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Posted on Tue, May 21, 2013 : 6 a.m.

Fearful dogs who bite must have their confidence built slowly by calm owners

By Julia Levitt


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Editor's note: National Dog Bite Prevention Week is May 19 - 25. Click here to read a post from Monday on preventing dog bite incidents, which includes a comprehensive guide from the American Veterinary Medical Assocation.

“I’ve done everything right!” my client Jane sobbed. “I‘ve taken the puppy to be socialized. I go to dog parks. Nothing seems to work.”

Jane’s puppy was now a dog — a rather large dog. The problem? Erratic biting.

Let’s start at the beginning. The puppy, Max, was the shyest one in the litter. Jane felt sorry for him when she went to pick out a puppy. She felt sure that she could “bring the puppy out of its shell” with a lot of TLC.

Next step — Jane takes the puppy to puppy class. At puppy class, Max always hid behind a chair. When another puppy approached him to play, Max would cower.

As difficult as it can be for big-hearted owners, shy puppies must be taught to sit at your side — not to cower behind you. Sitting at your side builds the puppy’s confidence. If an overly-rambunctious puppy approaches the shy puppy, you can block the rambunctious puppy with your body.

Many puppies come to class with fear or shyness, just like Max. But most often, to the happiness of not only puppy’s owner but the supportive class mates, the puppy comes out of its shell.

Next came the dog park. Jane was convinced Max could romp and play with other small pups. She was happy to chat with her friends at the dog park, but her inattention left Max defenseless, and soon the snapping began. Why? Max was fearful. He needed to build up his confidence.

Walks with Max were equally unpleasant. Max alternated between dragging Jane down the street at the beginning of the walk, and then yipping and barking at passing dogs. When I met Max he was lunging at other dogs.

Jane had stopped walking him. She was afraid. Max was dragging her down the street when he saw not only another dog but anything that moved, including cats, squirrels, and kids on bikes.

Helping a fearful dog can be a long, slow process. The method for building confidence in a fearful dog is counter-intuitive to us humans. We believe that exposure to new environments and to other dogs will be the to key to helping our dog. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.

Until the dog has confidence in us and our ability to keep the dog safe, no amount of exposure to new or frightening situations is going to give the dog the confidence it needs. The dog’s confidence grows as they grow more confident in their owner’s readiness to protect them.

This does not mean that the owner is coddling the dog — but rather that the owner is exuding calm confidence — confidence in themselves and confidence in their dog. The dog gains confidence, self-confidence, when the “leader of the pack” is calmly in charge and calmly introducing the dog to new and increasingly challenging situations. For many dogs, the level of challenge should be increased at a slow pace to increase the likelihood of success.

My recommendation: If you are unsure about the temperament of a new puppy you are considering, take a professional with you when you visit the puppy for the second time.

That’s right — DO NOT buy the first puppy you see. If the breeder is in that much of a hurry to sell the puppy, walk away. You will fall in love with another puppy. If you do own a shy puppy, seek help in training the puppy. The money will be well spent.

Julia Levitt is the founder of In Harmony Dog Training ( in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at or at 734-645-4707. Julia provides individual training for dogs and their owners, and also conducts dog training classes at Ann Arbor Animal Hospital.