Shy dog socialization through the power of treats

Dogtown volunteers help train and socialize timid, reticent, shy dogs, a beagle and a dachshund. Here is how they did it.
By Christelle L. Del Prete

On a late summer afternoon, Best Friends volunteers Sue Andrew and Linda Thake follow a caregiver over to a small tree, where they sit down on the red sand and get comfortable. For the next 20 minutes, their jobs are to sit quietly — or as quietly as two good friends having a great time possibly can — to offer treats to two shy dogs.

The dogs are Carla and Mary Jane, a dachshund and a beagle mix who are cautious but curious about the women.

A bashful beagle and a distrustful dachshund

Mary Jane, who came to Best Friends from a beagle rescue in Florida, has done this before. She knows that the two women are holding out tiny tasty treats and inviting her to come closer to them. Though she is bashful and unassertive, she’s not unsocial. She’s also not so scared or skittish that she’ll turn down treats for long. Slowly, she dances closer and closer, with her keen beagle nose twitching and her mouth opening, anticipating the treat.

Carla is new to this, having arrived here recently from a large Texas sanctuary that was closing its doors. This is her first shy dog training class with volunteers, and she’s understandably reluctant to dive in. Though she’s interested in the treats, too, she’s more introverted than Mary Jane, and also more hesitant.

The distrustful dachshund can’t bear it if either of the strangers looks at her. She turns her head away, avoiding eye contact. But then one of them tosses a treat toward her. It lands on the sand a few steps closer to the volunteers, but not so close that it feels unsafe. Carla sniffs the air and starts to think maybe — just maybe — she can inch close enough to reach the tempting treat.

Sue Andrew and Linda Thake with Mary Jane the beagle and Carla the dachshund, two shy dogs who needed socialization training

Training a fearful dog

Volunteers Sue and Linda and the two shy dogs Mary Jane and Carla are participating in a small but important program in an area of Dogtown that is home to several very shy dogs. There, volunteers learn about training a fearful dog, while at the same time helping dogs like Carla and Mary Jane.

A version of shy dog class

The work Mary Jane and Carla are doing on this summer afternoon is a version of Dogtown’s traditional shy dog class. Facing a pair of strangers is less intimidating to extra-shy dogs like Carla and Mary Jane than facing a whole group of unfamiliar faces. And the dogs gain skills that help them work up to a larger shy dog class, where the dogs are loose in an indoor room and several people sit in a circle and offer treats to the shy dogs.

“It’s been a huge success for both the dogs and the volunteers,” Dogtown caregiver Haven Diaz says. People who volunteer in pairs, like Sue and Linda, love it because it’s something they can do together.

Because shy dogs are in a pivotal stage in which they’re deciding whether or not they can trust people, caregivers make sure to match the right volunteers with the shy dogs who could use their help. Haven says, “I look for dog-savvy volunteers to do this, because I want to make sure that the people will be safe and it will be a good experience for the dogs.”

Volunteers with skills

Sue and Linda fit this bill. Sue has been to the Sanctuary five or six times. And, while this is Linda’s first visit to Best Friends, she too has good skills around dogs. At home in St. Louis, both ladies volunteer for Stray Rescue of St. Louis, a Best Friends No More Homeless Pets Network partner.

At Stray Rescue, the friends walk dogs and help with a rehabilitation and enrichment program that pairs them to work with a shy or traumatized dog for months at a time. They take dogs on various outings (such as drives and hikes) to help socialize them or teach them how to trust people again.

That experience helps Sue and Linda know just what to do at Best Friends when they meet their new shy canine friends, Carla and Mary Jane.

Have skills to share? Volunteer.

A social butterfly in no time

Throughout the 20 minutes, Mary Jane (the beagle) works up enough confidence to nibble treats right off of Linda’s knee.

As for Carla, the treats that Sue and Linda have tossed on the ground have drawn her closer. She won’t approach their outstretched hands, but she does stop a few feet in front of them to take treats from the ground, and that’s progress.

When the session is over, Sue and Linda write notes and observations into each of the dog’s individualized training plans. That way, caregivers can chart the dogs’ progress over time and see how far they’ve come.

Carla may not have taken treats from Sue and Linda’s hands on the first day, and she stayed well out of reach of the friends sitting under the tree. But, for her very first day in the shy dog training program, she did great. And, with volunteers like Sue and Linda on her side, she’ll be a social butterfly in no time.

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Mary Jane the beagle begins to trust volunteers Sue Andrew and Linda Thake

Photos by Molly Wald