It’s your job to help and show your puppy that the “scary thing” isn’t so scary after all, and one of the best ways to do that is by redirecting their attention. And what can be better than a game?! Well it's not a game per say (don't expect to play ball with your pup when he/she is scared out of his/her wit) but a desensitization training. In plain words, you’ll be teaching your puppy to focus on something else rather than “that scary thing” with the help of old fashion redirection (taking his/her focus off it). When you play with your puppy using positive reinforcement you’re giving him/her directions. He/she relies on you to teach him/her what to do, and play is one of the easiest ways to do it.
There’s no quick fix for helping a shy or fearful puppy build up his/her confidence – it’s going to take time and patience on your part. But once you start working on obedience through play/games and building a routine (expected outcome for your puppy) you will start to notice a difference in your puppy’s focus. Rather than fixating on all the scary things he/she’ll start to look to you for his/her next cue.
When you play with your puppy you’re teaching him/her various skills and introducing him/her to new cues and objects. By keeping it positive he/she’ll be gaining confidence when it comes to facing new situations and objects. Just keep in mind that for fearful or shy puppies building confidence takes longer. It’s still possible, and it’s definitely worth it – it just takes a lot of patience and consistency. Each new situation that you create for your puppy in a positive way will help him/her face new ones in the future.
Here are two simple game activities that are great for training and are especially useful when working with a shy or fearful puppy.
THE NAME GAME Teaching (or conditioning) your puppy his/her name will help him/her feel comfortable around people (even strangers!). The name game is where you will teach him/her to feel good when somebody says his/her name. 👉Fearful and shy puppies often don’t even feel comfortable when people talk to them. 👈 So be patient.
Start with some extra special treats, say your puppy’s name and toss him/her a treat and repeat over and over. The treats should be irresistible to your pup so choose his/her most favourite one for this game or you could use a portion of his/her daily food for this game, but whatever it is, your puppy should want it (I find it best to play during meal times). Repeat this game exercise several times a day (meal and treat times are perfect 😜🤗). You want your puppy to associate his/her name with something good. When the puppy begins to look at you when you say his/her name you can add in your “yes” word (right! good!), or use a clicker to let the puppy know that, when you say his/her name he/she should look at you. 👉Some puppies will be frightened by treats being tossed at them, so keep that in mind when working with your puppy.👈 Once your puppy will start to associate his/her name with a yummy treat you can start handing him/her treat rather than tossing it. Watch for attention cues. Is he/she looking at you? Say his/her name and once you see a response hand feed him/her the yummy treat.
HAND TARGETING Again, start with a pile of extra special treats. Hold one out in the palm of your hand and when your puppy takes it use your ‘yes’ word (or clicker). After a few repetitions of this, loosely close your palm around the treat and hold it out to your puppy. When the puppy sniffs, moves toward or touches your hand, praise and give them the treat. Repeat this until your puppy understands that he/she needs to touch your hand. Once your puppy is reliably touching your hand you can then add the command, “touch it” or “target”. Repeat this game exercise several times using the command word.
The next step is to hold out your hand and use your command word, but this time there is no treat in your hand. When your puppy touches your hand you praise him/her and reward him/her with a treat from the other hand. Eventually you can begin to hold out other objects for your puppy to touch. If your puppy likes to play with toys you can ask your puppy to touch your hand, or the toy, before you toss or tug it. Move your hand into different positions to get your puppy used to having hands appear over his/her head or next to him/her. You can teach your puppy to target the back of your hand and the palm.
Once you master these simple games you and your puppy can move to the next level. These games help with an introduction to new objects (potentially fearful), strangers and new situations that can cause stress and/or fear. As well it's a great start to recall training. Desensitization helps your dog focus on something other than fear, and in time it turns those negative emotions into positive ones. But please do keep in mind that helping/teaching a shy or fearful puppy will take patience and dedication, and it’s something you’ll need to continually work on when your puppy (and letter an adult dog) becomes nervous in a new situation. So teaching your puppy a few basic commands through play and games that they can focus on when dealing with new situations will be a great help.