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Working with Shy Dogs: Meeting New People | Pupford

December 28th, 2023

Filed under Training

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As the guardian of a shy dog myself, I understand how difficult it can be navigating the world with a dog who is not the stereotypical “I love everyone!’ type of dog.

When working with shy dogs it is important to validate their fears and anxieties, help them build confidence, and give them the power to choose how much interaction they would like with new people.

In this blog post, we will cover ways to manage your shy dog’s interactions to avoid increasing their fear and ways to help them build confidence in new environments and around new people.

Here’s what we will cover:

  1. Understanding Fear In Dogs
  2. The Importance of Positive Reinforcement Training For Shy Dogs
  3. How to Build Confidence and Create Positive Associations When Meeting New People
  4. Environmental Management For Shy Dogs
  5. Having Empathy and Patience For Shy Dogs

UNDERSTANDING FEAR IN DOGS

dog that is nervous around people

Before we can dive into how to train and help our shy dogs build confidence, we first need to understand fear in dogs. Specifically where it comes from and how to recognize it.

Causes of Fear

Fear in dogs can be rooted in various factors, including traumatic experiences, lack of or poor socialization during critical developmental and fear periods, and even genetics.

Did you know that unborn puppies can receive stress hormones from their mother if she is undergoing psychological stress during pregnancy?

Dogs with a genetic predisposition to anxiety may be more prone to developing fear-based behaviors. Traumatic experiences, such as abuse or a frightening incident, can significantly impact a dog’s perception of strangers. Additionally, the lack of exposure to diverse environments and people during the critical socialization window can contribute to the development of fear.

Learn more about puppy socialization and fear periods here!

Understanding these factors is crucial for tailoring an effective approach to address the specific needs of your dog,

Recognizing Fearful Behavior

It is important to understand dog body language and be able to recognize when your dog is displaying fear or appeasement behaviors. This way you can remove them from situations that invoke fear or anxiety.

Behavioral cues may include:

  • Trembling
  • Excessive panting
  • Lowered body posture
  • Tucked tail
  • Avoidance
  • Vocalizations like growling or whining.

Some more subtle signs such as lip licking, whale eyes, or avoiding eye contact can also indicate discomfort.

To learn more about dog body language, check out this blog post!

Not all dogs will respond to fear in the same way. While many dogs will cower and try to get away, others may growl, bark, or lunge in an attempt to get the scary person or thing to move away.

You can learn more about the various fear responses here.

THE IMPORTANCE OF POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT TRAINING FOR SHY DOGS

While we believe all dogs should be trained using positive reinforcement training methods, this is especially important for shy dogs.

Using techniques and tools that focus on punishment such as scolding, prong collars, squirt bottles, shock collars, or shaker cans can increase fear in dogs, diminish confidence, weaken the bond between you and your dog, and even lead to increased aggression.

To learn more about why we advocate for using positive reinforcement training techniques, check out this interview with trainer Holly Ovington!

HOW TO BUILD CONFIDENCE AND CREATE POSITIVE ASSOCIATIONS WHEN MEETING NEW PEOPLE

french bulldog shy

It is important to understand that every dog is going to build confidence and create positive associations at their own pace - and that’s okay!

Building Confidence

Just like humans, dogs can experience moments of self-doubt and anxiety, often manifested in behaviors like excessive barking, cowering, or avoidance. Whether your dog is naturally shy or has developed apprehensions due to past experiences, helping your dog build their confidence is essential to their well-being.

Some ways to build confidence include mental enrichment activities, impulse control games, trick training, and even something as simple as allowing your dog to say no to interactions that make them uncomfortable. Giving your dog autonomy and the power to make their own choices can be very beneficial when working on confidence building.

Learn even more about confidence building here!

Create Positive Associations When Meeting New People

When working with dogs who are fearful or shy around strangers, there are two main things we want to focus on.

  1. First, changing their emotional response around strangers and teaching them that new people = good things!
  2. And second, they have the choice to say no to any interaction that makes them uncomfortable.

There are multiple ways to go about changing a dog's emotional response. We want to use positive reinforcement training methods to help them learn that people are a predictor of good things, like high-value treats.

Something to keep in mind though, is that just like people, some dogs are just naturally more introverted than others.

They may not enjoy lots of attention or praise from strangers and that is okay! As you are working with a shy dog, be sure you are focusing on building confidence and alleviating anxiety, not forcing them to be a dog they aren’t.

Here are some exercises you can start working on to help change your dog’s emotional response to people: The Look At That and Engage/Disengage Game and the Treat and Retreat Game.

A common misconception when working with shy dogs is just to let people pet them and love all over them and they will get used to it.

This is not the case and can cause flooding. Flooding is a behavior therapy technique that involves exposing an individual to the maximum amount of an anxiety-inducing stimulus. This can have many negative effects.

By forcing dogs to interact with people they are not comfortable with, you run the risk of increasing their fear and diminishing their confidence.

ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT FOR SHY DOGS

dog that is nervous around people

One way to help your shy dog is by managing their environment. Let’s first start within the home.

My rule of thumb for any dog whether they are shy or working through a training plan is: Your dog does not need to meet every person that comes to your house.

For example, if you have a repair person coming over, your dog does not need to meet them. If you have a distant relative coming over for dinner who you will likely not see again for a few years, your dog does not have to meet them.

These types of greetings and interactions are not necessary and can increase stress for both you and your dog.

Instead, put your energy into interactions that are important to you such as family and friends who visit your home often.

Tools you can use for management are baby gates and crates, you could even just put your dog in another room. Just don’t forget to give them something to do with a chew or a lick mat!

When outside of the home, avoid taking your shy dog to places that may be overwhelming for them.

Places like the dog park, farmer’s markets, pet stores, crowded city streets, off-leash hiking trails, etc.

While it can be difficult to avoid these situations all the time, opt to take your dog on walks during the least busy time of day in your neighborhood, take them to more secluded places for off-leash play, and don’t be afraid to advocate for your dog. It is okay to tell people that your dog does not want to be greeted or touched.

HAVING EMPATHY AND PATIENCE FOR SHY DOGS

It can be hard to see other people’s dogs who seem to not have a care in the world when your dog seems to be shy around everything.

Part of the training process for shy dogs is understanding that their fear is real and that having a more reserved dog does not make you a bad dog guardian or them a bad dog. Patience throughout this process will help your dog build confidence more quickly and strengthen the bond between you and your pup.

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