By definition, a skittish animal is one who is excitable or easily scared or startled. Ozzie, for example, is a rock when it comes to sounds and noises inside and outside our house. A few barks, we tell him quiet, and it's back to business as usual. While he does get excited when he sees cats or squirrels, he can be redirected. Ozzie's kryptonite? Skateboards and scooters. He HATES them. He used to have full-blown panic attacks and bolt when he saw them. With a great deal of behavior modification and a special handling technique, he is now to the point where he is vigilant when it comes to scooters and skateboards, but he doesn't panic. Would I describe Ozzie as skittish? Not all the time, no. But he is certainly scared of those wheeled contraptions and the people who use them!
Oftentimes, dog owners describing their dogs as skittish are those that are dealing with a recent rescue. It certainly isn't unusual to see a skittish recent rescue; they are new to you, new to your home, still learning the rules, etc. If there was ever a reason for a dog to be easily scared or startled, not knowing what to expect in their new world is a good one! Many recent rescue dogs are noise sensitive, easily sent over their comfort threshold by the sound of garbage trucks, motorcycles, honking horns, loud voices, etc. These noises can cause skittish dogs to freeze, shake, whine, pant, etc., all obvious outward manifestations of their anxiety. So what can you do for your skittish dog?
First and foremost, take them out in spite of their fears. If they will take treats, bring treats. If they are really anxious, however, they won't be able to take even the highest value treats when they are scared. Slowly desensitize them by moving closer to those triggers. Encourage sniffing as exploring their environments is a great way to learn the area, distract them from what scares them, and actually makes the walk more enjoyable overall from the dog's point of view. Use praise to reinforce even a modicum of calm behavior or self-control in the face of what makes them skittish. For the recent rescue dog, once they settle in to their new routines, and learn the sights and sounds of their neighborhoods, the skittish behavior recedes and they become inquisitive and engaged. If you've been working with your recent rescue dog for 6-8 weeks and they are still showing signs of fear or anxiety, appearing skittish with new situations, people, noises, etc., then it's time to take your training to the next level. I can teach you the handling technique I use with Ozzie that has made all the difference in the world in resetting his brain when he becomes anxious.
While there is certainly a fearful or timid personality type when it comes to dogs, being skittish is often a transient state of being that can be corrected with time, desensitization, positive reinforcement, and patience. However, if those are not enough, you know where to find me.
The beach...Ozzie's happy place. And mine.