Dogs that are afraid of people find very little about being with us pleasant, even if nothing ‘bad’ is happening to them. Just being near people is enough to get their hearts racing and adrenalin flowing. In order to change how a dog feels about people (or anything it’s afraid of for that matter) you have to provide the dog with some very good reasons. Food is an obvious and powerful reason to think that people may not be all that bad, but for some dogs there are other, possibly even more valuable reasons for deciding that sticking around humans is a better response than fleeing.
In my own dog’s case I assumed that because he appears to be a border collie mix, he had a border collie’s inclination to ‘do something’. Sunny had my other border collie Finn to watch and quickly discovered the joys of running in the woods and chasing after just about anything I was willing to toss. But even if your dog does not have another dog role model, you can make some good guesses as to what activities your dog might enjoy. It’s easy to spook a fearful dog so go slowly, and in some cases ignore your dog while you play with a ball or some other toy until it sparks their interest.
Here are some ideas for playing with your dog:
Name Game-Toss or hand your dog a treat every time you say their name. This not only helps a dog learn its name, it creates a positive association with it.
Treat Toss-Like the Name Game this simple game consists of tossing treats to your dog. There are some dogs which find the action of catching a treat more rewarding than just being handed one. Try using popcorn for dogs that haven’t quite got the catch down.
Hand Shell Game-Hold a treat in one closed fist and offer your dog both hands to sniff or paw at. Open the hand that is ‘targeted’ and show the dog either an empty palm or treat, which they get to eat. Start off with a treat in each hand so that the dog can get the idea of the game.
Outdoor Shell Game-Make piles of snow, leaves or dirt and hide something your dog is interested in one of the piles. You can start the game by having something hidden in each pile until your dog eagerly goes from pile to pile looking for the hidden treasure. For terriers or other dogs that enjoy digging consider creating an area where the dog can dig. Hide toys or treats in holes for the dog to go after.
Treasure Hunt-Hide treats or toys around the room and let your dog search for them. It’s ok for the dog to see you hiding the treasures until they learn the command to start looking. I say ‘treasure hunt!’ and they start sniffing.
Any training you do with your dog can feel like a game. My female cocker spaniel is not much for ‘playing’ but thinks that anything she can figure out to do which gets her a treat is a great game. You can do a search here for books on games you can play with your dog.