Sensitive dogs have beautiful, intelligent natures and they are frequently misunderstood. They are more sensitive to stimuli such as sounds and they pick up on emotions more readily. They are easily stressed by factors that most other dogs are resilient to. They generally want to interact with humans and other dogs but are easily overwhelmed.
Sensitive dogs are particularly vulnerable to developing fear and anxiety issues if they have fearful experiences, especially during their early development. Many sensitive dogs develop a fear of strangers, particularly men. Reactive dogs are typically sensitive and easily go into fight, flight or freeze mode when they are afraid.
My Experience with Sensitive Dogs
I have always had a natural way with animals and timid, anxious and fearful cats and dogs very quickly come to trust me. I think a lot of it is that I am non-confrontational in my approach and I am also sensitive although I have learned assertiveness skills. My first dog as an adult had a very gentle, nature and she was a quick learner.
I socialised and trained her as puppy and the only challenge was her epilepsy which took her life when she was only two years old. My next dog adopted from a shelter was a reactive dog with a history of fear aggression from early trauma which was a potentially dangerous situation. He was very challenging but I learnt a lot from figuring out how to help him.
My next dog was a greyhound rescue. She was very fearful at first and she was reactive (but not aggressively) and it took some time of her to adjust to living in a house as she had never been properly socialised (but she quickly became a couch potato as many greyhounds do once they discover the comforts of home).
I've also cared for several hundred pets as a professional pet sitter, and some of these (at least 5%) were extra sensitive and prone to being fearful, timid and anxious and a few had a history of fear aggression. Some were reactive, but not necessarily in an aggressive way. Many of these dogs were afraid of men. I believe it's because men generally have lower voices and can sound terrifying for sensitive individuals (whether humans, dogs, cats) if they scold or yell.
Teaching a Sensitive Puppy
In the following video, I am meeting a sensitive puppy for the second time. Bailey is sensitive to noises, friendly yet hesitant, wants attention and affection but is a bit wary, wants to interact and she learns fast. She showed some mild signs of stress (occasional licking, yawning etc) which I put down to mainly being a very hot, uncomfortable day. All interaction was by invitation and was her choice. I would stop the affectionate touch if I thought it was too much but she kept coming back for more, despite being a bit unsure.
She still needs more positive socialisation experiences to avoid becoming very fearful or anxious. The first time I met her, she lacked basic manners, was hanging off my clothing and nipping and her new mum was feeling frustrated with her 'naughty' behaviour. I taught her quickly how to behave and to start learning using non-confrontational techniques. I will explain more below the video.
Stopping Unwanted Behaviours
Despite being sensitive and a bit shy, Bailey was very eager for my attention and affection and she did anything she could to get it, including hanging off my clothing and nipping - it would have been a game for her - she wanted to play and for me to give her attention. That is typical puppy behaviour and puppies need to be taught basic manners before they grow up into adults who continue to nip, jump up and zoom around the house at top speed (all potential safety hazards).
I quickly stopped her from inappropriate behaviours by temporarily withdrawing what she wanted - my attention. And then rewarded her using a soft sing-song voice and attention and affection as soon as she did any appropriate behaviours including just standing quietly, lying around or sitting. She quickly figured out that sitting got her plenty of attention, so I started teaching her sit by using the word 'sit' several times when she was sitting and then praising her.
She made no attempt to bite my clothing this second visit (I wore more puppy resistant clothing with, just in case) but I would have continued to use this technique if she had.
Once, she jumped up into my face, so I used the withdrawing attention technique - immediately stop play, stand up, no hands (including pushing away), no eye contact, no talking to her (including scolding) and then start interacting with her again when she is doing appropriate, calm behaviours.
I have used this simple contrasting of withdrawing and giving attention for all dogs who want to interact with me but lack basic manners (ie jump up on me or nip) to quickly teach them my personal boundaries in a non-confrontational way (which is safer and builds trust). Adult dogs who have had this kind of behaviour reinforced may be more persistent at first, but in a short time, they no longer jump up - at least not on me.
It's important to give your dog attention when they're showing appropriate behaviours, even if it's some gentle praise when they're just relaxing to let them know you approve. Otherwise they may resort (just like human children) to getting any attention they can, even negative attention. Play with your puppy often and socialise them with positive experiences.
Teaching During Play
I started to teach Bailey the basics of a recall ('come') plus we practised sitting which she had started to grasp the first time I met her. I didn't even need to lure her into a sit as she had figured out that she got plenty of attention when she volunteered it. I started teaching a verbal cue so I could have her sit when I asked her to. I saw her go into a 'down' incidentally, so I used that to start teaching her 'down' the same way I taught her 'sit' - the way I teach 'sit' and 'down' is very quick, easy and effective without frustration. I've edited out most of the repetitions to make the video shorter.
I didn't use any food treats at first and I only used them sparingly when I did - I didn't use any food at first and only ended up using about 1-2 teaspoon fulls of treats total. My attention and affection was very rewarding for her. All interaction is by her choice and nothing was military style drills - learning was all mixed up in play, affection and attention to keep it interesting for her. I used the exact same approach as a former high school science teacher and former private music teacher to keep students motivated - keep it interesting by mixing it up, making it enjoyable and helping them succeed. I looked for opportunities to teach her skills to communicate effectively and to stop problem behaviours developing.
Not All Dogs Want Interaction Initially
Nearly all dogs, including dogs of the sensitive variety do want interaction and attention. Sensitive dogs will generally only feel comfortable with certain people or dogs they feel safe with. Dogs who have not been socialised with positive experiences or have had fearful experiences are more likely to develop behavioural issues.
Some dogs want to interact but they are fearful, shy or timid. These sorts of dogs (and cats) I do not approach but let them have lots of distance, ignore them and go and sit down or sometimes even lie on the floor. If I talk, I use a very soft, gentle voice. Nearly all timid and fearful dogs will come over and greet me as soon as I sit down or shortly after. Very timid cats will usually come out for me within a day for affection.
One dog with a history of fear aggression from neglect and who only trusted two other people took four visits before she finally came up and nudged my hand. She then came for affection every time thereafter - I always let her initiate and only touched the body part offered and stopped until she nudged me for more. I gained her trust by feeding her (never out of my hand lest I lose fingers) and respecting her need for space.
I taught strangers how to greet my dog with fear aggression - keep their hands to themselves, don't approach him and just sit down and ignore him. He will gradually approach and then just use a gentle voice and only pat the body part offered, avoiding the top of his head and tail. Once he made a friend, he'd be very affectionate and playful and remember them even years later.
It's actually how I generally greet dogs for the first time as a professional pet sitter - let them make the first move and pretty much ignore them at first and let them come over to me - the timid ones typically do as soon as I sit down. The outgoing ones (most dogs) run straight up to greet me.
Some dogs are very territorial and pose a danger for pet sitters visiting the property - they do not want your attention either. The way I have managed such dogs is different again, but avoiding any confrontation. I will outline some red flags to look out (not all territorial dogs are very obvious) for for safety reasons and what I do to make things as safe as I can with such dogs in another blog post - it involves careful management as there are increased risks.
I will usually decline dogs I perceive to be a significant safety hazard and I do not attempt to train or walk these types of dogs myself. A professional trainer or behaviourist is recommended to train and rehabilitate such dogs but finding an ethical trainer is difficult and trainers have polarised philosophies.
Xanthe founded an award-winning pet sitting business in QLD, Australia in 2011. After selling the business, she returned to Taupo, New Zealand.
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