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Canine Behavior/Please help me rebuild my submissive/nervous dog's confidence and trust in me


Hi Jill, thank you for taking the time to read my question.  I have a five month old female whippet called Sky.  She is my first puppy and came to me from her breeder at 13 weeks.  Unfortunately she'd only received her first vaccination at 12 weeks so it was a while before I could take her out for walks, which meant her socialization was a bit delayed and it took a few months to get her confident enough to walk outside happily.  Now she absolutely loves walks, but does get anxious the first time we go to a new area.  Usually by the third time in a new place she feels comfortable enough to explore without being nervous.  She loves meeting new dogs and plays well (if a bit boisterously) with them.  With people, she shows a lot of interest in them when we walk past but as soon as they show interest in her she withdraws.  I'm in the process of introducing her to people by having them squat down, hold a treat in their hand facing away from her, avoiding eye contact, being quiet and letting her come to them.  It's a slow process but she is a bit more confident every time.  She just graduated a four week puppy class, and she was shaking from fear the first 15 minutes but after that she absolutely loved every minute of it.

Sky is very strongly bonded to me over anyone else in my family.  I'm home most days of the week so unless I'm out on an errand, we're together all the time.  I want to believe I'm doing everything right for her, but I know it's not the case because when she first came to me I made a big mistake which really damaged her confidence and warped our relationship.  My acquaintance told me that staring down a dog was a good way to discipline them.  It seemed quite harmless at the time and to be honest I was struggling with some of her behaviours so I tried it.  And I was amazed when it really WORKED.  So I kept doing it to her...  I think you know where I'm going with this... Of course, soon enough she decided that eye contact is not a good thing.  She also lost a lot of confidence and trust in me.  She was a slightly nervous girl to begin with, but whereas she used to trust me completely and lie on my stomach as a puppy she started to avoid being too close to my face.  For example she ducks when I try to kiss her nose; if I'm lying in my bed and she comes into my room, she will jump up on my bed happily and approach me like she used to but then she remembers that I'm scary so she suddenly stops, turns around and either curls up sadly at the foot of the bed or sometimes even leaves the room.  Even when I pat the bed and invite her close to me, almost half the time she won't accept.  I know that she really wants to have physical contact with me because when she doesn't, she will whine quietly (not in an attention-seeking way as I never acknowledge that.  It's more of an involuntary, frustrated whine that's not for anybody's benefit).   If she's very sleepy she becomes more trusting, and will flop down next to me like she used to.  It's like she desperately wants to be close to me, but she's holding back because she thinks I might get angry?  Sometimes I'll notice out of the corner of my eye that she's gazing at me, often over 10-20 minutes, but as soon as I look at her she looks away.

Whenever she comes towards me she holds her head low, and whereas she used to wag her tail strongly from the base (she still does when playing with other dogs), she now holds it low and flutters it in a submissive way.  She doesn't seem as comfortable with me touching or cuddling her as she used to...  I've noticed calming signals such as yawning, nervous licking, looking away, whale eye and curling around to sniff/nose her behind or the ground (she'll do this one a LOT).

I know that it's my fault because I so stupidly took some random person's advice instead of educating myself properly.  Obviously I stopped doing the staring as soon as I realized what was happening but I'd really like some advice for how to regain her trust and build her confidence because where we are right now, I don't even feel comfortable admonishing her verbally as she is so sensitive.  Not that I ever really have to scold her these days as she is really well behaved (unless I leave a toilet roll in her reach!).  I guess I just want to rebuild the trust she had in me.  Do you think it sounds like she will come around?  I love her no matter what but of course I would prefer it if she could regain her confidence and learn that she doesn't have to feel so insecure around me, especially because right now when we're in new situations and she's feeling anxious, I can sense that my presence isn't as comforting to her as it used to be.  I think she would adjust to new situations much faster if I could be her "rock"/"safe spot" again.  This is what I've been doing so far:

When I talk to her, I now NEVER make eye contact.  I try to not even point my head in her direction and I don't approach her from the front.  Only in training sessions do I try to encourage eye contact by marking the moment we lock eyes with a YES and then treating.  I do this with her name, and with the word "Look".  She picked up on it fast but we've been doing this for over a month and I'm not seeing improvement in how long she'll keep eye contact with me.  She inevitably looks away before I can count three seconds, sometimes two.  How can I encourage her to keep looking at me?  Everything happens very quickly and I'm afraid I might do more damage by marking the wrong moment.  It really saddens me to see how little she trusts me now; for example if I'm too enthusiastic with the YES, she looks very scared and for a split second acts like she expects me to hurt her. :(

I read that you should always let them come to you, which is what I did for a three weeks.  One day she jumped on my bed, approached me, then moved back to the base of my bed and curled up while she whined sadly.  I decided to take a risk and picked her up gently and put her half on my lap to see how she would react.  She was so calm, stopped whining and seemed so relieved!  Since then she's started to come closer to me on her own, but not every time.  Now I'm confused about whether I should keep pushing boundaries or continue to let her figure it out on her own.

To encourage her to be closer to me without forcing her, I started treating her while I'm on the couch or lying in bed, and also speaking to her quietly.  This has helped a LOT (she's asleep next to me as I type this).  It also helped form my theory that when I'm silent and facing away from her (like I am when I'm working at the computer), she thinks I'm angry at her and "shunning" her.  I know it sounds weird but to me it makes sense because when you want to discourage behaviours in dogs you're told to ignore, turn away and not give any attention.  And when I'm silent is precisely when she starts to act insecure: whining to herself, fidgeting/calming signals and progressively moving her head (and then her entire body) away from me.  As soon as I start speaking to her, she relaxes.  As soon as I stop talking, she starts acting nervous again!  I can't find any info online about this specifically; do you think I'm reading too deeply into things?  I honestly believe it (I can send you video if you'd like) but I'm not sure how I could address it... how do you teach a dog that just because you're silently sitting at the computer doesn't mean you're angry at her?  Do I just start introducing breaks in my chatter?  Right now I've gotten into the habit of even reading out loud whatever I'm working on to have a constant flow of sound until she's asleep or very relaxed.  It's distracting for me and not something I want to continue doing forever!  When I notice that Sky has curled away from me and is nosing her behind, if I talk to her she relaxes almost instantly.  If I stay silent, she will either start biting herself more vigorously OR move to a spot further away from me.  Which is why I opt to keep talking to her, but: ******Do you think that my talking to her when she's doing these calming signals means that I'm encouraging her to do this?  Should I stop talking to her while she's doing the sniffing?*******  This is the main question I have.  I know it took a lot of back story to get to this one small question; I just feel like a lot weighs on it because if I'm doing something that's actually detrimental, I want to stop asap... also any advice on how to show her that me being silent does NOT mean I'm angry, because I do spend a lot of my time working at the computer and it's not really an option for me to stop (would be nice!).  I went two days without working once and I actually saw an improvement in her so it's really frustrating when I think we could be making a lot of progress which is destroyed because the "bad time" (my work) is longer than the "good time"...

I walk her every day and we have a lot of fun exploring new places together.  She's much happier when we're moving than when I'm still, unless she's sleepy.  We don't really play together very much except for me throwing the ball for her.  I read that it's good to play tug and let her win, is that true?  What other games would you suggest?  During training she tries so hard to please me, but she's extremely sensitive so as soon as I notice a hint of her becoming unsure, I distract her so that she doesn't shut down because once she shuts down it's really hard to get her excited the next time.  This means we only do extremely short training sessions, but she's starting to get the hang of things.  I noticed that when she's in the company of other dogs, she's completely relaxed and seems SO much more confident.  It lasts for about an hour after we say bye to the other dog.  Do you think walking her with her friend regularly would help her regain confidence permanently?  I've done some online reading on fearful dogs; the thing is I feel that since I'm the person she loves the most at the same time as the person she fears, our situation is a bit different from people rehabilitating dogs that have been mistreated by previous owners...  Btw please note that I have NEVER physically abused her!!!  In some ways she's very trusting and in other ways she's so obviously conflicted in her feelings for me and I just don't know if I'm addressing it properly.  Any advice for how to treat her would be fantastic.

Thank you for reading all this way.  I understand that some of my questions are really specific and if you think I need to consult a dog behavior professional in person then I will do that.  I'd be really grateful for any advice you could give me.

Kind regards,


You are anthropomorphizing your dog's reactions; perfectly normal.  Thinking "dog" requires a great deal of self education.  Here are some suggestions:

For several years I was Whippet Rescue for the AKC club in the NY tri-state area.  I've owned many (most of them rejects) and I know a great deal about this breed.  There is a specific "line" that produces timid and fearful puppies and it goes back in time to studs of a certain breeder in the US and one in France.  The behavior you describe is one demonstrated by one of my Whippets, Bianca, who earned a Canine Good Citizen award and a CDX but, had I not worked so hard at socializing her, she may have become a fear biter.  The breeder of your puppy is reprehensible: the reason we vaccinate pups at age 6 weeks is NOT to provide immunity, it is to catch *in a three vaccination cycle* the extinguishable titer against certain diseases that is acquired from the dam (mother).  The three-cycle (essentially booster) shots are intended to catch the puppy's immune system when the acquired immunity is wearing off.  No legitimate breeder should ever allow her puppies to go to twelve weeks without this; also, fourteen weeks of age is pretty much the door slamming shut on socialization.  Any breeder who keeps pups past the age of ten to twelve weeks is responsible for heavily socializing each and every one, apart from the others, to everything possible.  This puppy sounds to me that her dam was a "kennel dog" or that her breeder is just a plain idiot (and believe me, in this breed, there are many idiots).

When you force a direct eye contact, you are making a strong signal of social hierarchy and every dog understands that.  This is so fundamental that, when I went into homes where there were males of certain breeds that were exhibiting aggression (rank opportunism, quite rare but it does happen), I would deliberately refuse every attempt by that dog to make eye contact with me until he (and it was almost always male) understood (from my body language) who was who in this relationship.  Forcing direct eye contact is creating a gap in social hierarchy: you are on top, the dog is (depending upon temperament) somewhere in the middle or way, way down.  Such a dog is not likely to approach freely since there must be an "invitation" by the higher ranking individual; such a dog will NOT hold more than a three second eye to eye contact, nor should any dog be forced to do that unless "watch me" is carefully trained with high level reward.  In fact, direct eye contact with any dog other than one that is deliberately trained to "watch" should never last more than a few seconds; a turning of the head is a way of saying "You win."

Once a dog gives a calming signal, it is intended to be followed by the benign withdrawal or ANSWER IN KIND from the individual toward which it is directed:  yawn, lick your lips, break eye contact, sing a little song.  See:

When she is clearly not experiencing anxiety, offer her a Buster Cube: this is a toy that dispenses a portion of the dog's daily meals.  It is a self rewarding toy that boosts cognition.  Every time she successfully rolls it, she will be rewarded with food and a very, very soft "yay" from you.  Do NOT offer this when she is in the middle of anxiety driven behavior but only after she has settled.

This is a "soft" dog (meaning her temperament is not head strong, she is easily shaken); she requires TLC.  This dog will NEVER in her entire lifetime attempt to obtain a social rank above your own so there's no fear of that and you do not do ANYTHING that any idiot suggests makes you an "alpha".  People cannot be an "alpha" to a dog, nor do most domestic dogs require one.  We are created con-specifics: it is an appalling breeder that allows a litter (or even a single puppy) to be unsocialized to age twelve weeks.

I would NOT play tug of war with this dog; she doesn't consider herself worthy of even participating in this, let alone "winning".  It will confuse her.  You can create a trophy: buy a teddy bear (no pea stuffing) and carry it around with you until she notices it is "important" and then offer it to her and wait.  If she refuses to take it, that's fine.  One day, she most likely will.

I would change all training regimens that result in any fear or hesitancy or withdrawal.  I think this dog is a perfect candidate for the clicker but you will need a VERY experienced trainer because I have no doubt the clicker will scare her to death until she has been conditioned to acknowledge it as a communication:  THAT BEHAVIOR has just earned you a reward.  You might go to Karen Pryor's site to see if there is a list of competent clicker trainers in your area:

Teach a dog to "watch me" requires putting your forefinger close to between her eyes and immediately bringing them to between your eyes while saying "Watch me", any amount of time the dog gives you direct eye contact should be heavily rewarded with HIGH VALUE FOOD reward.  Do NOT expect her to hold your eye contact: she shouldn't be doing that, it's against the rules of the dog culture.  If this were a male Rottweiler, I would be making a whole different suggestion.

I think you are far too stressed out and over anxious and this is being communicated to the dog who cannot make "sense" of your body language because it is so erratic.  The Whippet is one of the single most pleasant of companion dogs and very easily trainable (using positive reinforcement only).  I took Bianca to a CGC and a CDX (and they said it couldn't be done with a sighthound) and her breeding was appalling: huge inherited fear thing.  She learned to love everyone, dog, person, cat, etc. even though she never thoroughly lost her anxiety and was very easily dissuaded by other dogs in my household.  In her case, my JRT (who wanted to be king of the hill) was her role model.

You might want to consult a CAAB (certified applied animal behaviorist) because it seems to me some counter conditioning needs to be done (desensitization is almost impossible) to correct some problems.  Meanwhile, this is YOUR dog and, should you want a cuddle, you can encourage her with a singsong invitation and a comforting presence.  If she has responded in the past, she will respond again.  But, remember: a dog that has accepted a very low place in social hierarchy does not experience itself as "worthy" to sleep with the top member and it would be normal for such a dog to so refuse.

You may be able to find a CAAB in your area from these sites:

Stay away from fakes and wanna-be's.  This is a very young dog.  With appropriate remediation, she can be (as most Whippets are) a marvelous companion.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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