Q: We have had our dog Schageh for about three years now, and he is still fearful, even of us. He was in the shelter system for about a year before we got him.
He is more confident when the other dogs in the house are near us, but doesn’t like to be by people by himself. His fearfulness does not involve any aggression whatsoever. He is just as sweet as can be, but cowers and shakes when we approach and runs to his crate when possible (his safe place).
Just trying to give him a treat from our hands when we’re sitting on the ground is a long experience of hesitation and fear — ears down and tail between the legs. He is better than that first year, but far from what I would have expected after so many years with us.
Our new puppy has brought out a more happy, confident dog, but he still needs work. How do we help him?
Teresa M, Cedar Park, Texas
A: I have often seen shy dogs gain confidence when around other confident dogs, so Schageh’s confidence may improve with the new puppy in the home. You also can train and desensitize him to become a more confident dog.
First, don’t give Schageh (or try to give him) treats when he is cowering or shaking since that only reinforces the negative behavior. The treats should be a reward for a behavior you want him to repeat.
Training can help. Train him alone and away from the other dogs. Start by just saying his name and when he makes eye contact, use a clicker (available at pet stores) to mark the behavior. Toss him a treat.
Do this training 25 to 50 times each session, twice daily for a week, so he learns the clicker means “correct” and the promise of a treat.
Next, teach him to “sit” using the same clicker techniques. Again, drop the treat close to him (no outstretched hands). Repeat this training twice a day for one week.
When he understands “sit,” teach him “here.” If he takes even one step towards you when you call him, click the behavior and give him a treat. Toss the treat to the floor.
By the end of the week, he should be coming over to get a treat from your hand. For training purposes, use a strong-smelling treat — something he can’t resist. After this, be sure to click and treat whenever he comes to you.
During this training, you can plug-in pheromones (contains synthetic dog hormones that can reduce stress) around the home; ask your vet for some anti-anxiety medication for Schageh, or put him in an Anxiety Wrap or Thunder Shirt to reduce his fear and anxiety.
Let me know if he improves.