Roxy Gets Some Moxie: Helping Build Self-Assurance

Just like people, dogs can be introverted or may have experiences that elicit shyness.

Just like people, dogs can be introverted or may have experiences that elicit shyness.

You hear it all the time – dogs are outgoing and boisterous while cats are more reserved and judicious in their reactions to people.

That just isn’t true.

It’s a misnomer that all dogs are naturally outgoing. Just like people, some dogs are just less outgoing than others. Yes, dogs can be introverted. In some cases, dogs have experiences that may trigger an inherent shyness or catalyze shy behavior, which does create a slightly different dynamic, but either way there are just times when a dog’s social skill set has some additional challenges. (Important distinction that, like with people, there is a difference between introversion and shyness. For reference check out this great TED talk by Susan Cain). When a dog exhibits what a human sees as fearful or shy behavior, all too often the human reaction is to comfort or coddle said dog – especially if it’s a small breed – by picking up, carrying and otherwise providing what human instinct would suggest is the right move. Problem is, in canine linguistics it’s precisely the wrong thing to do. Rather we need to encourage our canine kids to stand on their own four feet.

In a pack scenario, the leader would not tolerate a pack member cowering (not to be confused with a pack member showing deference and submission to said leader). More to the domesticated dog scenario, when a pup shows some level of hesitance in a situation where there isn’t something to fear, the mother dog will not coddle it but rather nudge that pup forcing it to face its fear.

When pups are first born they’re entirely defenseless. Born only with a sense of smell, they can neither see nor hear nor can they walk. Over the following weeks the senses come on line and when they get to about 5-6 weeks of age they begin to become more adventurous and begin exploring their surroundings. During this period, the mother carefully watches her charges, encouraging them to explore and making sure they stay safe.

At just about 8-10 weeks, puppies then go through a regressive period, becoming somewhat more timid and hesitant. This is precisely the timeframe during which young puppies are torn away from their birth families and thrown into lives with humans. Pups in new surroundings are naturally cautious, add to that the fact that they’re in a period of development that also brings hesitancy and its no wonder that pups cry, whimper and otherwise express discomfort when they arrive in our homes.

And what do we do? We cuddle, cajol and speak in comforting tones. After all, that’s what we’d do to comfort a human, right? I’ll leave aside the discussion about overindulging and coddling humans too, and for the sake of this discussion stick to pups …

When faced with a pup whose demeanor inclines to the hesitant or seemingly timid, rather than trying to soften things by picking them up, speaking in soft tones or shielding them from the situations altogether, the way to get the dog balanced is to expose them over and over in a way that helps them see there is no reason to be fearful.

Case in point…

Meet Roxy the Dachshund. When she arrived at The Hydrant Club yesterday for the first of what will be 10 consecutive days of all day playgroup, to say that she was nervous would be an understatement. Everything about her body language was shy and fearful. She trembled although it wasn’t cold. Her ears were flat against her head and her tail was tucked so far under her body that, well, let’s just say that it kinda looked like she had some boy parts.

Rather than holding her and shielding her from all the dogs, I immediately put Roxy on the floor with the other pups. She attempted to hide under the chair, and then under the table. Each time she was gently but firmly drawn out into the center of the room where the other dogs could sniff her and she could sniff them. Then she attempted to leap into the laps of any human who was sitting. We rebuffed each effort, again gently putting her to the floor. After about 15 minutes she was wandering around the room easily with the other dogs.

We spent quite a bit of time outside in the off-leash area as well, insuring that rather than sitting in laps or hiding in corners, that Roxy was spending time wandering through the open expanses of the park.

On day two, Roxy arrived and trotted into the off-leash area with her tail held high. After we returned inside to the playroom, Roxy began really settling in …

UPDATE – this is a quick video of Roxy on her fourth morning at Hydrant Club. When she was dropped off today, her babysitter who’s been dropping her off here every day, noted that Roxy is walking with more assurance when she leaves daycare. She’s more alert, engaged and seems far more relaxed.