Case Study: What Should You Do If Your Puppy Is Shy?

Learn how to socialize a puppy who’s shy around dogs.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #99

How can you help a puppy who’s shy around dogs? That’s the question from a listener, Sara. Her puppy Finn, who’s just about five months old, has a regular dog playmate, a gentle adult Beagle. But during play breaks in puppy class Finn bounces around, then runs and hides as soon as another puppy reciprocates his invitations to play. And a recent incident at the dog park had Sara wondering whether she should “let the dogs work it out”--or whether it’s better to intervene.

Should You Let Dogs “Work It Out”?

The other puppies in class have been leaving Finn alone when he puts on what Sara calls his “go away face.” At the dog park one day, though, a bigger, bouncier adolescent dog got pretty rough with Finn. He pinned Finn and rolled him in the snow. At last, Finn retaliated: he gave Mr. Rough Stuff some big barks and showed his teeth. That probably made Finn feel a bit bolder, because he offered to play--but one more time, Mr. Rough Stuff didn’t back off even after Finn got scared again and hunched on the ground. At this point, the humans waded in and broke it up.

When Should You Step In?

Sara asked me whether she’d done the right thing. After all, when Finn barked and showed his teeth, that was normal dog communication. Nothing about the incident made her fear he’d be physically hurt, but would it damage him emotionally? Or would it toughen him up? Sara wrote: “I just need to know at what point I should be going in there to defend my puppy.”

I told Sara she was right to step in--and the truth is, if I’d been there to whisper in her ear, I’d have urged her to interrupt the dogs sooner. We humans often assume that membership in the species Canis familiaris is enough to make dogs socially adept with other dogs. And on that basis, we “let them work it out,” just as we would if two socially adept humans were a little bit irritated with each other. After all, we know neither of them is going to clock the other, or show up at his apartment in the middle of the night with a firebomb.

When Should You Interrupt Inappropriate Dog Behavior?

Humans often assume that just being a dog is enough to make a dog socially adept with other canines. Not so.

But humans can have bad tempers and misread other people’s social cues. And dogs make social mistakes as well. One appropriate dog response to another dog’s social withdrawal is to continue social solicitation. For example, a dog might offer soft wags, squinty eyes, and a play bow to try to engage a reluctant partner. Another appropriate response is to withdraw as well. What’s not appropriate is to pounce on the other dog and roll him. So the rough adolescent who scared Finn at the dog park was pretty rude, in doggy terms.

Did the adolescent enjoy rolling Finn and pinning him? Who knows. He may have been frustrated. He may have been thinking “Hey, great new toy!” Whatever was going on in his head, though, the fact that he persisted in bothering Finn tells us he found something rewarding about the behavior. And we also know that behaviors that get rewarded tend to increase. Now, let me be clear--I’m not saying this adolescent is doomed to bullyhood. But he did just take a little step in that direction. Not good.

Make Sure Your Dog Doesn’t Need to Aggress

Now look at the interaction from Finn’s point of view. Retreat didn’t work for him. His “please leave me alone” body language didn’t work for him. Of Finn’s communications with the adolescent dog, the only one that succeeded was barking and showing his teeth. When Finn went on the offensive, the adolescent backed off enough that Finn offered play again. And when he offered play, he promptly got nailed. Ouch, that’s not a good lesson.

What Should You Do If Your Puppy Is Shy?

So is the next step for Finn letting his pants hang down below his butt and auditioning for a bit part in The Wire Reloaded? Not likely--but at the same time, he doesn’t need any more lessons to the effect that only aggressing will keep him safe when he interacts with other dogs. Here’s what I advised Sara.

Tip #1: Keep a Shy Puppy Out of the Dog Park

No more dog park till Finn’s social confidence has had a chance to build up. If his fellow puppies in class send him into retreat, then jumping in with a bunch of assorted unfamiliar dogs is pretty much bound to scare him. Even if he doesn’t meet another bully, he’ll be pairing the experience of fear with the experience of being among dogs.

Should Finn ever go back to the dog park? Maybe not! Many perfectly normal humans prefer to avoid big, loud parties where they don’t know many people. And many dogs get along well with a select group of dog friends but find dog parks overwhelming, or are just not all that interested in socializing and play with dogs. Because Finn seems to incline to shyness, odds are he’s never going to be the backslapping life of the canine par-tay. As long as he’s not fearful or aggressive, that’s just fine.

Now, if you’re thinking that Finn should just go to the dog park and get used to it, head yourself right off. Throwing Finn into the deep end might miraculously turn him into an outgoing, socially confident dog, but you noticed that word “miraculously,” I hope. This tactic runs a high risk of what’s called “sensitization.” In sensitization, rather than get more comfortable with something iffy you’re exposed to over and over again, you instead get more and more freaked out by it.

Tip #2: Introduce One Gentle Puppy at a Time in Puppy Class

Since Finn also acts timid during puppy class, let’s set him up to feel safe. I suggested that Sara ask the trainer to put Finn behind a baby gate during playtime and let him watch the other pups from there. Give him a little time and the reassurance of that physical barrier. Sara could feed him tasty treats as he watches the puppies play. I’d expect him to start showing interest in the puppies – approaching the gate, maybe sniffing noses. At that point, the trainer could choose a gentle puppy, ideally one Finn’s size or smaller, and bring just that puppy behind the gate for Finn to meet and greet. If Finn acts hesitant, a human could keep the visiting puppy busy with petting, treats, and play while Finn works up his courage to approach.

Continue this process, letting Finn get comfortable with the puppies one by one. If during the first class or two, he meets just one new pup per class, that’s fine. Better he should have a few good experiences than a few good experiences plus one that goes south.

Tip #3: Keep Having Play Dates with Gentle Adult Dogs

Finn should also continue the play dates with his grown-up, mild-mannered Beagle friend. Sara can introduce him to some other gentle, non-bouncy adult dogs, as well. And, as in puppy class, she might want to start with Finn and his friend-to-be separated by a baby gate, so Finn can grow comfortable in the presence of the new dog before they’re in physical contact.

Thanks again to Sara Balcombe for sharing Finn’s scary day at the dog park. I look forward to her updates on my Facebook page and I hope you’ll join us there. Follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini, and write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and I may use them as the basis for future articles. Thank you for reading!

Shy puppy image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).