Timid, Shy, and Fearful Dogs

The nature/nurture combination dictates most aspects of temperament and behavior.  For sure, some animals are genetically wired to be timid, shy, or fearful.   Dogs bred to guard are innately wary.  Otherwise, they would be ineffective in their work.  Many rescued dogs have been sorely disadvantaged in their early development weeks and months.  They require especially diligent – or remedial – socialization and counter-conditioning programs.

Recognize the Signs

Early signs of timidity, shyness, and fear in a puppy can be so subtle that they are missed.  Flight is a fear response which is easily observed; however, freezing is a fear response, too.  Freezing is often misinterpreted as a calm internal state.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  The animal is so frightened that he mentally shuts down.

Behavior programs to change an animal’s conditioned emotional response to fear-invoking stimuli work best when started before two years of age.  All changes are gradual and can take months of following a treatment plan.  Fear issues in older dogs, while possible, usually take longer to counter-condition.  As mentioned, flight and freezing are two behaviors that signal a fearful internal state.  Other fear signals that are open to misinterpretation are displacement behaviors, such as jumping, restlessness, and self-grooming that is out-of-context, among others.

The Socialization Process

A thorough socialization effort encompasses exposure to people, dogs, places, situations, and noises.  The first four months of life are critical in a puppy’s socialization process.  A window of opportunity closes after this time.  Remedial work is usually needed.

Between two and four months of age, puppies should have many POSITIVE experiences with diverse populations.  All meet and greet encounters should be brief, controlled, and super-fun for the puppy.  Don’t overwhelm your dog with too many people or an overload of stimuli in the environment.  On leash dog-to-dog greetings do not qualify as socialization and are best avoided.   There is no benefit, and this practice sets up for undesirable behaviors later.  (See Blog article – On Leash Interactions:  It’s Not Socialization.)  A preferable strategy would be to find puppy playmates among friends and family.  Attend a puppy kindergarten taught by a qualified professional trainer.

If your vet advises remaining on home turf, take the puppy around your property on leash.  Sit in the front yard and expose him to the everyday activity in your neighborhood.  This practice helps him habituate to passers-by, traffic, etc…  A few treats for training exercises while out there keeps his mind busy.  The most effective techniques use numerous BRIEF AND POSITIVE experiences.

Provide Directives

All dogs, especially nervous ones, need specific directives from their people.  Several well-trained obedience cues are very useful tools.  When the human knows how to respond to and re-direct anxiety-fueled behavior, stress in the dog is reduced.  Following a plan to gradually erode fear and stress demonstrates calm and strong human leadership.  Over time, the result is a more relaxed dog who can cope with life around here.

Establish an Escape Hatch/Safety Spot

No matter how well we try to set up for success, life is full of cold trials.  In the presence of a fear object/situation, take decisive action to help your dog re-direct his attention to you.  Increasing distance is part of a treatment program.  Retreat to the most sensible escape hatch:  head up a neighbor’s driveway or turn down a side street.  There is no shame in the emergency U-turn.   These options are more helpful than doing nothing.  When fear takes over, your dog is incapable of complying with learned cues.  He is not unwilling or stubborn.  Placing your fearful dog in a scary circumstance allows for practice of fear behaviors.  Practice makes perfect.

Choose a safety spot in your home and train your dog to go there.  Create a routine wherein NO ONE encroaches on the dog’s comfort zone until he is ready.

Find an Appropriate Plan for Your Dog

Thanks to various areas of animal science, it is known that dogs experience rich emotional lives.  Unfortunately, they do not outgrow fear and related behaviors without intervention.  There are protocols that work to change fearful dogs into relaxed and happy pets.

Environmental enrichment and mental stimulation reduces stress in zoo animals, shelter dogs, and, most certainly, our canine companions.  This is fairly easy to incorporate into a family’s daily routine.  (See Blog article  – Environmental Enrichment and Mental Stimulation.)

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2015 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Behavior and Training LLC