You have a new rescue dog who won't come out from behind the couch. Or your once outgoing puppy is suddenly terrified to cross the threshold. Lady growls and hides behind your legs at the dog park. These are just some of the behaviors guardians of timid, scared dogs face. The key to helping your furry companion is patience, love and yummy treats.
While some dogs' anxiety may be obvious, others may be subtler in showing their fear. Behaviors that indicate your dog is fearful or uncertain include your dog tucking his tail between his legs or being unwilling to make eye contract with you or others. Certain dogs urinate when they become afraid. This is not the same as having an accident, but is a form of submission. Reprimanding your dog will only increase his anxiety. Other dogs, when fearful, will show aggressive tendencies, including growling, snapping and biting.
It’s helpful if you can figure out why your dog is scared in particular situations. This might not be possible in the case of a rescued dog whose history you can't know, but what about your own little Rover who you've had since he was 6 weeks old? If Rover didn't get socialized to other dogs or to strangers during his puppy developmental stages, he may be fearful of such experiences now that he's older. If Rover is still a young dog, he may be going through one of the "fear stages" of puppy development. These stages occur when a dog is 8 to 11 weeks old, and again when a dog is 6 to 14 months old.
If you're bringing home a shy dog for the first time, look for ways to make rehabilitation easier over the coming weeks. While your first instinct may be to coddle the dog to reassure her that she's safe, this is likely to only increase her anxiety. The best approach is to ignore her and let her come to you when she is ready. Keep it quiet -- this means speaking in a soft voice and turning off the TV, radio and other sounds that may frighten her. The essential step is yummy treats at every turn. There is no surer way to let a dog know she is safe than to give her treats. If your dog is timid about approaching you, gently toss the treat to her or leave a trail for her to find.
Training involves slowly and safely introducing your dog to the situations, people and animals that cause him fear. During these introductions, treats can help him remember that this is a positive association. If your dog gets especially frightened during these training exercises, yawn. Yawning is one method by which dogs calm themselves; and, your yawn is contagious if your dog sees you do it. Also, gently massaging your dog, from his scruff to his tail, going down his spine, will help him relax. As your dog gains confidence, obedience, agility and other structured training programs can help him to make even more progress.
- Lab Rescue of L.R.C.P. Inc.: Working with Timid Dogs
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Aggression in Dogs
- Houston SPCA: Developmental Stages of Puppy Behavior
- Partnership for Animal Welfare: Help for the Shy and Fearful Dog
- The Whole Dog Journal: Help Your Shy Dog Gain Confidence
Bethney Foster is social justice coordinator for Mercy Junction ministry, where she edits the monthly publication "Holy Heretic." She is also an adoption coordinator with a pet rescue agency. Foster spent nearly two decades as a newspaper reporter/editor. She graduated from Campbellsville University, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in English, journalism and political science.