Working with a shy dog in the home
(This is also useful for people who do pet sitting of fearful dogs)
When you adopt a dog, there is a 50 /50 chance that the dog may be shy or fearful. Keep in mind that one never knows the true history of an adopted dog. This means you will not know how it was originally trained, socialized, or treated within the former home.
However, dogs, just like humans, are born with a fearful personality. It’s what you do with the dog on a daily basis that can help the dog adjust. This is not a “Let’s take the dog to puppy class for six weeks" effort, but rather a continuous and life long adjustment which often needs addressing. The more prepared you are, the better off you can help the dog exist.
Be forewarned, that the dog might never accept a stranger, as strangers represent inconsistency and unpredictability. Are you prepared to live with such a dog?
In your own home, when you have a shy or fearful dog, you must represent structure, consistency, and predictability in order for the dog to feel safe around you. Sometimes, even when everyone in the family does it right, the dog may still only bond to one person in the home, but will put up with other family members. Children will be the most difficult for this type of dog because children run a lot on impulse, and therefore, are almost always seen as being unpredictable by a shy/fearful dog.
In the beginning :
The three challenges:
1) Eye contact
2) Talking to
All of these actions to a human would signify a way of comforting another. However, to a dog, they are challenges, and a fearful dog will magnify those actions ten times. So it is very important that you do not look directly at the dog, do not continue to talk to the dog (even in soft tones), and you don’t reach out to touch the dog, until such a time that you notice the dog is feeling comfortable.
Positive training is essential to boost a shy dog’s confidence. So, how do you train if you can’t look at, talk to, or touch it?
Gaining trust is key!
Start by getting down on the floor to the dog’s level. Do not look at the dog, either watch TV or turn your head away from the dog. Lay your hand on the floor, palm up, with a special treat, such as a hot dog sliver or chicken sliver. Anything that has an aroma should work. It will also help if you have not fed the dog a recent meal. Allow the dog to make its way over to you to take the treat from your hand. If the dog is too shy to get that close to you, you can try putting the treat on the floor at a greater distance from you, or, if it is your hand the dog fears, remove it and lay the treat in that spot where your hand was. Eventually, as the dog gains confidence, you will try again to put the treat in your open palm.
Continue this until the dog realizes that when it comes near you, you are not a threat or a challenge. You want the dog to realize something good is coming to it when he/she is near you. Gradually, as the dog builds confidence you will call its name, offer the treat and then continue moving up the chain of the 3 perceived challenges. You will make brief eye contact, and then add a brief verbal cue, such as “Fido.” The last challenge would be a brief petting of the dog and do this on the dog’s side, not the head. An attempt to pet the dog on the head is perceived as most threatening.
Reconditioning a shy /fearful dog can take many weeks to months to accomplish, and for some dogs, it may take even longer. Much is going to depend on how much time you have to spend with the dog. Dogs, like humans, fear the unknown, so the more you can work with the dog, the more you show predictability to the dog. If the dog knows what to expect, it becomes less frightened.
The reason that shy dogs have so many problems getting used to strangers, either in your home or when out for a walk, is that each person walks, talks, and moves in a different and unpredictable way to the dog. This makes them less trustworthy. Also, most owners, when out walking the dog, do not come in contact with the same people on a daily basis. The same may be true for people who visit you in your home. If something does not happen on a daily basis, then it does not become normal or predictable for the dog.
When you have company come over, they should ignore the dog altogether and have a seat and wait to see if the dog comes to them. As the dog becomes a bit more inquisitive of the person sitting in the chair, you can have them drop a treat to the floor for the dog, but do nothing else. The guest should not really try to interact with the dog. Your goal here is just to have the dog learn that when people visit, they are not threats. Unless you have a daily visitor, it is possible that the dog will never accept a stranger (even a family member that comes to visit) in your home. In these cases, it is best not to push the dog into any situation that will yield a backfire in experiencing people being around it. When we push a dog into an uncomfortable situation, the likelihood of growling and snapping may occur. In cases where dogs do not readily accept strangers it is a good idea to have a safe place for your dog to retreat to, such as a crate or a bedroom. Remember it is your responsibility to protect the dog that you have chosen.
Eventually, you want to do daily obedience training to build trust and confidence. Do this training in short sessions, and do them several times a day. This shows the dog you are consistent and predictable. Positive method training tells the dog that when it listens, something good happens. The more successful the dog is during training, the more confidence the dog acquires in itself.
Punishment has no place in any dog’s life, regardless of if they are shy or not. Remember that dogs act out for a variety of reasons. Fear, boredom, challenges, anxieties, and instinct for survival, are just a few. It is how you deal with it that can make it better or worse for the dog.
If you have gotten your dog to a certain point of comfort and trust, you can very easily make them take two steps backward through punishment or dominant acts. It is much easier to stay the course of being positive and figuring out a positive way to turn a behavior around, than it is to undue the damage caused from one punishing act.
Let’s think about this logically, such as how humans might act in a punishing situation.
You are 4 years old and are in the store with your father. You walk away from dad to take a look at the toy section, as most kids do. Your father turns around and notices you are gone, and so a panic ensues. Most people, when they are in a surprised or panicked moment, react negatively and defensively. Finally you hear your father calling you, and you set out to look for him. When you find him, he yells or spanks you for leaving his side, and you are taken home. What did you learn from this?
You might have been able to figure out that your father acted this way because he was frightened, but that is highly doubtful, because in a 4 year old mind, they cannot put together fear and punishment. You may have learned it is not a good idea to leave your father’s side when shopping because that makes him mad. Or, you may have learned that answering your father’s call in certain situations may yield you punishment. In all 3 scenarios the main focus for the 4 year old is, Dad and Punishment.
When you use dominance or punishment on a shy dog, you put more at risk than just the dog fearing you. You put at risk ‘every’ human hand that reaches out toward the dog.
Dogs do not think ahead to conspire, they do what is natural instinct. So when a dog does not come to you right away when you call it, and then it is punished by you when you finally get a hold of it, what are the chances of that dog wanting to come to you the next time you call it? Keep in mind that even your tone of voice when you interact with the dog, can be seen by the dog as negativity and punishment.
Will a stern voice get you a desired outcome? Yes, sometimes, it would depend on the dog. However, keep an eye on the dog’s movement, is the dog happily coming to you or is the dog coming back where it thinks it belongs?
Dogs use their body movements to try to deflect or calm a situation and this can be seen by the way they walk to you, lick their lips, hold an item in their mouth, and by the drop of the tail or ears. These are normal signals they send to each other when in a stressful situation with other dogs, however most humans do not pick up these subtle cues.
What humans normally pick up from a dog whose tail is down, ears back, and is slowly coming toward them after a stern reprimand is given is “The dog knows he did the wrong thing because he looks sad or remorseful.”
No, he is trying to deflect the situation long enough so that the human calms down and he can go over to the human in comfort. The longer it takes the dog to get to you, (not near you in an area, but actually get to you) means it is trying to stall a bit to give you the time to change your tone or body language.
Leashing your new shy dog for outings
I guess you are wondering how to put a leash on a shy dog to take it on potty outings if you cannot talk to, look at, or touch it! Here is a simple method and one I use when I babysit shy or fearful dogs. Rather than trying to attach the leash clasp to the collar which can make a shy dog move away from your hand, flip the leash over so that you are holding the clasp and pull it through the handle to make a loop. From above, guide the loop over the dog’s neck (the leash will look similar to a slip lead that is used in a Vet office). By doing it this way, you can stand at a distance, you do not have to physically touch the dog, nor do you need to look directly at the dog as this can be done in your peripheral vision. Once the leash is on the dog, drop a treat to the floor and then head out the door. If you give a treat each time, this tells the dog that if it stands for a specific amount of time near the door with you, a treat will come. It also tells the dog that if it allows you to slip the lead over the head a treat follows quickly after.
This is a way to get the dog used to you in the beginning; eventually as trust builds, you will be able to hook a leash to the dog’s collar or harness.
Below are links to clicker training for positive obedience. Keep in mind that some dogs are fearful of the clicker noise. Although there are now different sounding clickers, with some having a softer sound than others, your dog may still be afraid of it. If this is the case, then you can use your voice as the marker, but use only one word such as “Yes” or “Good.”
Let’s keep in mind also, that we are not as perfect as our dogs would like us to be. We get stressed and nervous and short of temper. So if you cannot stop yourself from the occasional heavily toned voice, or the stomping of the feet as you pick up the mess your dog has left on the floor, that’s okay! It happens! Just know it may take a few extra training lessons and some fancy rewards for your dog to forgive you, and it will forgive you.
Until next time, happy training!
The aspca has a great article and pictures on body language, click here
Clicker training, a positive method can be found by clicking here: