Guest Post: 5 Tips to Help Your Shy Dog Overcome Anxiety
I’m so excited to publish this guest post from Nicole with DogVills! Anyone that reads my blog knows my dog, Shermie, suffers from anxiety and some days are better than others. Nicole writes about how to help your shy dog overcome anxiety. Enjoy this guest post.
About the Author: Nicole writes and edits for DogVills, a site dedicated to helping both new and seasoned dog parents with everything from choosing the right breed to training to dealing with health issues.
A story about Mocha
Helping your shy dog overcome anxiety can be challenging enough to give you anxiety, but it can be done! Before I get into the tips, let me give you a little background so you know I’m speaking from experience!
Up until recently, I’ve never had a shy dog. All my dogs in the past have been outgoing! Even my boy who spent the first six months of his life in a cage before we rescued him bounced back quickly. Sure, they could be leery of certain situations, but for the most part, they loved everyone and everything.
Then we welcomed Mocha into the family. She’s a pit/lab/greyhound mix that we adopted from a small rescue group that specializes in large hypoallergenic dogs (even though she’s not one herself). I took one look at a grainy picture on a tiny phone screen and said, “That’s my dog.”
Mocha is beyond sweet. She’s a mild-mannered people-pleaser who is content to spend the day curled up on the sofa napping. Her personality is such a contrast compared to my high-energy Pharaoh Hound! Although it took her some time to acclimate, she isn’t terribly shy at home. The moment we take her out the front door, though, she becomes a totally different dog.
The Incredible Shyness of Mocha
When I say she completely changes when we take her out the front door, I mean literally out the front door. Mocha LOVES the idea of going for a walk. She jumps and barks as she gets her leash on, so excited to begin her adventure. Then we hit the front stoop and she’s begging to go back in.
We’re working hard on helping Mocha overcome her anxiety about the world beyond our front door. Here are some of the things I do that you can try to help your shy dog overcome anxiety, too!
How to Help Your Shy Dog Overcome Anxiety
- Master basic obedience skills first
Mocha was 6 months old when she arrived, and her foster family did a great job of teaching her most of the basics. She did need to relearn “potty outside” and how to come when we called her, but since it was mostly refresher work, it didn’t take long. She responds beautifully to positive training methods and loves to be praised.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can use them to help bring your dog out of her shell even more. Since we praised Mocha every time she went potty in the backyard, she associates it with positive things. I use her love of the backyard to help her learn to associate the front yard with fun and exciting adventures.
- Create a “safe space” for your dog
When I’m overcome with anxiety (which is entirely too often), I hide in my bathroom. No one bothers me in there, so I can take a moment to fall apart and then glue myself back together in privacy. Your shy dog needs a similar safe space to get away from the pressures of the outside world.
If you are crate training your dog, chances are your pup already views it as a safe space. Even if you’re not specifically crate training (we didn’t), you can still set one up in a quiet area. Cover three sides with blankets to make it like a little cave and add a soft bed. Leave the door open so your dog can retreat to her cave as needed.
- Go slow & celebrate small victories
Don’t expect your shy dog to overcome all her anxieties at once. Take it slow. For example, if your dog is terrified of the dog park, start with smaller puppy playdates in your own back yard. Reward even the smallest measure of progress with treats and praise.
Mocha is terrified of the car, and that’s a big part of her issues with going for walks out front. She will do just about anything to avoid the driveway. Rather than making a big deal of it, I walk her down the grassy hill, as far from the driveway as we can get.
On the way back, when she’s feeling more comfortable and loosened up a bit, I start bringing her back up the driveway. I only go until the point where I can feel her resisting, then we move back to the grass. Even if she only walks a few feet on the driveway, I praise and reward her. That way, she learns to associate it with good things, and not “that terrifying monster that swallows me and takes me to a place with too many people, where they stick me with pointy objects.” In other words, the vet’s office!
- Give plenty of opportunities for positive learning experiences
Part of helping your shy dog overcome anxiety is building up their overall confidence. The tip about mastering basic training goes a long way to doing that, but you also want to give them other opportunities to make you proud.
The key is to identify the situations that make your dog anxious, then build positive learning experiences from that. For example, if your dog is very shy around new people, you could invite a dog-loving friend over for an afternoon. When your pooch eventually comes out to check out your friend, lavish her with praise.
- Protect, but don’t coddle
When Mocha is feeling anxious, my first instinct is to hug her and say, “Oh, my poor baby! It’s okay! You’re a good girl!” After all, that’s what I do when my son is feeling out of sorts! Well, not the “good girl” part, but you get my drift!
The problem with that? Mocha will see that as praising her anxiety. While I don’t want her to feel like she’s done something wrong, I also don’t want to reinforce her fears.
If you find yourself in a situation where your dog is clearly on the verge of a puppy panic attack, offer an escape without coddling. For example, if your dog starts to get overwhelmed by your visitors, just open the door to her safe space and let her retreat. Don’t make a fuss about it.
Please, please, please, above all else, be patient and calm when you’re working with your anxious dog. While that’s good advice for training any dog, it’s especially important when it comes to fearful pups. Yelling at or punishing your dog for something she can’t control isn’t just cruel, it can completely undo any progress you’ve made in the blink of an eye.
It takes time and a lot of patience to help a shy dog overcome anxiety, but it absolutely can be done. Mocha is learning that the front yard is full of grand adventures, and actually looks forward to her walk. She still won’t step on the driveway for more than a few feet, but we’re getting there!