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Scared Behavior

Shih Tzu Fearful and/or Scared Behavior

Overview

Generally speaking the Shih Tzu is an active, inquisitive, and bold breed. Many Shih Tzu like to meet new people and do well adapting to new situations. This said, it is not uncommon for a Shih Tzu to have a fear of certain elements. 

And while this can be an issue from the start, this is also something that can seem to manifest out of the blue.

This section will cover some typical skittish and fearful behaviors that may be seen and how to handle them. In many cases, this sort of issue can be resolved. 

Emotions Emerging During Puppyhood

It is very common for new 8-week-old puppies to seemingly be fine with everything. They'll let anyone pick them up, they'll follow you anywhere, and they can appear to be quite fearless. 
female-shih-tzu
Bella, at 1 year old,
photo courtesy of Jimmy & Becky Galvan 
And then, as they grow a bit older, reaching the 4 and 5 month mark, things can change.

What never bothered them before now scares them. The once bold dog is now skittish about certain things.

What happened? 

When this occurs, it is because young pups can be oblivious about certain things. Their range of emotions is not fully developed, and they are not at their full capacity for cognitive recognition. 

As a puppy matures, he is much more able to match information from certain stimulus with information retrieved from his memory. Connections are formed. 

And it is at this point, that a Shih Tzu puppy is much more aware of where he is, what is happening, and who is within his vicinity. At this point, he is aware enough to be wary or downright scared of particular elements. 

Common Fears that a Shih Tzu May Have

Each dog is different in regard to what elicits fear. Regular exposure can often prevent certain negative reactions, though not in all cases. 

The elements that Shih Tzu puppies and dogs that most often trigger them to feel scared include:
  • Other dogs
  • People outside the immediate household family
  • Loud noises (fireworks, thunder, etc.)
  • Going to the groomer
In addition, if a dog has had an traumatic experience, he may continue to make a connection with something, leading him to be fearful of quite random things. 

This can range from having fallen down the stairs and now being afraid of steps, or having been mistreated by someone and now being scared of a particular type of person (i.e. tall men, older women, etc.).
And finally, there may be a fear of regular household noises such as the vacuum cleaner or the dishwasher. Or even walking surfaces like pavement or grass. 

This is not uncommon with rescue and adopted dogs that never had the chance to become accustomed to these things. 

Ahead, we'll take a closer look into some of the most common things that a Shih Tzu can be afraid of and offer some helpful tips. 

Fear of Thunder Storms, Fireworks

What's happening: 

Being afraid of loud noises is legitimate fear that many dogs have and is seen across the board from the smallest toys to the largest of breeds. 

When a Shih Tzu is afraid of thunder and lightening, this is due in part to the loud claps of thunder, but also to the change in air pressure.
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shihtzu-with-blue-bow
Butterscotch, 
photo courtesy of Barbara Perkins
With fireworks, it is the echoing, intense 'booms' that can be quite terrifying to a canine whose hearing is much more sensitive than a human's. 
What to do:

Some veterinarians will prescribe a mild tranquilizer for dogs that panic at loud noises; however, since thunderstorms role in quickly, there is often not time to give this to a dog in advance. Though, if you live in an area that receives a lot of storms, you may want to speak to your vet about this. 

For many dogs, wearing a thunder-vest can help a great deal. This is a very effective method in which wearing a secure wrap around the core body with compression in certain areas offers an sense of security, even during very stressful times. 

One tricky thing with these is finding a quality vest that is properly sized for a Shih Tzu. Fortunately there is one that is very size appropriate. 

The ThunderShirt Classic Dog Anxiety Jacket is available in extra-extra-small which fits dogs under 7 lbs, extra-small which fits dogs 8 to 14 lbs. This is also very comfortable and its Velcro flaps make it super easy to place onto a puppy or dog. 
In addition to this, if your Shih Tzu wants to hide in a favorite spot during a storm, this should be allowed. 

In many cases of a dog being overly fearful, encouraging the 'flight' response is not recommended. But, for both thunder and fireworks, since being afraid is based on a valid fear, seeking a comfortable spot to ride it out is helpful. 
quiet-shihtzu
Arnie, photo courtesy of Brad and Pam Griffey

When a Shih Tzu is Scared of Other Dogs

This is one of the most common types of fears that a Shih Tzu can have, and can make things difficult. 

It can really affect things when you are taking your puppy or dog for a walk, and it certainly limits where you can take your Shih Tzu; dog parks may seem completely out of the question. 

It should be noted that there is a difference between another dog triggering a response (like barking) and another dog actually eliciting fear (shaking, trying to hide, trying to escape, etc.).
What to do:
First, it's important to know that with some Shih Tzu, fear of larger dogs is something that may not be able to completely be resolved. 

You can certainly try some of the following steps; however, you may need to limit your dog's exposure to overbearing dogs that tower over your Shih Tzu.
As with many elements that can cause a dog to be wary, slow exposure can help. It's never a good idea to go from 0 to 100 quickly; rather, gradual interaction in short sessions can teach tolerance. 

Short-session meets:

If you have a friend, neighbor, family member, or know another person with a dog, set up a play date. It is best if the other dog is relatively the same size as your Shih Tzu. 

In addition, you will want to keep your Shih Tzu on a safe harness and leash, and the other dog should be on leash as well. 

If possible, you'll want these 'meets' to take place on neutral ground. If this is done in your home, your Shih Tzu may interpret this an intrusion onto his territory and take a defensive stance. And vice-versa, if this were to take place at the home of the other dog. 

Never force interaction; it's best to allow both dogs to great each other. Start with short 5 minute sessions. These may need to be done over the course of several weeks. In time, if your Shih Tzu seems to be getting more tolerable, increase by 5 minutes. 

At the end of each session, once your Shih Tzu is back by your side, offer praise and a small reward. 
When walking:
If your Shih Tzu barks or acts overly fearful of other dogs when out for walks, you're not alone. This is very common. 

There are some easy yet effective techniques that can help. It's important to note that while these may seem simple, these work very well when followed to a tee. 
#1. Have your Shih Tzu on leash and harness. 
A harness is always suggested for this breed to prevent collapsed trachea and breathing issues; however, when training a Shih Tzu to tolerate other dogs, it is also vital. 

A harness will allow you better control, you'll be able to reel your puppy or dog to you without risking neck injury, and the tension that travels from the leash to the harness sends more apt signals that those that would be directed only to the leash. 
If you do not yet have a harness for your Shih Tzu, there are some great choices that are both comfort and come in a range of adjustable sizes to fit both puppies and adults. 
shih-tzu-being-walked
Simba, photo courtesy of Theresa Shaver
Some recommended harness are below. If you do not see the images, try a refresh. And on mobile, you may need to turn your screen horizontal to see all 4. 
#2 Practice proper walking techniques. 
One of the worst things to do is to allow your puppy or dog to walk ahead of you or be walking willy-nilly without strict direction. 

If so, your dog will be confronting his fears head-on and without being able to take cues from you, which is vital. 

For the next step, you will be teaching your Shih Tzu that other dogs are nothing to be feared, and for this, you'll need to take your place as leader and be in control when walking your puppy or dog. 

Therefore, your Shih Tzu should be to your left. And you'll keep the leash at just the right length to keep him at your side and not ahead of you in any way. 
#3 Your reactions and vibe. 
You may not realize it, but your Shih Tzu is constantly taking cues from you.
shih-tzu-dog-1-year-old
Boomer, at 1 year old,
photo courtesy of Patricia Sadowski 
And if you have your dog heeling by your side (tip #2), this is a guarantee. 

It's very common for owners to tense up, change their pace, pull their dog closer to them, and/or speak with underlying nervous tones when coming up to another dog. 

All of these things send clear messages to your Shih Tzu, and not the right ones. 
By your actions and your words, show your dog that another dog (or any other trigger for that matter) is of no concern.

Keep your pace the same, do not tense up, and any speaking should be done in a calm, matter-of-fact manner. 

If your Shih Tzu starts to jump, barks like crazy, or shows any other behaviors, just continue walking. This can be done safely if you have him on his harness and continue walking at a reasonable pace. 

Now, you will come home from that walk thinking, 'That didn't work!'. 
But, it did. You just did not see the final result yet. It was one step of many that contribute to gradual exposure, and that leads us to tip #4. 
#4 Do not avoid walks, head out every day. 
It's common for owners to avoid situations that trigger their dogs. And you will need to make judgement calls. However, in regard to walks, which are vital to meet exercise requirements, consistent exposure in a controlled manner is key. 

Conquering a fear takes time. A dog that is afraid needs to be shown, many times, that the element he is afraid of brings him no harm. Each walk will be a step in the right direction. 
See Also: Shih Tzu is Acting Odd - The top 8 reasons for weird behavior. 

Afraid of People

Maybe your Shih Tzu is confident and super-friendly with you, but cowers when someone comes to visit. Or, it could be that your dog does well with guests that come over often, but panics when meeting someone new. 

If so, this is also a very common fear; however in many cases this falls into the category of a dog feeling overly shy. 

If this is happening to your Shih Tzu, you may wish to continue on to the details of helping a shy Shih Tzu break out of his shell. 

Fear of the Groomer

There are quite a few grooming tasks that need to be done to keep a Shih Tzu looking clean and tidy, and you may want to have a groomer handle some of these; but, what are you to do if your Shih Tzu is terrified of the groomer? 
In some cases, a dog may have be afraid of being handled from the very first visit; but in other instances this may be a sudden fear that came seemingly from no where. 
What to do:
#1 If the fear is there from the start, this is often a matter of needing to become accustomed to being handled. 

There are two ways to help resolve this. 1) is to bring your Shih Tzu to a groomer for small, quick tasks at first, as opposed to having an hour-long session that covers everything.

This will allow your dog to get used to that person, and learn that no harm will come to him. 

You may want to start with nail trimming, then next a nails and brushing, and then if your dog seems to be warming up to the idea, graduate to trimmings and clippings, if that if what you want the groomer to do. 

2) You can also practice handling at home. 
a-shih-tzu-puppy
Captain Jack, photo courtesy of Madison Swan
Start with short sessions, with increasing duration, in which you touch your Shih Tzu's paws, toes, tail, ears, and all areas of the body. End each session with praise and a small reward. 
#2 If the fear came on suddenly, this can be a bit trickier. There is always the chance that your dog's groomer passed some tasks onto someone that your dog was not familiar with. Or, there may have been a slight accident that you were not told about.

So, it's always a good idea to speak with the groomer and ask if anything happened that might have caused your Shih Tzu be react badly to. Not all groomers will admit that something occurred, but it is worth asking. 
Changing to a new groomer will be a judgement call; however, there are some dog grooming salons that have visitor windows. The window will allow you to stay there and observe what is happening. This is something to consider, since it can give you peace of mind. 

When a Shih Tzu is Acts Afraid for No Reason

upside-down-shihtzu
Nikkinoo, photo courtesy of Kimberley Kendall
Does your Shih Tzu suddenly act frightened, but there's nothing there at all to be scared of? Does he bark at invisible things or want to hide in reaction to nothing?

This is very common, and it can really get owners scratching their heads. In fact, some dogs can have such a response to 'nothing' that owners start to wonder if the dog has a sixth sense. 

You'll be happy to know that this is usually due to a Shih Tzu responding to an everyday element, but, it's a noise that your human ears cannot pick up. 

The thing about canine hearing is that not only can our dogs hear noises that are a whopping 4 times the distance than we can pick up, but also they hear sounds that we never can, on frequencies of an impressive 67-45,000 Hz compared to our 64 - 23,000 Hz. 

There is a whole world of sounds that they are exposed to, that we are oblivious to. 
What to do:
Most owners act concerned when this happens. They'll perk up, strain their ears to try and hear something, look out the windows, and be on high alert. This is a natural reaction. However, it sends a strong signal to your Shih Tzu. It's letting your dog know that whatever he's hearing is of concern to you as well. 

So, the best way to handle this is to acknowledge that your Shih Tzu is sensing something with a calm, "Oh, you're hearing something interesting, huh?" and then distraction them with an activity or a toy to direct focus elsewhere. 

Since the noise can be a siren in the far distance or a bird that's building a nest on the roof, the time of disturbance can vary, and in some cases, you may need to lead your Shih Tzu out of the room. 
Did you find this article to be helpful? If so, you'll definitely love the AllShihTzu Book. It's available in both hard copy and eBook format, and is the most comprehensive Shih Tzu care book that exists. 
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