Monday, May 2, 2016

A dog training conundrum: How hard should you push a shy pooch?

Sinead the shy Boston terrier in a selfie
I snapped this photo of Sinead the Boston terrier on Saturday, when she came with me to conduct a training on writing profiles of adoptable animals. I needed a prop for the photography session of that class, and I thought she'd be a perfect fit. I was right, as her help was absolutely invaluable. Without her, I wouldn't have been able to help my students understand how to take good photos of reluctant pets.

But, here's the thing. Taking her was a gamble, and for a moment or two, it was a little sad. Why? Because Sinead is extraordinarily shy.

Shy dogs like Sinead don't really enjoy outings filled with strangers. She isn't a gregarious dog that wanders up to people and jumps up to ask for attention. She often won't eat treats provided by strangers. And a few years ago, she would tremble and cower any time it looked like we were heading to the car. If there was a trip involved, that trip meant other people. She would much rather spend her day like this.

Liam the pug and Sinead the Boston terrier in my lap

But, if Sinead didn't get over her shy-girl ways, she couldn't do a lot of the fun stuff she does enjoy. Walks in crowded parks would be out, and that means no new smells. Long vacations to visit family would be null, which would mean she'd have to stay some nights in a kennel. And she would miss out on the opportunity to meet people who are kind. I wanted things to be different. And that meant training.

Shy dog training is tough because, in essence, you have to find situations that are mildly distressing for your dog and transform them into positive experiences that end well. For Sinead, those early experiences involved sitting in a car near a place in which there were a lot of people. Then, we spent time on the fringes of busy places. Then we walked into a busy place and stayed for just a minute. Then we extended our stay.

For me, this is a gentle process. I never tried to overwhelm her with situations that even gregarious Liam could handle. And anytime she needed reassurance or to leave, I listened. I wanted our bond to stay intact throughout the training. And that meant absolutely no hard pushes. I had too much at stake. 

This method is time consuming, but I'm here to tell you that it works. 

Over the weekend, Sinead took some huge steps. She allowed several people to pet her, and she even ran up to a few people to ask for head scratches. She also accepted treats from several people. And (best of all), she walked on the floor of the training room on a regular basis. She wasn't so afraid that she needed me to carry her.

It's been a long road to get here, and this isn't fun training. Watching your dog overcome a deep-set fear can be really heartbreaking, especially when you have no idea where that fear originated. It is tempting to just leave the pet at home and skip the whole darn thing. If Sinead responded to fear with outward aggression (instead of trembling), and if I couldn't handle her fear easily (meaning I couldn't pick her up and run when she'd had enough), this would be harder.

But, with baby-step training that has taken place over a long time, she has made great strides. And that means she has a better shot at achieving the real happiness I want for her. So, more blogging classes, more crowded parks, and more strangers are in her future. She may dislike it at the time, but I know she'll thank me later.

Anyone else dealing with a shy pooch? How hard do you push? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. I know more about cats. A shy dog is certainly better than an aggressive one. She sounds very friendly.