My Smart Puppy

with Dog Expert, Sarah Wilson

Is My Puppy Shy or Deficit? The Biggest Clue


deficit dogsMilo came to me after being a food-trial beagle for the first 11 months of his life. At such trials, to ensure that the dogs only eat the food provided, they never go outside,  take a car trip, or get a chance to be alone.

When Milo arrived, it took him 45 minutes to build up the courage to peek out of the open door of his crate. We then began our journey together. He taught me, more than any other dog, the difference between a deficit dog and a shy dog.

  • Deficit Dogs
    …are genetically-stable dogs who have had limited early socialization. With work, they can recover from that lack to become pretty darn confident-in-the-world companions.
  • Shy Dogs
    …are genetically-shy dogs who will exhibit shyness with or without socialization. All dogs are better with socialization than without but socialization only makes a dog as good as they can be, it doesn’t make them a different dog. Shy dogs are likely to exhibit significant fearful reactions in any even mildly startling situations for their entire lives.

What’s confusing is that, early in the process, these dogs can appear very much alike. There are differences; here’s what I look for: resilience.

A deficit dog, once he has settled in, will appear normal, not shy, on home turf. He will be happy, social, and confident with few extreme reactions to sudden, known sounds or seeing known people once he has conquered his initial reaction. Milo had not seen a vacuum cleaner, heard a dishwasher, or witnessed anyone take a shower. He had a lot to take in. But every time he figured something out he got more confident, displaying fewer and fewer stressy, shy reactions; that resilience is deficit-dog typical. They can get over something completely then never look back. Their confidence tends to snowball, reinforcing the next confident choice nicely.

Shy dogs are sensitive everywhere. At home, a sudden sound or surprise can send them into hiding. They may well shake or tremble their entire lives. They may never adapt to some people, sometimes even family members. Example: Years ago, there was a Lagotto Romagnolo who came to the kennel several time a year and each time he arrived he had to be reintroduced to the same friendly staff. Each time he was as concerned and stressed as the first time. That’s a genetically-shy dog – not resilient at all.

A deficit dog in a similar situation would, typically, be shy on the first visit, less shy the next and then bound in with a happy grin after that.

It took Milo a long time to get beyond that limited start, but each time he conquered something it was conquered. Sure, he had surprises and back-slides, but those were never the main trend nor did they linger. He just kept improving toward his genetically-stable potential. If you stop working with a deficit dog, they tend to hold their improvements and may continue to improve as their confidence builds.

In contrast, genetically shy dogs will tend to backslide without constant work. It’s a long march to more confident behavior. If you stop working with them, that confidence starts to slip away as they revert back toward their personal normal.

Shy dogs can make wonderful companions but don’t expect them to become non-shy dogs; love them for who they are. Deficit dogs can, over time and with help, become non-shy dogs, which is an astonishing, memorable journey to take with an animal friend.

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