Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Boring...or just anxious? Confidence building is key!

I recently had a session with a dog who went through my training class earlier this year. He's a young Wheaten terrier mix puppy who had been with his current owners from a young age, and had always been an exhausted puppy owner's dream: calm, quiet, and obedient, he sleeps a lot and is hard to get excited about much of anything. This, in fact, was his peoples’ main complaint: they had gotten a puppy in the hopes of having a playful, excited companion (like many of the puppies we know). He's been diagnosed by his vet as "just a boring dog."

He had always been reluctant to go on walks, but lately he's been more and more scared outside. Whenever they get to a busier part of their neighborhood, the dog stops and shakes and ducks and won't go further. He's uninterested in treats and just hides between his people's legs and wants to go home.

Since this very nice couple has had this dog since puppyhood, it’s hard to say what has caused his issues. I did notice that even when we were close to the places that normally make him shut down, he took treats readily from me. And when we went back to their apartment and worked on some tricks, this dog was the epitome of driven: offering spins and high fives and push-ups, wagging and wiggling, looking at me with a sparkle in his eye.  His Dad told me that when they were in my class, it was the most happy, lit-up, and energetic he’d ever seen the dog.

This is not to toot my own horn, as I know that this couple give the dog plenty of love and they are certainly putting energy into addressing his needs in the best possible way. But maybe this is just one of those sensitive souls who needs to be given extra encouragement to realize how wonderful he really is. Maybe he needs to go to agility classes, learn some tricks, and be talked to regularly in bursts of happy goofy falsetto song (the way I often did when this dog was in my class). Maybe he needs to go to a different vet who can help him see how exciting life can be, rather than dismissing him as boring. Maybe then a whole new world would open up for him.

I left my clients with a prescription to play more, to use higher-value treats in the scary places, and to avoid forcing the dog to go on walks when he really doesn’t feel like it and instead to do fun, mentally stimulating, drive-building tricks and games inside. 

To use the kiddie playground their condo provides for the human kids to teach their puppy to be a canine kid and have fun. To build confidence by getting him to climb on things, put his paws on novel objects, walk on strange surfaces. 

And above all, to believe in him and love the dog they have.

Because if we all had the dog we want, we'd miss out on all the fun of working with our little friend, through absolutely positive methods and a healthy dose of creativity mixed with compassion and empathy, to get in touch with his inner puppy and become the fun-loving, responsive, confident, devoted, and adventurous companion everyone wants.


  1. Love this post! I think a lot of greyhounds are like this! They seem so calm and reserved but the drive is there, it just needs to be tapped in to.

  2. Hi Kirsten, great site with useful, thoughtful information and tips for positive training.

  3. Even dogs raised correctly can end up with noise phobias. I've had Koira since she was 8 weeks old, and then one day out of the blue, at about 7 or so months old, she decided she was terrified of garbage trucks. We didn't walk super close to one, or have anything strange happen at all. Slowly her fear built to being afraid of all large trucks and buses, being in the car (because we are next to those scary things), and even a fear of going under overpasses on the freeway (I think because they make the noise louder if we are next to a large truck or bus). And, believe me, I've worked a ton with her on desensitizing to the noise.

    But, sometimes good dogs with good owners get phobias. They don't have to make sense, and don't have to have a cause. Afterall, is a phobia of noises in a certain place in town any more strange than a phobia of thunder (which my dog is fine with)?

  4. Great post...and quite interesting. My little Lily needs a teacher again
    Benny & Lily

  5. I believe that some dogs are just wired that way. I'm not saying that a dog couldn't have issues because it had been mistreated or mishandled. I've seen that happen, too. But I've also seen dogs where there was nothing done wrong and they just had life issues, whether it be shyness, aggression or reactivity. That's why some dogs are more suited to some activities than others, but different people prefer different things, too!

  6. Oh, I just LUUUUUV this postie! Me and my mom have had to work together a LOT on the things that kinda freak me out. And I'm about a 127,000 percent braver than I was when I first adopted my pawrents. Mom says one of the very best things she was ever told was by our Most Wonderful training lady who said, "Love and appreciate the dog you have...not the dog you WISH you had." Mom said that was like a light bulb going off in her head.

    Just like my mom had to do...those peoples might have to let go of the idea of what THEY think is good for their pup and ask their pup what HE thinks is good for him. He might not like walkies but he likes to play games and so he can have a real happy life learning new tricks and playing fun games. That might make them disappointed for a little while but once they get that all settled in their brain, a whole big, new, fun world will open right up to 'em!

    Wiggles & Wags,

  7. What a wonderful post. It's a good reminder to pay attention to our dogs and encourage a sense of fun. But also to understand that we need to love the dog we have and not wish for one who's different.

  8. Thanks for all your fantastic contributions everyone!

    Its a really good point that sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we may never figure out why a dog is the way he is because there's no real reason--as Houndstooth and K-Koira say, they're just that way. It is always so tempting to fix things, but sometimes we just can't and that in itself is comforting, in a way.

    I do think that more play is a good prescription for most dogs, regardless of whether it will solve their most challenging "issues." For this dog, I thought he just wasn't going to exhibit much drive--but when given a chance he really did!

  9. That a great post :) I had a sheltie who was afraid of lots of things not the brightest bulb but a real sweetie. She liked to go on walks with the other dogs but didn't understand playinng either with dogs or toys. Moving things out of place in the house made her pace and worry. The happiest she was was if I sat on the couch or lay on the bed reading because then she could be close on her bed and finally relax :)

  10. "talked to him in bursts of happy goofy falsetto song"

    I love this, and I wholeheartedly agree that it can make a world of difference. Adorable photos!

  11. Often it takes a 'stranger' to actually see what is needed. I hope this lovely dog's owners take to heart your suggestions! Great post.

  12. This was a very good post. That pup sounds like my dream dog! I'm glad you helped his owners come up with some ideas to help him step out of his shell. I bet he's just a naturally mellow, quiet guy. I know a few dogs like that, and they are wonderful. But they do respond well to lots of happy praise as you explained. I hope he can learn to enjoy his walks more and to explore new places because a dog that calm would be wonderful to take almost anywhere! I'm glad he has you as his coach!

  13. Positive reinforcement changes brains!


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