How to help puppies and dogs that are a little shy.
When you get together with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, you may start by asking “How are you?” And many times, the standard response is “I’m fine”. To me, that response indicates that there’s nothing terrible or wonderful going on in their lives.
But for our students, when I think about their puppies or dogs who get a little nervous in some situations, what I want is to help their dog be FABULOUS, not just fine.
Sometimes, students tell us their dog gets lots of socialization because they have a variety of other people going in and out of the house, or they have another dog or a friend’s dog for them to play with. Socialization doesn’t just mean exposure to other people, places, and things. It means they have a positive experience, not just one they are “fine” with or simply tolerating.
Without working towards that goal, over time, a dog who’s “fine” with a loud truck going by may very soon become a dog who runs behind you in fear, or barks and lunges towards it! Socialization also ensures that my puppy, with some training, will be able to respond to any command no matter where they are, or what’s going on around them.
So how do I help my dog move from fine to fabulous while out on a walk?
Acknowledge everything that comes your way. Whether it’s something you see or hear, understand that your dog is going to conclude it’s 1 of 3 things: threatening, fine, or fabulous. Watch your dog’s behavior for stress signals to determine which mode they’re in.
Threatened or skeptical mode:
Dogs who tend to be the calm introverted type may:
- Get Still
- Lower their head, tail or entire body
- Move away
Dogs who are the silly, extroverted type may:
- Get more animated
- Raise their tail higher
- Lunge forward
Your response, in this case, is saying, “Let’s go” in a happy voice, moving away from the situation. You’re not panicked, frustrated or angry; you’re just going. Movement dissipates stress, and moving away from the source will help your dog recover. Initiate play, getting silly and darting around to make your dog want to chase you. Play ‘Ready, Ready, Catch’ or toss treats one at a time on the ground saying “Get It! Get It!” at a fast pace. The key is to help them recover quickly, and have a positive association. If possible, move closer, or recreate the scenario again, and immediately get silly and toss treats. Be Careful not to push the envelope, or stay too long at the party. The goal is to get them to move to “fine” which is one step closer to fabulous, and ending on a good note is critical.
Fine or Neutral Mode:
After seeing or hearing something, a dog who is fine/neutral will carry on with what they’re doing, or startle a little bit and then quickly recover. This is where humans take the dog’s behavior for granted. We forget to praise and give treats for the absence of behaviors we never want to see.
Even if your dog has never seemed threatened by new sights or sounds, help them move from fine to fabulous by having a party of praise, play and treats when they happen, especially if they’ve had issues in the past, or haven’t been exposed to them in a while.
Just like the TV diet ads that says: “individual results may vary”, the picture of “fabulous” will be different for every dog. For example, if Bella started out hiding under the couch and refusing to even eat liverwurst when the lawn mowers were running next door, and now is able to calmly respond to ‘Catch’ and ‘Sit’ on the back porch, that’s fabulous! Joey, on the other hand, seemed fine during landscaping hour, even able to sit on the porch with you, but his super fast responses to Sit and Down dropped to half speed.
Regardless of their level of functioning, the goal is to help your dog be as stress-free as possible and to continue to socialize and train them throughout their life to keep raising the bar.
When you’re in new situations, do a little test. Ask your dog to Sit, and if they respond by sitting at the same response rate they do in your kitchen, Congratulations! – You have now moved to fabulous. Now you can use the scenario to practice other commands to ensure that you’ll get the same speed of response no matter where you are, or what’s going on. Don’t forget to use high-value treats, and only reward excellent responses.
Kathy and I will soon be taking more of our classes outside to train for this very reason.
If you’re not sure how to tell what your dog is thinking in a scenario, attend our monthly “Body Language” workshops often to learn more about how dogs use their bodies to communicate. We also have an awesome handout on that very subject (email us if you don’t have it).
And of course, if your dog if often skeptical or fearful, contact Kathy or me.
- Coming next month: Helping dogs who get overly excited outdoors!
- The next Body Language Workshop is Wednesday April 26th at 8:00 p.m.
Feel free to email me with questions, comments or column topic suggestions at Mail4Stacey@aol.com