Dear Alecia: We have recently rescued a very shy, timid dog. Besides love and patience, do you have any suggestions for making him more comfortable? Ralphie is about two years old. I don’t know his history except that he came to Wisconsin from a shelter in Alabama. He had heartworm treatment while in foster care (for two months) and is now permanently with us. — Polly
Congratulations on your newest family member! What a lucky pup Ralphie is to have you. In my experience of working with a lot of shelter and rescue dogs, aside from the love and patience, the main thing they require is retraining and bonding so that they feel safe that you are their leader and you are going to be more effective than the last one. This means working on boundaries and making sure you are clean about what you want and need from the dog.
For a dog, being emotionally intimidated, scared, in fear or shut down is not their natural state. It happens because something traumatic happened and they are still stuck in the trauma(its sort of like PTSD-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Humans).
In the wild, a dog would not be acceptable to the pack if it stayed stuck or shut down because the pack has to function to survive which means each member must pull its own weight and be totally present and on their top game.
What I see most often when people rescue dogs is that they feel bad for the dog and while being well meaning and well intentioned as a human and giving love and affection we tend to go over board and give the dog our power and they learn quickly they can manipulate situations and stay stuck or come out of it much more slowly because we have taught them that this is the case.
In a dog’s world, this is actually seen as weakness. What a dog knows is that someone has to be in charge. Either you are in charge or they are in charge( in charge simply means you are the leader or they are the leader). For a dog in a somewhat shut down place to be put in the position of being a leader is not the best position for that dog because they are already emotionally overwhelmed and what they need most to bring them back into balance is a leader more capable then them so that they can actually relax a bit and let go of the trauma.
So my suggestions would be the following:
1. Having worked with a lot of rescues doing retraining, I like to have people working with the Walk In Sync™ Humane Dog Walking and Training System. This system works exceptionally well to teach you how to provide clear boundaries for Ralphie in 3 Easy Steps and helps to reconnect Ralphie with his body and will do wonders for bringing him out of his shell. You will be his leader in minutes and that will do Ralphie a world of good. Rather than focusing on his shyness, he will have to focus on where his body is in space and time and I have seen really positive and quick results for shelter and rescue dogs.
2. Love Ralphie with all of your heart but know that you have to draw a line with treating him like a child vs. a dog. Choose the behaviors that are acceptable and those that are not and just like children- dogs need clear yes’s and clear no’s. If you would like to move Ralphie past his shyness, long walks on the Walk In Sync System making him adhere to walking in sync with you with no pulling, walking him past things that make him fearful, praising him when he does well and clarifying calmly and clearly what you really want when he is not doing so well.
3. In my experience, a dog’s strongest form of communication is pictures. So when working with Ralphie start seeing him as healthy, confident, full of life and when giving him commands or teaching him things you need him to learn, first visualize what you want from him, then add your words and notice the difference of how quickly he responds.
I wish your family and newest family member a wonderful life together. Thank you for writing in and please give me an update on how these suggestions work for you.
Alecia Evans, PDT, MA
Alecia Evans is the inventor of The Walk In Sync™ Humane Dog Walking and Training System with her exclusive 5 Minute Manners Makeovers using the Walk In Sync™ Harness and Accu-Grip Leash, along with her Walk In Sync™ 3 Easy Steps to teach any human/dog duos to Walk In Sync in just minutes.
The former host of the award-winning GrassRoots Aspen TV Series, The Whole Animal-An Alternative Approach to Animal Care, Alecia takes a natural approach to dog training and health care. Her work has been featured on Fox and Friends, The Sandra Glosser Show, NY 1, and in Aspen Magazine, DogTipper.com, The New York Daily News and Woof Report.