by Karen Privitello
Causes of shyness
Shy Chow puppies (or adults) are the result of one or more of the following:
Poor breeding practices. Shyness in dogs is known to be a dominant
genetic trait. This means that if one parent is shy, we can expect half
the puppies in the litter to also be shy. Shy dogs should not be bred.
Lack of socialization. The human socialization period for puppies is
between 5 and 12 weeks of age. However, a good breeder will have begun
the socialization process long before the age of 5 weeks by handling
the puppy from the time it is born. Pups which are not socialized
before 12 weeks of age are extremely timid and require a lot of effort
and may never be well adjusted, happy Chows.
Poor treatment at the hands of humans. Although people often assume
that shy dogs have been abused, this is most often not the case - far
more commonly they have one or more shy parents and have not been
properly socialized at the appropriate time.
In any case, treatment is possible but how long it will take can vary
greatly. Will your Chow ever be friendly? Impossible to know. Some
dogs, like some people, are "loners" and prefer a life of quiet
solitude, even if they aren't fearful or aggressive - but that doesn't
mean that the dog shouldn't be taught how you would prefer for it to
Techniques for working with shy dogs
There are two techniques that can be used to treat fearful dogs - and
that is what a shy dog is - fearful of people. The first technique is
one called "flooding" and it involves exposing the dog to the fearful
situation until the dog shows no signs of fear. An example would be to
move the dog into another household with different people for a period
of several weeks, then moving it again, and again, and again - until
the dog no longer showed signs of fear with exposure to people. While
I've done this with some rescue dogs by moving them from foster home to
foster home every few weeks, it frankly isn't practical for most family
The second technique is a combination of "desensitization and
counterconditioning." Desensitization means gradually exposing the dog
to the fearful stimulus in a less intense form so the dog doesn't show
a fearful response. Counterconditioning involves pairing a wonderful
reward, such as a treasured treat, with the desired behavioral
response. The trick to using this technique successfully is to
gradually intensify the stimulus without evoking fearful behavior. The
danger of shy dogs is that they could become "fear aggressive" - a dog
that bites when it is frightened.
Steps for socializing the shy dog
1. Make sure your dog is physically healthy. Shyness is sometimes
caused by poor eyesight or medical conditions such as hypothyroidism.
As with aggressive dogs, it is highly recommended that they have a
complete physical with blood work (Blood Chemistry, Complete Blood
Count, Thyroid Panel) prior to commencing training.
2. Before training, you must carefully identify *all* the things your
dog is afraid of and rank them. For example, your puppy may also be
fearful of certain noises or actions that people make. It is rare to
find a dog who is afraid of all people equally. One dog I own was least
fearful of young women, more fearful of older women (and those wearing
hats), really frightened of men, and most fearful of children, but less
so with quiet kids than loud ones. This made sense considering the
dog's history: she was abandoned at a boarding kennel shortly after
being purchased from a pet store by a pair of men and her caretakers
had almost exclusively been young women. (I'm happy to report that now
she is only slightly fearful of loud kids and extremely friendly with
everyone else). So your first step is to make a list and at the top of
the list put the least fearful type of person and at the bottom put the
most fearful type of person. For example, this might be a man
attempting to pet her.
3. You must teach your puppy a "relaxed posture." I recommend the
sit-stay. This must be taught in a positive way (no forcing the puppy
to sit, no leash popping, etc!) and should be done using really great
treats such as cut up pieces of meat left over from dinner. The pieces
should be really, really small so that you can give lots of them
without having your puppy get full or get diarrhea. A good size would
be about 1/4 inch square. This posture *must* be associated with only
good things and must be taught before training with people your dog is
4. The next step is to expose your Chow to the lowest possible fearful
situation (unlikely to cause fear so he can be rewarded) and very
gradually increase its intensity. For example, maybe he is least afraid
of people who look like you do. Call one of your friends and ask them
to come help you train your dog. Put your Chow in a sit-stay - outside
where you have lots of room to work - and have your friend appear about
50 feet away. The Chow should not be concerned and hold his sit stay
like a champ. He gets praise, treats, and if he likes them, hugs and
petting from you. If 50 feet is too close, you need to find the
"starting point" - the place where your friend can appear and your dog
holds that sit stay without showing any signs of concern. Sneezing,
hyperventilating, shaking, panting, worried looks, salivating, tail
tucking, ears folded back, yawning, licking lips, etc. are all signs of
fear that would indicate that you've asked too much of your Chow. A
successful session begins and ends with the Chow having shown no signs
of fear. If the Chow is successful in maintaining a relaxed posture,
the person walks away and approaches again - but this time comes a bit
closer. I would consider one step to be the distance of "a bit closer."
This can be repeated several times in one session. If your dog is
showing signs of fear, remove it from the situation, give it time to
calm down and relax, and begin again with the person further away or
making smaller steps. Although it is tempting to keep trying to have
that person approach to within "touching distance", it may be days or
weeks before the person can approach the dog and stand before a
relaxed, happy Chow whose tail is wagging and whose head is held high.
5. Change the situation and start again. At this point, you might do
one of several things depending on who is available to work with you.
Here are the options:
Work with the same person, except that now the person is talking and
making the "reach out to pet the doggie" motion, and doing things that
are known to cause the Chow to react fearfully.
Work with the next type of person on the list.
Work with the same person but in a different environment.
Eventually, you'll have to exercise all scenarios with all sorts of
people. The important point is that each session begins and ends with
the Chow being able to hold the sit-stay, happy and relaxed, and having
shown no signs of fear during the training session. That means that
when you "start again" you are going back to a distance which is
unlikely to cause the Chow to react fearfully. Precautions are always
taken - the dog is kept on a lead, and if the dog has shown any sort of
aggressive behavior (snarling, snapping, biting, or barking in a
threatening manner) a professional trainer should be present.
6. Continue to repeat the process until the Chow is no longer afraid of
people. Be forewarned that this process is slow and time consuming but
well worth the effort.
Fearful dogs should never, ever be punished for being afraid or acting
in a fearful manner. No hitting, scolding, or leash yanks. It is simply
not possible to eliminate fear by punishing a dog for displaying it. In
fact, it's best if fearful dogs are not punished at all - most bad
behavior can be prevented with careful forethought and good management.
Fearful dogs should never be rewarded for being afraid or acting in a
fearful manner. No telling them that "it's OK" - no, it isn't OK for
the dog to act that way!!!! No stroking or petting in an attempt to
soothe them. No picking the puppy up to comfort it. All those things
are rewards for fearful behavior.
Visitors or well meaning pedestrians who are not a pre-planned part of
your training session should be asked to ignore your dog. They
shouldn't speak to it, look at it, or offer a hand to sniff. They
should absolutely not reach out to pet the dog - a scared dog may bite
if it feels threatened and can not escape.
Motivationally based (food reward) obedience and agility training can
help dogs gain confidence and are recommended adjuncts to socialization
even if done with private instruction.
Fearful dogs can be rehabilitated successfully with patience and hard
work. If your dog is not making progress, hire a professional trainer
or behaviorist to work with you and your shy Chow since it is likely
that you are rewarding the wrong behavior, not rewarding the correct
behavior, moving too fast or too slow with the level of difficulty, or
misinterpreting what your Chow is trying to tell you.
© 2003 Karen Privitello, all rights reserved. Reproduced
here with permission. Contact us for