Just like us, all dogs have unique personalities. Some are chilled or ambitious, others are curious or active. Then there are those that are more bashful in character. It may just be the way they are. But in some cases it is the result of a bad experience. Dealing with a fearful dog can be a challenge. Here we look at what shyness means in dogs, and a tips to help a fearful dog.
Reasons for Shyness
Your dog might just be disinterested in socialising. They will still exercise their instinctual doggy behaviour, giving a casual sniff to a guest, for instance, only to return to their business of snoozing. Such dogs are comfortable in the company of others; they just don’t want to interact.
In the case of an anxious dog, they will instead display signs of fear. One reason for this lack of confidence is mistreatment, or a negative experience during a puppy’s critical socialisation period, which occurs at 4-16 weeks of age. According to the RSPCA, such experiences ‘influence and shape [a dog’s] behaviour well into adulthood’.
Fearfulness may arise in response to unusual sounds or events, such as thunder, fireworks, loud traffic or shouting. And, as is the case with this writer, a fear response may be learned from other dogs.
Signs of Fear
A dog’s demeanour will tell you if they are afraid. These signs include:
- Tail between the legs
- Flattened ears
- Raised hackles
- Avoiding eye contact
- Submissive urination
What Not to Do
As a loving guardian, your impulse may be to comfort your dog. In so doing, though, you may be validating their fearful response. It’s the same as reinforcement training. Your attention and anything you use in an effort to reassure them, such as treats, is their reward for feeling fearful. What your dog needs is to regard you as the strong leader; stay calm, take charge and be assertive. Hugging a dog may not help, either. It can make them feel uneasy and restricted. Read more about your dog’s preferences in What a Dog Wants.
Follow these steps to help your shy guy.
1. Identify the Triggers
Before you can help your pup, you need to identify the cause of their fear. When your dog’s demeanour changes, take note of every event. Include the details; is your dog fearful around all people? Or just large men, or small children? Knowing your dog’s triggers can help you be prepared going forward.
2. Provide Safety
Ensure your dog has a safe place to call their own. Give them their own comfortable dog bed permanently located in a secure spot. Choose a place close to you and other family members, such as a nook near the kitchen, or beside the sofa. Try a calming dog bed, ensuring it has high sides and faux fur to mimic resting alongside their mother.
Training is a great tool to give your dog security. Basic dog training is a great place to start if they have had no training, such as obeying the commands ‘come’ and ‘sit’. Knowing you are in charge gives them security – dogs need a leader, and none more than an anxious dog. Obeying commands is a distraction from their fear, redirecting them to obedience. And because dogs are generally food-driven, the promise of a treat may help switch their brain from fear to food.
Stay calm. Be consistent. Resist the temptation to yell or intimidate. Eventually, move obedience training outdoors to introduce them to new environments.
The idea of desensitising is to slowly expose your dog to their fear. Once your pup knows you are the ‘leader of the pack’ and has mastered basic obedience commands, you can try desensitising. For example: fear of thunder. If you know a storm is on the way, make sure you can be with your dog, and exude confidence. They will sense it. If your dog has a calm moment, immediately reward it. Practice obedience commands with them as the rumbling begins. The idea is to distract them from their fear, activate their food drive, and reward their obedience. Remember: reserve your praise for when they are calm, not when they are afraid. You can offer reassurance simply being physically present with them. It may take time, each dog is different. Persistence is key.
Exercise is not only good for us in diminishing feelings of anxiety; it helps dogs, too. Ensure your dog is walked every day, according to their age and breed. It is an added opportunity for obedience training, such as the commands ‘heal’ and ‘wait’. Playing with dogs is another way to help them let off steam. The time you spend walking and playing with your dog further strengthens your bond, and by the same token helps your pooch feel safe.
It’s important to be patient with shy and anxious dogs. Some are quick to conquer their fears, other dogs will need more help. And some may never fully recover from their fears – but you can help them to feel safe, and thereby at least improve their quality of life. The best thing you can do for your precious pup is provide structure, stability, safety and love.