Working with Shy Dogs in a Class Setting

Written by Alicia L. Harantschuk, ​CPDT-KA​, CDBC, ADT

Peer reviewed

Summary: Not all shy dogs need one-on-one work, and not all caregivers are capable of finding that environment. A class for shy dogs can work, if the environment is properly set up and a skeleton lesson plan is thoughtfully prepared. This article gives some tips and examples of how classes for shy dogs can be successfully run, and what trainers can do when they identify a shy dog in their classroom.


A shy dog could be a result of genetics, they could be coming out of a shelter environment, or maybe the pandemic didn’t afford them socialization opportunities. Regardless of why, requests to help shy dogs never seem to stop coming to me.

Let’s start by addressing the difference between shy/fearful and reactive/aggressive. This is not an easy task because there can be a fine line between the two. In general terms, a shy dog is going to be withdrawn, possibly shaking, with a tucked tail and vocalizations including whimpering. They might seem curious and/or offer appeasing behaviors (licking, rolling on their backs, low/fast tail wag). A shy dog will often retreat out of fear. This can lead to a prolonged fearful or frozen state of mind and inability to engage. A reactive dog is going to offer greater eye contact, even a hard stare at times, with vocalizations including growling. Their tail carriage can be alert and almost in a flagging position while their body is rigid, wound, and ready for forward movement. Reading the entire dog from nose to tail will help determine the needs of the dog.

As is true of reactive or aggressive dogs, working with a shy dog is an emotionally charged situation. Many times guardians have feelings of failure because they have been trying everything to help their dog without feeling successful. Working with dogs one on one can offer luxuries such as working in their home environment, where there is only one dog and they have access to a quiet room to take a break in. When each dog’s fears and reactions are unique, how can we reduce fear in a meaningful way while in a classroom setting?

I have come to know one thing: Each class is as unique as the dogs in it. I position everyone for success at some level by following a skeleton class structure that works for me, guardians, and canines. The skeleton class structure is easily adjusted to meet the individual needs because it incorporates preparation, real-time observation and information-sharing, and a limited learning library to make it easier for guardians to understand and follow.

This is a former puppy mill breeding female. She started out unable to leave a curled position pressed against the wall. This is a sample of her progression once the dogs start working and using class structure

Preparation

Each student completes an intake form. The form can be a balancing act of managing the length so people actually complete it and getting the critical information I need to help them. At a minimum, I need to know the dog’s specific fears, bite history, medications, and training history.

  1. Specific fears – This helps define what I will need for class. Examples: If the dog fears moving objects, bring skateboards. If it’s sounds, bring a giggle ball or toy piano.
  2. Bite history – Safety should always be a priority, and we should proceed with caution when working with animals regardless of the setting. In this situation, it is not uncommon for a client to say something like “nipped hand.” When I hear of a bite-like incident, justification seems to follow. If a client indicates any kind of a bite regardless of justification, do your due diligence and get more information. A live phone call could prove to be optimal as many will give you more information during a conversation than over an email or text. Collection of additional information is going to reduce risk in the classroom for all involved because it allows me to preset the room (more on this later) and have appropriate dogs in the class. I have even asked to meet a dog before class to determine if I think the setting is appropriate or not.
  3. Medications/medical history – Knowing medical history like a broken limb or toe amputation could shed light on why a dog is fearful of unsteady surfaces. Behavioral medication history is important — since some medications take time to work through an animal’s system, I don’t want to wait six weeks before suggesting they speak to their veterinarian or a behaviorist about medication as a possible aid. To be clear, I am a trainer and never recommend medications. I always suggest they speak with a qualified professional.
  4. Training history – The hope is the more training the teams have had, the more I will have to work with in class. Example: If I see a dog staring down another dog, I can call out “Hey Jane, let’s ask Scooby for a ‘watch’ and break the engagement with Scrappy.” If they don’t have these useful behaviors in place, plan time into your course to teach them. I’d recommend no more than three or you will spend too much time on non-shy-dog-related topics. My top three are “watch me,” “leave it,” and “front” (this is very close to a competitive obedience “call front”).

The black and white dog is afraid of humans, especially males. History is unknown. This is week three of her class and she chose to approach and stay in close proximity. At week five, the same individual was able to sit in a chair where she would approach for petting.

Observation and information sharing

The first class is me talking for one hour. We don’t ask the dogs to do a thing. If they start to settle or their guardian asks for a watch to interrupt barking, they can reward, but we aren’t going to have them officially working for that first hour. It might sound boring and maybe unnecessary to some. Here is why I find it so beneficial.

  1.  It allows me to observe the dogs and their reactions to environmental triggers including sounds, traffic, other dogs, stairs, etc.
  2.  It allows the dogs to get used to my voice and movements. I talk with my hands and trying not to feels like I am learning a new language. The dogs also realize I am not just going to rush into their space. It can help me become a trusted resource.
  3. It allows me to share valuable information on exactly how guardians can help their dogs over the length of the course and beyond.

Roster review

Now that I have spent time with these dogs, I can reflect and make sure this is an appropriate group to move forward. What am I looking for?

  1. Safety – Now that I have met the dogs and seen them in the company of other dogs, I ask myself, “Is it safe for the dog to be in a class environment?” It is not uncommon for a dog to join this type of class only to find that the dog is behaving aggressively and needs a different approach. It is possible the pet guardian didn’t see this behavior from the dog. It doesn’t mean we aren’t going to help them, rather that we are going to adjust the training approach to help them be more successful.
  2. Environmental appropriateness – The room I am working in could be new to the dog and scary. Maybe it is in a basement and the dog will not do stairs. Maybe it is in a multi-level building and the tenant above is constantly rolling things around on the floor making all kinds of noises.
  3. Can the group work together? – While safety remains a top priority, having the right dogs in the group can have a material impact on the overall success for everyone. Often, we look at dogs that don’t care for other dogs. Consider the dog that loves other dogs and is taking the class to work on fear of humans and/or objects. If we can’t get them under control and minimize their attempts at dog-dog engagement, which could include barking, jumping and lunging, the other dog might shut down. For the success of the larger group we might need to find another class for our dog-loving friend.

Altering a class roster doesn’t come without careful consideration. It is important as trainers that we make sure we have tried options like gates, visual barriers, a different location in the room, etc. before committing to making the change. We also should be able to present an optional go-forward plan so that the team can rejoin the classroom at a later time to continue their journey.

Classroom details and tips

  • Limit class to four to six dogs; this ensures they get the individual help they need.
  • Limit the number of handlers per dog in small spaces. This is very helpful if any dog in the group is afraid of humans.
  • Assistants should be briefed on dogs prior to class and have a clear understanding of who can and can’t be approached. This is another layer of risk-reduction because it prevents inappropriate engagement.
  • Consider having dogs enter in a specific order. Dogs that seem to take ownership of the space should come in last so they are not continually adding stress to the room for others with displays of reactivity.
  • Use environment structures for visual barriers. This example has a supply closet that juts out into the room, which completely blocks the view of dogs on either side.
  • The object socialization area should have plenty of space between objects, allowing the dog to take a breather. If every time they pivot, they find themselves bumping into a new object, it can be too much and they will disengage. The object space should be gated off and staff should be stationed to avoid a dog trying to bolt through it should they become startled.
  • Gates and barriers should be preset in the room. You have had two opportunities to gain information (the intake form and the first class) that will allow you to position dogs safely within the room.
  • Space resting stations as far apart as possible. There are two additional spots off camera.
  • Place water bowls around the room, limiting the stress of dogs being in close proximity. This is for safety reasons, as it limits dogs having to walk by each other.

If you are a traveling trainer, consider having items that are multipurpose. For example, a jump can double as a visual barrier by adding a blanket, it can act as a threshold exercise, and it can be a jump for confidence-building. Additionally, a giggle ball is great since it is an object that moves and makes noise.

My classroom space

Limited learning library

A limited library does not mean I limit the information owners receive or techniques to help a dog; however, I must consider the learner, in this case the guardian. Think about teaching your dog to fetch a beverage from the refrigerator. The goal at the beginning is not to complete the entire task. Instead, we break it down into small, consumable bites (behaviors) that we chain together to complete the overall trick. I take the same approach when helping people and their shy dogs. These guardians are not trainers, they don’t know dog trainer vocabulary, and it is possible they’ve never even taken a class before. Limiting the learning library allows them to learn in small bites and have a solid understanding of what we are doing and why. This promotes greater consistency in the communication with their dog and working with their dog outside of the classroom. What is included in my initial information share?

1.Wheel of Mindset – This is a version of Susan Garrett’s Circle of Fun1 and it teaches understanding of the dog’s state of mind and where they will be most successful (excited, interested, and balanced in the chart shown here). I use images of dogs to help pet guardians learn to read body language, how to shift the mindset to a learning state of mind, and when to recognize and respect the dog’s need to stop. All of this is important, particularly when they are at home working with their dog and we aren’t there to coach them.

What can I do to help the dog shift from anxious to interested?

  • Limit visual stimuli from environment
  • Limit excessive movement in the class by giving everyone a stationary exercise to work on.
  • See if they can engage in a calming exercise like a lick mat
  • Offer a break; continually presenting food and excessive verbalization of a cue can be stressful
  • Offer distance from other dogs and staff
  • Play a pattern game like the Up/Down game by Leslie McDevitt MLA2

2. Double Reward System – While each dog might have their own idea of what a reward is (i.e., ball, squeaky toy, food), a shy dog will most often put space at the top of their list. I leverage Suzanne Clothier’s Treat-Retreat game.3 This allows me to choreograph interactions with humans and engagement with objects in a low-stress, phased approach. Let’s consider a dog that is afraid of the car. I might take one step toward the car, and if the dog is calm I will reward by tossing a treat farther away from the car. Over time and several sessions, I close the gap in approaching the car rewarding along the way. Once we reach the car, I might see if they sniff the seat, then mark and reward by tossing the treat away. Then slowly advance until the dog is getting in the car. From there we might have to phase in closing the door, then turning the car on before ever going on a short ride. In this example, while I am talking about the physical movement, I am working more with the state of mind. Tossing the treat away before stress builds up releases the mental pressure the dog is feeling while working with something that is considered scary. Within the operant learning quadrants, it is reinforcement, but is it positive or negative? Both? The act of engaging with the car is rewarded (reinforced) by removing the pressure (negative) with the double reward being the tossed food/toy (positive). Additionally, consider the treat toss from the dog’s perspective. Chasing something is generally way more fun than just being handed a reward. This means we are now counter-conditioning the car to represent a fun game of chase.  It is important to keep this mindset and advance slowly for the next steps. For example, closing the door too quickly with a dog that is afraid of confinement could be a setback and it could be harder to rebuild trust.

3. Choice Versus Management – Allowing a dog to make a choice without pressure can quickly build confidence. Why? How? I am only going to allow a dog to make choices when there is no chance of the outcome being detrimental to their growth or safety to class attendees. Every time they choose to do something, they are rewarded. The dog quickly learns that their choosing to engage is reinforced by nothing bad or scary happening and they receive space and food. Overtime, they will offer greater engagement with increased frequency and ease. I am going to use management when negative fallout is a high probability. For example, I am preparing my dog’s dinner and they are anxiously waiting at my side. I drop a bottle of their medication and it spills on the floor. Do I give them the opportunity to choose not to eat the pills or do I jump in and manage the situation? Management! Many have spoken on this topic, but I like the approach Denise Fenzi takes that addresses the topic of choice versus structure.4

In the classroom

This is where we see real value in a skeleton class structure. Things can quickly get complicated when we move into the classroom because each team will have unique triggers and thresholds, and the language dog and guardian have built between them over time is personal to them. Leveraging a limited learning library will help lift the cloud of confusion from your classroom and increase consistent communication between guardian and dog.

  1. Recognize and respect when a dog has had enough and shows signs of disengagement. Repeated attempts to engage the dog can push them to the anxious mindset where no learning takes place. What do you do?
  • Allow the dog to engage in a calming exercise like a snuffle or lick mat.
  • Try a potty break.
  • Don’t be afraid to direct the guardian to just let the dog be. Give them autonomy to decide what feels best to them. Maybe it is lying down or maybe it is leaving.
  1. Release the pressure with a reward of space as in the double reward system. When working to reduce fear of humans or objects, start with low-level exposure and reward with space and food. The space reward releases the pressure with the hope of the dog thinking “that wasn’t so bad.” Continue with increased difficulty in the engagement exercise. The food reinforces the desired interaction and helps to increase frequency of the engagement.
  2. Confidence to choose, as mentioned above, uses agency to build confidence. With each choice the dog makes on their own, a new level of confidence is achieved because there are no wrong answers. They are always correct, rewarded, and safe. When working with a shy dog, we are going to give them autonomy to make the choices and reward engagement that increases over a period of time or repetitions. Think of it like a shaping exercise that encourages increased engagement.

Two examples

The first dog was a 1-year-old, intact male Doberman with meaningful training history to leverage. Presenting issue was fear of people and unwillingness to be touched by people outside the immediate family. Before having this dog in class, I met with the guardians in their home. I found the dog to be territorial; therefore, we moved to a familiar classroom setting where he had previously taken classes. Initial reactions to my movements and the class assistant (close or at a distance) were growling, stiff body, minimal lunging, and barking. His guardian reported that after I had been in the home, if he heard my voice on a recap video he would bark. To be clear, he only barked at my videos with my voice. This indicates the previous learning event created a negative association, increasing the difficultly and need for extra caution. We worked on what felt like endless repetitions of the double reward (food + space) with my movements around the room. Once the dog was accepting of my movement around the room, and I felt he was communicating a calmer mindset through his body language, I allowed him to sniff me. We worked to extend the time I was in close proximity. After about six sessions, I could feed. Shortly after that I could even hold his leash. On the last session, I could pet him.

I worked with this dog over two rounds of classes (12 sessions in total). At no point did I lure him in a fearful state to my hand for food. This situation can put the dog in state of conflict. It is possible when the desire for the food is greater than the fear, they choose the food, finding themselves close to the thing they fear (the human). They will take the food and then react negatively to the close proximity. These reactions can include a growl, snarl, lunge, and even a bite. Safety is, again, top priority for everyone involved.

 The second dog was a 1-year-old, neutered male golden retriever who loves people and dogs. The guardian was an experienced handler who regularly trained at home with her dogs. The dog’s presenting issue was fear of objects. He was missing an eye, which may or may not have contributed to the fear. Anything that moved or that he needed to engage with physically was met with cowering, backing away, and hiding. The approach to helping this dog leveraged what he loves: people and dogs. He was rewarded for every choice he made to engage with the object, approach, looking at it, touching it, extended time in proximity to it, etc. His rewards varied from food to pets with a human. Additionally, we leveraged the buddy system. We paired him up with a dog in class and he could watch their engagement. I wouldn’t say it increased his active engagement with the obstacle, but it did allow him to be more comfortable in close proximity for longer periods of time.

His owner reported after taking this class that she continued with the options for choice and double reward system. This dog started to go to their basement, which was a struggle before classes. Limiting the learning library in class allowed her to be focused on object engagement by rewarding choices with he found to be motivating and managing his state of mind.  This allowed for greater participation and many repetitions in during each class ultimately allowing her to easily make the transition to a new environment.

I have learned over time that while I need to leverage my knowledge, I also need to be mindful of the recipient. I keep my instruction as simple as possible. I deliver information in a way that is easily digested, and I always respect the dog’s learning pace. Because I go at the dog’s pace and I allow them autonomy, significant setbacks are rare. Of course, in some classes a dog will make greater advancements than others but that’s okay. Small and even micro steps forward are the goal. Finally, safety must always remain in the front of your mind. This includes safety for dogs, their guardians, staff, and you, the trainer.

References

  1. Garrett, S. (2018) Vlog: Where is your dog on the circle of fun? Susan Garrett’s Dog Training Blog, last accessed 5/31/2022
  2. McDevitt, L. (2019) Control Unleashed: Reactive to Relaxed. First Stone Publishing.
  3. Clothier, S. TREAT/RETREAT for Shy, Fearful, and Socially Awkward Dogs. Last accessed 5/31/2022
  4. Fenzi, D. (2019). Finding balance: Choice and structure. Denisefenzi.com, last accessed 5/31/2022.

As an only child, Alicia’s best friends were the animals she found or were dropped off at her home. As an adult, Alicia jumped into pet therapy to honor her father who passed away from Alzheimer’s. To increase her footprint for doing good in her community through pet therapy, she started teaching classes to help prepare teams for the important job of helping people escape their mental, emotional and/or physical pain,  even if only for a few minutes. Her passion for helping others was fueled by the knowledge she acquired. Today Alicia leverages her knowledge-based abilities and force-/fear-free approach to help teams with a wide variety of issues and can often be found volunteering at local shelters. 

Photos courtesy of Dog Gone Good Dog

[BOX]TO CITE: Harantschuk, A. (2022) Working with shy dogs in a class setting. The IAABC Foundation Journal 24, doi: [BOX]

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