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My three-month old Cocker Spaniel is very shy. He runs away every time a stranger appears. My dad says that Willie is going to become a fear biter and that we need to do something. Is my dad right? What should we do?
-Jessie from Hamilton
Both genetics and/or lack of socialization can be the sources of shyness in dogs. In any case, it is your job to make sure that your dog has many opportunities to be around other people. Even if your pup is genetically predisposed, you can help him to become a more social creature.
There are some basic “do’s and don’ts” when trying to socialize a shy pup. First of all, start out slowly; don’t immediately take him to the local fair where there are crowds of hundreds. Instead, take him to a small park or a small gathering.
Next, allow your pup to proceed at his own pace when he encounters strangers. For example, do not force him to accept the attention of a passing stranger by restraining him to allow the person to pet him. Instead, allow him to respond in the way he feels most comfortable.
However, when he does shrink away from strangers, neither reprimand nor coddle him. Just nonchalantly ignore the behavior. Don’t say a word to him. Remain relaxed and calm and encourage strangers who approach to do the same. Be especially careful not to reinforce his behavior with a well meant “it’s ok.” It’s not okay!
Be patient. Let him choose to initiate contact or to respond positively to a stranger’s attentions. When he does, be sure to reward him with lots of praise and anything else that he especially treasures. This process will take time and lots of exposure to social situations. A once-a-week trip to the park will not do it.
So is your dad correct? Well, he is right on at least one count: you should address this problem. Your pup’s shyness is very stressful for him and it is no fun to have a shy pooch, especially if you, the owner, are a very outgoing, sociable person.
However, will your timid pooch turn into a vicious fear aggressor? That’s hard to say. Indeed, some shy dogs can become increasingly fearful and react aggressively. However, this is not always the case and there is definitely a distinction to be made between a shy dog and a fearful one.
My dog gets very nervous whenever I take him anywhere. Whether it is to a friend’s house or to the vet’s, he hides between my legs and shakes and pants the whole time. I feel so bad to see him this way. I have started leaving him home more and more, but there are times when I am away from the house a lot and I would like to be able to take him with me. And, of course, there are times when I have to take him to the vet’s or the groomer’s. How can I help him to be less stressed?
-Charlotte from Wilmington
It certainly is heartbreaking when a pet displays this kind of tension and discomfort. And it is typical for a pet owner to reflect her dog’s tension: often the owner, herself, begins to tense up as she tries to reassure her pet, usually with an “It’s okay. Don’t be afraid.”
Unfortunately, all of the above just serve to further traumatize the dog. So rule number one is to first assess your resulting stress level. Breathe deeply; relax your body. Be nonchalant. These are the first signs to your dog that all is well.
Refrain from telling your dog “It’s okay.” Don’t say anything or if your feel the need to vocally reassure your pet, then, once you are yourself relaxed, simply say “easy” or “relax” in a low, slow, calming voice.
One quick fix we recommend to our clients for relieving their pets’ stress is doggie massage. Just like we humans, most dogs respond well to appropriately done massage. We have found Linda Tellington-Jones TTouch, a kind of massage therapy for animals, to be particularly effective.
The basic massage technique in TTouch involves pushing your dog’s skin gently in circular motions. Moving your fingertips in a clockwise motion, slowly and gently massage the skin in a one and a quarter circle. Start at six o’clock, make a complete circle, and then continue to nine o’clock. Release your fingertips and place them on another spot and repeat. Follow these directions precisely; we don’t know exactly why this particular motion works, but it does!
We would recommend massaging your dog at home to get him and you used to the technique. We have yet to see a dog that doesn’t just melt when massaged in this way.
You might also consider medication. Check with your veterinarian. We personally prefer using natural remedies. Again, consult with your vet, or a holistic veterinarian or other professional to ascertain natural remedies that might be effective.