Why the car is a shy dog’s best friend

Car rides help a shy dog relax and overcome her nervousness. She enjoys watching the scenery roll by and sniffing the breeze.
By Christelle L. Del Prete

If Rella had an invisibility cloak, few people would ever catch a glimpse of her. And even without a magical piece of clothing, this timid dog knows how to disappear. When strangers are around, especially when there’s a group of unfamiliar faces, Rella tends to shut down and make herself small. The nervous dog will dive into a dog house or crate, sink into her bed, hide behind a piece of furniture or flatten herself against the wall. If people didn’t look for her, they probably wouldn’t even realize the shy dog is there at all.

On the other hand, when Rella is comfortable with someone (and no one else is around), her fearful dog body language starts to fade away. Her mouth softens into a smile and her tail unfurls from its usual tucked-in position. And she lifts her head and looks around, instead of keeping her nose pointed at the ground.

Since Rella was brought to the Sanctuary last December from a shelter that was closing its doors, there’s been a handful of times when she’s acted just like any other happy dog. She’s greeted Dogtown caregivers by jumping around her room or her yard with her tail wagging. In those shining moments, it’s like seeing a new side of someone that you didn’t even know existed.

Rella, the senior chocolate Labrador retriever mix

How to calm a nervous dog

Dogtown caregivers know how to calm down a scared dog, and they’re experts at socializing dogs. So, although that confident, carefree side of Rella is elusive, caregivers have drawn a map to that confidence by using the things that make Rella feel at ease. Each time Rella travels with someone down this “path,” finding her way back to a place of calmness is a little bit easier and less stressful.

Learn more about helping shy dogs

It isn’t hard to get there, because after all, Rella is a dog who seeks serenity and there’s plenty of that at the Sanctuary. It’s during the busy times in Dogtown (when there’s lots of foot traffic) that Rella is most likely to run and hide. It’s also the best time to take her on an outing.

If you whisk Rella away from the hustle and bustle of daily life and take her on a car ride, you can almost see her breathe a sigh of relief. She may hunker down and act nervous at first, but she quickly becomes mesmerized by the scenery rolling. And if you open the window just a little, she’ll put her nose up to sniff the breeze.

Rella the dog going on a car ride, looking out the window toward the rear view mirror

Rella becomes a little more relaxed with her driver, too. It’s unlikely that she’s ready to be best friends at this point, but that door is starting to open, or she’s at least handed over the key.

How to help a fearful dog gain confidence

A car feels like a safety blanket to Rella, and it can be of great help in overcoming shyness in dogs. Being able to ride comfortably in a car opens up a whole new world for dogs, especially since they’ll have to travel after they are adopted.

To truly gain confidence, Rella has to expand her horizons. Stopping the car so that she can stretch her legs and explore a quiet new place does wonders for her. That’s because it’s not simply desensitivity training, where increased exposure to something (in this case a place) triggers less of a reaction each time. It takes real courage for Rella to explore new environments by walking down a new path, seeing different sights, hearing different sounds and smelling different smells. And each time she does it successfully, she gains more confidence for the next time.

Rella the dog in the passenger seat of a car

Shy dog learns to enjoy life’s ride

Rella’s first steps with a new person or in a new place may always be halting, and fear may always cause her to hesitate. But more and more, she’s learning what it feels like to first become comfortable and then to come alive. In those moments, Rella relaxes, forgets her fears and truly enjoys life’s ride.

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Rella, going for a walk with a woman, in Angel Canyon

Photos by Molly Wald