Timid Dogs – the Best Approach
By Kathy Diamond Davis
Timid dogs–also sometimes called shy dogs–can become sweet and loving companions. On the other hand, some will be unsuited to life in busy households or with small children. They may find life in the fast lane of dog sports too stressful. Sometimes, the fearfulness you see in a puppy can turn into aggression as the dog matures.
Is This the Dog For You?
When meeting a puppy or a dog to adopt, carefully consider whether a timid one will fit your needs and be happy in your lifestyle. Just as it’s unwise to marry someone you feel needs a lot of changing to become the spouse you want, choosing a dog with problems you plan to solve can have a sad result.
“Interview” the potential new family member away from familiar territory in order to get a more accurate picture of personality. Puppies and dogs who are confident at home may not cope well with unfamiliar environments. Don’t assume this is a temporary, fixable problem. It may be much more permanent and persistent than you think.
Genetics and experiences both contribute heavily to a dog’s personality. Some dogs have such solid genetic temperaments that they rise above all bad experiences. Others have such problems in their genetic temperaments that they can’t do well with even the ideal environments.
More often, the genetic temperament serves as a limiting factor to how much personality improvement you can achieve through providing the right experiences. The wrong experiences, especially early in life, are typically impossible to totally overcome, though an outstanding program of reconditioning can help a lot.
Don’t expect miracles, and don’t underestimate the length of time and the amount of work this can involve.Think carefully about whether this is really the kind of dog who will make you happy, and equally important, whether your home is the right place for this dog to be happy.
Slower is Faster
The old thinking that led to throwing children into the water so they would learn to swim is now known to be ineffective for both children and dogs. To improve a timid dog’s confidence requires a gentle, positive, gradual approach. Whenever the process is pushed faster than the dog’s ability to enjoy it, you lose ground.
Start with the dog at a distance from whatever the dog finds intimidating. When the dog is relaxed, you know you’ve found the right distance. It may be much further than you would expect.
By the way, this is another thing to consider in whether or not to bring a timid dog into your family. If you can’t provide the dog with enough distance within the home from things the dog fears, the fears will only be made worse.
When a dog feels cornered, you get “fight or flight” survival behavior, and neither reaction is helpful. When it’s fight behavior, the dog is faulted as aggressive.
The solution to this problem is not to try to punish the dog into better behavior–that approach only increases the dog’s need for self-defense, both on that occasion and in the future. Instead, you need to reduce the intensity of the situation for the dog, with distance as well as other factors. For example, if the dog is afraid of the vacuum cleaner, start working on that fear at a distance from the vacuum cleaner when it is not running.
When you have found a degree of intensity low enough that the dog can relax, use treats and games to help the dog form a positive association with this experience. Move a little closer to the feared object while continuing the pleasurable activities. Your goal is to stay at a distance that keeps the dog comfortable, and yet, gradually, over many sessions, reach the point that the dog will be comfortable close to the feared thing, and with it operating in a normal manner. This is the case whether the thing is a person, another animal, a piece of equipment, a place, etc.
One exception to note here to the rule of gradual conditioning to a feared thing is when the fear is recent. If the dog had just been frightened by something and you immediately respond by jollying the dog with treats and/or games in the presence of that thing, you may be able to resolve the problem in one session. More precisely, what you’re doing is preventing that fearful experience from becoming a permanent new problem. Whenever your dog has a negative experience, EVEN IF THE DOG DOESN’T SEEM UPSET, do this remedial conditioning. It never hurts, and it will frequently prevent serious problems.
Do not attempt to overcome a dog’s fear of something that is actually dangerous for the dog. For example, if your dog is afraid of being in the vicinity of a running lawn mower, well, dogs should not be in the vicinity of running lawn mowers as it’s not safe! Anyway, if your dog is afraid when the people across the street run their lawnmower, you’ll want to work on that fear, never going closer than a safe distance.
One way to work toward getting the dog closer to a feared situation is to hold the dog’s attention with your voice and treats as you walk with the dog past that thing “sideswiping” it. This has a similar effect to placing distance between the dog and the feared thing, because the dog is thinking about something else instead. Thus the intensity of the feared thing is reduced for the dog.
Before performing this maneuver, work in quiet settings to develop a strong focus between yourself and the dog. The following method, developed by expert trainer Linda O’Hare Newsome, is effective for the purpose:
Have treats on your person (lots of tiny pieces of tempting food), but keep them out of the dog’s sight. To initiate the focused attention sequence, say “[Dog’s Name]!” and YOU MOVE ABRUPTLY away from her. If you want to say “Heel” or “Come” or “Front” or “By Me,” that’s fine too. The main thing is, say the name–this is going to become the word on which she will learn to look at you–then MOVE.
When she moves with you, quickly PRAISE her. This is where you would use a clicker if you wish to use that method, but a word of praise is fine, too. Then instantly whip out a treat and give it to her. Do not show the treats until you are ready to give one. This prevents the treat from becoming, in the dog’s mind, an actual part of the command–or a bribe. Each time you give a treat, align it between the dog’s eyes and yours. You want eye contact from her with that treat. Soon you will find her seeking your eye contact. Always praise her when she does that, and it’s fine to give her a “free” treat for doing it.
Okay, you’re not done. When you do this sequence, always do at least 3 to 5 in a row. Each time, you 1) say the name, 2) move, 3) praise, 4) whip out a treat and 5) give it. This doesn’t necessarily take up a bunch of space. You can move one direction the first time, back the other way the second time, etc., except when you have plenty of space and want to move forward, or “sideswipe” something you’re working on with your timid dog. Always do at least 3 to 5 repetitions in a row before you release the dog’s attention. This is what teaches her to SUSTAIN that attention on you until you release it. Practice this exercise everywhere, including at obedience class.
There are other methods of teaching focused attention to a dog, including work with a clicker. The important thing is to develop the exercise to the point that the dog can maintain the focus and tune out everything else. To very gradually increase the dog’s “closeness” to the object you’re working on, you can, over time, release the dog’s attention for one second, then two seconds, etc. Just as when you use distance to reduce the intensity of the feared thing to the dog, you must not advance any more rapidly in this process than the dog finds comfortable.
In Your Home
When a dog shows fear at home, don’t put pressure on the dog in a rush to get things done. To do so would risk pushing the dog into the fight-or-flight survival mode. Use your attention exercise and all other positive training you’ve done with the dog to move away from the dog and induce the dog to come with you. TAKE YOUR TIME. Accept the fact that taking care of any dog is going to take time out of your day, and this is the kind of care your timid dog needs. Time spent in positive training with a timid dog pays off mightily, both in giving you more and better tools for managing the dog, and for increasing the dog’s confidence.
If the dog is afraid of one family member, that person needs to patiently wait for the dog to make each approach. Never corner a dog. You would increase the dog’s fear, and also risk pushing the dog into a defensive bite. It helps if this is the person who feeds the dog and tosses toys if the dog likes to chase them. With plenty of patience, the dog will usually get better. If months go by and the dog is still afraid, rethink the way the person is handling the dog. Even one outburst of impatience or anger from that person can create a huge setback.
When a dog fears guests, follow the principle of reducing the intensity of the situation to the point that the dog is comfortable. This may mean, especially at first, that you settle the dog into another room to relax away from the guests. Be especially cautious about subjecting a fearful dog to boisterous children, overbearing people, or intoxicated people.
Some timid dogs may be ready for attendance in a training class that uses positive methods when they’ve lived with you just a few weeks. In particular, puppies need puppy class experience, if they are able to enjoy it and if their immune systems are up to it (consult your veterinarian for this assessment).
Some timid dogs may be too fearful for class until you’ve done a lot of foundation work first. A private trainer or behavior specialist can help you structure positive experiences to build the dog’s confidence, and also help you determine when the dog is ready for class.
The first class experiences may need to be low-key, keeping the dog on the perimeter of the training group and at a distance from anything the dog fears. If you’ve developed focused attention with the dog before starting class, this exercise will be extremely useful for helping the dog relax in the situation. Some dogs may need several visits–starting with very short periods of time–to the training facility before actually participating in a class. Some dogs may never be able to function well enough for class.
If the dog has any tendency to snap at dogs or people or to bark inappropriately, a head halter is an excellent safeguard that helps to eliminate this habit without introducing new problems. Have a behavior specialist help you fit the halter and introduce the dog to it. Use your focused attention exercise to keep the dog’s mind off the halter. Be sure to remove the head halter at all times except when you are actively working the dog. Don’t use a long line with a head halter, because you could put a dangerous amount of force against the neck.
Don’t expect a dog to get over being timid because it will more likely be a lifelong tendency. Many timid dogs will become loving, safe companions, when kept in situations appropriate to their needs. Be proactive with the dog’s care, thinking ahead so as to avoid excessive stress. Help the dog develop genuine confidence, and you’ll have the best chance of avoiding such potential complications as self-protective aggression.