How do you train a shy dog? How do you get a shy dog to open up to you? Having patience and showing love are most important in getting your dog to come out of their shell.
Speaking of shy dogs, meet Gidget! I did not know much about her backstory, aside from getting to know her quirks and mannerisms that indicated that she was most likely used exclusively for breeding. When I first began fostering her, she had never walked on grass or been on a leash. She was likely under socialized from puppyhood, as she was destined to be a mom and not a pet. Gidget is one of the more shy dogs I have fostered. She is fearful of the majority of dogs she meets, strangers, loud sounds and sudden movements. Over time, she has gone from being afraid of a crunching leaf on the ground to strutting around the neighborhood and frolicking in our local dog park.
Maybe you’ve found your dream dog and he or she happens to be a little shy or anxious, or maybe you decided to adopt a pup who had a bit of a “ruff” start to life. As a shy dog foster, here are some tips for easing an anxious dog out of their shell.
Read the Room. It’s important to assess your new pups shyness level and work to determine the underlying cause. Dogs who are fearful, anxious, or shy often show different posturing and give cues. There are many cues that a dog may use and these cues can vary from dog to dog. As a general rule of thumb, an anxious or uncomfortable dog may crouch, lower their ears and tail, or may stand still with a lifted up paw. They might also pant, shake, pace or avoid eye contact. If a dog becomes anxious due to overstimulation in their environment, they may freeze in place, lay down, and flatten their ears. It is common for fearful dogs to also cower or attempt to hide. The main difference between anxious dogs and fearful dogs is that fearful dogs are often afraid of something that they perceive as a threat, such as people, other dogs or animals. Whereas anxious dogs are uncomfortable or overstimulated by something else in the environment (loud sounds, sudden movements, the scent of other dogs, dogs barking that aren’t visible, or their owner being away or out of reach).
Give and Take. Once you read your dog’s body language, it becomes easier to understand what situations might elicit a particular response. Do not intentionally put your dog in a tense situation where they may be afraid. The key is to introduce them just enough to a situation where they can tolerate the low level of uncomfortable stimulation, without pushing them over the edge. Redirection is a great way to work with a fearful dog in a walking or leash training situation. If a dog is fearful of other dogs, change direction and make sure the dog is no longer in view as soon as the approaching dog is in your dog’s line of sight. Your dog knows the other dog is still nearby, due to their other senses, but eliminating the visual component decreases the tension in that moment. With time and patience, your dog will get more and more used to the norms of going on a walk.
Another common fear is of people! The best thing you can do for dogs who become scared or nervous when guests enter the home is to tell your guests to IGNORE your dog! Let your dog approach (or not) on their own terms. When guests enter, give your dog a treat so that they begin to associate guests with something positive. Dogs are den animals, so never try to force them to come out of their safe areas. If you need to coax your dog out of it’s safe space, use a treat or the reward of going for a walk outside.
Confidence is Key. One of the first commands you should teach your shy dog is the “Look at Me” command. It is as simple as it sounds. Hold a treat at eye level and say to your dog, “look at me”. Give them a treat when they make eye contact. This is another example of redirection, and can be used in situations where a potential trigger might scare your dog. When working with a shy dog, it’s important that, as their owner or foster, you are a source of comfort and confidence. Shy dogs often turn to their person in stressful situations, so it’s essential that you remain calm and collected and allow your dog to feed off of your energy. They will feel less afraid if they see that their person isn’t afraid!
Buddy System. So long as your dog doesn’t have a deep-rooted fear of other dogs, the buddy system is a perfect way to show your dog the ropes. Having a friendly, non-reactive dog around can instantly boost a shy dog’s confidence. If your resident dog runs up to you when you grab the leash or the bag of treats, your shy new addition will pick up on this. They will see over and over again that these scenarios are okay and often come with a reward. Having another dog around that your shy dog can trust can lower their stress levels and allow them to test the waters. They are more likely to try things that they might not have normally tried if they were alone. This concept of social buffering can be helpful in allowing a shy dog to adjust. It is important that your confident, friendly dog is obedient and well trained, so that they can have a positive impact. Having another dog does not “fix” a shy dog, but having someone to learn social cues from can be an asset in solidifying training techniques and positive behavior changes.
When working with a shy dog, patience really is the key to success. Most fearful and anxious dogs have an underlying cause or reason for their fears. They might have been severely under-socialized as puppies or come from abusive situations. Fearful dogs might get to a point where they are rarely shy and have built confidence, but because of past trauma, they still might have an occasional set back. Acknowledge their fear, and keep giving them love. Once you crack the code to your dog's shyness, you’ll be on your way to having a confident, loving member of your family!
*Please always refer to your veterinarian, a certified dog trainer or licensed animal behaviorist if your dogs needs are not easily met with standard training techniques.