Ask Amanda: Learning to Manage Shy or Reactive Dogs


Dog-Harmony hosted Amanda Rietheimer, CDBC, CPDT-KA of Behavior Focus of Houston on July 29th for a workshop dedicated to managing shy (fearful) and reactive dogs in shelter environments. Her first question posed to the audience of animal shelter workers, volunteers and dog lovers, was, “What behavior do we want?” Aggression and reactivity are the same thing – just a label. Rietheimer said, “what we want is to avoid the use of the label.”

Rietheimer said that the key first step is to identify the shelter stressors and assess the dogs’ body language for signs of stress:

  • Lunging or snapping at humans;
  • Spinning or excessive jumping;
  • Excessive barking or vocalization; and
  • Hiding in the back of the kennel and shut-down.

Successful handling of these shy or reactive dogs requires shelter workers to: read basic body language indications and move slowly; have good leash handling skills (defensive when necessary); and carry high value treats.

Rietheimer provided the audience with several demonstrations to show effective leash handling techniques (on both a real dog and a stuffed dog). She also recommended various types of leash equipment, such as the front- and back-clipping 2 Hounds Design’s Freedom No-Pull Harness, to facilitate loose-leash walking.

According to Rietheimer, “basic training, enrichment and reinforcement of calm behavior in the kennel can change the overall environment of the shelter for both the animals and the people. The proper equipment can also change the interaction with the animal both in and out of the kennel.”

To ensure that the shelters could successfully implement the techniques and sustain the training, Founder, Nancy Bown, and Rietheimer made follow-up visits to provide one-on-one training. The shelter visits included: Alaqua Animal Refuge in Freeport; Walton County Animal Services in Defuniak Springs; and The Lucky Puppy Rescue in Bonifay. Rietheimer also evaluated several cases of reactive dogs while on-site.

“The Ask Amanda seminar was very informative and full of great ideas. Amanda gave plenty of time to field individual questions, too. This great seminar gave the audience a better understanding of dog behavior and how they might address the issues they encounter in the shelter environment. Thank you for hosting it and allowing us to join!” – Patty Weingartner, Shelter Manager, Walton County Animal Services

“The Ask Amanda Program hosted by Dog-Harmony was amazing and allowed me to learn new techniques for working with our more shy and reactive dogs.” – Ashley Englehart Conlin, Adoption Coordinator/Animal Trainer, Alaqua Animal Refuge

Rietheimer noted that it is common for shelters to have short stray hold periods (i.e., 72 hours). During this time, the shelter vaccinates, assesses general welfare, and then decides whether to spay/neuter, euthanize or transfer the dog to a partner organization for adoption if the owner is not found. Rietheimer says, “allowing the animals to decompress more than 72 hours and giving them access to enrichment activities can change the future of that animal in the shelter and the handling experience while there.”

Rietheimer’s seminars at Dog-Harmony are available for complimentary viewing on Dog-Harmony’s website ( Debbie Revell, RN, Dip, CABT, CDBC, ACCBC, will lead the next workshop in the Shelter Enrichment Program series, Learning About Canine Body Language, Fears and Phobias, on September 23rd. Rietheimer will also return for her fourth workshop with Dog-Harmony in December. Follow Dog-Harmony on Facebook (@DogHarmonyInc) to stay up-to-date on the latest news, events and programs.

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