Rehabilitating a Fearful, Unsocialized Dog

Question from Theresa: I’d like to socialize my dog better.  She’s very skittish – a loud noise or pop startles her and when people try to be friendly with her she shies away.  She’s good when I walk her about ignoring other dogs.  They bark at her, but she keeps on walking with us – which I think is so good.  I’d like to improve her social skills around people and other dogs.  I was thinking of taking her to a dog park.  Do you have any suggestions for me?

Advice from Cheri Lucas: Dogs who act skittish and insecure around people and other dogs, were usually not socialized when they were young.  Often puppies that were taken from their siblings and mother before they were eight weeks old never learned how to “be” around members of their own species without being anxious.  WIthout the guidance of their canine mother, these pups often grow up to be adults without conflict resolution skills, or the confidence that they can handle whatever situation they encounter.  If a dog is kept in the sterile environment of a backyard or kennel, they can also become extremely nervous when they are finally exposed to everyday sounds and movement considered a normal part of the outside world. 

Because this type of social deprivation occurs during a dog’s formative months and years, it often takes a long time to resolve, but can be done.  Be patient and mindful that your dog’s rehabilitation will be a “process,” not a quick fix.  As a pack leader, your job will be to control the interactions your dog has with other humans when you’re walking her.  People often try to “negotiate” with shy dogs, and move in to them with affection when the dog isn’t ready to meet them.  This only pushes a fearful dog back.  Instead, politely tell others that your dog is “in training,” and ask them to ignore her.  THis means no touching, no talking, and no eye contact.  This will allow your dog to relax because she doesn’t feel pressured to make friends with a stranger. 

If you continue to socialize with your friends in a non-threatening manner to your dog, she may eventually begin to move closer to them or begin to smell them.  This is a very positive sign, and the natural way for dogs to meet others – “nose first.”  Remind your friends that this is not the time to reach out and pet your dog, because that can send her right back into her shell again.  Remember, just because she is ready to smell, doesn’t mean she’s ready to be touched. 

Since you can’t control the type of dogs you might find at a dog park, consider meeting up with friends with balanced dogs instead.  Practice walking together without pushing the dogs to become friends right away.  Allow your dog to experience the ancient ritual of migrating with other canines.  Try to practice this several times a week. 

When your dog hears noises that startle her, don’t nurture her fears by comforting her.  Continue moving forward – you are a pack leader migrating forward with a member of your pack –  in control and in charge!  WHen you project this kind of energy, rather than address your dog’s nervous state of mind, she will begin to trust you more and more.  The more leadership you show her, the sooner she’ll become a balanced and confident dog!