So! You got a new puppy, and he’s turned out to be a little more nervous than you expected. “Nervous” can manifest in a few different ways. Your puppy may:
- Shy away from your touch
- Be easily startled by noises and new situations
- Hide behind you when encountering new people
- Bark at strangers or dogs on the street
All you want to do is have adventures with your pup, but if she’s scared and miserable all the time, or freaking out at strangers, it can really spoil the fun.
There’s good news: there’s a lot you can do to help your pup overcome their fears
A puppy under five months old is still in the impressionable Sensitive Socialization Period, so it’s easier to resolve fear issues than in an older dog. Depending on your particular pup’s story, the fear issues may not be completely “cured” – a puppy who’s terrified of strangers will probably never be a social butterfly, but you can still make some big improvements and have a great life together.
Most of the puppy training and socialization advice out there is geared toward more typical puppies – ones who aren’t afraid of their own shadow.
Our online program, Puppy Survival School, puts a big focus on helping fearful, reactive puppies. I didn’t really intend for it to be that way, but one of the “stars” of the Puppy Survival School videos turned out to be a shy pup. Here’s our story:
Meet River: my lil’ scaredy cat of a puppy
I had been planning this project for years: I would adopt a puppy, film every single thing I did with said puppy, and turn that footage into a big ol’ online course that would teach the entire puppy raising process.
My dream breed for this project? A Belgian malinois. I didn’t think I’d actually get one, though; for a few reasons, I preferred to adopt a shelter puppy, and mals are not exactly common in shelters. I figured I’d end up with some adorable, sporty little mixed breed. Which was cool with me.
But one day, I was browsing a local shelter’s online pet listings. To my shock and amazement, they had a whole litter of purebred-or-very-close-to-purebred malinois puppies! We immediately went to go check them out.
Long story short, by the time we got there, there was one puppy left. The shelter worker placed this tiny little angel of a baby malinois in my lap.
Right away, I could tell I would have my work cut out for me.
See, most, for lack of a better term, “well-adjusted” puppies respond to being placed in someone’s lap by getting all wiggly and playful. They might need a moment to come out of their shell, but they should warm up and want to make friends pretty quickly.
Not this one. She sat perfectly still, as if willing herself to become invisible.
A vague, fleeting sense of hesitation came over me. I wanted a more outgoing puppy. I wanted to do things like compete in agility and other dog sports, and it’s hard to do that with a terrified dog. Plus, I had already had a few dogs with fear issues, and I loved them dearly but good lord, just ONCE, I wanted to experience life with an uncomplicated dog.
But I looked at this petrified little baby with huge brown eyes and ears too big for her body, and I knew I was already hers. Oh well. I was never destined for uncomplicated dogs, I guess.
I took her home and named her River, and we got to work.
River did indeed turn out to be pretty shy and afraid of new things. And she had the tell-tale signs of becoming reactive: she would bark at any dog or person we saw out in the world.
So in addition to filming all the usual puppy training stuff like basic obedience and potty training and learning to walk on a leash, we also filmed the whole process of helping a scared, barky puppy become confident and less-barky.
Here’s how Puppy Survival School can help your shy or reactive puppy
Instructions for the main training exercise I used to help River overcome the barking-at-strangers thing.
In the first level of this training exercise, you reward the dog for looking at the trigger. In the later level, you reward the dog for looking at the trigger and then looking away.
This can feel weird at first – why would you encourage your dog to look at the trigger MORE?? But by rewarding good behavior (looking at the trigger without freaking out), you’re teaching your dog to think about the trigger in a different way, instead of mindlessly flipping out.
There are versions of this exercise out there called Look At That, Engage-Disengage, Where’s the Dog, etc. In our program, we teach it as the Observation Game. We have a video tutorial for it, plus adventure vlogs that demonstrate how I used it with River (see below).
Body language tutorials focused on fearful behavior.
We have a video that directly compares a fearful puppy to a chill puppy, to help you recognize normal levels of shyness vs serious levels of fear. And there’s another video that shows how to recognize when a puppy is getting too stressed, and when they’re doing okay. This will help you know when to move forward in training, when to take a step back, and how to avoid accidentally making the fear worse.
Puppy-friendly training techniques that build confidence.
The program uses force-free, reward-based training methods, which teach your dog that you are a safe, trustworthy person who’s worth listening to.
A plan for tailoring your socialization program for fearful puppies.
Depending on how nervous your puppy is, standard socialization methods may do more harm than good. For instance, group classes are a great way to socialize typical puppies, but if your pup spends every class being terrified, he’ll only learn to be more afraid.
Socializing a typical puppy consists of casually introducing them to new things and making it into a fun time, but socializing the shy or fearful puppy is all about desensitizing them to things, which takes more time, patience, and structure.
Desensitization: Exposing the pup to new/scary things in doses that are tiny enough that they don’t react negatively. I’ll show you exactly how I did this with River.
“Adventure vlogs” that demonstrate how all the training works in real life.
In addition to all the how-to videos in our puppy school program, there are about ten “vlogs” that document River’s progress. You’ll see how she goes from being too afraid to take walks in our own neighborhood, to being cool hanging out at busy outdoor events. These videos are my favorite part; they’re handy because they put all the how-to stuff in context. Here are some clips from the vlogs:
Where’s River now?
Still an angel. Just an angel who has finally grown into her ears.
I won’t pretend she’s perfect – she still gets nervous and we have to carefully, slowly introduce her to new people and dogs. She’ll never be the dog park type. But she can happily walk through a crowded park without barking at a single person, and all the work we did turned her into an amazing adventure buddy. She loves new experiences and going on road trips (she thinks staying in hotels is the best thing ever). You can follow her shenanigans on Instagram.
If Puppy Survival School sounds like something you could use, click here to learn more!