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Ask Nancy: About Shyness

October 4, 2010

Does your dog seem shy to you? Is your dog afraid to meet new people, new dogs, or walk in new areas? Does your dog jump away when something new is experienced?

Shyness in dogs has many causes. Sometimes it is due to lack of socialization when the dog was young. Those early weeks where the pup is learning about the world are a very important time for the pup to be introduced to as many things as possible so they become comfortable with them.

Sometimes a health issue makes the dog fearful due to a flood of hormones or possibly an illness. You might check a shy dog for health issues if you have not already done so. Thyroid problems, which are seen in many breeds and mixes, can cause behavior changes as can tick carried diseases for example. Checking for a health issue when temperament or behavior suddenly changes can be a good choice.

Sometimes shyness is inherited or possibly learned from the mom during the time in the uterus and the first weeks when mom cares for the pups. A pup that has inherited shyness and doesn’t get much socialization can have twice the problems to deal with.

A good reference site on coping with shyness is here

Often training designed to teach the dog how to cope with or handle new situations is a big help, as is desensitization training where you teach the dog that what was once considered scary can now be viewed as a great opportunity to earn rewards.

One training method that can help with that sort of confidence building is clicker training. You first teach the dog that the click means ‘that is right’ or ‘good’ or ‘yes’ and you then have a way to easily and quickly tell the dog which behavior is what you want. You can see some very good clicker training videos as you scroll down on this page past the ads to get an idea of the way the training works

If you prefer not to use a clicker then positive reinforcement with verbal praise may also work for you.

The way you would apply this type of training, to say a fear of new people situation, is to have a friend that the dog usually reacts to help you do the training by coming to where the dog can just see the person it fears. This may be a good distance away to start with.

When your friend appears you start clicking and treating the dog with small tastes of a favorite food item. Your friend then walks out of sight and then you cease the click and treat response. Gradually you build up to working the same way with the dog seeing other people, seeing people closer and you reward the dog only when strangers are near. The idea is that what was scary now becomes a source for good rewards. You can do this in your home also by having her on a leash while someone else answers the door for the friend to come in.This is of course only a brief overview and in person training help would be best for specific problems. http://www.apdt.com/ may help you find a trainer to work with or you may want to ask your vet for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist.

A veterinary behaviorist can not only give you a training plan but may also prescribe a medication for your dog. While meds on their own seldom cure a behavior problem, what they can do is to allow the dog to be calm enough for training to work. A dog can’t learn while petrified, as the mind shuts down with fear, so a veterinary behaviorist could decide the best option is to prescribe a med that reduces stress to allow the dog to learn as well as giving you a specific training plan to help your dog past any fears.

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