How to Empower Your Wallflower Dog

Summer is the perfect time to transform your shy rescue pup into the confident dog around town.

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It’s never too late to build up your dog’s confidence. Even though the initial “window of opportunity” is around 3 to 4 months of age, you can practice socialization throughout a dog’s life. Creating positive experiences in a variety of settings will empower your rescue dog to feel happy and secure, regardless of her age, and will strengthen your relationship with each other.

First, think about how you might affect your dog’s feelings about a situation. Dogs naturally tune into the subtleties of body language, so if you are tense, holding your breath, or tightening your grip on the leash, your dog might wonder if there is actually something to be nervous about. Focus on how you want to feel; for example, “I feel calm when my dog meets other dogs” or “I feel excited about going for a hike with my dog.” Repeat your new mantra daily, even if it doesn’t feel true at first.Take some deep breaths before heading out the door with your dog, and visualize the experience going exactly as planned.

Whether it’s your favorite park or a coffee shop, start by just walking your dog along the outskirts. Pay attention to her body language and how she reacts — does she seem nervous (ears back, tail low or tucked, lip licking) or does she seem interested and curious (moving forward, ears and tail up)? Also, notice how you react.Try to keep your body calm and relaxed, with a loose grip on the leash.

If your dog is uncomfortable, spend some time just walking by, getting closer each time. Take it slow. Reassure and reward her for what she is doing, even if that’s just standing quietly and watching. Focus on what she is doing, instead of worrying about what she is not doing. Even if your dog seems totally relaxed, hang out around these places when they aren’t as busy to make the initial experience less overwhelming.

Let your dog sniff or say a quick “hello” to people or other dogs if she wants to. Giving her the opportunity to meet new people and dogs one at a time is less stressful for both of you. Try the three-second rule: Let your dog “say hello” while keeping the leash loose, count to three, then move along. This is a good amount of time to let her sniff, but is short enough that no one will get nervous or upset.

Taking a training class together is another great way to build confidence. Dogs and their people get a lot out of basic training, and working together strengthens your bond. If your dog already knows the basics, check out an intermediate class or a fun agility class. The key to socialization is to take it slow and easy, and keep experiences fun! With a little love and understanding, your nervous Nellie will blossom into a brave dog who’s ready for any summer adventure!

Abbie Mood, Dip. CBST

Abbie lives in Colorado with her dogs Daisy, Sadie, and Buster, and can usually be found outside with one of them. She is a dog trainer and freelance writer who loves to explore environmental and animal rights issues. Find out more about her at and Follow her on Twitter @abbiemood and Instagram @abbiemood.


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