Bring that shy dog out of its shell

It is common in shelter and rescue dogs yet it is all too often ignored: fear. Finding information on how to help shy, under-socialized, withdrawn dogs can be a challenge. Should you give the dog time and space? Nudge her into uncomfortable situations? These are questions I wrestled with when I adopted my own pup suffering from “shelter shock.”

While at the shelter he was so odd he was given the name Bates, as in Norman, of Psycho fame. Simon, as he is now known, hovered at the extreme end of the shyness scale and was on the cusp of losing all hope of connecting with a loving family. Even though he licked walls to avoid looking at me, yelped and fought going out for a walk and finally urinated on the shelter floor when I touched him, I decided to adopt the weird dog known as Bates, determined to show him a different world.

The first challenge was Simon didn’t want to be caught. He was afraid of his leash, his collar, human hands, and, like many nervous nellies, had no interest in food. I decided to tie Simon to me until he realized I meant him no harm. This accomplished two important things: 1) the dog was not in a crate, and 2) though physically connected I could ignore him (exactly what he wanted), while still spending time together while not having to worry about what he was doing out of sight. Just going out to the car, upstairs and down, walking past people, and being out and moving kept Simon from shutting down physically — minimizing his obsessive focus on things that seemed scary.

Of course, there were plenty of times Simon pulled or threw a fit, like the first few times we walked by the vacuum. When he panicked as we passed something that scared him I would stop and wait until he was still and then try walking by the dreaded object again. He remained anxious about my presence for some time. The only time I spoke to him was to say, “Come on, Simon” when I got up to go somewhere,  or “Breakfast/Dinner, Simon,” or praising him for going potty. Because he associated people with fear, encouraging him while he was afraid meant little or nothing to him since he had no concept that praise was positive and not indicative of another new, scary situation.

His crate, which was his retreat (many trainers would say it should be available to him at all times), was only available to him when I was away or at bedtime. He was not allowed free access to his crate while he still preferred it over exploring. Once he began expressing interest in his surrounding and allowing me to leash him with little trouble, he was allowed to choose between his crate and being off leash in the house. Being off-leash outside? That would take more time.

So long as you can control your shy dog’s environment to some degree, keeping her with you will help her gain positive experiences. Every time he’s out and nothing bad happens, the dog has gained a new way of seeing the world. If allowed to stay in the crate as long as they please, your dog’s rehabilitation will be even slower. But when you help, she’ll likely make much greater progress much faster.