Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Little shy dogs at big picnics: Great training opportunities

Sinead the Boston terrier at a picnic

Dogs and picnics are made for one another. People almost always spill food when they're eating outdoors, and dogs make wonderful cleanup crew members. And, dogs make for wonderful conversation starters, which can be a real boon when the party is big and the guests don't know one another well.

On Memorial Day, we were invited to a lovely celebration at a friend's farm. This friend is a certified animal lover--she even has horses and goats on her farm--so we knew there would be plenty of other dogs in attendance. I thought it would be a good opportunity to observe Sinead and see if her newfound confidence would be persistent.

In order to help ensure that Sinead enjoyed this picnic and didn't backslide on her training, I had a few ground rules. They included:
  1. Slow introduction to the space. When we first arrived, I kept Sinead up off the ground and didn't let her interact with other dogs or small children. She was nervous and needed to get the lay of the land. Only when she seemed comfortable did I up the challenge line by encouraging her to walk, explore and interact. 
  2. Full disclosure. Anyone who wanted to meet Sinead was warned that she was shy and that she might not enjoy a greeting. People who wanted to help me train and who were willing to go slowly were rewarded with some good interactions. But there were some people who just wanted to pet a happy dog quickly. I directed them to some of the other dogs who might be more amenable to that.
  3. No off leash work. Many dogs enjoy running in packs at big parties. But shy dogs can get overwhelmed and bolt. For Sinead's safety, she needed to stick close at all times. So she stayed on the leash. 
  4. Offer frequent breaks. Sinead was encouraged to walk with me to an open field and to the car a few times. That let her move out of the crucible of the party to catch her breath from time to time, so she didn't get overwhelmed.
  5. Leave on a high note. I want Sinead to continue to think of public spaces as safe spaces. That meant we had to leave before she had a bad experience caused by exhaustion, heat or just plain hunger. So we dashed home a little earlier than we might otherwise. 
She wasn't entirely comfortable with four feet on the floor, as is typical when she's in unusual situations, so she observed much of the celebration from the comfort of hubby's lap.

Sinead the Boston terrier in her dress

But she did allow quite a few strangers to pet her. She wouldn't accept any treats from these strangers, but she did accept gentle scratches and pats from many people she'd never met before. And she managed to muster up the confidence to walk through a crowd of people on her way out to the fields to do a little running.

A few months ago, she wouldn't have felt confident enough to walk among strangers. She worries about being stepped on, petted or picked up when she's in a crowd. But now that I've taken her through many crowds and she's had several experiences in which nothing at all happened when she was with other people, she feels more confident about her ability to walk unmolested.

And she also managed to completely ignore this guy.

Black lab with frisbee

This sweet lab mix absolutely lives to play fetch, and he's relentless about asking for repeat throws. Notice that he has his toy pinned beneath his paw, and he is applying pressure to hubby's toes, to remind hubby to throw that toy.

Remember: Sinead was sitting on hubby's lap. And yet, she didn't bark or growl at this dog when he came back with the toy for another throw. She calmly accepted his presence. Again: This is another first.

Sinead is still a very shy dog, and we still have training challenges ahead of us. But she's made amazing progress this summer, and she's actually beginning to enjoy all of the public outings she's encouraged to attend with my supervision. I can't wait to see what she does next.

Anyone have shy dog tips to share? I'd love to hear them. Shoot me a note in the comments!

And be sure to join in the hop, as hosted by BlogPaws. Good stuff this week!


  1. I have found that playing with your dog, doing tricks with them or just talking to them about what you can see helps them loosen up and start enjoying where they are. And be sure to bring some high value treats along as rewards! Basically, just try to make the outing as positive and fun as you can!

    It sound like Sinead did great!

  2. I love that Sinead did so well at the picnic. I think it's awesome that you are so in tune with what she needs, and how to help her gain confidence. :)

  3. That's great that she did so well. Good tips! Rita can be shy, but she can also show fear-aggression sometimes so we usually just leave her home if we think it's something where she'd be overwhelmed. Wish she was smaller and I could pick her up! She's too big for that! :)

  4. I'm so happy that Sinead did so well! She looked adorable in her dress. Puppy steps. ♥

  5. We're glad to hear Sinead did well at the picnic. :)