When you work in sheltering and rescue, it’s not at all unusual to run into shy or insecure dogs. We want these dogs to come around to be happy and comfortable so they can be adopted into loving homes. Your staff and volunteers should set the tone for the organization as a whole, being positive all the way around, but taking special care around these more sensitive animals.
As you begin the process of working with a nervous dog, take some simple steps to respect their language and speak to them that way. Show that you are not threatening. Avoiding direct eye contact, turning to the side, not showing full teeth while smiling, kneeling rather than standing over them, yawning, pretending to chew and pretending to groom are all good ways to relay to them that you are not challenging them.
Don’t rush the process – work slowly toward the goal without undoing the work you’ve already accomplished. Planning structured interactions with these dogs is helpful. Know what your goal is when you approach the kennel, and keep your expectations minimal and realistic. With some dogs, simply getting them to eat a treat with you in their kennel will be a huge victory, while others may finally take that step to cuddle up next to you as you read a book aloud. Some of them may benefit from the use of a ThunderShirt, which many shelters and rescues have reported great success with.
Reading their body language is crucial to safely and effectively bringing these dogs out of their shell. Positive body language signs include them being wiggly and loose, play bowing and loosely wagging their tail. Signs they are tense include circling, lip licking, yawning, looking away and puffing their cheeks. Some body language is a warning to leave them alone, and that needs to be respected for your safety and theirs. These warnings include a stiff body, maximizing their distance from you, whale eye, a hard stare straight at you and completely freezing, which involves stopping and holding their breath. The last one is the potentially very dangerous, as this indicates a decision making moment for the dog and may choose fight over flight.
When you get to the point where the dog is comfortable enough to learn basic commands, be sure to keep it simple and provide plenty of rewards. Sit, stay, leave it and loose leash walking are all highly valued by potential adopters and are on the easier side for dogs to learn. Be patient, keep it basic and set them up to succeed. If you would like more information on basic training for dogs, please read more here. If you find a dog in your care is particularly hand shy, please review this ASPCA article as well.