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Helping Shy or Fearful Dogs Come Out of Their Shell

Helping Shy or Fearful Dogs Come Out of Their Shell

Finding the Courage Within

As I pulled up to the address, a familiar feeling of déjà vu washed over me. Turns out, this was the former home of a dear friend of mine from high school – the one whose father was the famous boxer, Bruce “the Mouse” Strauss. Small world, I thought, as I made my way to the front door.

My mission today was to help a nine-month-old Australian Shepherd named Winston, who had recently been rescued from a bad situation. Poor Winston was extremely skittish and shut down, unsure of how to navigate this new world he found himself in. But I was determined to bring this pup out of his shell and help him rediscover the confidence that had been robbed from him.

Gaining Winston’s Trust

When I first met Winston, he was sitting on the couch, practicing some serious avoidance behavior. He’d make brief eye contact, but quickly look away any time his owners tried to engage with him. This is a common response for dogs who have been through trauma – they’re wary of strangers and new situations, preferring to retreat into their own little world.

As I learned from the experts at Doggone Problems, the worst thing Winston’s owners could do would be to smother him with affection. That would only reinforce his fearful behavior, making him feel like he’s being rewarded for being scared.

No, the key was to get this pup moving in a forward direction – literally. So I slowly stood up from my chair, turned to the side so I wasn’t facing Winston head-on (a less confrontational approach), and began taking deliberate steps towards him. When he tensed up, I simply turned and took a step back, sitting down again in a slow, methodical motion.

To my delight, Winston rewarded my cautious advances with a deep sniff and resting his head. Seeing an opening, I quickly attached a leash to his collar and prepared to take him for a walk – the perfect way to get him out of his shell.

Hitting the Pavement

As we made our way out the door and down the sidewalk, I could feel Winston’s anxiety start to spike. He tensed up whenever we passed a trash can or approached another person. But each time, I was ready with a high-value treat to quickly divert his attention.

Just as the folks at Animal Humane Society had advised, I resisted the urge to forcefully push Winston into a sit when he didn’t know the command. Instead, I used a gentle guiding motion to ease him into the position, rewarding him with praise and treats the moment his bottom hit the ground.

By the time we made it back to the house, Winston was practically sitting on command. His owners were amazed – this was a dog who had previously refused to engage with anyone. But I knew the real test would come when we returned indoors.

Coaxing Winston Inside

When we got back, I blocked Winston from hopping back up on the couch, forcing him to retreat to the bedroom instead. Employing my “reverse herding” technique, I gently guided him back out to the living room, where I wanted to continue our training.

But getting Winston to approach me for treats proved to be a real challenge. No matter what I tried, he kept his distance, barely even glancing in my direction. I knew I needed to get him moving on his own before we could make any real progress.

So I tossed a treat a few feet in front of him. Bingo! Winston perked up and took a few steps to gobble it up. Seizing the opportunity, I extended my hand, treat in palm, towards him. Even though it was just inches away, the poor pup couldn’t bring himself to take it.

Undeterred, I placed a treat on the floor halfway between us, my own hand hovering just above it. Winston cautiously approached, snatching up the reward. But when I tried to lure him closer with my outstretched hand, he stopped in his tracks.

A Breakthrough Moment

I knew I had to be patient and take this one tiny step at a time. So I waited, and the moment Winston gave me even the slightest forward motion, I let him have the treat. That single step ended up unlocking the floodgates. Before long, Winston was confidently walking all the way over to me to claim his prize.

I made sure to keep my movements slow and steady, resisting the urge to get overly excited – as the experts at Doggone Problems had emphasized, maintaining a calm, consistent energy is crucial when working with a fearful dog.

Once Winston was happily taking treats from my hand, I had his owners join me on the floor. This helped remove any perceived hierarchy, making the humans seem less threatening. We ran through a basic recall exercise, with Winston eventually coming straight to his owner’s outstretched hand without any treats on the ground.

Conquering New Frontiers

Feeling emboldened by our progress indoors, I decided to take things outside to the backyard. As soon as we stepped out the door, I had a strange sense of familiarity wash over me. Turns out, this was the former home of my high school friend, Jamie, whose father was the famous boxer “the Mouse” Strauss. What a small world!

But I quickly refocused my attention on the task at hand – helping Winston navigate the new sights and sounds of the backyard. At first, he was pretty distracted, but with some repetition of the recall exercises, he was soon walking confidently over to his owners to claim his rewards.

We even got Winston to sit on command after coming when called – a major win for this previously shut-down pup. Riding that momentum, I decided to test his fear of going through the door. I had his owners go inside, leaving the door wide open. Sure enough, after a brief hesitation, Winston followed them in on his own.

As I explained to the owners, sometimes one fear can be more powerful than another. In Winston’s case, his dread of being left alone trumped his apprehension about the doorway. Seeing his owners disappear likely provoked a stronger response than the door itself.

To solidify this progress, we practiced the door-entering exercise a few more times, with Winston growing more confident with each attempt. By the end of our session, this once-timid pup was walking up to his owners, taking treats from their hands, and happily following commands. A far cry from the skittish, shut-down dog I had first encountered.

Unlocking a Brighter Future

I know it’s going to take time, patience, and a whole lot of practice for Winston to fully overcome his fears. But I left that day feeling immensely hopeful. With the right guidance and support from his loving owners, this resilient pup has the potential to blossom into a confident, well-adjusted canine companion.

So to any of you out there with a shy or fearful dog, don’t lose hope. With the right training techniques and a whole lot of TLC, you can absolutely help your pup come out of their shell. Just remember to go at their pace, stay calm and consistent, and celebrate even the tiniest victories.

The road ahead may be long, but the payoff – seeing that light return to your dog’s eyes, that spring in their step – will be more than worth it. Trust me, I’ve been there. And I can’t wait to hear about your own transformative journeys.

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