Updated: Dec 15, 2018
Does your dog act shy and fearful around people she doesn’t know?
If you have patience and commitment, there are things you can do to build her confidence.
1. Teach your dog basic obedience skills. First, notice that I said “skills,” not commands. “Commands” implies we’re barking orders (pun intended) like a drill sergeant, and who ever had a chummy relationship with their drill sergeant? “Skills,” on the other hand, implies we’re teaching them how to master something. And it’s by mastering something that we gain confidence, which is exactly what we want our shy and fearful dog to have!
Teaching your dog basic obedience skills also gives the two of you a common language. Between your words and your body language, you’re learning how to communicate with your dog. You’re also building trust. They learn the skill, and they get praise. Your dog is learning you’re someone who is consistent and can be relied upon for good things.
2. Use these basic obedience skills to distract your dog when meeting new people. When you meet someone new, ask your dog to sit or to “look at me” and give her lots of yummy treats when she does. If your dog isn’t food motivated, then try using a game of tug instead. She’ll learn to associate meeting new people with good things.
3. Tell people to approach your dog slowly. You want to avoid pushing your dog beyond her comfort level because once you do that, you’ve just created another bad experience for your dog – and you might have to move several steps back in your exposing her to new people.
If you get the sense the meeting with this person won’t go well or your dog gets overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to walk away. It’s much better to end on a neutral note.
4. If you’re out on a walk with your dog and you see a person approaching from a distance, start distracting your dog with the obedience skills as soon as you see the person. Be sure to always have high-value treats with you! Over time, you will find you can hold your dog’s attention for longer and longer.
5. Once you’ve mastered meeting new people on walks, take your dog to a pet store. Go during off hours, so there are fewer people. Take your time and go up one aisle and down the next, practicing the obedience skills each time you see someone new. Once your dog and you are comfortable in the store during off hours, try a busier time.
Some final words of wisdom: - Your progress will not be linear. You will have both leaps ahead and setbacks. Be patient and do not get discouraged.
- Don’t punish your dog if they don’t perform the action right away. Chances are you’re either too close to the scary situation or you’re not clearly communicating what it is you want from them. If you punish a fearful dog you risk reinforcing that fear and making it worse.