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Adopting a Shy Dog
By Jane Marshall, Dog Trainer
Animal Protection Society of Orange County, NC

Shy dogs and puppies can make wonderful family companions. Taking them home and watching them grow in confidence as they place their trust in you is a very rewarding experience.

Shy dogs, however, like all other personality types, can develop their own array of problems, which if not addressed can result in an unhappy pet and adoptive family. Shyness can escalate into escaping, fear of noises and strangers, submissive urination, and in extreme cases, separation anxiety and aggression.

Some dogs are shy because of their genetic background, some breeds are just generally less bold and adventuresome. Other dogs can be shy because of a lack of socialization and little experience of the world.

According to Dr. Ian Dunbar, a respected Animal Behaviorist, shyness is actually a normal adaptive trait in dogs. "It is natural for dogs to be wary of things that are novel and unfamiliar." However, because of the risk of dogs developing behavior problems, shyness must be addressed immediately. Although it may only take 2-3 weeks to build the confidence of a puppy, the older the dog is, the more commitment and time is required.

Owners of shy dogs invariably make a number of common mistakes. Because these dogs are very endearing and "clingy", there is a tendency to want to comfort and reassure them. In attempting to allay the dog's fears, many people end up re-enforcing and perpetuating the shy dog's fearful behaviors.

Comforting words and attention intended to reassure the dog are actually interpreted by the dog as approval for his shy behavior.

So, what can we do to help our shy new pet develop its confidence in the world and reach its full potential?

First, all dogs, whether shy or not need humane leadership (or "parenting") with a clearly defined set of rules for everyday living. These rules should be taught and enforced kindly and consistently by all family members. Behaviorists believe that many problems in our family dogs are created by mixed signals and lack of consistency.

Second, putting the dog on a leadership training program is essential. These "nothing in life is free" or "work for a living" programs are simple but effective ways to develop a bond of trust and respect between you and your dog. The dog is required to perform a behavior (usually "sit") before he receives anything he wants. This includes sitting before being fed, having the leash put on, being petted or receiving a treat. If the dog likes to chase a ball also ask for a "sit" before you throw the ball.

Patience and kindness in training is essential for success. Shy dogs should NEVER be physically or verbally reprimanded. Rewarding all the dog's successes and ignoring the mistakes will give the dog the confidence to keep trying.

As the shy dog is very prone to over-bond with his new family (putting him at risk for separation anxiety and protective aggression) several periods each day should be set aside for the dog to spend time alone. A crate can be used for this or an area separated by a baby gate. A special chew toy should be given to make this down time more interesting. It is important that these "quiet" periods are practiced when the family is home. This teaches the dog independence and the ability to entertain himself and eases the transition to being alone when you are gone.

Also to learn independence, shy dogs should be discouraged from sleeping in bed with family members. A crate or dog bed in a family bedroom is a good alternative.

All strangers visiting or interacting with the dog should be encouraged to offer him a food treat without staring or looming over him. If your shy dog has submissive urination problems instruct visitors to ignore the dog until seated. Then wait for the dog to approach your visitor before offering the treat.

Shy dogs should never be forced to interact with people they are afraid of; only by going at their own pace will they learn that people are good things.

Your role in helping the dog overcome its fear includes using a bright tone of voice to encourage the dog to try new things. Ignore him when he is acting fearful, but reward with your voice and food treats any attempt to investigate a new thing.

Enrolling in a good, positive obedience class is also highly recommended.

As your shy dog gains confidence, take him out to different places for socializing. Always work within the dog's comfort zone; your goal is for the dog to enjoy exploring the world and meeting new people.

If you do not have success with these simple adjustments to your dog's schedule or if your dog is extremely shy, showing signs of aggression or separation anxiety please contact a professional dog trainer immediately for help.