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Why raising a shy dog takes more than love

I have worked with hundreds of families and their dogs, maybe even thousands of rowdy, barky, peeing in the house, run-away dogs. But, surprisingly, the most challenging dogs I’ve worked with are the shy, fearful ones. These are the puppies that were curled up in the corner when the family went to select their new dog — their soft dark eyes, lowered ears and low energy drew them in with an “ahhhh.” “All she needs is love,” the family thinks, but the reality of those shy, quiet puppies can be much different then what they envisioned.

It’s not just puppies – adolescent and adult dogs can present the same way. Potential forever homes are convinced that the dog will blossom under their love, home cooked meals and walks in the fields. This isn’t always the case. Yes, there are exceptions, however, potential families should know all the possible outcomes before adopting/purchasing the shy dog.

Gary and Sue called me because their newly adopted, beautiful mixed dog was growling at Gary’s mother, who lives with them. Shadow was brought up from the south and his description said he was good with people and got along with other dogs. Sue and Gary enjoy hiking, walking and traveling. Their previous dog went everywhere with them. They were looking forward to the same lifestyle with their new dog.

Shadow’s description was not completely true. He was good with Gary and Sue, but not with anyone else. He was afraid of blowing leaves, noises, people walking towards him, other dogs, anything that was out of place. He would randomly become nervous, afraid and run away from them when they tried to put his harness on.

Shadow learned “sit” and “down” on verbal and hand command, and he learned “leave it,” but after three months, he was still growling at Gary’s mom. After months of my working with them, Shadow never remembered who I was. I was never able to directly interact with him. Each visit was like the first date, we had to start all over again.

On one of our last sessions we were working outside, Shadow cautiously taking treats, but not getting any closer than necessary, when I looked at Sue and said, “it takes more than love.” She looked at me and acknowledged that she thought love would fix him.

If you find yourself with a shy, fearful dog, the best thing you can do is train her. Engage her brain in a productive way. Teach her as many commands and tricks as you can and use positive reinforcement techniques. Make her work from her operant brain, the front part of her brain, not the lizard brain where she is living in constant fight or flight mode. Use associative learning around all new surroundings. Associations are happening all the time, you might as well get on top of them and make them positive. Use generous amounts of high value food, chicken, roast beef, cheese­ — handfuls of chicken, not tiny pieces. Keep your outings short and with as little stress as possible. If you need even more help see a veterinary behaviorist who is proficient in pharmacology. Medication can help lessen the anxiety so that learning can happen more easily. Lastly, be patient: Love helps, but it’s not the complete answer.

Certified Professional Dog Trainer Denise Mazzola is the owner of Denise Mazzola’s Everything Dog. She has been training dogs and people for over 20 years. She offers private lessons, group classes in Rindge and Swanzey, board and train as well as day training services. She lives in Keene with her partner, Amy Willey. They share their home with five dogs and three daughters. For more information, see www.everythingdognh.com.

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