Shy Dogs

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Many -- even most -- of the dogs that come through WAGS will initially appear to be shy. In many cases, the dog is not actually timid, just temporarily overwhelmed by the stresses of shelter life, a long transport, and arrival in a loud, crowded new environment filled with strange things the dog has never before encountered.

The day I brought Crookytail home, he wouldn't go up the stairs. I had to carry him. Note his averted gaze, pinned-back ears, and frozen/hesitant posture. He was seriously afraid of those stairs, because he had never been asked to walk up a flight of steps before. On the street, he shut down and refused to budge if a car drove past, flinched away from approaching people, and was ready to jump out of his skin at a moment's notice.

And yet he's not a shy dog. He is one of the steadiest, calmest, friendliest dogs I have ever known. After a few weeks of work, he'd do wind sprints on those stairs and was unflappable on the street. It's hard to recognize the dog I have now in the clips I taped then.

Similarly, here's a clip of foster puppy Indy on one of her early socialization walks. She's a little hesitant too: ears flattened and pinned back, tongue flicking, freeze/crouch on the edge of a sidewalk when a baby stroller goes past. But she is not an inherently shy pup either, and as of this writing, is rapidly gaining confidence on the street. All it took was time, repetition, a lot of tasty treats, and a willingness to respect and stay within her comfort levels.

In assessing your foster dog, it is important to distinguish between dogs who are inherently skittish or fearful and those who just need a little time to safely and comfortably adjust to their new environments. Dogs in the first group will need to be carefully placed in homes that are ready and willing to work with them for the rest of their lives. A genuinely shy dog may need lifelong remedial work, and must be placed with an adopter who is aware of that and willing to shoulder the burden. Placing such an animal in an unprepared home does a serious disservice to both dog and adopter. Dogs in the second group, however, just need a little time and patience until they regain their confidence. Once they do, they can be placed in most homes without problems.

There is no quick fix for a shy dog. Months to years of steady, patient, consistent work will be necessary to alleviate a fearful dog's terror of the world, and even then, he will never be as steady as a genetically sounder or better-socialized animal. Because of the length and scope of such a project, addressing serious shyness is largely beyond the role of a foster home -- but there are things you can do to get started.

  • Socialize, socialize, socialize. Expose your foster dog to as many new stimuli as possible, keeping her safety and comfort in mind at all times. Take care not to push her past her thresholds; you want to show her that the world is a fun and non-threatening place, not a terrifying one. Lavish treats on her for any sign of boldness or curiosity. Use play, toys, and a light-hearted tone of voice to relax and engage her. Do not hesitate to comfort or praise your foster dog if she seems unsure about something, and shield her from interactions with well-meaning people if she clearly finds them frightening. Every experience should be as positive as you can make it, and there should be a lot of them.
  • Begin positive training. Dogs, like people, feel more confident when they know they're good at something. Having that skill recognized and rewarded is tremendously encouraging to a dog. Positive training is huge for shy dogs. Begin as soon as possible and practice often.
  • Consider enlisting a helper dog. If you have access to a reliable, unflappable, "bomb-proof" dog, and if your foster seems to take comfort in the presence of a more confident dog, then working with a second dog can help bring a timid pup out of his shell. The confident dog can show the shy one that balls are fun, that frisbee is a great game, that it's okay to eat treats in the presence of a person, that going indoors is not scary, and so forth. For dogs who are socialized to other dogs but not to humans (such as many puppy mill dogs), having a helper dog can make a huge difference. This is also a factor to consider when placing your foster pup in an adoptive family -- if they have a gregarious, confident resident dog, that might be a big plus for the adoption. However, this can also spell disaster if the dogs don't get along, so use this technique with caution.
  • Consult with a positive-training professional. Severely shy and fearful dogs need individualized training plans that are far beyond the scope of this post, and may also benefit from anxiety-reducing medications. Find a positive trainer who can work with you one-on-one to design a plan that you can begin and the adopters can continue. Consider discussing the case with a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist if medications might be warranted.
  • Try anxiety-reducing tools. Various over-the-counter remedies may be available in your local pet supply store. Comfort Zone DAP (a synthetic pheromone that mimics the pheromone that nursing mothers produce to soothe their puppies), Rescue Remedy (a floral essence dabbed onto food or put in the dog's drinking water), ThunderShirts (snug-fitting body wraps that put gentle pressure on the dog's torso, mimicking a full-body hug), and Calming Caps (a nylon cap that covers the dog's eyes, allowing her to see shapes but not details) are among the aids you might try. (Personally, I have had no success with either Comfort Zone or Rescue Remedy, and only very limited success with Thundershirts, but other people have reported better results, so depending on your situation, these tools might be worth trying.)