Is Your Darling Doggy Really a Scaredy Cat?
Dogs, just like people, have a huge range of personalities; from the super confident to the much more cautious and careful. This is often related to their breed but their upbringing and training will also have a huge effect on how they react to the world.
In some ways, having a more shy character can be a good thing, they won’t jump all over and try to play with everyone they meet, but in many cases it can cause difficulties. Especially as many learn quickly that the best way of ensuring strangers keep their distance is by barking as loud as they can!
A large part of how a dog will interact with, and react to, the big wide world is influenced by how much of it they saw as puppies. This is why it is so important to start socialising a young dog as soon as their vaccinations are finished (or sooner if they are small enough to carry!) and expose them to as many sights and sounds as possible. Take them down busy roads so they see lots of traffic, onto the High Street so they get used to crowds, to the school gates (if you have kids!), so they see children and all the chaos they cause (!) and to the park to see other dogs, bikes, scooters, joggers, the list is endless, and very useful! Basically, the more the better!
Of course, your job at this stage is more than just holding the other end of the lead. You need to support your pup and help them to be brave in this new world. Detailed training techniques are really beyond the scope of this article but essentially you need to praise them when they are calm and confident, ignore or support any shy or nervous behaviour and distract them when they become over-excited. Which is harder than it sounds!
The best sort of behaviour is the kind that is easily over-looked and ignored. When your dog is walking on the lead, not pulling or hanging back, just pootling along taking it all in, THIS is when you should be praising them. Don’t go crazy, just a quick pat, a ‘good boy’ and maybe hand down a treat every so often to reinforce this. You don’t want them to get over-excited, so don’t be too effusive, just let them know that this is what you want from them.
If they get scared and start hiding behind your legs or hanging back, try not to comfort them too much. Although it is a natural reaction for us, to our dogs it can seem they are getting praise for being frightened, which will make them do it more. Ignoring them is hard but often the best thing. However, you need to be on the ball, as soon as they step forward or relax, give them praise and treats. If they are cowering from a stranger, give that person the treat and ask them to share it with your dog once they approach.
All this advice is great but what if you don’t have your dog as a puppy or if they haven’t quite turned out to be quite the model canine citizen, now they are grown up? Sure, you can tell people you meet that the barking hell hound facing them down in the park is really a big softie but you can’t blame them when they don’t believe you!
Dogs who lack confidence or who are frightened will often use barking on the principle that ‘attack is the best form of defence’, especially when they are on the lead. The reason is two fold, firstly, being on a lead means they can’t easily escape if the perceived threat comes nearer, so it’s better to try and make it go away, and secondly, this strategy works really well (who is going to come near them?!), so they soon learn to repeat it.
Also, many owners think that their dog is ‘guarding’ or ‘protecting’ them and are secretly a little bit pleased but, sorry guys, it isn’t really about that. If that is the case what they are doing is ‘resource’ protecting, for purely selfish reasons. Essentially it’s “Back off buster – this human (+/- little humans) – give me treats and food and I am NOT sharing that with you!” Not quite so cute when you realise, huh?!
The key to helping your dog break this habit is a multi-pronged approach and a lot of patience!
Firstly, you need to build up their levels of self-confidence. A great way to do this is to start teaching and training them. Just like children, dogs thrive on learning new things and many breeds are designed purely to take orders. Being able to act on what we tell them, perform tricks and commands correctly and gain our praise and attention is a huge boost for them. Also, it gives you extra levels of control to divert their attention when another dog appears on the horizon!
Secondly, you need to teach them they are not ‘trapped’ on the lead. This requires you to be alert when you are out for walks (so put the phone away for a while!). You know your dog and what stresses them out, so when you see this approaching (another dog, a runner, a pram), quickly change direction and keep their focus on you by praising them, or performing a couple of tricks ( they don’t need to suddenly start dancing, a simple sit and paw is enough!).
Thirdly, don’t be afraid to ask for help! I have lost count of the amount of clients I have met for whom walking their dog is a horrible, stressful chore and it has been for years. A good dog trainer or behaviourist will be able to make suggestions specific to you and your pet. Make sure you use someone reputable, experienced and properly trained. The are of canine behaviourists is very poorly regulated and a bad trainer can do far more harm than good. I only recommend people who are registered with the APBC, the UK’s leading and most strict body.
Owning a dog should be a pleasure and walking them should be one of your favourite things to do. For so many people, because of a lack of early socialising, breed related traits or for no good reason at all, this isn’t the case and their loyal, friendly companion turns into a rabid lunatic when they are out and about.
It is a massively common problem and can be heart breaking. So don’t suffer in (not so) silence! Don’t be shamed into never going out or walking at anti-social times of day! Start some training, get some help, things can, and with a bit of effort, will change for the better!