Monday, September 5, 2011

Shy Dog 101

A dog training dream of mine is to teach a class for fearful dogs.  Shy and fearful dogs are the dogs I'm drawn to work the most with when I'm teaching, and to have a class of 6 or so of them would be something I'd enjoy a lot.

There are very premature talks of a class like this eventually being offered.  If it is, indeed, offered, there are several people (to my surprise) that are interested in being involved in it.  Despite this, I've just as prematurely started to think about what the most important things to convey to a class of fearful dog handlers are if I was, indeed, to teach it.

1. Learn to think in terms of association, not rewards.
The distinction between classical and operant conditioning is, admittedly, something that is a bit hard to teach.  Most people (unknowingly) only think in operant terms when training their dog - "If my dog doesn't bark, I'll reward him" - even when the situation might be better suited to associative learning - type work.

I think the best way to teach this concept is to avoid any technical terms (classical, operant, reinforcement, conditioned response) and to delve right in to the bare minimum that a fearful dog owner should know - how to use desensitization and counterconditioning to change what the dog does, rather than reinforcing outright behaviors.

Getting handlers to think in terms of "loud noise = cookies" or "new stranger = playing with a toy," as well as being able to recognize that fear is not voluntary, would be monumental in the rehabilitation of dogs of this type.

2. Learn how to properly approach a shy dog.
Even those who OWN shy dogs bend over, reach their hands out and talk to the dog to try to get it to sniff them.  The reality is that this type of greeting is super scary to the dog - a big giant human hand is entering their space, maybe grabbing for them, and they just don't like the idea of that.

Much more beneficial is the idea of letting the shy dog approach on their own terms.  Standing or sitting still, not making eye contact and not outstretching their hands is a much more inviting posture for a dog who is afraid of being touched by someone they do not know.  As the comfort level increases, the new person can start to offer food, perhaps by throwing it on to the floor.

3. Learn how to stand up for what's best for a shy dog.
If a well-meaning but uninformed person approaches Marge looking to pet her, I have no problem body-blocking them and telling them NO if I do not feel Marge would be comfortable with that situation.  Unfortunately, this is something that takes a little while to get used to doing.  I can't tell you how many shy dog owners in my classes have allowed people to pet their dogs when the dogs are clearly not enjoying it.  In fact, I myself have had to stand up for these dogs and politely point out to both the offending party and the owner/handler that the dog is uncomfortable.

It would be awesome for shy dog handlers to learn that it is OK to say "no" to a friendly advance from a stranger.  By apologizing and saying that the dog is shy and learning how to comfortably be around people, it minimizes conflict and keeps the dog AND the person safe.

4. Learn about different aids and products that make the process a bit easier.
"I don't want her on pills." "I heard ____ product only works some of the time."  "I don't think she's THAT scared so I don't want to use it."  The excuses are many, but people seem very, very reluctant to add anything in to their training toolbox when it comes to alleviating some of a shy dog's anxiety.  While I do not think the decision to put a dog on medication should be taken lightly, I do think that it is helpful for shy dog owners to learn about medication as an option, should a situation ever arise where the dog needs to be medicated.

In terms of natural or non-invasive products, it is true that the results vary from dog to dog.  However, most of these products are cheap; some, like an anxiety/body wrap, can even be made from household items.  Sampling some of these and seeing how the dog responds would, again, be quite beneficial.  If the end goal is to have a happy, comfortable dog, what's wrong with speeding the process along?

On a similar note, it is also important for shy dog owners to know how veterinarians, behaviorists, and dog trainers can provide their services to help a shy dog get better.

5. Learn to be proactive.
There are certain things in the environment that you can't prepare for - you can't do much in advance about a crack of thunder or a child jumping out from behind a bush.  However, sometimes shy dog owners walk their dogs right in to not-so-good situations.  Walking in close proximity with crowds of people, particularly children, or taking the dog to the park on the 4th of July are, for example, not the greatest ideas, depending on what type of fears the dog has.

The same can be said for situations around the house - if the dog is afraid of strangers and you're expecting your neighbor (who, to top it off, refuses to leave the dog alone) to drop by, put the dog in the yard, or in another room, or in a crate, instead of "seeing how it goes."

Similarly, learning your dog's specific signs of anxiety can be useful in getting out of a situation before it spirals out of hand.

I hope that I get to put my knowledge and enthusiasm for working with fearful dogs in to motion.  I'd also like to hear from you.  Lots of my blogging buddies have fearful or shy dogs and I'm always looking for new ideas. What do you think should be covered in such a class?


Two French Bulldogs September 5, 2011 at 3:43 PM  

sounds great. We think my Lily needs you
Benny & Lily

Amy / Layla the Malamute September 5, 2011 at 6:10 PM  

You'd be the perfect person to teach that class. Not just from your experience with Marge and other shy dogs, but all of your knowledge of psychology.

I can't think of anything significant off the top of my head except for when people try to push the dog through whatever is bothering them. Obviously in SOME cases it might work. But out of the blue Layla started getting scared of our kitchen chairs. They roll around. She started getting scared to the point of running into the other room with her tail between her legs. Pat and his cousin were over and their "solution" was to call her over and roll the chair towards her. You can imagine how I flipped out at them. The "flooding" didn't work with people and it won't work with dogs.

Also, I'm still so worried I'll do something wrong with Marge. I'd like to think I'm not as clueless as some of the people out there, but it's been a long time since I've had a shy dog so I'm sorry again if I did anything to upset her!

Sam September 5, 2011 at 6:21 PM  

Honestly, Amy, Marge really isn't a shy dog when she comes to agility trials anymore (I hope I'm not eating my words at Princeton lol). She eats up the attention she gets from other people, especially when there are treats involved. So don't worry, you haven't done anything wrong, and she likes you and Layla a bunch :) :)

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera September 5, 2011 at 6:57 PM  

Wonderful post! I'm sharing this! :)

Kari in Alaska September 5, 2011 at 10:55 PM  

I would love to spend more time working with shy dogs


Stella September 5, 2011 at 11:10 PM  

Hi Sam,

I have never had a shy dog, but I really hope you get to put your experience with Marge and your book learning to work with dogs that Are shy.

I think you would do a great job.

Jo and Stella

Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart September 6, 2011 at 10:08 AM  

I'd suggest the dangers and outcomes of flooding or "tough love" and the MYTH of "coddling" reinforcing fear (which it does NOT).

Kathy Mocharnuk September 7, 2011 at 2:34 PM  

sounds like it would be a great class and have some great skills. I think also just people being around someone that sort of helps them understand that not every dog has to like everything, not every dog wants to or finds playing with all sorts of dogs rewarding and just like people dogs have some situations that make them feel shy and that is ok and normal. It seems like some people just really seem to expect that all dogs should be dying to interact with everyone and really what is important is that the dog is happy and confident interacting with his handler and the rest can be managed or worked with.

KB September 7, 2011 at 7:55 PM  

I think that your points actually apply to all dogs, although they are most important with shy dogs. It sounds to me like you are well on your way to teaching class like the one that you have in mind. Knowing what's important to teach is the key!

Shane Kent Louis September 7, 2011 at 10:08 PM  

Your blog was very informative, and I learned a lot from it!

Dog Fence | It's All About Pet Fences

Vicky September 8, 2011 at 5:59 PM  

Great advice! I have a shy dog and I have to say that sometimes, even when I completely explain his issues I'll get people who want to bend over and reach for him. The more people are educated about proper dog interactions and the more owners who learn ways to manage their dogs, the better the world is for everyone.

AWorldCruise4Me September 16, 2011 at 10:06 AM  

Great idea on a class. I like your ideas and the one about teaching people about not flooding and that comforting is OK. I would add teaching dog communication skills. I like On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas. You may want to make it a required reading for the class. Here is the link on Amazon.

I think it does a great job helping people see when their dogs are stressed and gives people some tools to help calm the dog in a language that the dog understands.

Michelle (mom to Sunshine the shy dog who can now come in the house)

AWorldCruise4Me September 16, 2011 at 10:20 AM  

I thought of two other things. I've had great success with myself and asking others to use the relaxed dog face. A relaxed dog has a relaxed jaw, slightly open mouth with the tongue showing. So I ask people to relax their jaw, open their mouth slightly and show their tongue. It really helps when someone is making a dog nervous. I've used it myself alot and almost always get a good reaction from a dog whether their mine, fosters or strangers. You actually can see a bit of a startled look in their face that to me seems to be that they are startled that someone is communicating with them. I learned it from reading Patricia McConnell training books.

Another idea is to go over the food that everyone is feeding. We foster on occasion and feed high quality raw. I've had people adopt and switch to the lowest brands which then results in personality changes. Once they switch to a high quality kibble or canned they often get back the dog they adopted. I don't know that food quality directly relates to shyness but I think in general the healthier a dog feels the easier they will be to work with. I like this site for checking dog food ratings.


zoepheedogs February 12, 2015 at 4:17 PM  

That would be a great class! A lot of owners don't understand how to work with shy dogs and they push them way more than they should.

  © Blogger template 'Isolation' by 2008

Back to TOP