Many of us have, or know, a shy or over reactive dog. These dogs are aroused by certain events, or 'triggers' in their environments, and we often call them anxious dogs. These dogs experience states of high, prolonged anxiety that shows itself behaviorally in any number of ways. Some of the things we may witness are: lack of focus, spinning, panting, shaking, jumping up, snapping at the air, barking, growling, whining, an inability to eat or disinterest in food, and still more. These are all symptomatic of a dog's anxiety.
As a dog owner, understanding that anxiety is at the root of these behaviors is important in helping to teach your dog that the fear he or she is experiencing isn't necessary, and that they can depend on you, via a solid bond of trust, to handle all of the strange and unexpected things the world has to offer.
While we love them, shy or over reactive dogs can be difficult to live with. It may be only a single trigger your dog has to contend with, or there may be several. In order to change the reaction, first one must identify precisely what the trigger is and then change the dog's emotional response to the trigger. There is a right way to do this, and a wrong way.
Behavior modification is absolutely the way to go for your anxious or over reactive dog. It begins with careful observation of your dog's behavior and body language, and then analysis of this behavior to determine best practices for behavior modification going forward. First, the trigger or stimulus that precedes the reaction needs to be reduced (and in some cases, eliminated) to a degree that gives no response from the dog. This allows us to 'get in there' and recondition the emotional reaction to the trigger, and in time, recondition the dog to offer some appropriate behaviors. And it is important to note here: if your trainer/handler offers you a 'solution' to your shy/reactive dog's behaviors that involves fear, force, or pain, decline their services. These approaches will result in one, if not both of the following: a dog that has shut down completely due to fear of punishment and is, in essence, a powder keg waiting to explode, or a dog that is even more reactive as a baseline than when you began.
If you have a shy or over reactive dog, enlist the help of a handler who can help you develop the observational and anticipatory skills needed to guide your dog into healthy, appropriate emotional responses to life's daily challenges.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.