Is your canine a scaredy dog? Fear-related behaviors can be debilitating for your dog and heart-wrenching for you. What makes some dogs fearful and other dogs confident? And what can we do to help our fearful Fido?
Nature versus nurture
Socialization (nurture) means exposing your puppy to things he might encounter during his lifetime – people, animals (including dogs he doesn’t live with), environments (vet office, groomer), vehicles (cars, bikes, skateboards), household appliances, sounds and surfaces. The prime socialization window for puppies is between the ages of four weeks to four months; after that, the window of opportunity starts to close.
Genetics (nature) also play a crucial role in whether or not a dog becomes fearful or confident. A dog with good genetics can often recover even if he misses out on socialization opportunities, but for a dog with bad genetics, it’s imperative that the dog gets all the socialization opportunities he can.
A dog that has poor genetics and/or has not been socialized (or has had negative socialization experiences) may become fearful.
How to help dogs that are fearful of humans
The most common method used is counter-conditioning and desensitization (CC & D). The goal with CC & D is to change the way a dog feels about scary humans, for example, by linking them to a high-value food item (counter-conditioning). Start far enough apart so the dog feels comfortable and gradually work your way closer and closer (desensitization) to the human. When the human appears, the food starts flowing. When the human leaves, the food stops. The dog quickly learns that humans are wonderful – their appearance results in high value treats!
But let’s get back to basics:
Flooding (exposing your dog to large groups of people) rarely works. Instead, introduce your dog to one individual at a time. The stranger should try to make himself appear small, avoid direct eye contact and frontal approaches, use a calm and quiet voice and slow body movements.
Your dog should learn some basic obedience cues or tricks. Being able to respond appropriately to cues gives your dog some control (if I sit, I get a treat) and builds his confidence (if I take a bow, I get praised). You can also help your dog when he is nervous by telling him what to do (down).
Teach your dog the touch cue. (For detailed instructions on teaching this cue, google “hand target dog training.”) With the touch cue, you hold your hand out at dog level and your dog touches it with his nose. This can be turned into a fun game to distract or redirect a shy dog; it is also a great way for a stranger to approach your shy dog and give your dog the option as to whether or not he wants to interact. The stranger holds his hand out for a touch, as opposed to reaching over the dog to pet him.
“Run away” is also an excellent skill to teach your dog. If something scary is approaching, tell your dog to “run away” in a cheerful tone of voice as you both turn and head in the opposite direction. (Practice this before something scary approaches.)
An alternative cue is to teach your dog to “get behind.” This is where your dog gets behind you and you body block him from the scary thing.
Another great exercise is the “treat and retreat” exercise. The handler and dog stand on one end while the stranger stands on the other end, far enough apart so the dog is comfortable. The stranger tosses a high-value treat just a few inches in front of the dog. After the dog steps forward slightly to eat the high-value treat, the stranger then tosses a lower-value treat several feet behind the dog, so the dog has to turn around and walk away from the stranger to get the treat. Repeat (tossing treat in front of dog and then behind the dog). The goal is to slowly get the dog closer and closer to the stranger. This method is effective because the dog gets a break from the pressure of moving closer to the stranger when the treat is tossed behind him as he moves closer and closer at his own pace.