Dogs who are afraid or timid around new people or situations are often described as shy or nervous dogs. When we use those terms we often think of submissive or docile behavior. With dogs that is not always the case. A dog who is afraid may snap or bite, this could have very serious consequences for the people and the dog. For dog owners who are not prepared to deal with an anxious dog, they may not understand why their dog behaves this way and may actually make the situation worse by punishing the dog or reinforcing the unwanted behavior.
Why Are Some Dogs Fearful?
The first step in helping your dog overcome their fear is to understand why he may have the anxiety in the first place. Most people think this behavior is caused by abuse or neglect when they were growing up. This is the main reason people may be hesitant to adopt an adult dog from a shelter. However, this is frequently not the cause. Lack of socialization when they were puppies or genetic predisposition is most likely the main reason. Most of us will never know the reason we have a scared dog on our hands, we only know he needs our help.
How To Help A Fearful Dog Gain Confidence
1 Grant Permission For Everything – Build structure by asking your dog to sit before you pet him, give treats, feed, open doors, etc. This practice teaches the dog to look to you for guidance and establishes you as the leader.
2 Rewards Build Acceptance – Reward all positive behavior in new situations. Have your clicker and treats ready. If your dog sits while in the presence of a person, “mark” it with the clicker and immediately treat. If they are calm with another dog and sit “mark” it and treat. Your dog will soon learn that calm behavior rewards with good treats.
3 Train A Go-To Response – Your dog may get anxious when he doesn’t know what he is supposed to do. Instead, teach him in any situation to first look at you. Teach the “watch me” command, so that on cue he meets your eyes. Next move to less comfortable situations giving him positive reinforcement when he responds. When he is confident in this exercise, he will be able to move to more scary situations without fearful behavior.
4 Short Walks – As he progresses, take your dog walking around the neighborhood for some confidence building. If he is afraid of people, first start with people you know and clue them into what you are doing, and what behavior you would like them to express. When the positive behavior you are looking for happens, immediately click to “mark” it and reward your dog. Do it calmly, don’t make a big deal out of it. Repeat these walks until your dog’s confidence increases.
5 Other Dogs – Be mindful of other dogs you meet. If you know of other dogs that are very well behaved, ask if you can do the previous exercise with them. Be wary of well-meaning owners who let their dog invade your dog’s space saying” don’t worry, he is super friendly’ This may be true, but it is terrifying to a nervous shelter dog. The result could be aggression.
6 Be Positive – In an unexpected situation, your first reaction may be to get tense and yell or jerk their leash. To a fearful dog, this only adds to their anxiety about the situation. The fearful dog can be traumatized with forceful training methods. Calm, praise and positive reinforcement are the keys to effective behavior modification.
7 Ask Permission – Well meaning dog lovers and especially kids may reach to pet first and then ask permission second. Step between them and your dog and politely say that your dog doesn’t always react well to strangers.. If you have done your training, the dog will look at you first. If they ask – Just say “no”, unless you are positive your dog is calm.
Patience Is A Virtue – It is every dog owners dream to have the well-behaved dog that follows every command and loves every dog and every one. But for the shy or fearful dog, this is not going to be the case, at least for a while. With patience and a structured learning system of confidence building, there is a great chance that the shy dog can become the happy, well-adjusted dog you know he wants to be