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  • Jack McCauley

How to create confidence for your shy dog

Let's talk about "Shaping Behavior," and how it relates to your shy or fearful dog.

My own dog, Zane, has some serious genetic driven fear issues that I will deal with for the rest of his life. He is fearful of new places and is easily stressed. I can desensitize him to a new environment with a pretty high level of success. But it is not a one-time deal. If I do not keep up, "maintain," the exposure work, he falls back into the same place. Desensitizing my dog and keeping him exposed, safely, to varying environments, is a constant training module for us.

One of my favorite classes or lessons to teach are those involving shy or fearful dogs. I love to see the happiness it brings a dog owner when their dog begins to come out of their shell.

But how to I get a dog to approach and object or location they are otherwise fearful of? The answer? I shape a new behavior while working to make them more comfortable. And I do this very slowly.

Here are some do’s and don’ts for shaping behaviors for your shy or fearful dog;

First, let us start out by determining how close you can get to the object and still be able to have a response from your dog for simple commands, like sit and look. If he stops listening to you, create distance until you regain control. Then, begin training at that distance. Just because your dog isn’t looking at the object does not mean he forgot it was there. Instead, you just found their threshold. Your dog is now comfortable enough believing that the “object” is not going to cause him harm. He can stop being defensive and begin to come down from the mindset of protecting himself…or you. Ask your dog to step closer toward the object that creates his fear. Offer food reward or even toys. If he is willing to advanced forward just the slightest bit, reward.

DON’T use that calming voice to tell your dog, “It’s ok….It’s ok,” when he is showing obvious signs of fear and a desire to flee the scene. Your dog understands your tone and voice inflection far more then he understands the actual words you are saying. So, think about it. As you are petting your dog and telling them in that soft soothing voice that it is ok, aren’t you really just marking the behavior as good? Afterall, we use that same tone when we are rewarding behaviors. So, you are actually rewarding them and confirming they are acting correctly by barking and lunging or trying to run from the object. Now, the flip side of that is we need to be careful of giving stern corrections. Instead, we use the simple command of leave it and we redirect, create distance, and ask for a different behavior that we CAN reward.

DON’T drag your dog by pulling on his leash to force him closer to the object.

DO keep your training sessions truly short. Like really, really short in the beginning. I am talking five minutes or less.

DO take tiny steps. Here is an example; I teach back leg awareness to dogs in several of my courses. Using a small platform, I ask the dogs to step up with just their front feet. For some dogs, it scares them to step onto the object. So, I place a gingerbread trail of treats, advancing toward the object. Without pulling on the leash, I allow the dog to freely decide to advance toward the object. How far away? That depends upon your dog and their level of fear. Distance is your friend. Slowly begin reducing the amount of rewards and increase the requirements to receive the reward. If the dog even moves toward the object, mark the behavior and release the treat. Often, I distribute the treat either on the object itself or as close to the object as possible so they can connect the object to the reward.

This is how I slowly shape their behavior and help them get over their fear. Then I lather, rinse and repeat for other stimuli that causes similar fear on my dog.

Lastly, consider taking a training course that teaches you how to properly communicate with your dog as well as all the ways you can properly elicit a behavior. If you don’t understand the term, “marking behavior,” then you really need to consider a formal training course to help you.

Tricks, Tricks, Tricks – If I have ever given you any advice on ways to develop a relationship with your dog, it is teaching your dog tricks. We offer many different courses, both online and in-person, to teach your dogs tricks. And it really is a phenomenal tool for confidence building and problem solving.


We have many other methods for helping shy or fearful dogs. Good luck with your dog. And never hesitate to reach out to us for help!

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