Learn More about Shy and/or Fearful Dogs
Learn More about Shy and/or Fearful Dogs
Thank you for wanting to learn about shy and/or fearful dogs – and possibly adopting one! We know that these dogs require a bit more care than the average goofy dog, so we want to share some information that we hope would make the transition from shelter dog to family member both successful and as stress-free as possible. This is not a “How to Fix a Fearful Dog” article, it is meant to help provide you with enough information that you can go into an adoption with your eyes wide open, prepared with a reasonable expectation of what will be needed to help this dog be successful in your family and avoid being surrendered yet again.
What does a fearful dog look/act like?
Not all fearful dogs are created equal. Some are, by nature, fearful, some have experienced events that have produced fear, and some are a mixture of both. This fear manifests itself in a number of ways, producing a number of different reactions. You may see any or all of the following:
- Uncomfortable with being touched
- Startled by noises
- Running away
- Loss of appetite
- Refusing to engage with humans
- Inability to make eye contact
- Bolting/trying to run away
Why is the dog acting this way? Was he abused? Was she abandoned?
Honestly, 99% of the time we have no information as to how the dog developed these fears. There are a million potential reasons and unfortunately, unless dogs suddenly develop the power of speech, we are never going to be able to ask them “What happened to make you so scared?”
We can’t treat history, especially history we are unsure of. We can only treat what is in front of us right now.
So what am I supposed to do?
This question is best answered with another question…If one of the members of your human family was sick or injured, physically and/or mentally, what would you do for them? You would probably provide any or all of the following:
- A quiet environment where they could rest and avoid unnecessary noise and chaos
- Adequate food, water, medicine
- An opportunity for them to share their experience with you, in their own way, on their own time table – “If you want to talk, I’m here to listen. If not, I can just sit here and be with you.”
- A safe space – a place that they can be assured that they don’t have to use their own physical and mental resources to protect themselves; they can use those resources to heal themselves instead.
What these dogs need from us is exactly that – just what we would provide to a human who was struggling with these same challenges!
There are three critical factors that will affect how successful a dog can be at overcoming their fears:
- TIME – These dogs need time to adjust and just BE. Some may need a few weeks, some a few months, and some dogs may need more than a year!
- SAFETY – Our job is to keep our dog safe, to ensure that we can provide for their needs without putting undue pressure on them.
- CHOICES – Allowing the dog to make as many choices about his/her life will help immensely with their self-confidence and will help increase their resilience.
While many dogs will come out of their shell and settle in with minimal effort as long as they have a loving, caring environment, in some cases medication, and/or a comprehensive behavior modification plan may also be required.
The following information will provide a bit more in terms of specific actions you can take to help a new dog not only adjust, but thrive in his/her new environment.
The Nuts & Bolts – Specifics for Helping a Dog Transition
When you first bring your dog home, think of yourself as an innkeeper, or an Airbnb host. Your job is to provide a quiet stable environment, attend to your “guest’s” needs, be there if they need support, but otherwise just let them settle in and relax!
SAFETY & COMFORT
Keeping your dog safe in his new home is your number one priority. Fearful dogs are often known to try to escape (remember “fight or flight” responses?).
- DO NOT TAKE YOUR DOG ON A WALK UNTIL YOUR DOG HAS BECOME 100% COMFORTABLE WITH YOU AND HAS BONDED TO YOU. We have heard endless stories of dogs getting lost or having a tragic accident while out on a walk in their new neighborhood. Until your dog is bonded to you, if something should happen to scare your dog while on a walk (even if it’s something “not scary” like a noise in the distance or a bike going by), if your dog is not comfortable with you there is very little chance that he/she will return to you if you happen to drop the leash when the dog panics. We recognize that not everyone has a fenced yard and that the dog needs to go outside to potty. However, that should occur in the yard, preferably in a quiet spot.
- DO NOT TAKE YOUR DOG ON A WALK UNTIL YOU CAN IDENTIFY THOSE THINGS THAT FRIGHTEN YOUR DOG OR MAKE HIM/HER NERVOUS OR UNCOMFORTABLE. Your goal is to help your shy and/or fearful dog transition to your home and family with as little stress as possible, and to have as many POSITIVE experiences with you as possible. Over the first several weeks of having the dog home, you will begin to get a sense of what makes your dog anxious…noises, movement, things suddenly appearing around a corner, etc. Use those first weeks to be a scientist; observe closely and gather data about your dog, so that when you are finally ready to venture into the world together, you can anticipate what may startle or scare your dog and be ready to help them avoid the situation or, if unavoidable, you will have a plan how to help them stay relaxed.
- Using baby gates to create an airlock between the door to the outside will help avoid the dog darting out when someone accidentally leaves a door open.
- Have your dog drag a leash or long-line while in the house. Fearful dogs do not like having their collar grabbed, so having a line you can grab that is 6’ to 10’ long will ensure you can safely capture the dog if they make a break for it.
- Use that same long line if they are outside in your fenced yard. If they do not want to come in, using treats while holding the leash/line and slowly heading to the house will be much more effective than chasing them around.
- Provide multiple locations around your home for the dog to be able to hide away and feel safe – crates, ex-pens, under or behind furniture, all these are places where you can tuck a bed or blanket for the dog to relax in. When the dog is in one of those spaces, he/she is off limits! No going in and pressuring the dog to interact with humans. Again, allow the dog to rest without the fear of having to react.
- Music – There have been numerous studies done on the benefits of music aiding in helping dogs to relax. Classical is okay, but believe it or not, the most relaxing genres are reggae and soft-rock! Regardless, whatever station you pick, research shows that switching it up is more effective than always having the same type of music on. Check out Spotify for dog-centered playlists!
All sentient beings feel stronger and more empowered when they are allowed to make choices. Creating situations where your dog has multiple choices AND the freedom to make those choices without the fear of retaliation is ideal!
Dogs, for the most part, live a pretty contained life. We decide when they eat, drink, potty, go outside to play – we control access to almost every facet of their lives. Dogs who are allowed to make choices throughout the day are known to be happier, healthier and will thrive in their new environment, rather than just survive. With some thought and planning, we can offer our dogs dozens of choices every day, and in doing so, will learn more about who our dog really is and what he/she likes or finds reinforcing, and more so, will learn what they don’t like or what causes them to feel discomfort or fear.
There are, with fearful/shy dogs, some CRITICAL areas in which we need to allow our dogs to make choices. Not doing so will likely cause them to become more stressed and any behavior that is occurring as a result of fear or shyness will undoubtedly become worse.
Here are some examples:
- How close is too close? We do not want to put undue pressure on a fearful dog. Imagine being in a supermarket and have a stranger run up and hug you – “Get away from me! What are you doing?!” Your dog may very well have the same response. At all times allow the dog to approach you, to solicit attention from you. Give the dog time to adjust, both to the humans and to the new environment. Want to give the dog a cookie? Toss the cookie behind the dog so the dog has to turn away from you to retrieve it, and then see what his/her response is. Do they come closer? Stay back by where the cookie landed? Run off to another room to hide? That response will give you great insight into how your dog is feeling about interacting with people.
- Am I hungry/thirsty? Your dog may initially be too overwhelmed by the transition to a new home to actually want to eat. That’s okay. Ideally, you can offer the dog his/her bowl in a quiet environment, WALK AWAY, and check on the dog 10-15 minutes later. If the food is gone, great! If not, put the food away and try again in another hour or so. Regarding water, leave fresh water in a number of locations so the dog does not avoid drinking because a human happens to be standing near his/her bowl. If you are concerned the dog is not eating at all, please reach out and contact the shelter.
Some other questions you can ask your dog:
- Do you want to go outside and explore or do you want to just hang out in your safe space?
- Do you want to play with toys? Do you want to play with this toy or that toy?
- Do you want to do some training? Are you having fun while we are training? Is your body loose and relaxed, or are you darting in to take the treat and then running away?
- Do you need a break from whatever we’re doing?
- Do you want a treat? Do you like this treat or that treat?
- Do you want to come up on the couch and sit with me or do you want to chill down by my feet or over in your crate?
Every day there are hundreds of opportunities to give our dogs choices. The last critical factor is allowing your dog TIME to make a choice. When we go to a restaurant and are handed a menu by the waiter, we actually get a minute to think about what we want. Give your dog the same opportunity – allow him/her to process the options and then decide.
WHAT YOUR DOG DOES NOT NEED RIGHT AWAY
As much as there are things that you can do immediately to help your dog feel more comfortable, there are things you might like to do eventually with your dog, but you will have the greatest success and the easiest transition if you avoid the following:
Your dog does NOT need to:
- Go for walks around the neighborhood
- Go the pet store
- Take a training class
- Go to the dog park
- Go to doggie daycare
- Meet your friends
- Meet your friends’ dogs
- Meet your friends’ babies/toddlers
- Go to the beach
Remember – Many of these things may be possible and enjoyable for your dog… in time.
Our primary goal is to ensure successful matches between our adopters (andf ANY adopters regardless of where they are adopted from!) and our dogs. To that end, we provide ongoing support and counseling even after your adoption is complete. We have a number of resources available to help transition your shy/fearful dog including:
- Books & articles
- Video links
- Staff assistance/counseling
- Access to our Director of Training & Behavior
We cannot begin to stress enough the fact that if we address problems or concerns when they arise, when they are small, the chances of successfully modifying them are much higher than if you wait until they have become unbearable.
If there is only one thing we can impress upon you, it is this:
PLEASE REACH OUT TO US IMMEDIATELY WITH ANY CONCERNS YOU MAY HAVE!
WE ARE HERE TO HELP AND SUPPORT YOU IN ANY WAY WE CAN!!
Again, thank you for learning more about shy and/or fearful dogs and considering adoption. They say it takes a village, and at Baypath we are that village that will support you through this transition.