Solving dog reactivity or helping a shy/fearful dog become less nervous follows the same training plan. You must teach your dog to be relaxed and calm with all people, places, things, and other dogs they meet. Essentially, if your dog is shy, or acting aggressively, at a root level your dog is not feeling safe and confident, and needs more socialization. 

Dog behaviorists and veterinarians agree, training requires patiently introducing your dog to different stimuli (potential triggers) at tolerable levels, and helping your dog learn to cope by associating those experiences with positive experiences like treats and calm energy. (This is known as Desensitization and Counterconditioning.)

At Zen Dog Training, we call this approach a “‘Coping Strategy” and it includes techniques like “Jolly Talk” and “Treats for Confidence.” Essentially, your dog should feel safe and comfortable with everyone they meet, be accepting of going to new places, and not feel the need to act protective. 

Most importantly, you cannot allow your dog to bark, growl, lunge or act aggressively. One part of the training plan is to help your dog learn to move past their fears and anxieties, the other part is to be able to stop reactive behaviors such as excessive barking or aggressiveness. 

Zen Dog Training Options

At Zen Dog Training we teach clients that there are several training options to master when it comes to rehabilitating shy, fearful or reactive dogs. 

  • Coping Strategies – Training plans that help your dog learn to become comfortable with their fears and phobias, as well as, not feel protective.
  • Positive Reinforcement – Training to teach your dog to focus on you, look, come, walk by your side so you can distract and refocus your dog when needed.
  • Interrupting Unwanted Behaviors – Knowing how to stop your dog from staring, barking excessively, lunging, or acting aggressively, without punishment or anger. 
  • The Secret to Zen Dog Training – Setting up “teachable moments” where you carefully structure the environment to safely improve behaviors.  

While this may seem like a lot to learn, it is important to remember that fearful, reactive, and protective dogs need more help than other dogs. You must move beyond merely avoiding triggers and problems. Mastering training means changing your dog’s underlying phobias with patience and practice.

The good news is that training is not hard. Many of our clients see huge-improvements in 30 days or less.

Coping Strategies

A coping strategy (desensitization and counterconditioning plan) is the best way to help your dog feel more Zen about the world. Helping dogs overcome their phobias is difficult and will take time and patience. Avoiding common mistakes helps speed up the learning process and reduces stress for both you and your dog. (See: 6 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Training a Shy, Fearful, or Protective Dog

You will see results quickly if you focus on using a coping strategy to change negative associations, rather than always distracting your dog with commands.

Positive Reinforcement Training

All good dog training depends on being able to communicate with your dog in a language they understand. Teaching commands using rewards like treats, love, and attention is the easiest way to improve the bond you have with your dog and help them enjoy working with you. 

Getting your dog to listen to you during training is the best way to refocus them. The key is to use treats as rewards, not bribes. This way your dog will learn to listen even when you do not have treats around. Positive reinforcement training depends on using a reward marker like “Yes!” and letting your dog know what you want them to do by encouraging good behaviors.

Interrupting Unwanted Behaviors

When things are not going as planned, you should be able to interrupt your dog to stop unwanted behaviors in gentle ways that help them understand your rules.  

You want your dog to know that excessive barking and aggressive behaviors must stop, so knowing how to gently interrupt your dog when they are over threshold and acting out, is an essential part of the training process.

Your intervention should be as calm and peaceful as possible. Interrupting unwanted behaviors should never depend on force, but works with meaningful consequences and gentle persistence. (See: Zen Dog Training)

The Secret to Zen Dog Training

In order for training to work, you must be able to control the outcome and teach lessons. The secret to our training is to create teachable moments where training can happen under your control. By using the right tools and equipment, and carefully choosing the right environment and situations, surprises and set-backs can be avoided, and training can happen on your terms. 

Success depends on creating environments where you can safely repeat lessons and improve how your dog feels about their phobias. So having tools like high-value treats, a well-fitted collar, 6-foot leash and front-clip harness makes it easier to train. 

Try Not to Act Emotional or Overly Sympathetic

Helping dogs cope with their fears means putting them in situations where they get mildly startled or surprised so you can work on improving their response to triggers. Results come quickly when training is done at therapeutic levels and your dog is not overwhelmed. 

Talking too much and acting overly sympathetic can become a problem. Sometimes, when our dogs appear nervous or fearful, we over-sympathize with them by trying to  console or soothe them. Adding too much emotional energy runs the risk of endorsing or encouraging anxious behaviors.

We recommend “coach talk” rather than “baby talk” because you want your words to help your dog become more confident and not feel that you are nervous and worried too. Imagine how you would talk to a child who fell off the swing set. You want them to  feel supported and courageous enough to go back to playing happily. 

Seek the Guidance of a Professional Dog Trainer 

Rehabilitating reactive, fearful, shy or protective dogs is one of the most difficult behaviors to solve. We recommend contacting a professional dog trainer to ensure you have all the resources and guidance you need. 

If you are interested in getting the entire Zen Dog Training plan for a reactive, shy, or fearful dog, you can purchase our Helping a Shy, Fearful, or Protective Dog training guide or contact Zen Dog Training to find a professional dog trainer.