Let Agility help fix your Nervous, Shy, and Fearful Dog
It has long been said that a dog is a mirror reflection of its owner. Sometimes I can see that the adage stands true, but there are exceptions to every rule and I have seen the total opposite of that saying. For example, are you or your dog a wallflower, timid and apprehensive to ever venture outside of your comfort zone? That way of thinking certainly can, and often does, rub off on your dog. Your fears and insecurities run down that lead like electric.
The sport of agility is a great way to get both you and your dog into the whole new world of social interaction by providing an environment that builds on both your spirit and your self-confidence.
Once and your dog are ready, after some rudimentary initial training and exposure, taking agility classes forces you to get out and meet people, all of whom are focused with a single purpose, to learn the sport, and learn how to best train the sport.
Just don’t push it; this is not a race. Who cares how long it takes for either of you to step away from that wall and dance?
A dog who lacks exposure and confidence can become wary of anything it cannot readily identify as safe. So strange people, places, noises, and things are not welcomed, and are to be feared. These dogs can only be trained within the confines of their own self-created emotional bubble. Therefore, it is foolish in the beginning, to try going outside of that bubble. (Doing so too early in the game will not only result a total lack of learning, but create additional fear and panic tearing down what little confidence that was there initially, if any.) That being said, the only safe place of security and comfort to the fearful and timid dog, is at home.
So let’s start at home. You need five things, a nervous and shy dog, some education, a bag full of very tasty treats that Princess just loves, a place to train, and the Props. We know you already have the dog. The education you can get right here (and it’s free. You can’t beat free). The treats, you need to find out what Princess’s absolute all-time favorite is (referred to as high value treats). The props or equipment, these are dependent on what kind of space you have available. Are you out in the country with the space of the Ponderosa, or are you an urban dweller with only a postage stamp size yard where you are going to need to get only the type of equipment that is easy to set up and take down? (There are many examples right here on this site.) Just don’t use the excuse that you don’t have the room. There are agility people that do quite well who can only train in their living room.
Of course, it is paramount that your equipment be structurally sound, because to the timid and fearful dog, one little wobble or shake is enough to spook them off of it. And once a shy timid dog has been spooked on a piece of equipment, you will need to devote triple your efforts to get them to ever trust equipment again.
For shy and anxious little Princess, let’s start with the absolute least intimidating piece of equipment, the simple pause table. Set it up very low to the ground. (How low depends on your dog, a couple of inches for a tiny squirt to 8 -10 inches for a big guy.)
From Princess’s perspective, this looks scary. So we are going to introduce it quietly and gently. Firstly, set it up in whatever place your dog finds safe and secure. You can certainly just leave it set up wherever it stands and just let its exposure desensitize your little Princess to its existence. This may take days, months, or years (well maybe not months or years, but it will take some time). Or you can do it like a pro would, use operant conditioning a/k/a clicker training. (If you don’t know clicker training, STOP reading this right article now and go directly to my feature article on this site called Operant .)
Now, I am going to assume that you did as requested and went to read that article or if you are already a pro with a clicker. You already know that you click and treat, for Princess simply looking at the table. Then click/treat for any forward motion Princess makes toward the table. Then slowly up the criteria to more direct focus on the table. (Just in case it is not obvious to you, NEVER click and treat when Princess is moving away or starting to move away from the table. Watch your timing.) When Princess is close to the table, I like to switch it up and start to lure Princess to the table’s edge with the treat. Then drop the treat on the table moving it back slowly, until I get it far enough from Princess that she has to put her foot on the table to get that treat and then I offer another, click and treat. Then, again raise the criteria to both feet (same routine as before for the treat and click and treat). Then once she knows the table click and treats only occur when she gets up on the table. One note that I should mention, is please don’t stay on the phase where you are tossing the treat on the table for very long. Dogs are very visual so Princess may just start to wait to see that visual toss before she moves on for the table.
When Princess is getting on the table, click the moment she is on it and then and present the treat from your hand. If Princess takes the treat and then jumps off in the beginning, let her go. We are not teaching a stay on the table at this time, we are simply training a jump on, or a step, on the table. It’s low enough.
Your next decision is to either train the sit/stay or the down/stay on the table; teach them separately.
Depending on how quiet and shy Princess is, don’t expect this to be a fifteen minute training and done. With a sweet, nervous, and timid dog like Princess, you may need a few training sessions. Just remember, always baby steps. Never try to move forward faster than Princess is willing to go.
Also with a terribly timid dog, try to feed part of Princess’s dinner on or around the table, or when you can see some comfort on Princess part with the table, try just throwing a small handful of treats on there for her to enjoy.
Now when Princess has lost all of her imaginary fear of the table and she is hopping on and off like she has been doing it for years, in keeping with operant procedures, it’s time to teach her the cue or verbal command. You can use whatever word you like, just make it short and sweet and unique enough that there is no way poor Princess can confuse it with any other word when out working the course.
So there you have it. A nice easy step by step procedure to start helping Princess with her confidence issues. Now we have to work on the sit or down/stay portion of the exercise, and then work on building her confidence by staying and watching you from a distance. All of this is covered in other dog training information on this site.
Once you and Princess have mastered this, it’s time to move on to another exercise. For a shy girl like Princess, I would suggest that you two work on the contact trainer. There are some nice contact trainers on the market that break down quite easily and are convertible enough to transform into two separate exercises.
The positive to training new pieces of equipment is you already know the technique of taking those little baby steps from working on this article.
Just watch Princess develop and bloom more and more into her confident and secure self with each article you teach.
Now go out there and meet and greet all the people and all the dogs you can.