How to Socialize a Shy Sheltie
As a submissive breed, Shelties can shy dogs if they aren't well socialized as puppies. Missing this window is a huge loss for a Sheltie, but there are ways to help boost his confidence in adulthood.
While the aim is to breed self-assured, confident Shelties, there is no denying that sometimes these can be very shy dogs. This is usually a result of poor socialization when they are young, although there is an underlying genetic component to this trait.
As a result, some Shetland Sheepdogs can grow up to be fearful of strangers, causing them to alarm-bark or run away altogether. This is not a good trait to see in your Sheltie. It just makes them extremely nervous.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Socializing Shelties when they're young does not take much effort and it seriously boosts their confidence for the rest of their lives. While you can't undo their genetics, there is a lot you can do to help your dog overcome her instinctive shyness and feel better about the big wide world.
What is Sheltie Shyness?
As you know, we met Piper when he was nine months old, which is well past the ideal window for socializing puppies. He’d spent his formative months as a kennel dog, getting lots of playtime with other dogs but not as much human socialization as a pet dog. This made him incredibly shy with us. When he laid eyes on us, he balled up like a hedgehog and refused to come any closer than arm's reach.
Piper was also very hand shy, meaning he flinched whenever we went to pat him. This doesn't mean he was abused. In Shelties, this is just another form of shyness; he was anxious that we wanted to touch him as he didn’t understand our intentions. He also tensed up his whole body when we picked him up, another mark of his nervousness around strangers. And was extremely wary of young children.
These are all typical traits of shy dogs, who often haven't had sufficient variety of human interaction growing up to understand what kind of people are safe. However, over the next few months Piper started to overcome his shyness as he got to see the wider world. Unfortunately his inherent nervousness means he's not nearly as confident as his half-brother, Howard and this can make his life difficult in certain situations.
How to Socialize a Puppy
The best time to socialize your puppy (with all kinds of humans and dogs) is between 8 and 16 weeks old. After that, the window for socialization closes and it's much harder to influence your dog's underlying attitude and behavior.
Studies also show that puppies who don't receive enough contact during 5-12 weeks of age can never react normally with humans again. This is an extremely sensitive period of a dog's life and is also when they form their strongest bonds.
Here's a quick-start guide to socializing puppies and overcoming shyness in dogs:
- At home - The first time you bring your new puppy home, allow them to safely explore the whole house and all the new smells it contains. You want your Sheltie puppy to quickly settle in to her new home environment.
- In town - Carry your Sheltie puppy to the coffee shop and allow strangers to stroke her and offer treats. There will be lots of new noises and smells for the puppy, but they are still completely safe under your protection.
- On the street - Traffic can be terrifying to shy dogs so you need to have the opposite reaction. If a noisy car or bus goes by, make silly noises, offer treats and generally act excited. This will help distract her from having a fear response.
- Meeting people - Socializing puppies with humans is easy. Take them to a gathering of friends and family and let everyone take their time to say hello. Try to not overwhelm your Sheltie, but let them meet everyone over a period of at least 30 minutes. There will be lots of different smells, voices and behaviors for your dog to assimilate.
- Meeting other dogs - It's important to socialize your puppy with other dogs in a controlled environment like puppy school or on walks with other friendly dogs (don't always assume - just ask). They can start to meet other puppies after their second vaccination.
How to Socialize a Shy Adult Sheltie
Shy dogs are fearful of almost anyone new. Their genetic instincts along with their early experiences as a puppy, create an automatic stress reaction. It's your job to give them lots of new, positive experiences with all kinds of people and gradually wean that behavior out of them.
When socializing any dog over four months old, follow the same advice as socializing puppies, but with a few key differences:
If your Sheltie is afraid of a particular new person, tell that person to move well away and just ignore your dog. Then approach that person and act friendly and jolly, so your dog can see that you accept them.
Throw a couple of treats to lure your Sheltie closer and have the stranger crouch down, but without making eye contact with the dog. The idea is to allow the dog to approach in her own time without feeling threatened.
Praise and reward your dog for coming closer and eventually allow the stranger to rub the dog's chin and chest, but not the head as this can be threatening. Once your Sheltie has the chance to smell and interact with this non-threatening person, they can become friends for life.
Meeting other dogs
This is a bit trickier, because you can't predict the other dog's behavior towards your shy dog. Ideally find a friend's dog who has a gentle and submissive personality. It can be a big dog—in fact, you'll often find that very small dogs like Terriers can be more snappy and unpredictable, while large mountain or sheepdogs are gentle giants.
Introduce both dogs in a neutral territory (so neither one is the invader) and off the leash (so neither is restricted). Ideally, your Sheltie will have the opportunity to approach the other dog in her own time and sniff all the necessary places. This is a much better experience than a dominant dog catching your Sheltie off guard.
Once terrified of new people, Piper now accepts people coming and going at the house and settles in well to large gatherings. He still has tremendous difficulty with unfamiliar kids who scream and move quickly and his response is to rush them or herd them. We find putting him on a leash reassures him we're in control and he can step down.
Remember that around their trusted owners, shy dogs can act just the same as confident dogs. This shows just how comfortable they feel around you. And if they can feel this relaxed with you, then they can feel this relaxed around most calm people, given enough time and encouragement.