Steps Toward Success

Shy Malinois with terrier pal

Shy Malinois with terrier pal

Too often when we are working toward a goal, whatever it is, we are so focused on the long term outcome that we fail to notice the progress we’re making along the way. This is true when working with a fearful dog as well, we do not notice the small steps our dogs are making away from fear.

The behavior which makes my heart swell, is Sunny’s ability to take more and more steps, tentative at first, toward exploration. Even though his body language shouts ‘wariness’, he stretches his neck to sniff a book I’ve set on the coffee table or takes a few steps into a room he was reluctant to enter in the past. He lingers a little longer in a place he usually races through.

Outside in the woods Sunny is a warrior, he races after the squeaks and chirps of chipmunks and squirrels and he leaps from stone to stone in the river. Inside the house, car or other building he is a different dog, slinking, resisting, cowering and always with an eye on the exit. I watch the enthusiastic wandering of dogs that aren’t fearful as they check out the rooms in my house, racing up stairs and returning with a bone or toy they’ve claimed as a prize from their discovery mission and long for the day Sunny is able to show the same boldness.

Noticing the small steps that Sunny is making is important, as is rewarding him for them. It is not any different from training a dog that is not fearful. All the parts that a behavior can be broken down into need to be noticed and considered. When working on a recall trainers understand that the behavior is not just the end result of a dog racing toward its owner. It starts with the dog acknowledging the cue, a glance, head turn, spin around, movement toward the owner and finally getting close enough to be put on a leash if necessary. Each of the pieces of the process should be reinforced and rewarded.

Find ways to reward your dog for the steps they are making, however tiny they may seem. Learn how to use a clicker to make this easier for yourself and clearer for your dog. Keep your goals in mind but don’t miss the successes and be sure to reward your dog for them.


5 comments so far

  1. Regina Boguski on

    Thank you for all of the information you give and for the experiences with Sunny that you share. I have never liked the “beat up until they submit” approach but always thought that I was alone. I have recently adopted a very shy, scared dog and I am still deciding if I have the abilities and time and environment to help him. I appreciate your compassion towards people, as well as dogs.

  2. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks for your kind words Regina. No doubt these dogs can take a lot of our energy, especially if they are so debilitated that they are not easy to handle for the basic maintenance dogs require, walking, training, etc. Or are reactive.

    Any dog takes time to decompress and settle in to their new environment. It’s actually the easiest time to have a scared dog since the best thing to do is ignore them as much as you can.

    Good luck and good thoughts as you work through your decision. The shyk9s group on yahoo can provide lots of support and information. You are definitely not alone.

  3. Blueszz on

    Hi Regina,
    first thing I had to learn when I adopted a shy dog (the pictured Malinois) is to forget about the dominance theories. Theories I worked with for years.
    Luckily I also experienced in the past that training and working with a dog could be done based on team work and respect. Once you can achieve that with your shy/scared dog, you will make progress each and every day.
    Maybe the most important skill you need is being patient 🙂
    Re-training them goes with 3 steps forwards and 2 steps back… and sometimes it seems there is no progress… but trust me, there is! When you look back, let’s say, three months back… you’ll be able to tell the differences with ‘today’.
    Another lesson I had to learn is that I have to be happy with the fact my dog is happy and not stressed out; that I should not feel frustrated and sad because I can’t offer her a life I really would like to offer her: being my 24/7 compagnon and shadow. A very active live, meeting other people, other dogs, being engaged in dog sports etc. My previous Mal’s all had a very active live style with a lot of challanges, but they could cope with it and ejoyed it. I would harm her if would offer her the same kind of live. She is happy with as it is now. Feeling safe at home, a structered calm live style, with familiar things each day.

    In almost five years time, she has become a complete different dog. Some people even ask me if I have a new dog! They can’t believe she is the same one as the reactive, nervous and severly underweight Malinois they saw a few years ago.
    I did it with listening to my dog. They tell you a lot with their body language. A great start for me was Turid Rugaas’ book about ‘calming signals’. Listen to what they tell you and your dog is half way on the road of recovery 🙂


  4. Blueszz on


    But be prepared that there might always be ‘issues’ you are working on with the dog.
    Even after alsmost 5 years I still work on issues, each day, but it has become ‘easy’ because I learned what triggers her and how much she can take… I found ways to deal with challanging situations. Besides, responding to her body language has become sort of second nature for me. It’s like we are dancing together now. When *we* could cope with the situation I’m so proud on her and afterwards I realize *we* learned again something new from it.


  5. I agree with Nicole. The calming signals book helped me a bunch. Now, when I see Lilly amp up, I can read her body and offer her help before she completely shuts down.

    Honestly, the book that helped me understand the Million and One ways the world scares Lilly was Temple Grandin’s book “Animals in Translation.”

    Rather than thinking my dog is nuts, I can now walk into any situation and notice at least 10 things that might upset her. Before, her responses seemed so out of the blue.

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