Desensitizing shy or nervous dogs
The following is intended to be of assistance to those whose dogs, whilst not displaying overt aggression, are obviously uncomfortable with strangers; will not go forward to meet and greet and tend to take refuge either behind their owner or in a place where they feel most secure. This article is not intended to address the problem of dogs which display actual aggression towards humans. Any such aggressive tendencies, irrespective of probable cause, require consultation with an experienced trainer or a qualified behaviour consultant on a one-to-one basis in order that assessment and recommendations can be based on observation of the dog and its interactions with the people around it.
If the description of shyness/nervousness/timidity fits your dog it is very important that you do not attempt to force him to overcome his fears. Dogs have three instinctive reactions to situations in which they feel insecure or challenged: freeze, flight, or fight. Most dogs will opt to either freeze, and thus hope to go unnoticed or appear too insignificant to bother with, or to run away from a stressful situation. If freeze is not working, and they cannot run, they then have no choice but fight. A shy/nervous dog, forced to accept the attentions of a stranger, may growl, snap, or bite out of fear.
There are several reasons why a dog may exhibit shyness - lack of early and ongoing socialisation, lack of confidence due to an unpleasant experience, or genetic predisposition. The method of helping your dog which is suggested here should work for a dog of any age. This program has no set time frame for which you should aim. The rate of progress and improvement will depend on the individual dog and the degree of the problem. However, the older the dog the more ingrained the habit of distrust will be and, therefore, positive results may take longer to achieve.
First of all, take your dog to a quiet place and simply sit and watch the world go by. Find somewhere that has some pedestrian traffic but that is not as busy and frantic as a shopping centre. A quiet park that does not have children and dogs rushing about, or outside a public building such as a library, museum, government offices, etc. would be good choices. Station yourself so that people passing by will not impinge upon your dog’s comfort zone. If you see that he is at all apprehensive then increase the distance. He should be able to see people but not be worried that they might come too close.
Do not comfort him or reprimand him if he shows fear at any time. Instead you should talk to him in a perfectly normal voice - tell him a story, read aloud to him, sing a song, recite poetry or the multiplication tables - anything to let him know that you are not in the slightest bothered by strangers and that therefore there is no reason for him to be worried. It is very important at this stage not to allow anyone to approach too closely. If necessary explain that he is a dog in training. Do not be tempted to rush this stage of the program. You should carry it out over at least a week, and in as many locations as possible. Only when you are absolutely sure that your dog is quite relaxed and confident in this situation should you gradually move nearer to the pedestrian traffic
One you reach the point when people can pass fairly close by, and your dog does not display a negative reaction, give him a treat each time that he calmly accepts their presence. Do not give treats or praise if he shows any sign of nervousness as this, as well as a comforting voice, will only reinforce his notion that being scared of strangers is a correct response. Always be aware of your dog’s comfort zone and be prepared to increase the distance if he becomes stressed. Again, allow a week or two, possibly more, for him to become secure in the knowledge that passers-by are no threat.
The next step is to ask people with whom he is not acquainted to walk past him without speaking or looking at him and to drop a treat as they pass. Repeat this routine as often as possible. After a while your dog should begin to connect strangers with a gratifying, rather than a disturbing, experience.
If he accepts this strategy calmly then you can ask people he does not know to hold a treat in their hand and see if the dog will approach while they are talking to you. Again, it is important that they do not speak to your dog, make eye contact with him, or attempt to touch him. Neither should you encourage him forward. Let him make up his own mind whether or not to approach. If he does come up and take the treat then do not make a big thing of it. Ignore him and continue talking to the ‘stranger’. Give the person another treat and repeat the exercise several times. Find as many willing participants as you can. Every time your dog approaches a stranger and finds it a rewarding experience the more his confidence will grow.
This program can also be adapted to dealing with visitors in your home. Ask the visitor to ignore the dog totally - no talking to him, looking at him, or trying to touch him. The latter is especially important if the dog has retreated to a ‘safe’ place. You, also, should ignore the dog. Your visitor can be given a tasty treat to place on the floor a little distance from where he/she is sitting. If the dog comes forward to take the treat ignore him and repeat this procedure several times. Once this step is successful then you can progress to having your visitor holding a treat to see if the dog will approach. Again, no encouraging, looking, touching. Allow your dog to proceed at his own pace, do not praise him if he takes the treat, do not reproach him if he doesn’t. Any type of pushing or persuasion will damage his fragile confidence.
Do not expect a miraculous quick fix. You require a lot of time and a great deal of patience as you will need to repeat each individual step many times before progressing to the next. It may take weeks or months before any improvement is obvious, and even then your dog may never completely overcome his wariness of unknown people. But, remember that your dog does not have to like everybody. If he wants to be everyone’s best friend that is excellent, if he doesn’t, well, that is fine too. After this program he should be a great deal less shy but you should allow him to make his own decisions about whether or not to approach people. If he still has some reservations, don’t force the issue. Just explain to people that he does not care to be fussed over and to please ignore him unless he initiates contact with them. The aim of desensitization is not to turn your dog into the life and soul of the party but to assist him to relax in the presence of strangers and to associate them with good things rather than regarding them as a source of worry and apprehension. Most importantly, by helping him overcome his shyness, his world should be a much happier and less stressful place.