Dogs that exhibit “shyness” usually do so from lack of early socialization. The critical socialization period for a puppy is 3-12 weeks. In that phase, puppies should be exposed to a variety of people, other animals and environments. For some dogs, this does not happen and said dog may be perfectly fine. For others, this can lead to anti-social dogs or dogs that are fearful of new environments, people, objects or animals. “Shyness” can also be genetic and is more prevalent in sensitive breeds (such as herding breeds). In rare cases, a dog may be fearful of something due to a traumatic event.
No matter what the reason for a dog’s anti-social or fearful tendencies, the solutions are similar.
1. Establish what your dog’s triggers are (what makes the dog shy or afraid?)
2. Learn to read your dog’s body signals
3. Find your dog’s threshold level (how close can the dog be to the triggers?)
4. Figure out your dog’s ultimate reward (what kind of food or toy?)
5. Prepare to counter-condition and desensitize your dog many times to said triggers
6. Teach your dog skills that will help you in your counter-conditioning process
7. Be sure to never flood your dog (bringing your dog over threshold)
8. Explore homeopathic remedies: oral medications, aromatherapy, anxiety wrap
9. Explore pharmaceuticals if needed
10. Devise a training plan that is realistic to the time you can devote to training your dog
Once you have established what your dog’s triggers are, his threshold level and an ultimate reward it is time to start training. Depending on what the dog’s triggers are, different commands are helpful. Using some sort of non-pulling harness is essential if you have a pulling dog or one that is prone to escaping/running when afraid. Teaching a dog to sit, down, hand target, look at you and do a “u-turn” is essential in the counter-conditioning process.
This all may seem nebulous, so here is an example (note: this is not true, just an example):
Let’s say my BC is afraid of men and shuts down in new places in general. I know that he is afraid of all men except my husband and is very happy at home. Crossing the street causes him to panic (ears back, tail tucked, nails dug into the sidewalk) and he immediately wants to head home. When I bring him to places he has the same body language. When he sees men he barks at them and hides behind my legs. I know that he really likes string cheese and liverwurst in a tube and he will eat it even when stressed and that the homeopathic drug “Rescue Remedy” really takes the edge off for him. I have fitted him with a no pull harness and have his favorite snacks in my treat bag with clicker and tennis ball. I give him some Rescue R. 20 mins before a walk. We start walking and it is going well until we cross the street. He starts to put his ears back and dig is nails into the sidewalk. I prompt him to “Watch me” and he snaps his head up. I click and give him a big treat. His face relaxes a little. I have him do “Watch” 5 times until he won’t take his eyes off me. Then I have him “watch” while we walk 10 feet while I continually give him treats. Then we walk back across the street into his comfort zone and play ball, his favorite game, in the front yard. Every other day I give him a break because I don’t want to cause him chronic stress. Each time we train on the walking we go a little further and he becomes more comfortable with the other side of the street. For our problem with men: I invite a male friend over and prep him over the phone. I will have my dog on his leash and harness in the driveway and the man will stand across the street and not look at my dog. Every time my dog looks at the man and doesn’t bark, I click and treat. I motion to my friend to move closer and we continue this game for 10 mins. Then my friend goes home. Next time my friend can do this training exercise with us again, he will start where he left off in distance. Eventually, my friend will toss treats to my dog and eventually he will hand feed my dog. Once my dog and my male friend are fine with each other, I will have my friend play ball with him. Then I will move on to another male friend and eventually strangers willing to help for a moment and feed my dog. If I have a dog that is at the stage of being in public places, I will be careful to manage his experiences and not let people touch him or talk to him that he is obviously uncomfortable with. I have to first work on his acceptance of a new environment and then work on his acceptance of the strange people in the environment.