Dogs are like people: they’re born with a leaning towards confidence or timidity (or any number of other things), and then their experiences layer over the top of that to decide how they will be later in life.
Also, much like people, young dogs often go through a fearful phase. I’ve seen it hit most often between six and eight months, but can happen before or after that as well. How you deal with timidity, in either a young dog or a rescue, can make a big difference in how they feel about the world, about trusting you, and their confidence levels.
One of the scariest things is, to many owners’ surprise, strangers. Whether your dog is an adolescent going through a phase, or a rescue overcoming previous trauma (emotional or physical), there’s some basic things you can do to help them dramatically.
The basic steps are these:
- Stop them from fleeing.
- Protect them from the “monster.”
- Gently reward bravery.
There’s two ways in which timidity shows itself: flight or fight. Now, I’m going to assume that you’re dealing with timidity/confidence with people issues, and not fear aggression. Regardless of whether your dog falls into the flight or fight category, the basic steps are the same. How much we correct and where, however, differs. So, two case studies! (You know how I love my case studies!) This week we’ll look at Max, a fleer, and next week we’ll look at Tildi, a fighter.
Step one: stop him from fleeing. Max was timid of people, not because of any prior abuse, but simply because he’s a very timid creature without much inborn confidence. His “mother,” wisely, got on top of this as soon as she saw it might be a problem. The first thing we did was to put him on a leash, so he couldn’t run away completely. Some running is great; flight is always better than fight! But dogs are notorious for running from a problem and, therefore, never learning that it’s not a problem after all! We wanted to limit how far he could run, so we put him on a leash so he couldn’t leave the room.
Step two: protect him from the “monster.” While he might be on a leash, we don’t want him feeling cornered or pressured. If Max wants to run away to the end of his leash and hide from the stranger in the room, that’s completely fine. By simply being in the room and catching the stranger’s scent and seeing that the stranger isn’t eating him, he’s learning that there’s nothing to fear.
In fact, our job is to make sure no one touches, talks to, or otherwise pressures him! The more they pretend he’s not there, the more likely he is to feel safe enough to check them out. The more we keep him safe, the more chances he’ll take. As he sees that we protect him and never put him in a situation that ends badly, he’ll begin to believe he can trust us. If he trusts us and knows we’ll help him out and support his choice to escape, then he can take risks — like sniffing the monster or taking a treat — because he knows that if something happens, we’ll step in to help him. We need this basis of trust to build confidence from! (Note: if your dog ends up in a situation that ends badly, don’t panic! It’ll be a little setback, but just move on from it. Your dog will move on, too.)
Here is one of the places were many, many people go wrong: they try to encourage, and even push, a young or timid dog into a stranger’s hands to see that petting is nice. Oftentimes, even if your dog eventually sees it’s okay, the experience will still be tinged with stress and anxiety. They may remember the stress and anxiety, rather than the end result of petting! Thus, the following are reinforced in their mind: They cannot trust you, because you pushed them at the monster and they had no choice, and their fears were correct — it was difficult and frightening.
If, instead, we tell our dogs, “You don’t have to be petted or deal with this human; you just can’t run away entirely,” then they get the chance to see that nothing bad happens, they’re supported, and the stress levels stay low.
Step three: Gently reward bravery. We don’t want Max to feel pushed into engaging, so we give him time to decide on his own. Bravery is always measured against his standard. At first, it was simply going to the end of his leash and being calm enough to sit, instead of stand. We told him how wonderful and brave he was, and gave him treats. Then, it was sitting behind his mom instead of at the end of his leash. Again, we told him how brave he was. Soon he was sniffing peoples’ feet (head down = not sure they want to engage, so we told people not to touch him yet) and then taking treats from people (life started to get better!) and very quickly thereafter, petting. We did not encourage further bravery, just rewarded what he was willing to give us.
Now, in Max’s specific case, while he grew much better with people outside the house, there was one person inside the house that still frightened him. We invited that person in, and did a little extra with step two. After just letting them sit in the same room for a while, when Max relaxed we had his mom (holding his leash) sit beside the “monster,” bringing him closer as well. When he relaxed about that, we had his mom and the monster walk around, with Max trailing behind them. When he became comfortable doing that, the monster took the leash and, without looking or acknowledging Max, walked around trailing Max behind him. When Max finally relaxed again, the monster started giving him treats… and Max finally realized it wasn’t a monster after all! Sometimes, extra steps are necessary. Those steps can include the ones above, or a “monster” asking a dog to sit and rewarding with a treat (which gets the dog to engage in a more positive manner), or you making a happy fuss over the “monster” yourself, so your dog sees how much you like it and aren’t afraid of it, and many other techniques. You take it at the dog’s pace, and remember that it isn’t always linear progress!
Next week: Fight!