When I was in my early twenties I had some serious social anxieties. The people that I hung around with liked being around people, drinking and partying and though I liked to experience my twenties like all twenty year olds should, I much preferred the quaint atmosphere of a house party to the club, bar or pub scenes. Alcohol made it much easier to cope with the stress of being around hundreds of people that I didn’t know (and at the time didn’t recognize were dealing with their own ego in most cases), but there was one thing that made it much easier to be around so many people. Whenever I would go out with friends my buddy Dave always hung close to me. Dave was a social butterfly and could navigate around any social gathering with ease, but I didn’t poses this gift yet. I could easily do it now because I understand one thing now that I didn’t then—it wasn’t about me. Now it’s nothing to around the room and talk to everybody because I make it all about them, not me… but that’s a different blog.
I had someone in my corner. If I felt nervous or apprehensive I knew Dave would hang with me until I was occupied with someone else and he could take off. If I met a group I clicked with, he knew I would do fine and vanish into the crowd. The funny part is, I’m not sure he even knew he was doing these things—that’s just the kind of person he is. So when I see a dog who is shy and nervous and that behaviour is causing that dog to act defensively… I feel that in my chest because I was that being. Now it’s my job to turn the human into their social advocate.
If you have a shy dog, there’s a few things you’re likely struggling with. Barking, growling and lunging at people or other dogs, sudden bursts of paranoia, trembles over what you think are nothing or well-meaning people who all think your dog will love them. So this article is dedicated to helping you understand and help your dog with these important points.
Don’t Compare Your Dog
One thing I normally have to stop people from doing (because it actually makes me angry) is comparing their shy dog to a more social dog they owned once upon a time. If you lack the ability to see uniqueness in the being in front of you, you will forever be comparing your dogs and that isn’t fair to your dog. You have a dog with a special set of needs and for you to gloss over that because the last dog you had loved everybody does nothing to put you in the patient and accepting mindset necessary to help this dog learn to cope with a world that is, for the most part, horrifying. Which leads nicely into my next point…
If it’s scary to the dog, it doesn’t matter what you think of it
Fear, Joy, Truth and Beauty are just four things that are relative to the set of eyes experiencing them. One person’s truth is vastly different from another and so is their view on beauty and things that scare them. Far too frequently I hear people dismiss fears as if the other person (or dog) is crazy and it bothers me. That being said, it bothers me equally to watch a being not confront or challenge themselves to be better either. I always make a point to help the dog I’m working with through things that they fear or find challenging. My little pup Sophie wouldn’t walk over closed manhole covers… so we worked through it! The important thing for you to remember is that fear is subjective to the dog, no different than beauty and truth is to you! If your dog fears it, that’s his thing and it’s your job to acknowledge a trouble in your dog and help him through it.
Foundation Work is Key
When I say foundation work, I think it’s important to add in here that I have an obedience-first approach, but not all obedience is created equal. With shy dogs in my program, a premium is placed on trust in order to ask things of the dog and have them give it to me without much struggle or conflict. I really make sure I have this in calm settings before I ever introduce things the dog might be nervous of. If I don’t have a good amount of the dog’s trust and cooperation in quiet settings, I’m certainly not going to ask for it downtown where hundreds of people are walking around (if for instance your pup is nervous of people).
Advocating For Your Dog
This part is about learning how to bring out your inner asshole. I say that because most people think that’s what they’re doing when they’re being firm with the rules with people, but trust me of the hundreds of people I’ve said “no, you can’t pet my dog… she’s in training” to, I can count on one hand how many have fired back at me. I promise you most people are very understanding if you learn to be firm yet polite with your expectations of them around your dog and this isn’t just a suggestion it is mandatory for earning trust from your dog. There’s a lot of “its ok, all dogs love me” type people out there, so you have to get ready to tell them no in a way that they understand. If you are stepping in front of people and saying “no” just to let them pass and molest your dog, you’re failing in your dog’s eyes. Now, conversely if your dog is getting nervous and you put some distance between them and the person, all of a sudden you look more like someone who’s concerned with their best interests. Learn to be firm with people and put your dog as your number 1 priority, not other people’s opinions of you. Embrace your inner asshole… your shy dog will thank you!
Ask for Tolerance, not joy or friendliness
After you’ve taught your dog you can handle things, it’s time to ask for a little more of your dog. This is the stage in training a shy dog that most people don’t give enough attention to. Your dog might not ever become that happy go lucky dog that loves everyone and everything so don’t expect that. If it develops on its own, that’s awesome and sometimes that does happen but more often than not with shy dogs they’ll learn to tolerate things and put up with a certain amount because they like you and they trust you to handle it. Once my shy dog understands that I’m going to handle most of the scary things in the world, I can ask for a little more tolerance of scary things. For example, if I have a dog who is scared of other dogs but we put that dog in a group of stable dogs that I can influence the shy dog is likely to trust me because I am the one who can keep all the other dogs away from her. The same thing can be said about getting nervous dogs to tolerate people. What I’ll often do first with shy dogs is have them around a few of my friends and family who have observed me training dogs long enough to ignore dogs that need to feel they have some safety… sure enough those dogs start getting curious pretty fast because nobody has ever simply let them be in situations like that before.
Tolerance is important with shy dogs and with tolerance and respect most shy dogs will begin to express curiosity on their own. It’s important not to take this as permission to pet the dog… just let them check you (or the other beings) out and cultivate that curiosity without putting too much social pressure on the dog.
Saying NO to Rude or Controlling Behaviour
After trust and cooperation is built, it’s more than ok to say NO or disagree with things like barking, lunging, growling or other defensive behaviours. When I say “Say no” or “disagree” I don’t mean with a huge supressing punishment. For example: when I have nervous dogs in training I will advocate for them when they are nervous, but if nothing is threatening them or all the beings around them are being respectful, I will tell them to “knock it off” if there’s no real threat. More often than not, this is a simple interruption like snapping my fingers, saying their name or tapping them on the head with a finger or two. My goal here is to stop the growl or defensive behaviour and that’s it. I don’t want them to feel concerned with telling me they’re nervous next time, but there’s a certain amount of tolerance I want them to develop as well as trust in me to handle it. You don’t need to push that thing away… I’ll do it for you.
Most importantly, understand that building confidence in a being tends to be a slower process than simply telling an overconfident dog he can’t do something anymore. Be patience, be consistent and keep plugging away and you’ll see improvements in the long term. Focus on the short term, and you’ll encounter a lot of frustration once you reach the point of diminishing returns with your dog.
Be your dog’s friend, his teacher and his guide. Focus on being buddies and don’t ever forget to learn how to appreciate the being your dog is without your intervention. Don’t worry about the dog you want him to be—focus on how great he already is, because no matter how crappy some behaviour issues might be, you’ll always have one or two things that are great about your dog. It’s always OK to appreciate a being for who they are!