DEAR DIDI: My husband and I adopted a rescued terrier mix from a local shelter around Halloween. The poor thing seems to be scared of her own shadow. We can’t imagine taking her to any obedience classes because she would be terrified. She is a good dog in almost all ways other than we feel like she can’t enjoy life because she is too busy being scared. What things can we do to build confidence? Terrier Mom
DEAR TERRIER MOM: Good for you for recognizing that her “shyness” is a lack of confidence. People spend way too much time wondering or creating possible scenarios that their dog might have suffered in their past that makes their dog the way they are. It is much more productive to move forward.
A dog that is scared or shy is not convinced they can handle the situation they are in. There are varying degrees of confidence. In order to increase confidence we must expose the dog to things or places that they are nervous about and make absolutely sure they have a good time and leave successful. Confidence never comes from being forced into situations you are scared of.
It is a real art to figure out what your little dog likes to do or have and then use it to help her. Hopefully she likes food. Treats are an excellent way to get a dog to step out of their comfort zone and try something. Terriers typically enjoy using their noses. Try buying some inexpensive plastic seed starter pots at your local garden department. This is a great time of year to pick them up. They have drainage holes in the bottom. Start with just three cups. While someone holds your dog or have her in her crate watching you, place the three cups upside down about a foot apart from each other. Hide a piece of turkey hot dog under one of the cups. It is okay if she watches you do this. Let her go explore. The cups are foreign to her and may be scary but if you encourage her calmly and lovingly she may be enticed by the hot dog smell to come and inspect them. You might be tempted to help her, but don’t. Do not point, talk too much, or physically push her towards the cups. Perhaps watch TV or answer emails nearby if she needs time to build up the courage to explore. It must come from within to build confidence. She has to choose to overcome. If hot dog isn’t enticing enough consider a high value item such as a piece of last night’s steak.
The other piece to this puzzle is that she has to learn how to tip that cup to gain access to the morsel beneath. Super confident dogs figure this out within seconds! Your dog may look at you pleadingly with those “to die for” sweet eyes but don’t give in and help. Part of loving her is knowing how to teach her to be self-reliant and confident rather than helpless. When she is happily racing over to the three cups and easily tipping the one with food it is time to add more cups. Keep them grouped closely but increase the amount she has to sniff in order to find the reward. She has to work a little harder now and when she finds it and is successful, be happy for her. Once that is going well and up to 12 cups are easily searched, try spreading them further apart. In time, spread even further apart, and eventually you will have cups in all the nooks and crannies of the room. You might even be able to hide them in different rooms once she is really loving the game. Don’t push too hard too fast. Be patient, confidence does not come overnight. Enjoy the process with her!
Dierdra McElroy is a graduate of Texas A&M University and is an Animal Behaviorist specializing in canines. Like Didi’s Facebook page: California Canine. If you have questions or concerns about the pets in your house, you can get them answered through a future column of Didi’s Dogs. To ask your dog behavior question, email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.