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Shy dog

Today I began assisting for a training class at the SF SPCA called “Shy Dogs.” Everyone there has a dog with some major fears – they’re frightened of men, dogs, buses, tile floors, even of their owners. By the end of class I found myself thankful that Franny is fearless. Then I remembered…last night I took my best friend Jasmine’s Chihuahua mix, Sombra, for a doggy sleepover so she could spend the day at the Treasure Island Music Festival. Sombra is a shy dog!

Sombra is an adolescent and she’s carrying alot of baggage around from her puppyhood. First of all, Sombra was never well socialized with dogs. They freak her out. Cats too. Basically she’s a big weenie. Secondly, and this contributes to her weenie-dom, Sombra was born to a mother owned by a large family with lots of rambunctious kids who terrorized her with rough handling. None of this is Sombra’s fault and she’s a lovely dog but she has a lot of fears.

Paul, the instructor of the Shy Dogs class, used a good metaphor: in dogs fear and aggression are two sides of the same coin. A dog may growl or bark not because it wants to hurt another dog or human, but because he is afraid of it. If he barks and growls, maybe the scary object will go away. But it’s not too hard to push a frightened dog from a state of fear to a state of terror, perhaps inciting him to bite or to completely shut down.

Ultimately, the best thing that can be done to help a dog with his fears are to build up his confidence. How do you build a dog’s confidence? With food, of course. And lots of praise. Like people, some fears can never be gotten rid of and that shouldn’t necessarily be the goal. Instead, the goal in working with a shy dog should be bringing them to a point where they are able to tolerate the things that frighten them in a way that is appropriate (for example, running in to the street is not a good response to a scary man walking a dog you but moving by as quickly as possible and keeping eye contact with you is). We want to “chip away” (as Paul said) at the fear.

There is no quick or easy way to do this. So just remember to go slowly, set small goals, and don’t expect a full “recovery.”

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