Ask Tom, the Dogcharmer: Bert and Kim

Nothing to fear but fear itself.

Bert and Kimberly - Tom Shelby

Dear Dogcharmer,

This is a picture of Bert and me. How do you make a dog less shy?

Another question: Can we train Bert to not go under the dining room table when we are eating, but allow him to do it when nobody is eating?

Thanks for the help,


Dear Kimberly,

The most stable dog in the world is the dog that is afraid of nothing. How do you get a dog afraid of nothing? Answer — you expose him to everything, and nothing bites him. Last May while visiting friends in New Jersey, my standard poodle, Paula Jean, and I came across a lifesize statue of a cow. It was made out of some kind of plastic material, and was so lifelike that Paula froze when she saw it, with a low soft growl emanating from her throat. How many people would have laughed at their dog in this situation and taken a wide enough berth around the cow to get the dog past it with great agitation? How many people would have kept saying, “It’s OK,” while petting the dog trying to get past the cow, or simply crossed the street, or just quit and turned back?

The first scenario, laughing and dragging, leaves the dog in a scarier world, something else to be feared and avoided and not confronted. Saying it’s OK and soothing her lovingly can end up seriously rewarding a fear response. The last thing you want to do is accidentally reward an unwanted behavior, like tossing a barking dog treats to shut it up. I’ve helped dogs terrified of sewer grates, clanging flagpoles, a burned tree stump, a barber pole, stone lion statues, you name it.

It took me 15 minutes of patient cajoling, and praising every forward step till Paula sniffed the cow. You never want to leave a dog afraid of something. When I first got her, she couldn’t handle passing a four-person band playing live at the Ag Fair. Two years later, with lots of effort on my part, much of her attitude is “Been there, done that, seen that, no big deal!” Share and socialize as much of your world with Bert as you can, and watch his confidence grow.

As for the inconsistency of training Bert — he’s only allowed under the table when no one is eating, but not allowed when people are eating — simply be consistent in your inconsistency. Have Bert drag a piece of leash with the handle cut off attached to his collar every time someone’s at the table. If he starts to get under tell him “Uh-uh!” and give the leash a tug if necessary to remove him. If nobody’s at the table, he drags nothing. It won’t take long till he puts it together that he’s not allowed under when the leash piece is on, and it won’t be long after that that you won’t need the added reminder of the leash piece. However, I should mention that I usually prefer it if shy dogs not be allowed to hide under anything. In my experience they come around quicker when they’re out in the open, and nothing bites them. You might consider teaching Bert a “place” command. When told, “Go to your place,” he lies down in a comfortable spot, in the loop of activity but out of traffic patterns, and stays there for six months, or until you release him, whichever comes first.

Best of luck,

The Dogcharmer

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