidence. Ideally, the dog will touch the helper’s hand upon taking the treat. Then, the helper can softly say, “Good dog.” When the dog seems somewhat secure, the helper can gently stroke the dog under the chin, neck, or chest.  Be aware that shy and fearful dogs are often frightened when people attempt to touch their face or head. Eventually, the helper can make eye contact. However, progress slowly to avoid the setback of a fear response.

It might take a few of these set-up encounters for the dog to feel comfortable enough to approach at all. Be patient. The results will be worth it.

As the dog gains confidence, repeat the practice sessions in other rooms.  Then you may try a practice session outside of the home.  Once that scenario is successful, then try different helpers of varying ages, sizes, and gender. Gradually expose the dog to new experiences, and whenever the dog shows the slightest sign of relaxing or sociability, reward the dog with delectable special treats and praise.

Continue socializing your dog with people in many new environments. For example, take your dog out with you when you run errands. Introduce the dog to as many people as possible, making sure you control the situation so that nothing happens to frighten the dog.

Fear of an immediate family member in the home or certain individuals

Shy or fearful responses sometimes relate to the size, gender, or physical trait of a person.  Work daily on desensitizing and counter-conditioning until the dog learns to associate positive experiences with men/big people/people in wheelchairs, etc.

If your dog is shy around men, for example, have a man prepare and set down the dog’s meal. If the dog is fearful of someone in the family, consider the possible reasons. Perhaps that person is doing something to invoke fear, even if the person is unaware of it. Perhaps the person speaks in a booming voice, makes a lot of noise or sudden movements, or tends to invade the personal space of others.  In such cases, the person should try to tone down their behavior.

One technique for building a bond between the dog and a person he fears in the household is to let that person be the one to feed, walk, and play with the dog. The objective is to have the dog realize that good things happen with this person, that he must depend on this person for interaction, and that this formerly scary being can be trusted and will not hurt him.

During the weeks you are working on counter-conditioning, limit the dog’s interaction with the “safe” or “preferred” person with whom the dog has bonded. For example, this preferred person can be present when the other person is feeding the dog or attempting to engage the dog in play, thus providing a security blanket. However, the preferred person must avoid interacting with the dog to realize he is dependent on the “other” person for good things such as food, treats, fun, and exercise.

This “other” person should not impose their will on the dog. In the beginning, he should avoid eye contact with the dog. Rather than issue commands, the person should “ask” the dog to go to his crate or special place and “ask” the dog to sit before setting down the fOf course, this bowl. This presumes that the preferred person has taught the dog the meaning of “sit.” It is always smart to teach puppies and dogs to sit before getting their food bowl, treats, toys, and before they get to go outside.

At feeding time, the person should try to convey the least threatening demeanor and body language.  Start out sitting on the floor, averting his eyes from the dog while holding the food bowl. The decision to approach is left up to the dog. When hungry enough, the dog will begin to approach. The person can very quietly and gently praise the dog for approaching. Gradually, the intensity of the praise can increase, and eye contact can take place as the dog displays more trust in the person.

If you are the preferred person and your dog clings to you, then you should ignore him. The dog will realize that he must interact with the “other” person if he wants to eat or play. You may find it hard to withhold attention and affection. However, by doing so, your dog will learn to seek attention, affection, food, treats, and play from the other person, and eventually, they will build a bond. Rest assured, this will not destroy the bond you have with the dog, and he will not hold a grudge or dislike you.

Remember to praise and give rewards (which can be yummy treats or a very favorite toy) for even the tiniest signs of progress. Small signs can be anything from a tentative approach to ceasing to duck behind the couch when the other person enters the room.

Be patient and avoid pushing the dog along too quickly. It takes time, but this approach nearly always works. Some dogs actually transform into outgoing, highly confident canines. The key goals are for the dog to learn that people can be trusted and learn how to interact with all family members positively.

Fear around other dogs

Start by introducing the shy dog to a smaller dog you know to be friendly and relatively calm. As the dog begins to get comfortable, gradually introduce larger sizes and more active behavior. This process typically will take several weeks, so again, be patient. Avoid interactions with rough and tough dogs, or the dog will likely have a setback.

A good environment for socialization with other dogs, especially for puppies, is a carefully supervised puppy kindergarten or playgroup. Observe a class or two before signing up since you want to ensure that the trainer controls the environment and does not allow more dominant dogs to bully others.

As your dog becomes more comfortable, host a doggie party at your home. Invite only friendly dogs. Always supervise and intervene at the first sign of unfair or overly rambunctious play or any aggressive behavior displays.

Initiating play with a shy dog

A non-threatening way to play with your shy dog is to crawl around on the floor and rollover. This will get the dog’s interest and entice the dog to follow you around the room. Not only will this entertain your dog but also foster the idea of following you. As the leader, you want your dog to look to you and follow you.

Be aware of your own body language and emotions.

When out for a walk, be sure you stay relaxed. If your dog is shy, fearful, or shows aggression to passing dogs, joggers, or bicyclists, you may be tensing up on the leash without realizing it. The problem with this is that it telegraphs your fear to your dog and gives your dog more reason to fear other people or animals. Certainly, make sure that you have control of your dog and that he is wearing a properly fitting collar.  Keep watch for situations that can trigger the dog’s fear response. It is your job to protect your dog. However, this calls for confidence, not seizing upon the leash or getting nervous.

Take care to allow a safe zone of space between your dog and oncoming people, dogs, and cars. If somebody approaches you too quickly or gets too close, you should warn the person off right away.  Do not be afraid to tell them, “Please step away.  I am working on some issues with my dog.  Thanks.” The average person will appreciate you being a responsible dog owner, but you must protect yourself from liability.

While it is natural to many dog owners to tighten the leash when noticing an oncoming dog or tottering child, you must consciously retrain yourself to remain calm. For example, practice confidently switching directions or move off to the side and put your dog in a sit command. By staying calm, you will have a clearer head.


What’s next for the shy and fearful dog?

Socializing a shy or fearful dog is a tough responsibility and one that takes many years to overcome.  However, watching a dog gain confidence and overcome personal obstacles can be highly rewarding for you as well.  The trust and strong bond you gain with your dog is worth it.  Patience and persistence is a virtue.

Socialization should continue throughout the dog’s lifetime to maintain a happy, healthy, and confident dog.

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