Invisible Dogs

posted March 15th, 2012 by
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by Nancy Gallimore Werhane

It was an exciting day at my house— the day I got to pet my foster dogs. This may not sound like a momentous occasion to most people, but those who have rehabilitated a seriously shy or under-socialized dog realize it’s a pretty big step.

My foster dogs are a pair of 4-yearold Dalmatians that were rescued from a puppy mill in Missouri and have no concept of life as a companion animal. Dubbed Jack and Jill, the two actually climbed onto my bed today and let me reach over to pet them. I could not face them directly, and I could not stand up, but we actually had a moment where my touch wasn’t such a terrible thing.

Training sessions on my bed? Well, not what I had planned, but if it works, I’ll run with it. Every dog is different, making every training plan a puzzle to be solved.

There are a number of factors that can cause certain dogs to be shy. For some, it can be blamed on a lack of proper early socialization. Puppies are like little sponges during the first 16 weeks of life. Dogs not properly exposed to human handling as young puppies will have a much harder time assimilating into our world as companion animals.

Dogs that experience stress can also become shy. A stray dog may learn that humans can’t be trusted. A dog in a shelter environment may start to withdraw. And of course, dogs that have experienced abuse or neglect may also become quite timid.

Then, there are genetics. Just as some people have a natural tendency toward shyness, so do some dogs. You can have a litter in which each of the puppies has been raised with the same level of socialization and interaction, but some of the pups might be shy while others are quite outgoing. Whatever the root cause, our shrinking violet dogs are often misunderstood and can be a source of frustration and embarrassment to their owners.

Truth be told, humans tend to be a bit narrow-minded when it comes to communicating with dogs. Usually our intentions are good, but our dog communication skills are often quite clumsy. While most dogs take it all in stride, shy dogs can find the human approach to friendship very overwhelming and confusing.

When humans meet, direct eye contact is expected. We tend to stand squarely facing each other. We immediately grab each other’s hand for a firm shake. It’s all very direct and considered polite.

Now look at things from the dog’s point of view. The average dog generally stands a couple of feet tall or less. Human strangers tower overhead. To greet a dog, well-meaning humans generally move straight toward the dog while bending forward at the waist, staring directly into the dog’s eyes and talking in a loud, high-pitched babble. Then toss in a hand immediately reaching out for a too-much-too-soonpat on the head.

So, when the shy dog backpedals and looks more than a little panicked, what do we do? Well, most people either scold the dog, drag it back toward the newcomer by the leash or collar, or a lovely combination of both. At the same time, the newcomer loudly proclaims that “dogs just love me” and proceeds to try even harder to make the dog submit to attention.

When you consider the dog’s perspective, it’s a giant recipe for disaster, isn’t it? A truly fearful dog who feels trapped and threatened might even resort to growling or barking at the stranger in an attempt to end the confrontation.

So, what to do? How can we help our shy dogs come out of their shells to learn to accept and, hopefully, enjoy socializing with our species?

First, be your shy dog’s champion. Understand your dog’s personality and work to help shift the perception from “new person equals scary” to “new person equals safe interactions and reward.”

Be prepared to explain to people interested in meeting your dog that he or she is a bit shy. Ask them to not acknowledge the dog for a few minutes, so your dog has a chance to smell the new person from a safe distance beside you. If possible, ask the new person to squat down or sit down at an angle to the dog. If the dog chooses to move forward to sniff the newcomer, let that happen without any attempt to interact with the dog. Just give the dog a little space and time to feel secure.

If you see signs that your dog is relaxing, you may want to just stop there. The dog has had a good experience and is starting to feel at ease around a new person. Resist the temptation to ruin that progress by moving forward with too much contact too quickly.

Let the dog move casually away from the new person and quietly praise the dog. By remaining calm yourself, you are setting the stage for your dog to remain calm and happy as well.

Another great tool in helping a shy dog gain confidence is to enlist the aid of another dog. In my experience, most people-shy dogs are good around other dogs. If your shy dog enjoys interacting with other dogs, enlist the aid of a friend with a confident, friendly dog to serve as a good role model. Take the two dogs out to socialize together. Ask people to pet and pay attention to the confident dog while pretending the shy dog is invisible. Just let the shy dog observe the interaction with no pressure to join in.

After a few outings, you may find that the shy dog will start approaching new people along with the confident dog. As this starts to happen, remember the “don’t overdo it” rule. Perhaps let the shy dog sniff the newcomer and maybe have the stranger offer both dogs a treat. End the interaction at this point, again walking away in a calm, matter-of-fact manner.

My shy dog duo is particularly fond of my personal dog, Howie. Howie is a very social, easy-going dog. By petting and playing with Howie, I’ve been able to start including Jack and Jill in the fun. Howie is the best teacher I have for these two dogs.

Formal training with your shy dog is another great way to boost confidence. A group class can provide a learning opportunity where no one dog is the center of attention, allowing a shy dog to blend into the class. If you do choose to take a group class with your dog, be sure to let your instructor know about your dog’s issues, so he or she can adjust lessons accordingly.

For some dogs, however, a busy training school might be too overwhelming. If your dog walks into a training facility and shuts down or panics, perhaps you should contact a trainer for a one-on-one private session. No matter where you train, make sure the methods employed focus on positive motivation training to help boost your dog’s confidence in a fun, engaging manner.

The more you can teach your dog, the more tools you have for helping your dog cope in uncomfortable situations. For example, if you are out for a walk and a neighbor comes to greet you, ask your dog to sit and stay by your side. You have now given your dog a “job” to focus on instead of allowing it to worry about the stranger standing nearby. When you release your dog from the stay, offer lots of calm praise and perhaps even have your visitor casually hand or toss a treat to your dog. This gives your dog a positive association with your neighbor and rewards appropriate behavior.

Another fun exercise I use in working with shy dogs is the touch game. Extend your flat palm to your dog. Most dogs will sniff your hand out of curiosity. When your dog sniffs your hand, or touches it, praise the dog and immediately offer a treat. Then, repeat. Pretty soon you will see that your dog quickly touches its nose to your extended palm when you give the verbal cue “touch.”

Once your dog catches on, you can move your hand from place to place in front of you, beside you and even behind. The dog will enjoy the fun interaction.

This game can then become a tool to use with a friendly stranger. Have a visitor sit and, without staring at the dog or trying to touch the dog, offer a palm in front of the dog and give the “touch” cue. The beauty of this game is that the dog gets to initiate the contact. Keep it simple, short and positive. Hopefully, you will soon see your dog feeling more comfortable around newcomers.

These ideas are just a few of a number of ways you can work to socialize your shy dog. Most importantly, vow to stay patient and, please, always obey the shy dog golden rule: Do not force your shy dog into the spotlight. As much as you want your dog to be social, and as much as people want to win your dog’s affection, trying to force your dog to like new people will almost always backfire.

As for my extremely shy foster dogs, training sessions on my bed with the help of mentor dog, Howie, continue. I look forward to helping them understand that people are a source of good things. In the meantime, I will celebrate every touch and every small step forward.

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