If you are dealing with a dog that is afraid of or shy with people one of your first goals is to find out what rocks their world. For an extremely scared dog it might be difficult to figure this out because they may not respond well to anything you do. With a dog like this, one of the few tricks you have up your sleeve is ‘food’. Dogs need food and while they may be too scared to eat near you, food is still one of the main rewards you have for creating positive associations with your dog.
If the dog will eat food from your hand, that is how your dog should receive each meal. If the dog is too scared to eat directly from your hand, leave small handfuls for the dog and move away until the dog is able to eat. Leave the room if you have to, returning with another handful of food until the meal is over. The goal is to have the dog eating the food more readily while you are around, until eventually it is comfortable taking food directly from you. Don’t rush this process and don’t overwhelm the dog with lots of talk and handling while you work on it. A shy dog is just not into getting attention of any kind in most cases.
Don’t stop with food though. One of the first requests Sunny made to me, with a slight paw raise, was that I keep scratching his chest. If your dog does not enjoy being handled, don’t, but finding a non-threatening way to handle your dog can make both of you feel better. Remember that many dogs do not like to be pet on the head and each may have a body part that they are sensitive about. Find what your dog enjoys, not what you think they should enjoy.
Games and toys can help your dog move on from being scared to being curious and even playful. Experiment with different toys, a tennis ball rolling on the floor got Sunny to take his first tentative steps out of the corner. One of our first outdoor games was chasing stones I’d toss in the river for him. A friend turned him on to squeaky toys which I use in agility classes to get him to interact with some of the more difficult obstacles. Stealing the frisbee from my other border collie, Finn, seems to be a highlight of playtime for Sunny. Sticks make great toys and you can’t beat the price. Other dogs can help a scared dog feel more comfortable. Many shy with people dogs practically beam with joy when they get to interact with friendly, social dogs.
The list certainly does not end here. Once you know what makes your dog feel good you have the key to creating positive associations for your dog with the things that scare him, and you have something which the dog may be willing to work for, offering behaviors that will start him on the road to basic obedience skills. Keep looking for ways to surprise and delight your dog, watching them light up and loosen up is one of the best rewards an owner of a scared dog will get.