Shy or Abused?

Extreme shyness is deemed a fault in this breed and encouraged to be avoided when breeding.

Shy or Abused?

Peggy Swager, CO - September/October 2008 True Grit

True Grit Magazine is included with your JRTCA membershipAt a dog show several years ago, I was talking with a fellow dog trainer who had acquired a rescue Jack Russell Terrier. She explained that her dog had previously been abused, most likely by a man. She had deduced this because the dog was terrified of men, especially ones of larger stature. Her dog would pull back wildly if a man bent to pet the dog, as if the dog feared a beating. At this same dog trial, my daughter happened to be showing her dog, Alexis. While standing in line waiting for her turn for Go-to-Ground, my daughter decided to take an opportunity to try and socialize her shy dog. She asked a man standing ahead of her to pet her dog. My daughter held out her dog, and when the man reached towards Alexis she flailed and made the equivalent of a doggy scream in her panic, making bystanders wonder if Alexis had just been struck painfully by this man and was anticipating another harsh smack. The truth of the matter was that no man or woman ever beat the dog. Alexis' true problem was that she was extremely shy. Likewise, I'm willing to bet that the woman who adopted the dog she thought had been abused was also dealing with an extremely shy terrier.

Extreme shyness is deemed a fault in this breed and encouraged to be avoided when breeding. Still, you will find some terriers will be shyer, and that shyness can vary from somewhat shy to extremely shy, such as Alexis' case. Alexis was young at the time she reacted so poorly to a stranger at the dog show. We had the privilege of owning Alexis practically her entire life, so we knew no abuse fueled her excessive behavior. Before Alexis' untimely death from liver disease at age eleven, Alexis finally became a dog who had learned to relax around people. Learning to deal with Alexis and her sister, Cookie, gave my daughter and I the opportunity to learn a lot about resolving shyness issues.

There are a lot of tricks and techniques to resolving shyness in a dog. The information is more than I can contain in a single article, but there are some do's and don'ts and general guidelines I'd like to touch on. Dog shyness varies from the reserved dog to the very shy dog. There are also extreme cases like Alexis. Granted, if you are dealing with an extreme case, you will end up dedicating a lot of time to the issue, and still never have an outgoing dog. Still, you can improve the dog to the point the dog doesn't live in terror. If you apply the same techniques to less extreme cases, you will find the dog will improve a lot. But keep in mind, you will never change a truly shy dog into one who isn't shy. Even if your dog is reserved, you may find the dog will want to take his time when greeting strange people before he warms up to them.

When working to resolve shyness, the younger you begin working to socialize the dog, the more likely you are to create a more confident individual. Puppy class can be a great start, but be careful. If the instructor doesn't truly understand shy dogs, the instructor may try and have you put the dog into situations the dog feels overwhelmed. This will result in a setback in your socialization. A good way to work with a shyer dog is to start with a one-on-one introduction. Let a stranger take a hold of the leash and lead the dog off for a short distance. Once the dog feels at ease with the first person, quit for that session. In the next training session, try introducing the dog to another new person. Keep up this pace of one person at a time until the dog begins to warm up to strangers. At that time, you can try introducing more than one person per training session.

Another technique to socialize a shyer dog is to have a stranger hold the dog. This can work well with some dogs that are not severely shy. However, you need to do the technique right. Let's take a look at how this was first done incorrectly with my dog Cookie, and then corrected. Cookie was handed off to a man to help socialize her. The man held my dog for a few minutes then handed her back. To my surprise, the next day, my dog reacted more fearfully towards strangers. I later discovered the mistake. The entire time the man held my dog, Cookie didn't relax. To resolve this setback, I found a woman who was willing to take the time to hold my dog until she felt comfortable in the hands of a stranger. This took about 20 minutes, but after that, Cookie began to feel more relaxed with people she didn't know. Cookie was a shyer dog, but not as extreme of a case as Alexis. If we'd have tried to hand off Alexis to any stranger, Alexis may have bit the person or may have flailed enough to have escaped.

When working with more difficult cases like Alexis, you need to do a little confidence building. Doing agility with the dog is a good confidence builder, as is doing basic training. Playing games with the dog is also a confidence builder, especially the game of Tug-of-War. Let the dog win some of the time, just be sure that you win that final round. Other things that can help a shyer dog is to keep all of your training reward based and positive. Many very shy dogs are also very sensitive. Harsh punishment, no matter what the dog's crime, need to be avoided.

One of the tricks used to help socialize some dogs is to have a strangers feed the dog a treat. This can be a great way to help a dog learn to feel positive about strangers. After all, if a stranger offers a treat, they can't be all that bad. But, keep in mind a Jack Russell is a very clever dog. Don't let your dog snatch the treat, and then avoid getting touched by the stranger. That only intensifies the dog's fear. Although you don't want to force the dog to be petted, you can hold the treat in a fashion that the dog must touch your free hand while chewing on that biscuit. If the dog chooses to pull away from your touch, allow the dog to do so. Just make sure the dog realizes that in order to eat that treat, he must brush against those fingers. You can arrange that kind of contact by holding out your fingers ahead of the hand holding the treat. When done correctly, the dog will have to brush against the free hand in order to chew the treat held in your other hand.

With some shyer dogs, if you let the dog take his time about learning to feel comfortable around strangers, the dog may seem to wake up one day and act as if he wasn't ever shy. With other dogs, you may find the dog is always a little reserved and will need to approach strangers at his pace. With severe shyness, you will never have a dog who wants to run up and greet people. However, with the right kind of socialization, even a very shy dog can learn to relax when in the presence of strangers. Dogs who act shy around strangers are not very often the victim of abuse, but more often a result of a very shy nature. Even if you do happen on a true abuse case, the cure for the dog is the same. Let the dog get used to strangers at the dog's own pace, keep things positive, and never rush or overwhelm the dog. Although it takes a lot of work, like it did to finally have success with reforming Alexis' severe shyness, the payoff was worth the effort.

In this article I touched on some of the techniques for dealing with dogs who are shy around people. Some dogs are fine around people, but have issues around other dogs. You will find more information on dealing with both kinds of problems in my book "Training the Hard to Train Dog." If you have specific questions you want answered, or a suggestion for me to write about in the next article, you can email me from my website Please clearly mark the content as dog question so the query isn't deleted as spam.

Article from September/October 2008 True Grit

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