Question: What are some good exercises for making a shy, uncertain dog feel more confident and secure?
Answer from DOGthusiast
I love shy dogs, and have had a couple of dogs who lack confidence (and have worked with many others), and the most helpful things I have done with them to produce results:
- Act as an example: show the dog you see what frightens them, and it’s not a big deal. Walk with confidence, speak with confidence, demonstrate! If the dog is observant, as many are, they will see this and learn from it.
- Do not ever make a big deal about what frightens them. Do not reward them for fear, or immediately after it. Do not console. Do not try to “make it better”. Stay confident, upbeat, and keep moving.
- If your dog reacts (panics, barks at a stranger in a menacing way), quietly and calmly remove the dog from the scenario quickly and safely. Never yell, never show any emotion – stay silent and move on or otherwise remove the dog from that situation. You showing emotion can influence the dog, and often in a negative way that reinforces that behavior.
- Let them be comfortable, and do not push them too hard. If they fear humans, let them move behind you. Never force the issue – if you force it, you risk them reacting (panic, or fear barking etc), and this could result in them using force to keep people (or the item of fear) away, which is bad. Let them move to where they are comfortable, and support this. You will bond and build trust, and they will learn they do not need to act out.
- If your dog panics or shows extreme fear, jogging or running can be a life-saver. And you don’t need any training or behavior skills to do it. This has worked wonders on my extremely panicky dog, who I couldn’t even walk outside our house without panicking at every single possible thing (person, car, leaf blowing, etc). If I jogged her, she managed perfectly fine. Jogging distracts the dogs enough so they do not exhibit the other behaviors (fear, panic, sniffing, reactivity, etc). Within four months I could walk her normally (at a normal pace, no panic) in our neighborhood. This also worked with reactive dogs and extreme sniffers!
In other words, patience and understanding is the key. It doesn’t take a ton of skills to work with a shy dog, other than knowing when they are starting to feel nervous and when it’s starting to get bad. If you are sensitive to that, and can move them away from that to keep them “below threshold” (which essentially means they are able to “hear” you – for instance, if you have a really good sit command, will they do it? If not, they are probably beyond threshold).
Also remember that some dogs will never get to a place of comfort in every scenario like other dogs. Their issues may have been with them since they were born, or very soon after, in which case they will always have them. And remember that this is okay too – they can still be nervous around strangers, and lead an extremely wonderful, quality life. Just like the variety of humans in this world, many of whom are shy, it’s not true that every dog needs to be highly social, they only need to be happy and safe! It only takes an understanding household who lets them be who they are as dogs.