The puppy class is loud with barking puppies jumping and bouncing happily over the padded floor. All the puppies are about the same age, but you can already tell that some are bound to be much bigger when they reach their full size. The Bernese Mountain dog puppy rolls on his back while a Beagle mix chews on his ears. A Yorkie, the smallest of the group, is right there with the rest of the group running back and forth with a small brown dog and a bigger Visla pup.
Your puppy doesn't engage the other dogs and mostly stays under your chair watching the action. The trainer comes over and tries to coax her out with a treat, but she won't come out or take the treat.
Is this normal? Should you be concerned?
No, it is not normal and yes, you should be concerned.
As a private dog trainer I have many responsibilities. Often I show my clients how to work with their dog to train her to be more obedient such as not jumping on guests, stopping puppy biting, or walking nicely on leash. (See my free dog training videos for samples on these topics and more.)
I also work with fear, anxiety and aggression if those issues are present.
But, I think my most important jobs are to help prevent problems before they start or prevent the beginning signs of a problem from turning into a major problem later on.
The scenario above is based on many conversations over the years with clients. Often people will hire me because their dog barks at people and/or dogs, has bitten someone, is "skittish" or unpredictable. I always get a history of a dog before I work with them and ask about their early experiences.
Often someone will say that their puppy was a "little shy" and then describe a story similar to the one above. They might say that they "were fine with other dogs" or got socialized properly but then also hid under their chairs at puppy class.
Their puppy might have been great with dogs, but after a couple questions I learn that "dogs" means great with the neighbor's dog but a little shy with all the other dogs in the neighborhood.
If you have questions about socialization, read this post about how to socialize your puppy or sign up for my free dog training forum on my video site.
As a shy puppy gets older, if they are not socialized properly, their shyness can later turn into aggression. They live a daily life of fear and uncertainty. It may look harmless, or even cute to see such a shy puppy but at some point they are probably going to perceive something that seems particularly threatening. Maybe it is just another dog being a bit over-exhuberant and jumping on them playfully. Maybe it is an adult that comes towards them a bit too quickly to say, "hello" and pet them. Maybe it is a toddler that falls on them.
They might at that point growl for the first time at this threat or show their teeth, or even bite.
What happens next? Unless it is a small child or puppy that doesn't pay attention to signals (and is at a greater risk of a bite) a person will probably back off. Your dog has now learned to growl, bark or show teeth when threatened. Even though this wasn't an actual threat, your dog has lived a life of fear and low confidence and reached her breaking point.
If dogs growl, bark or show teeth and it works for them, (the threat backs off) they can now think that showing aggression is the way to protect themselves. Then you can start to see aggression happen more frequently and escalate if the lower-level displays are not taken seriously. A bite might occur if the threats are not respected or multiple triggers are present.
For instance, a dog might not like her collar being touched, and might not like small children. If a small child approaches that dog and touches her collar, a bite might occur. If it was an adult, maybe the dog would have just growled instead.
If you think your puppy is shy and you are practicing sound socialization strategies and you are not seeing improvement, you should hire a good positive reinforcement trainer to assess the situation. Your puppy might benefit from a class, but often classes are too stressful. Before my full-time private practice, I taught classes for two years as well.
Don't lose sleep over this, but instead be proactive and take this very seriously. You will have your dog for a long time and a well-socialized, calm dog can more easily be an integrated part of your life. If you have to shelter your dog from normal stimuli that occur in your world, it will make more challenging for both you and your dog.
Sign up for my free dog training forum on my video site if you have questions.