Shy dogs

January 8th, 2009

While your shy dog may never be a social butterfly, Dr Joanne Righetti explores how you can help your dog become less fearful and more confident.

My dog is scared of everything.
Why wont my dog stand up for himself?
What can I do to give my dog more confidence?
My dog is so shy!

Common phrases among dog owners with less self-assured pooches. If your dog is apprehensive about life, you may wonder if it is possible to change its personality. The answer is there are some aspects of your dogs reserved personality that you can change and some you cant.

Understanding shyness

Is it possible for a dog to be shy? If we define shyness as lacking in confidence or being more reserved than the average canine individual, then it is certainly possible.

A dog’s behaviour, including their level of confidence, is influenced by genetics (nature) and the environment (nurture). Expressions of shyness, therefore, depend on the individuals inherited makeup and their experiences in life.

Typical behaviour influenced

Nature: Behaviours related to survival, eg. eating, mating, pack-living. Behaviour may be inherited from paren’ts and grandparen’ts, eg. a tendency to be more introverted.

Nurture: All behaviours learnt through experience, eg. fear of other dogs. Certain behaviours may exist due to lack of socialisation or negative experiences, eg. a tendency to be more shy.

Changing behaviours

Nature: These drives are difficult to change with behavioural therapy alone. Breeders need to breed dogs with suitable temperaments.

Nurture: Prevention of behaviour problems by adequate socialisation and environment. Behaviour therapy where problems exist.

Owner-dog personality clashes

Living with a dog that does not meet your personality expectations can be difficult. If you are a confident person and your dog is never sociable, it can be difficult to bond.

In some cases, usually inadvertently, we encourage our dogs to behave in a shy or less-confident manner. If we are apprehensive about encountering another dog, for instance, this may be communicated to our dog which reacts accordingly.

We also often reinforce submissive or fearful behaviour, as with the case study on Mallow, the three-year-old Poodle Bichon cross. Giving attention, for instance, will ensure that fearfulness continues and even escalates. Sometimes we try to change things that just wont be altered, no matter what we wish, as seen with the case study on Hamish, the five-year-old Cairn Terrier.

Building confidence

Dog breeders may be able to breed more confident personalities over several generations of dogs. Owners generally have to rely on selecting a suitable individual, nurturing the canine personality they desire and working on problems through behavioural therapy if they arise, as with the case study on four-year-old Weimeraner, Jasper.

Case study 1: Mallow, three-year-old Poodle/Bichon

Mallow greeted her owners by rolling over on her back. Sometimes she would also urinate. Her owners told her off. After learning that the rolling over and urination were submissive behaviours and shouting would only make them worse, Mallows owners ignored these behaviours and only gave her attention when she sat quietly or stood wagging her tail. Her annoying submissive urination has now ceased.

Case study 2: Hamish, five-year-old Cairn Terrier

Hamish was fearful of other dogs. When they approached he would flip over and start squealing if they persisted in sniffing. His owners wanted to make him more confident around other dogs and stand up for himself.

Hamish’s owners had to learn that this was Hamishs natural disposition and they could not change his temperament. They could, however, encourage him to play with dogs that he liked and build his confidence that way.

Case study 3: Jasper, four-year-old Weimaraner

Jasper was afraid of thunder. On hearing it, he would put his tail down, hide under his owners bed or run away. His owner managed to build Jaspers confidence by playing tapes of thunderstorm noises. While she did this, she relaxed to show him that everything was normal. Over time, she introduced play sessions with his favourite ball games during thunderstorms. After a couple of months of intense therapy, Jasper was a more confident dog around loud noises.

A more confident canine

As with all behavioural therapy, rewarding the desired behaviour, in this case confidence, will result in that behaviour increasing in frequency.

And remember, if you despair of your shy dog, there are many owners of pushy, need to be centre of attention dogs that wonder why owners would wish their dogs to be anything but quiet and reserved!

Signs of shyness:

  • Tail between legs
  • Eyes averted
  • Ears flattened
  • Rolling over
  • Submissive Urination
  • Trying to escape
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