A typical dog is friendly and affectionate - and then there’s the shy dog that hides behind their guardian's legs whenever a stranger approaches. Confident pooches are upbeat, having fun with the other mutts at the dog park, while the shy woofer clings to their owner or hovers in the background.
They call shy people wallflowers when they prefer not to interact with potential dance partners at a party. Dogs can reflect this state of being always afraid to step out into the light. Can dogs feel shyness the same way people do? We know they are emotional creatures so of course they can be shy or reserved!
Signs a Dog is Shy
Why is your dog so shy? Like kids who are full of zest and looking for the next adventure, a pooch should be confident with tail wagging happily and a relaxed body stance. That’s not the case with the shy Maltese you just brought home from the shelter, who is howling and whining in protest. This sad, little guy is not feeling the love with his ears back and pupils dilated. He is one anxious pup, pacing up and down and about to urinate on your floor.
Many dogs have seen some rough times and if you walk around a shelter, you’ll see the signs of their former life. Some will cower in a corner - their head hung low, shaking and reluctant to engage with the volunteers. Others may be more resilient and jump up at the gate, hoping to be taken home.
The shy rescue pup might not know how to socialize. They may never have been walked or introduced to people and places. They have no knowledge of the world or the part they are supposed to play. Between the age of 8 and 16 weeks, a puppy needs to be exposed to cars, dogs, people, and loud noises - or they’ll grow up to be adult dogs with shy natures or phobias.
The growing years of a child are similar, as mom and dad introduce junior to life beyond the home. How their life pans out will depend on their guardians teaching them the ways of the world.
Puppies that have never been socialized are bound to be shy of new people, a trip to the vet, children, and all kinds of stimuli they know nothing about. Not knowing why the vet wants to listen to their heart has your new Maltese whimpering and wiggling. It's worse when you take them to the dog park, where they snap at a friend’s Poodle who just came to say hello. Barring their teeth is a sign they don't know how to interact with other mutts.
A dog owner tries to approach your suspicious pooch and they yelp like crazy and run across the park. Shy pups are anxious fur-babies who need love and life-skills training.
History of Shyness in Dogs
The big, bad wolf is a reserved soul who lives with a pack and gets negative press because of mythical stories about werewolves and fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood. Our dogs are related to the wolf, but since being domesticated by mankind, have fallen under their umbrella as cheerful companions with powerful senses.
That’s why a standoffish pooch is not likely to have inherited their shy demeanor from the wolf, but from hanging out with humans. The warning from nature went unheard and today, the wolf’s doggy-kids have phobias, anxiety issues, and canine compulsive disorder. If this sounds like something a person could suffer from - you would be right.
Our dogs are connecting with us on many levels and the way we treat them reflects their behavior. A shy dog could be the victim of abuse or neglect. It could also be from lack of socialization.
Imagine being a Chihuahua who’s been locked away, suddenly being shown the outside world. You could liken their response to a Dr. Who episode where the Tardis lands on an unfamiliar, scary planet.
The dog's breeds we have stylized through the ages have a few that may be shy by birthright. It is said the Japanese Chin has a discerning nature and is shy toward strangers. The magnificent Mastiff is a dog breed we might never have guessed could be shy, plus Afghan hounds, Pugs, Toy Poodles, Papillons and bashful Bulldogs all falling into the less social category.
Studies of Shy Dogs' Behaviour
It is now thought that unborn puppies can be affected by the life their mother is living. Frank McMillan, the director of well-being studies at Best Friends Sanctuary, points out that puppies born in a puppy mill environment are likely to experience behavioral issues due to the conditions their mother is enduring.
A study was created featuring former puppy mill breeding dogs and pet dogs. The evidence that puppy mill breeders live in hardship was evident. Some were fearful/shy and aggressive toward dogs and people they didn’t know. There was a lack of focus and emotion plus many were in a confused, mentally impaired state.
Puppies born to these mothers can experience similar traits as the trauma their mother experiences while they are in the womb can have a profound effect on her offspring. These puppies are incredibly vulnerable during the preconception period, prenatal, and infancy. Puppies are often weaned early and transported to pets stores. Potential dog owners come into those stores and purchase a fluffy, little pup only to find they have issues of shyness or timidity.
The same can be said of puppies born to street dogs. Like puppy mills, there is no genetic screening for hip dysplasia, hernias, eye and ear issues plus epilepsy, heart murmur, and mental disorders. Puppies will endure any harsh treatment their mother receives from people yelling at her to cars honking their horns.
Training Tips for Shy Dogs
Before any kind of training can begin, a shy dog needs to feel safe in their environment. A rowdy home with kids and other pets may not be the place for a shelter dog that is shy due to its abusive past.
If you already have a dog with an easy going, gentle personality, they might help your new pup come out of their shell. It could also make it easier for them to bond with people. Dogs from a shelter can be fearful, so introduce them to a space you have for them like an open crate or spare room and give them the space to explore. Don’t make a big fuss and let them approach you. Remember, a new home will be overwhelming, but if they come to you, it’s ok to reassure them the same way you would an anguished child. If you are taking them outside, keep them on a leash as the fear of the unknown could make them bolt.
Imagine if this were a child that had been neglected - or worse. Your heart would go out to them and want this poor soul to feel safe. Now think of a shy pup that’s been bought on a whim, then either dumped on a chain in the backyard or becomes the subject of an adult's rage.
Taking things one day at a time will build trust while understanding this dog has never known love or kindness. The day they wag their tail will be one to remember, as they begin their journey to confidence with you by their side.
Many shy pups are taken back to the shelter when they continue to have accidents and find it difficult to bond. The marvelous volunteers know the drill so well and hope each time they adopt out a scared pup, their new owner will have the patience to see it through
Dog trainer, Victoria Stilwell, takes her response to shy, fearful dogs using the James-Lange theory of emotion, as her guide. These 19-century psychologists believe that emotion is the result of an event. If your car crashes, you will feel fear, a rise in heart rate and so on. A dog that has experienced trauma will accumulate emotions that stick with them until a change occurs.
Whether it is clicker training or voice and hand signal cues, this pup will require a tender approach and definitely no force-style tactics. You want to gain confidence, not break a spirit. Reward your pup when they overcome their shyness, even if its just the act of holding their head high.
Understanding a shy dog's triggers is helpful says The Honest Kitchen. It could be the sound of a garbage truck which can cause a dog to hide. It’s a big job to adjust your fur-baby's thinking, as they could be scared of so much. It’s a very noisy world we live in and if a dog has never been socialized, it would be like walking through a disaster movie.
By a Japanese Chin lover Linda Cole
Published: 04/10/2018, edited: 04/06/2020