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The Chow Chow Club, Inc.

The Shy Chow Chow

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 situations.

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 afraid of.

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.

Helpful Hints

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 reprint permission.  

all graphics and images on this site 2001-2010 Vicki DeGruy, 
all rights reserved.

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