Is my puppy fearful?
Here are some signs that your puppy/puppies might be shy or undersocialized:
- Is the puppy’s tail low and tucked between his/her two back legs?
- Is your puppy’s head low, ears flat, and eyes looking away?
- Have you noticed your puppies shivering or cowering?
- Does the puppy stiffen when you go to pet him/her?
- Does the puppy snap at people or dogs who come near?
- Do you notice the absence of the puppy’s tail wagging?
- Is the puppy hiding?
If you answer yes to most of the questions above it is safe to assume your puppies are exhibiting shy and fearful behaviors.
What Causes Shyness in a Dog?
When you see a shy rescue dog cowering behind their person, it’s easy to assume the dog was abused in the past. Although abuse is one cause of fear in a dog, shyness can also be caused by one or more of the following:
Dogs have inherited personality traits comprising their hormones, brain chemistry, neurological wiring and so much more.
Shyness in a dog, just like fear and aggression, can be an inherited, hardwired trait.
Lack of Socialization
During the first year of life, puppies experience several developmental periods where they learn about the world around them and how to respond to it.
- The first period takes place before 8 weeks of age, in the neonatal state of development.
- The next happens at 8–16 weeks of age, and this is one the most crucial stages, according to many behaviorists.
After that, several intermittent fear periods take place, where a puppy further learns what is safe and what to avoid in life.
These highly sensitive times are crucial for puppy development. It’s not good for puppies to miss out on positive experiences that can help them learn about the world around them and form bonds with humans and other dogs (when it’s safe to do so).
A lack of positive interactions with people, other dogs, new environments, noises, sights and other experiences can lead to shyness and an inability to adapt to new things. Many dogs are genetically prone to shyness and then also aren’t socialized — which makes the problem even worse.
Abuse or Trauma
Hitting a dog, neglecting a dog or keeping a dog in a constant state of fear can certainly lead to shyness. The same goes for trauma stemming from incidents such as dog fights or injuries.
If trauma or abuse happens during a key developmental period or fear period, the dog will tend to respond fearfully toward the world around them even more than if the experience happened later in life.
When a puppy is already genetically prone toward shyness or isn’t socialized while young, abuse or trauma can be especially hard for them to overcome.
Why It’s So Important to Socialize Your Foster Puppies
With socialization, you teach foster puppies as early as possible how to behave around people and new situations.
Here are just 3 reasons why it’s important to socialize your foster puppies:
Dogs who have not been socialized (or not socialized enough) often display anxiety when confronted with a new situation, person, or animal.
Anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways:
- Tail tucked down
- Ears flattened
This is tough to watch happen, particularly when you’re not sure how to help.
Undersocialized dogs may display aggressive tendencies later in life, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
To a dog, where they live and who they live with are their possessions, and they will defend them should another animal (or sometimes a human) encroach on their territory. This is hardwired into their DNA.
Your foster puppy may not display anxious or aggressive behaviors, but they may be difficult to handle.
If not properly socialized, in the future, new places and things can cause so such stimulation that the puppy’s new owner might not be able to control the dog, even on a leash. This type of behavior means they will be hard to handle (if not impossible) at the groomer’s, the vet’s and any other pet-friendly area.
The best way to avoid these problems? Socialize your foster puppies from a young age.
OK, so now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dive into exactly how to socialize a shy dog…
How Do You Socialize a Dog With a Human?
A dog can be shy around anything, but people are usually the biggest concern since dogs in our society must be able to coexist with people.
Thankfully, you can recruit other dog lovers to help you socialize your foster puppies around people by doing the following training exercises.
Pair People With Treats
If you foster puppy/puppies are food-motivated, use that desire for food to help them overcome their fear of people:
- Recruit as many family members, friends and dog lovers as you can to help you.
- Working one at a time, have someone toss treats to the puppy from a distance the puppy is comfortable with whenever they are being quiet or calm. Have the person ignore the puppy— other than tossing the treats — while they do this.
- When the puppy is completely comfortable with the person at the current distance, have the person toss the treats slightly closer so that the puppy must come nearer to them to get the treats. Go slow with this — gauge the puppies’ reactions. Avoid encouraging the puppy to approach too closely before they feel comfortable to avoid any potential fear biting.
- When the puppy willingly goes up to the person, even without the person tossing food to lure them in, the person can have the puppy perform commands or tricks and reward them for their obedience with the food.
- Once the puppy is comfortable with one person, move on to another friend and have that person practice the same training, starting from the beginning again. The puppy will need to warm up to multiple people gradually to learn that all people are safe.
Pair People With Fun
Some puppies are not food-motivated (it’s rare!), or they are equally motivated by games, walks and toys.
Pay attention to what your puppy loves, what they focus on, and when they relax. You can use other things that the puppy loves to help them overcome their fears:
- Use toys in place of treats as a reward for calm behavior around people.
- If the puppy loves to play fetch, have a friend play with them, but you be the one to take the ball from them and hand it to your friend to throw again until the puppy is completely comfortable with the person.
- If the puppy enjoys walks around the yard, have a friend go on a walk with you. At first, have your friend stay far enough away for the puppy to relax around them. Keep the walk structured, and reward the puppy for calmness and focus on you. When your puppy becomes comfortable around the person at the current distance, decrease the amount of space between the puppy and the other person gradually over time. Expect this to take several sessions before the person can walk within 5 feet of you foster puppy.
Timid dogs have an even greater need for leadership, and they take a lot of their cues for how to behave and feel from the other dogs and people around them.
Providing a shy puppy with clear direction, leadership and protection can help them feel more at ease and prevent fears from becoming worse while you work to address them.
- Protect the puppy from overwhelming situations. Pay careful attention to your puppy’s tolerance level. Work at that level, challenging the puppy slightly more as they improve. While helping the puppy overcome fears in controlled situations, protect them from scary, uncontrolled situations. If the puppy is afraid of people, crowds of kids trying to pet them would be overwhelming.
How to Help a Fearful Dog Gain Confidence
Many shy dogs lack confidence in general.
Your foster puppy might be afraid of children, other dogs, strange or loud noises, new places or something else. Building your puppy’s overall confidence can have a huge impact on their ability to adapt to new situations and relax in life.
Below are a few things that can help build your puppy’s confidence.
Obedience and Tricks
Shy dogs are typically just as intelligent as other dogs once you get them out of their shells.
Try to find what motivates your pup: Do they love food, toys, praise, or walks? Use the things the puppy loves to motivate them during training.
Be patient and recognize that it might take longer to learn tricks and commands if they feel frightened. You may need to go slow, especially when practicing new commands around other people.
You may need to adapt the training to make it gentler or more structured for the puppy— many shy dogs do well with a lot of structure and clear guidance.
The more you teach the puppy, the more confident, able to learn, and relaxed they’ll generally become.
Recognize that the training is new for them, so try to believe in their potential to learn and persevere with them. Doing so will also build their trust.