Shyness

Shyness, or fear of people, is a serious problem because if a dog becomes fearful enough, he may bite. This problem is commonly referred to as fear biting. If you see shyness in a puppy, even if he is as young as five weeks, don't count on him growing out of it and start working on it right away. In less severe cases of shyness, good training can almost completely make the problem disappear. For instance, as I indicated in chapter 1, my first dog, an Irish Setter, was shy. We struggled in our first obedience class trying to persuade her to allow the instructor to touch her. After she was obedience trained, no one would believe that she had ever been shy. She visited nursing homes and schools regularly to put on obedience demonstrations, always allowing everyone to pet her afterward. More severe cases of shyness respond less dramatically to training, but usually there is some improvement.

Shyness can either be genetic or caused by a lack of socialization when the dog is a puppy. The hereditary version can be found in all breeds of dogs as well as mixed breeds. The widespread nature of this problem is understandable if you look at the heritage of the dog before it was domesticated. Wolves, a close relative of the dog, are timid and shy by nature. This is a helpful adaptation for their survival. Domestication has reduced this shyness in dogs, but the trait can still be present in their genes and can often appear when dogs are bred indiscriminately. An inherited shyness problem can be improved greatly with training, but it cannot be totally erased.

The other cause of shyness is a lack of socialization. Dogs that do not receive adequate human contact between the ages of 5 and 12 weeks are usually shy of humans. This can happen when puppies are raised outside in a barn or kennel, or in a puppy mill situation. This shyness can also be improved with training, but you can never completely compensate for the lack of socialization. Shyness of strange people and places can also occur if a puppy is only exposed to the people who own him and the place where he lives until the age of 16 weeks.

When people get shy dogs from animal shelters, they often assume that it is the result of previous abuse. While abuse can cause shyness, such shyness quickly fades when the dog is placed in a loving, understanding, and consistent environment. If shyness persists in such dogs, it is probably a congenital problem, not the result of abuse. Dogs also do not become permanently shy from one traumatic incident, such as being roughly handled by a veterinarian or groomer. A dog with a good, stable temperament cannot be changed into a shy dog with one incident.

Some dogs also exhibit shyness when they enter their adolescence, somewhere around the age of six to nine months, even though they have never shown any previous shyness problems. The stress of hormonal changes probably has something to do with this. Treat this type as you would any other form of shyness, but be especially careful to avoid forcing your dog into a situation that is too stressful for him to handle. By doing so you could turn a temporary problem into a permanent one.

No matter what the cause of shyness, a friendly obedience class based on positive reinforcement is a great help. (See chapter 10 for how to find a good class.) Try to find a class taught by someone experienced in handling shy dogs. By going to a class, a shy dog gets to meet people and other dogs in a strange place but in a controlled situation. He gets to see the same people and dogs every week, which helps him to become gradually less frightened. Being told specifically what to do and how to behave also helps him cope with a frightening situation. The praise and treats he will get as he learns will make him feel good about himself. He will learn to tolerate the instructor petting him while he is made to stay. In many ways, a class can be a confidence-building experience for a shy dog.

The most important tool to use in helping a shy dog is food. You want to pair the "scary" thing with a good thing. No biscuits here. Get out the power food. Some nice cubes of hard salami work well.

Start working on your shyness problem by using food at whatever level your dog is comfortable. Shy dogs are more comfortable approaching someone on their own than being approached, so you want to start by teaching your dog to approach people to get a treat. If you hold a dog tightly by the leash or collar to force him to let people pet him, he will feel cornered because he cannot escape and will be more afraid. This can lead to a bite. If your dog is so afraid that he will not approach a person to take food from their hand, start by having that person sit on the floor and toss food to the dog, gradually decreasing the distance that the food is thrown until the dog is taking a piece of food from the person's hand outstretched at arm's length. I like using squeeze cheese spread on my hand, so the dog can't grab the food and back away. He has to stay with me to lick my hand.

Continue training your dog by encouraging him to approach people offering him food. Don't forget to praise him whenever he acts in a friendly, confident manner. When he will readily approach someone holding out a piece of food, start having people do the approaching while your dog is on a sit-stay.

Take advantage of any and every opportunity to have someone strange feed your dog. Carry treats with you when you go for walks to hand to people. You want your dog to think that everyone he meets is a potential source of treats, rather than a threat.

It is critical in dealing with this problem not to unintentionally reward your dog for acting shy and make the problem worse. When your dog is afraid of someone, it is natural to try to reassure him. However, he has no way of understanding that your reassurance is regarding the person. Instead, he will think your soft words and petting are an expression of approval for his fearful behavior. This is certainly not what you want to teach him. An example of this is given in chapter 3 in "Building Confidence."

What you want to communicate to your dog instead is that he is acting silly and that you are not going to tolerate it. Speak firmly to him in a no-nonsense tone of voice. If he is a little dog, do not pick him up and cuddle him. Don't let him lean on you or hide behind you. Rather, place him on a sit-stay on your left side and stubbornly make him stay there. If the most he can tolerate at first is a person walking around him in a circle, staying 10 feet away, start there. Then gradually work up to having him sit and stay while an unfamiliar person approaches him and hands him a piece of food. When your dog is comfortable with this, make him do a sit-stay while the person approaches and pets him before giving him the food reward. You will know

Offering a shy dog food will help him overcome his fear of people. (Mixed Breed)

you really have your problem under control when you can leave your dog on a sit stay, go 6 feet away, and have a stranger pet your dog without you standing right next to him for security.

You will need to get your shy dog out and exposed to people and places. Be very careful so that you do not put your dog in a situation where he is so afraid that he feels forced to bite to defend himself. Watch your dog carefully for any signs that he is feeling uncomfortable and remove him from the situation before he becomes frightened. While shy dogs need encouragement to face their fears, there is a point at which you can stress them too much and cause them to become more fearful. It is important to read your dog so that you know when to stop. Watch the expression in his eyes as well as the tenseness of his muscles. If he refuses to eat his treats, that is a sign that he is stressed.

If your dog's shyness or fear causes him to growl or bite, please see the next chapter on aggression and seek the help of an experienced trainer or behavior specialist. A good trainer can lay out a detailed program using positive reinforcement for desensitization and counter-conditioning.

One final thought: Do not breed from a shy dog. It is impossible to know for sure if a dog is shy because of a genetic problem that he can pass on to offspring or if this condition was caused by a lack of socialization. There is no way to go back and see if your dog would have had a good temperament if he had received adequate socialization. And please do not use the excuse that your dog is shy because of a traumatic incident to justify breeding a shy dog. It is irresponsible to take a chance on producing another generation of shy puppies when the world is grievously overpopulated with dogs.

Whenever a dog shows fear in his body language, owners should be aware of the potential for dog bites. (German Shepherd)

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