Shy/fearful dogs

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What is a “shy” or “fearful” dog?

All dogs can be timid at certain times in their lives. It is quite natural for dogs to be wary of things that are new and unfamiliar to them and young dogs may go through several “fear” periods where they suddenly seem to be afraid of new people, dogs and situations. While this is quite normal and can be overcome with continued socialising, chronic shyness that persists over a length of time can lead to all sorts of behavioural problems and make living with such a dog quite trying. Truly shy dogs may cower at anything, scare easily, be unresponsive to humans and pee submissively when excited or scolded. They often hide behind their owners when approached, tails between the legs etc. Shy dogs not only look scared but may remain scared for attention. The dog knows it is a good way to get attention. Some may become so fearful that they begin to growl, bite and snap to defend themselves.                                                         


How does a dog become “shy”?

It is difficult to determine the circumstances that caused some dogs to lack confidence. Some may be genetically predisposed towards being nervous or cautious, while others may have been physically, verbally and/or emotionally abused by someone. Some dogs that appear shy may simply have been the runt of the litter and an omega i.e. at the bottom of the pecking order and maybe picked on by the other dogs (i.e. it was last to eat, ran behind the rest of the pack or was left alone, etc.) Sadly though, the most common cause of shyness is often a simple lack of early socialisation by owners who have failed to understand the necessity for this.  Some loving, but mistaken, owners never take their dogs out to experience the outside world and to meet other dogs. Between the ages of 6 and 14 weeks puppies are most receptive to accepting new experiences without fear. This is the time when the pup should encounter everything it will have to deal with later in life (people, children, other dogs, trips in the car, public places, vacuum cleaners, lawn mowers etc).

 Some pups spend their early months in pet shops or kennels and as a result some are deprived of human contact during their socialisation time. Such pups may be difficult to train and are often not very suitable as pets and companions. Many fearful dogs will try to keep strangers or unfamiliar people at bay by growling, snarling, snapping or biting. Aggression against people can never be condoned and must be stopped by its owners at the very first occurrence otherwise it progresses into a bad habit. Biting dogs usually do not live for long. When strangers try to reprimand the dog, it will only confirm the dog’s notion that it was right to be fearful of them in the first place.


Should I adopt a shy dog?

It is very important, when acquiring a new dog, to check whether it is shy or fearful. Careful observations can tell a lot about a dog’s temperament. What does it do when it first sees a person? When it is approached? Does it come forward or run away? How does it react to being handled, to sudden moves and noises? A shy dog will often bark and back away from a new person. They will avoid being handled or will freeze and cower (tail between legs, ears held back and down, no eye contact and creeping on belly). If a dog or puppy you are considering adopting is exhibiting such behaviours you need to decide whether you have the patience and knowledge to deal with this problem or whether it would be better for you to leave the dog to someone more experienced.

On the other hand, being reasonably shy need not be a problem. Dogs that are only mildly shy (reserved) can be excellent pets for quiet families and for people who live alone. Because shy dogs are usually quite suspicious they can be good alarm givers, warning of visitors and intruders. They will usually find the presence of their owners and their own surroundings very comforting and so are less likely to wander or run away. Their reticence with new people will make them unlikely to jump on visitors. Also we find at the club that slightly shy dogs often learn quickly because they are more attentive to their owners. However, if not handled correctly, shy dogs are inclined to become over dependent on their owners and suffer from separation anxiety when their owners are away. As a result they may bark a lot, dig and chew destructively to ease their anxiety.


What is submissive urination?

Submissive urination is an involuntary and perfectly normal canine reaction to the presence of a more dominant animal or human member of its pack. It is a reflex action learnt as a puppy when the mother turns them over and licks them to stimulate urination and defecation. The puppy learns that when it is turned over it is in a submissive position and the mother is dominant. Later he uses this behaviour to show submission when coming across a higher ranked dog. Now he does not roll over but crouches and deposits a small amount of urine. Rolling over signifies total submission. So, we need to realise that the dog is not doing it on purpose or to spite the owner for leaving it alone at home. It can’t help itself and is possibly not even aware that it is doing it.

Submissive urination usually takes place during reunions i.e. when you and the dog are reunited after a separation. This could be when you have been away from home for 5 hours or just out of the room for 5 minutes! It is important to avoid all excitement during such times. Do not make a huge fuss of the dog, rather greet them in passing and continue with some household chore. Do not look at the dog or talk to the dog. Once they have gotten over the initial excitement of your return you can interact with them by playing a constructive game or by doing a few training exercises. If the dog still urinates a little, ignore the behaviour completely and clean up when the dog is interested in something else. Do not ever reprimand your dog for this behaviour as your cross tone will only make the dog more submissive and more likely to urinate in your presence in the future.


How do I help my shy dog?

Shyness or a tendency to become fearful must be detected as soon as possible. It may be possible to restore the confidence of a two to five month old puppy in two to three weeks, but it may take several months or years to effect the same change in a year-old dog. If you are already the owner of a shy puppy (under 5 months), puppy socialisation classes can go a long way towards getting your pup to become comfortable with other people, dogs, objects and situations. If he is an only dog from a quiet household he may need a lot of reassurance to join into club activities, but with time and patience he will usually come out of his shell within a few weeks. 

A major problem one has in trying to rehabilitate a shy dog is that the owners are mostly too impatient. They want things to happen quickly so they force the dog to socialise with people and other dogs. Their well-meaning attempts scare the dog even more, making him more fearful. Inadvertently, they may actually encourage the dog to growl, snap and bite. In fact, a lot of the fearfulness we see in dogs at our club is created by their owners. An eight week old puppy can potentially be messed up for life in one day by its owner.

This is a typical scenario: An owner arrives at the club with a shy pup and is embarrassed because the pup avoids or barks at the other people and dogs. The owner finds it less stressful to keep the pup at home and so does not continue the classes. The dog now becomes attached to its owner at home, but is not socialised with people in general and hides away when visitors arrive. One day the owner decides that the dog’s shyness is no longer acceptable and, instead of leaving the dog alone to decide for itself when it is ready to come closer in its own good time, they insist on manhandling the dog up to a new dog or person and trying to force them to “say hello”. When the dog shows fear they will either reprimand it or try to reassure it by picking it up or giving it a hug.  All these actions only serve to reinforce the dog’s fearfulness. Forcing a dog to interact only makes matters worse!


Guidelines for building confidence in a shy dog:

  1. Start by accepting that the dog is frightened. Ignore shy behaviours and praise when the dog shows courage and confidence.
  2. Enrol at a club for basic obedience training. Two of the dogs at the Club, “Trash” and “Tinker” were rescued from the local rubbish dump. They were abused, frightened and extremely shy in the beginning, but have since passed the Canine Good Citizen Test and at the end of year “Fun Day”, won many prizes in competition with other dogs. Reward training helps nervous dogs to feel a sense of control over their environment; because they learn how to make good things (praise and treats) happen. This greatly increases their confidence and enjoyment of life.
  3. Make time to bond with your dog. (See: Bonding)
  4. As the owner of a shy, sensitive dog you need to be self-assured to demonstrate to the dog that there is nothing to be afraid of, because the dog sees danger everywhere. The dog will look at you for leadership and protection and you must give it confidently. Rather than stroking the dog to greet it, get him to sit and reward with a treat. When arriving home, instead of approaching the dog, walk into the garden and invite the dog to join you.
  5. “Standing over” a dog places you in a dominant position that will be stressful for a sensitive dog. When approaching a shy, sensitive dog, go down into a submissive position: Kneel down, avoid eye contact and offer a treat. Praise the slightest progress, “Good girl/ boy.” Do not try to force the dog to come to you. Be patient and let him decide when to come to you or when to approach another dog or person.
  6. If the dog withdraws after being touched, ignore the behaviour. Shy dogs need to learn that touching is not going to hurt. In fact there should be a reward (food treat) for allowing a touch. It may take some time for the dog to understand this.
  7.  Let your dog accompany you as you go about your daily routine. Say, “Come with me,” take the lead and gently “pop” the dog to follow you. Try to leave home at least once a day and go for walks that would include passing people and traffic. Being scared creates nervous energy which the dog needs to get rid of, so the longer the walks the better.
  8. Protect your dog from people who want to invade his space by not allowing them to pet your dog on the head. Touching under the chin or the neck is less threatening to shy dogs. If your dog is scared of people, they should avoid eye contact and, at first, turn their backs to him. Offering a treat held in the hand behind their backs could be a good way of making friends.
  9. Play games when alone. It may be necessary to teach the dog how to play. Timid dogs usually do not play much. Use toys, jump up and down, roll on the lawn, play ball, etc. Crawl away from the dog and let it chase you. Lie down near the dog and place a tasty treat on your body. Call in a soft voice for the dog to come and eat the treat off your body. Repeat often and praise enthusiastically. Play tug-of -war games with a rag and let the dog win.
  10.  Do not stroke or pacify your dog when it shows signs of fear. The dog will interpret your gesture as praise and “it’s OK to be scared.” Rather act confidently and remove the dog from the fearful situation.
  11.  Submissive peeing should be ignored by not stopping for a greeting especially when you arrive home. It is natural for the dog to be pleased to see you and to show submission. Turning around and walking away when he squats will soon improve the situation. Then, when he does not pee, go down and praise him. Offering a treat will also help to transfer the dog’s attention from you to the food and will bypass the dog’s need to show submission.
  12. Find a friendly dog that your dog will be prepared to play with especially if this dog is also not frightened of people. Play with other dogs helps to build confidence and release nervous energy.
  13. Remember, it will take time for trust to develop. It may be as much as 2-6 months before your dog will begin to show confidence and trust in you and family members. Patience, praise and kindness are needed every day. Your job is to teach your dog and not to scold it. Scolding solves nothing it just makes the dog more anxious and stressed.
  14. Shy dogs should be made less dependent on their owners for emotional support.  Instead of following their owners around the house, these dogs should be given interesting things to chew (Kongs, hooves and raw bones etc). They should be encouraged to sleep in their own special bed and not on the owner’s bed or lap! Gradually other people should begin to be involved in caring for the dog, so that the dog learns that good things (walks, food, play etc) do not only come from one person.
  15.  If your dog is not making much progress with simple behavioural techniques, it may be a good idea to consult your vet about medications which may bring down your dog’s level of anxiety. However, this is not a permanent solution and you should also consult a behaviourist or trainer who will be able to draw up a remedial socialising programme to run in conjunction with the course of medication.
  16. Never approacy a fearful dog from the front! Move to the dog’s side, stand still and gradually move closer as the dog shows signs of relaxing. Going down in a submissive position without eye contact will get better results while offering treats to gain trust.
  17. White of eyes are a warning signal and contact with the dog must be avoided especially also if the ears are flat and pulled back. Children in particular must be protected from such a stressed dog because they are not yet able to recognise the warning signs displayed by the dog.

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