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  • Darrin Greene

Shy/fearful dog? No petting, please.

If you’ve ever owned or worked with a shy or fearful dog, you know how hard it is to watch.

It makes sense to be sympathetic. We own dogs because we love them. It’s like seeing a frightened child. You want to make it all better for them, NOW.

Herein lies one of the biggest challenges to truly helping your pup get over their fear! Sympathy and basic human behavior can easily lead you down the wrong road.

When we see a child or other animal in distress, our human instinct is to pick them up and reassure them that “it’s all going to be OK”. We see this play out very often with owners who have shy or fearful dogs. Problem is, it doesn’t help, or else we wouldn’t be there. Petting and reassuring your shy/fearful dog using the human vernacular is actually counterproductive and usually makes matters worse over time.

Here’s why… When your dog does something right, like handing over that shoe, you give them a pat on the head while saying “good dog” in a nice, reassuring tone. This tells your dog that doing the behavior they just did gains your approval and affection. They may even get some treats for being a “good boy”.

Look then, at what you do when your dog is shy/fearful. You give them a pat on the head while saying “it’s OK Buddy” in a nice, reassuring tone. They may even get some treats for being… wait… shy/fearful? Hang on a minute. Something doesn’t seem right. Remember - your dog doesn’t speak English (or any human language). They feel your touch and may find that reassuring. Most of them know that food is an indicator of a job well done. They hear your tone and know it means something good, but they don’t understand the difference between “good boy” and “it’s OK Buddy”. Your tone and both phrases lead to either affection or food. They mean the same thing to your dog, “good job Fido”. When you behave this way your dog believes that they are getting praised any time they display shy/fearful behavior. What is praise meant to do? Most commonly, we use praise to increase behaviors, not to decrease them. When we reassure our shy/fearful dogs, we are usually making matters worse instead of better by telling them we like their behavior. As a general rule then - it’s a bad idea to pet and reassure a shy/fearful dog. If your pup struggles with shyness and fear, follow us on Facebook and Instagram, then give us a call so we can help you help your pup feel better about their world.

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