Shy, Timid, Fearful Dogs and Pups
By Three Rivers Humane Society, Monica Rendon, Certified Canine Coach
No matter why your dog or pup is behaving shy, timid or fearful you must acknowledge that it is your dog’s internal state – how he is feeling inside – that is motivating his behavior. It is a treatable and manageable behavior, so don’t give up, but do be prepared to put some effort in to helping your dog or pup be the best they can be. Behavior can be modified, but you have to accomplish this in a way that dogs learn, not how you might learn, or how the “neighbor did it” or the guy on tv. The entire premise of our proven way of modifying your dog’s behavior is to change its mind about the fear inducing trigger.
First step is to make it safe for everyone by preventing contact between your dog and scary people when you can’t be right there practicing these behavior modification steps. If you have unexpected visitors who are scary to your dog, place your dog in a safe space with a yummy chew toy or interactive puzzle before you invite them in. Set your dog up for success. Then invite friends and family that the dog behaves fearful around to come over to help “train” and practice. Most people love helping out! Those steps will follow.
Second, be sure you can identify what it is that scares your dog. What is the trigger that sets your dog off on a timid, shy, fearful behavioral journey? Is it all strangers? Big strangers, little kids, men with beards, sunglasses, hats? A combination of a few things? Maybe its noises, or quick movements, other dogs on leash, be observant so that you can be specific, because it’s going to be an important factor. Your dog might not be timid towards the passerby on the sidewalk, but when that same passerby-er is in the house, it may as well be a scary monster!
Third, find whatever it is that motivates your dog. Every dog has something, and to most but not all, its food. Food is a powerful motivator and a great “mind changer” but to your particular dog it might be a certain toy, or game of tug. (I’ve even seen some dogs that are so motivated by the presence of their human that “abandonment training” is effective, but that’s best when done with a professional trainer!) Think of this from a scientific point of view – when your dog gets the treat, the toy, the interaction that is so motivating to him, neurons are firing and chemicals are released in his brain that say, “yippee, good stuff!” and whatever happens to be occurring in that moment, a positive association is made. Our end goal is a dog that sees a stranger or a scary stimulus and those same chemicals are released without even getting the motivating reward. Its Pavlov’s Bell and the salivating dog at its finest.
Fourth, now you are going to link up the “good” with the “scary.” Let’s talk technical for a second. Your dog has a “threshold” which is a physical distance that he can see the scary thing and actually not respond. That might be 5’ and it might be 200’. Every dog is an individual and you always want to be cognizant to work this modification protocol below threshold. A good way to tell is if your dog will take the treat, if he will play with the toy, if he shows mild concern, but can be easily distracted. If your dog has no interest in something that is high value, then she’s probably over threshold and you need to calmly increase the distance. Take your motivator (for the rest of this I’m going to use the term “treat”) and give it to the dog right after she sees the scary thing. During your set up training opportunities, have the scary thing back off or disappear. Then repeat, and repeat, and repeat. If each time the scary thing appears and treats rain from heaven, your dog’s mind will be changed from scary = fear to scary = treats then bring on the scary! Do you see the connection?
Fifth step is increasing the intensity of the trigger. Don’t go too fast, or you can undo all your good work. Slowly, very slowly, do this same “see and treat” at a closer and closer distance. I don’t always stop at one treat, either. I will continue to shovel in the yummy treats until the scary thing goes away. Each time you practice you will be helping your dog associate that something really wonderful is about to happen when the scary thing is present. After you do this enough (your dog will signal “enough”) classical conditioning kicks in and your dog will be in a much better emotional state! If the scary stimulus is a stranger or child, at this stage you can have your “helper” begin to throw yummy treats towards the dog. Remember, if your dog can’t enjoy the treat when the person is “this close”, the distance is over threshold.
Have realistic expectations; your dog may never enjoy touching by a stranger, but at least you have succeeded in 1) keeping everyone safe, and 2) creating a much healthier state of mind for your beloved dog. Stress takes a terrible toll on our dogs, so if you do nothing, this will not get better. It will only get worse. Even when your dog has this wonderful classically conditioned behavioral response to scary things, it may never disappear completely. Continue to randomly reinforce your dog’s new response for the rest of his life. We call this “overlearning.” Don’t be afraid to take a step back and repeat a step if you have a setback, like someone surprises you and your dog, and you see that shy, timid, and fearful behavior return.
Another great add-on to this behavior modification is to teach the dog an alternative behavior. Your dog can’t bark and lunge at scary visitors when he has chosen to go to his crate or mat for a yummy chew; your dog can’t stare worriedly at the scary thing if you teach him to look at you instead and/or “let’s go the other way!” Simple things like rewarding your dog when he is “brave” with those special treats will help build confidence and reinforce the dog that he can do this! Always be your dog’s advocate and protector and never allow well-meaning people to “flood” your dog by their touch and unwelcomed intrusion. By now you know what it looks like when your dog is scared, timid, or shy.
A final word on treats and reinforcers – let your dog decide what is valuable to them. If their plain old kibble isn’t enough of a motivator, use something high value like cooked chicken bits or tiny bits of hot dogs. Dogs don’t care about portion size but they do care about portion amount. 5 tiny bits of chicken are way more valuable than 1 large piece. If your dog likes tennis balls or tug toys way more than he likes high value treats, then that is what you will use. Put yourself in their position – what motivates you? How hard will you “work” for a Cheerio when what you really wanted was a Hershey Kiss?
Call or email if you have any questions or run into a snag, obviously we can’t cover it all in this hand-out. You can also read Dr. Patricia McConnell’s excellent short book, “The Cautious Canine – How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears.”