Shy or Timid Dogs - Ways to Ease Their Fear

Author:  Elsa Larsen, Dog Behaviorist & Trainer | Owner: My Wonderful Dog.  Is there anything that you can do to help me with my shy dog? What can I do to make my dog less afraid of other dogs? Less afraid of men? Less afraid of children? Less afraid of loud noises? How can I socialize my timid dog? These are questions I am often asked in my practice. Socialization: what does that mean exactly? Can an older dog really be socialized?  

Early Influences
When people talk about “socialization”, what they are referring to is called the socialization period, which begins at around 3 weeks of age and ends at around 12 weeks of age. But even in utero, puppies are learning. In fact, studies done with an ultrasound machine have shown that pup fetuses will react to touch or pressure from the outside of the mother’s abdomen.  Other studies have shown that when a pregnant animal is petted, her litter tends to be more docile, which helps facilitate relaxation and emotional attachment in her puppies.

The mother’s temperament can have enormous influence on the emotional stability of the puppy.  A fearful or nervous mother will often raise puppies with similar traits and research has shown that pregnant animals placed under stress give birth to young that are less emotionally stable.

Now Comes The Socialization Period
Just like human children, there are different developmental stages that occur as the puppy ages.  The socialization period, one of the most influential stages, is also known as the imprint period, and is a critical time.  This is the time when puppies develop social relationships with their siblings and with humans.  Puppies learn bite inhibition through play and social hierarchy is established. They learn to accept discipline from their mother and to use submissive postures; puppies that have had no social contact may have difficulty bonding as they age.  Under-socialized dogs are more likely to grow up fearful and shy and may become overly dependent on their owners.

Fear Periods
During development there are two stages that are known as “fear periods” because this is a time when a puppy may become more cautious, may startle more easily and may become fearful of strangers.  Any traumatic event that occurs during this period may have a lifelong influence on the dog.  For example, if your puppy meets an under-socialized adult dog who is overly aggressive towards that pup, the puppy may become cautious and timid around other dogs. The first fear period occurs between the 8th and the 12th weeks.
 
The second fear period is even more influential because it also coincides with adolescence and sexual maturity.  This stage usually transpires between the ages of 6 to 14 months. Dogs may suddenly become fearful and avoid things that previously never bothered them.  They may become overly reactive to things that startle or frighten them. Aggressive behavior towards humans and other dogs often begins to show up during this time.  Not surprisingly, this is the time that many young dogs are surrendered to rescues and shelters.

Given the importance of these early influences, how much impact can you have on your shy or timid dogs’ behavior?  Can you really undo early experiences?  The unfortunate answer is, probably not. Behavior arising from early trauma can be modified but may never be completely eliminated. That said, there are many things you can do to improve your dog’s (and consequently your own) quality of life.

Anti-Anxiety Products
I have discussed anti-anxiety products in other articles but the for the sake of this topic I will cover them again. If your dog is fearful, you may not make any progress in your training until you address the underlying anxiety. In my practice, I have had some great results with each of the following products for anxiety related behaviors.  The results have varied with each product - so if one product isn’t working for you I would suggest you try one of the others or a combination.  In addition, you may want to consult with a dog trainer and your veterinarian before trying any of these remedies.

  • Rescue Remedy Pet - humans have been using this product for years for anxiety and now your pet can too. Rescue Remedy Pet is a natural anti anxiety tincture made from the flowers of wild plants, trees and bushes.
     
  • Comfort Zone with DAP (dog appeasing pheromones) - A Phermone is defined as a chemical compound that is produced and secreted by an animal that influences the behavior and development of other members of the same species.  Comfort Zone products mimic the “appeasing” pheromones secreted by nursing mother dogs, sending a signal of comfort and safety to her puppies.
     
  • Thundershirt - the Thundershirt is a wrap that applies gentle pressure and helps to soothe your dog when he is anxious.  Pressure can have a calming effect on the nervous system - one of the reasons we wrap infants in swaddling clothes.

Now What?
You’ve installed your Comfort Zone diffuser and you’re religiously putting your Rescue Remedy drops into Fido’s water, is there anything else to be done? 

Yes, there are certainly some things that you can do to help facilitate your dog learning to be more comfortable with things that make him or her nervous.

Classical Counter Conditioning
Most of us are familiar with the story of Pavlov and his dogs.  In his experiments, Pavlov would ring a bell and present his dogs with food.  He discovered that the bell would cause the dogs to salivate.  This is called classical conditioning or Pavlovian learning.  The idea is to condition the dogs to a neutral stimulus - in this case a bell - so that neutral thing predicts that wonderful things will happen. In Pavlov’s experiments, the dogs learned that the sound of the bell predicted food and the dogs would drool in anticipation.  Classical conditioning takes place all of the time in your dog’s life.  Think about what happens when you open a potato chip bag or when you grab the leash - your dog comes running (that is, of course, if your dog likes potato chips or walks).

Classical Counter Conditioning uses the same principals but with one major difference - your dog already KNOWS that men, for example, are scary so what we are trying to do is to pair something wonderful with something scary in the hopes that your dog learns to associate men with good things happening.  The goal is that rather than tuck his tail and run away when he sees a man, your dog wags his tail in anticipation when a man appears.

Desensitization
The closer the scary thing is to your dog, the harder it will be for him not to panic, so in tandem with your classical counter conditioning, you must make sure that the dog isn’t completely panicked or “over threshold”.  It would be best to introduce Fido to strange men at a bit of a distance at first until he starts to warm up to them.

Dog in Training
One of my favorite ways to positively introduce shy dogs to new people is to have people toss cheese popcorn in the dog’s direction every time they meet.  Any treat can be used really, BUT it must be high value enough to make an impression and if it’s being tossed onto the ground, your dog has to be able to see it, which is why I love the popcorn.  Also, some people might not like the idea of handling dog treats but probably won’t mind holding a handful of popcorn.

If your dog has a hard time with new people coming into the home I would install a tin or a plastic container of popcorn treats near the entrance to your home where people are the most likely to enter.   I suggest that you put a sign on the door that says “dog in training - please take a handful of popcorn and toss it onto the ground when you come in”.  Council your guests to do this every time they enter.  Once inside, have your guest (or guests) completely ignore your dog but continue to sprinkle popcorn.  Let the dog approach your guest on his own.  Remember that your dog might not trust your guest enough to want to be handled.  Respect his or her wishes and do not force your dog to interact with anyone who he/she doesn’t feel comfortable with.  If you do this it may backfire on you and your dog may wind up even more cautious around strangers.

If your dog is less inclined to take treats and more likely to play with toys, you can also do this same thing with a box of tennis balls at the door.  Have your guest toss a ball to your dog when they come into the door.  Either way the idea here is to have the dog jumping for joy when new people come into the house because they can’t wait for the treats or the toys to fall from the sky.

Targeting
I have also had some great success with teaching dogs to target the palm of your hand and then transferring this skill to a stranger. In my experience, having something to do seems to help the dog overcome his/her fears.  This skill seems to give the dog an opportunity to interact with a human in a very structured way which may not be as threatening as a petting free for all.

Using reward based training, the dog learns to touch the palm of your hand on command (I use the command “touch”).  Once the dog has learned to do this reliably with you, you can try practicing this skill with people that he or she is familiar and comfortable with.  Finally you can try asking the dog to touch the palm of a stranger’s hand.  Once this is done the dog will come back to you for a treat. The reward, in this case, is not only the treat but the relief of coming back to you.

These are just a few of the techniques that I’ve had some success with in my quest to help rehabilitate shy or timid dogs.  The key to success in working with this kind of dog is to take your time and keep your dog safe and to consult a professional if you have questions.  Good luck!

Some of the information about the developmental stages in dogs can be attributed to various authors that Elsa found on the web while researching for this article.

About Elsa Larsen:
Elsa started her dog training career as a volunteer for an organization in Santa Rosa, California that trained dogs for people with disabilities.  In June 2000, Els