Help for Your Shy Dog

Book review of a helpful book about working with shy or timid dogs to improve their confidence and quality of life. The shy dog is not condemned to a life of fearfulness, but can learn to behave more confidently and can become a rewarding pet. However this change requires considerable work by the human caretaker.
I would remind the reader that not every timid or shy dog is a "fear biter" : many, possibly the large majority, vastly prefer fleeing or freezing to biting in response to a threat. A timid or shy dog sees a threat in situations where a confident dog would not, and a shy dog has more difficulty learning that the situation is really harmless.

Help for Your Shy Dog

(subtitle : how to turn your terrified dog into a terrific pet)

by Deborah Wood,

published by Howell Book House, 1999, ISBN 0-87605-036-4. paperback cover price $12.95 US, $18.95 Canada.

reviewed by Pam Green

I got this book for an adoption present for one of my foster dogs who was indeed a very timid dog. I thought that the advice and suggestions in the book were generally quite good and included a lot of what I had been doing that had seemed to benefit my shy foster dog. I recommend this book for anyone with a timid dog. Since even a "normal" dog may react to some situation or even more timidly than one would like, the techniques in this book may be helpful to many "normal" dogs as well.

The author is a long time obedience trainer and dog writer. The book grew out of an article she published in Off-Lead magazine. She has also for many years been involved in services for humans who were abandoned, abused, poorly socialized , etc as children and found that many can learn and change for the better. Likewise some of her own dogs and client's dogs got off to a bad start but were able to learn and change for the better. So this book is based on a lot of practical experience.

The main thesis of the book is that the shy or timid dog is NOT condemned to a lifetime of terror. While the dog's true underlying temperament may not undergo great change, with appropriate knowledgeable and committed effort from the dog's people, the dog's behavior and ability to cope with the demands of normal life can vastly improve. The shy dog can become a wonderful and rewarding pet.

Throughout the book are many histories of initially fearful dogs who were ultimately able to rise above their problems and become cherished companions and in many cases successful competitors, therapy dogs, and other worthy accomplishments.

The first chapter deals with understanding the four prime causes of shyness : physical infirmity, lack of early socialization, abuse, and genetics (genetic components of temperament). Needless to say, these 4 are not mutually exclusive and are apt to exacerbate one another. Genetics of course includes breed tendencies , for example in those herding breeds which are described as "reserved" or "suspicious" (which I would contrast with those herding breeds bred to be pushy with large flocks of sheep or with cattle, the same breeds that also make good police dogs). As the author says, "there are more shy Shelties than reticent Rottweilers" , and I would add that "one does not see too many bashful Bouviers !"

The key to an improved outlook for the timid dog is remedial socialization applied in a very gradual manner, ie in a desensitization manner. While remedial socialization of a dog older than the primary socialization period is not as easy and delightful as proper socialization during the primary socialization period (age 5 weeks to 16 weeks as first discovered by Scott and Fuller), it is still possible and gradually effective. The key is to be able to read your dog's signs of stress and discomfort and to progress only by very slowly stretching the dog's comfort zone while taking great care to ensure that the dog's experiences are always safe and pleasant ones. Wood gives a lot of very sensible specific suggestions for a progressive program. The person doing this needs to be able to notice and celebrate subtle tiny improvements as these are the building blocks of success.

The chapter on little things that mean a lot gives many valuable details and techniques to guide the behavior of the shy dog's person. the golden rule of course, as in all training or behavior modification, is to reward the behaviors you want to encourage, thus to reward any behavior that is more bold or outgoing, and to carefully avoid rewarding any behaviors you want to see less of, thus to avoid inadvertently rewarding the dog for acting frightened. The specific details and techniques are very sensible.

"It is almost impossible for a dog to overcome shy and fearful behavior without training." Woods gives excellent reasons why basic obedience training is especially important for shy dogs, and she gives much advice on how to find a class that is appropriate for a shy dog and how to judge the trainer, the methods, and the class atmosphere and other canine classmates. Above all, don't be a drop-out ! The shy dog may learn more slowly, because fear interferes with learning, and so may need to repeat a grade or more, but the ultimate rewards are worth the effort.

Training has to be by positive reinforcement and you have to find some reward that your dog regards as genuinely rewarding. For shy dogs, petting is not necessarily rewarding. The dog may have to learn that petting in enjoyable rather than threatening or something to be endured. (Oh, boy, this would sure describe my shy foster dog, who went from fear of being touched to stoic endurance to , finally, some actual pleasure.) Your knowledge and skills at "shaping" behavior are even more important for the shy dog than for the average dog as the shy dog may start out even further away from your goal behavior.

Teaching your dog to make friends with strange humans and strange dogs is based on classical conditioning to associate the strangers with rewards. The author uses the word "bribery," which is a fair description of how you begin the process.

The chapter on dealing with phobias is , as should be expected, about desensitization techniques and "turning scary objects into food dispensing machines". For each phobia, before beginning the desensitization consider whether or not it is really necessary to overcome this fear ; perhaps it is more realistic and kinder to manage the dog's environment so as to eliminate the scary stimulus.

A chapter is devoted to submissive urination, nervous defecation, and fear-biting. One gem of advice is "if you know an action is likely to create submissive urination, do it someplace other than on your heirloom Persian rug." (I usually advice that such triggers take place outdoors on grass or dirt.)

The advice on fear-biters is very good. Fear biters must not live in a home with children, as children will not have the needed awareness and self-control to avoid triggering a bite. A muzzle is an indispensable tool in working with (desensitizing) the dog in any situation in which a bite is likely. If desensitization proceeds to the point where a bite is no longer much of a risk, the muzzle can be phased out for that type of situation. (I would add that the same is true for the value of using a muzzle for the start of any bite likely problem , whether or not the underlying cause is fear or dominance or the wrong phase of the moon. I am really fond of my own flesh and really adverse to hurting other people who might sue me.)

(A comment from your reviewer as to fear-biting. The author does mention in the first paragraph of the Introduction chapter "if your dog is a fear biter, you know he's a likely candidate for euthanasia." This sad possibility is worth repeating in the chapter section on fear biting. Many factors go into the decision : the size and jaw-power of the dog (ie degree of damage he can do), the swiftness and lack of warning of an impending bite, whether you can identify accurately all of the bite triggers and find a safe way to work to desensitize them or to eliminate them from the dog's life. These are the same questions that would apply to biting from any other cause.
I think Wood's suggestions for working with a fear-biting dog are sensible, but I think it would have been appropriate to include at the end of this chapter a reminder of the need to consider euthanasia if working with the dog would be too dangerous for the person doing the work or if the results of such work still leave you with an unacceptably risky dog.
I would hope that anyone reading the whole book would realize that not all fearful dogs are fear-biters ; indeed many fearful dogs greatly prefer to flee or freeze (endure stoically). Likewise I would hope that a sensible and sensitive person would be aware of the importance of never acting in a way that risks pressuring the dog into switching to "plan B" and biting because the other methods have failed to diminish the threat and resulting fear. You simply can never afford to be angry or to act in a harsh or threatening manner towards a dog who is already frightened. )

A second dog who is confident and outgoing joining the household (or pre-existing in it) can be helpful to the shy dog. So can play dates with an outgoing playmate. There's a good chapter on making this work for you.

The final chapter is on fun and games, beginning with teaching the shy dog to play. Games include Fetch, Tug, Speak, and a well selected appropriate Agility class or some Agility exercises at home. More advanced opportunities for the dog who has made progress in overcoming shyness are Canine Good Citizen, Obedience competition, Agility competition, therapy work, and various types of activities that tap into working drives (eg herding , hunting, lure coursing, tracking, water rescue, earthdog, etc, according to the dog's genetic heritage.)

In summation, this is a very good book for anyone with a dog who is at all timid or shy or just plain not very good at enjoying life. Some of the advice and techniques would also apply to dogs who did not have a shyness problem. Most of us will encounter shy dogs at some time, so it is good to have some understanding of them and to be able to recommend this good book to their people.


Related topics :

site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 11/17/05 revised 12/03/05
return to top of page return to Site Index