It Takes More Than Love

by Denise Mazzola, CPDT – KA

I have worked with hundreds of family’s and their dogs, maybe even thousands of rowdy, barky, peeing in the house, run away dogs, but surprisingly, the most challenging dogs I’ve worked with are the shy, fearful ones.

These are the puppies that were curled up in the corner when the family went to select their new dog – their soft dark eyes, lowered ears and low energy drew them in with an “ahhhh”.

“All she needs is love,” the family thinks, but the reality of those shy, quiet puppies can be much different then what they envisioned.

It’s not just puppies, adolescent and adult dogs can present the same way. Potential forever homes are convinced that the dog will blossom under their love, home cooked meals and walks in the fields.

This isn’t always the case. Yes, there are exceptions, however, potential families should know all the possible outcomes before adopting/purchasing the shy dog.

Gary and Laura called me because their newly adopted, beautiful lab was growling at Gary’s dad, who lives with them. Shadow was brought up from the south and his description said he was good with people and got along with other dogs. Laura and Gary enjoy hiking, walking and traveling. Their previous dog went everywhere with them. They were looking forward to the same lifestyle with their new dog.

Shadow’s description was not completely true. He was good with Gary and Laura, but not with anyone else. He was afraid of blowing leaves, noises, people walking towards him, other dogs, anything that was out of place. He would randomly become nervous, afraid and run away from them when they tried to put his harness on.

Shadow learned “sit” and “down” on verbal and hand command, and he learned “leave it” but after three months he was still growling at Gary’s dad. After months of my working with them, Shadow never remembered who I was. I was never able to directly interact with him. Each visit was like the first date, we had to start all over again.

On one of our last sessions we were working outside, Shadow cautiously taking treats, but not getting any closer than necessary, when I looked at Laura and said, “it takes more than love.” She looked at me and acknowledged that she thought love would fix him.

If you find yourself with a shy fearful dog the best thing you can do is train her. Engage her brain in a productive way. Teach her as many commands and tricks as you can and use positive reinforcement techniques. Make her work from her operant brain, the front part of her brain, not the lizard brain where she is living in constant fight or flight mode.

Use associative learning around all new surroundings. Associations are happening all the time, you might as well get on top of them and make them positive. Use generous amounts of high value food, chicken, roast beef, cheese –  handfuls of chicken, not tiny pieces. Keep your outings short and with as little stress as possible.

If you need even more help see a veterinary behaviorist who is proficient in pharmacology. Medication can help lessen the anxiety so that learning can happen more easily. Lastly, be patient, love helps, but it’s not the complete answer.

For more on adopting a dog that is a good fit for your family, read Choosing the Right Dog.

Certified Professional Dog Trainer Denise Mazzola is the owner of Denise Mazzola’s Everything Dog. She has been working with people and training dogs using reinforcement based methods for over 25 years. Everything Dog provides services to clients throughout the Monadnock Region of NH by offering private lessons, group classes, board and train, as well as day training services.

Denise has been published in the trade journal, Chronicle of the Dog, and writes a monthly column for the Monadnock Ledger Transcript. She also hosts a monthly “Ask the Trainer” radio show on WKBK. Denise lives in Keene with her life and business partner, Amy Willey CPDT-KA, and they share their home with three dogs and three daughters. For more information, visit

Denise Mazzola

Denise Mazzola


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