Shy dogs and Overcoming Fear

Why is my dog shy?

There can be several reasons a dog is shy. There are both genetic components and social components to shy/fearful dogs. Many breeds of dogs are predisposed to being reserved and shy. Such breeds that commonly have this problem are German shepherds, border collies, shelties, chihuahuas, pointers, Australian shepherds, weimeraners, and spaniels. As with many other types of behavior, there is an ongoing debate about nature vs. nurture concerning shyness in dogs. Shyness can spring from lack of socialization the important early months of puppy hood, or adverse experiences during the fear periods (8-10 weeks and 4 months).

The overwhelming majority of rescued dogs were not beat, hit or abused rather they lack proper socialization to people. While abuse may sometimes be the case this happens less frequently than most people think. There are a number of people who have had their dogs since puppy hood and who know the breeder well enough to know the dogs have never been abused. Dogs in general have greater hearts and more forgiving natures than most people give them credit for; a dog with a stable temperament will survive abusive situations with its spirit intact. However, inappropriate handling will certainly make a shy dog worse, and may cause fear aggression. Other reasons for shyness include puppies having a shy mother and learning the behavior, physical ailments such as deafness, pain and infection and lack of training.

What Can I Do?

While your shy dog may never be a social butterfly, you can help your dog become less fearful and more confident. It's never too early or too late to start work with your dog. It is helpful to realize that a fearful dog will most likely meet new situation throughout its life with a fearful response.

YOU are your shy dog's confidence. Or, to put it another way, your shy dog finds confidence in your presence and leadership. If you are not clearly the alpha in the relationship with your dog, take steps now to remedy that. Becoming alpha need not involve harsh or confrontive methods that will only frighten and confuse your dog more. There are several fair and nonconfrontive methods of establishing yourself as the lead dog of the pack.

Your confidence will rub off on your dog. If you are tense or worried about a situation, your feelings will travel right down the leash, increasing your dog's fear. Try to relax and be happy and confident when taking your dog into new situations. DO NOT give in to the temptation to comfort your dog when she becomes frightened. It's only natural to want to try to make her feel better, but what you're really doing is giving her the message that being afraid is ok! So, instead, ignore the fearful behaviors, and be alert for any indications of curiosity or interest so that you can praise them enthusiastically. If your dog has gotten to the point of lunging, snapping, growling or biting, contact us immediately and we will send a behaviorist to you. NEVER allow a dog to act fearfully without knowing of your disapproval. A verbal "no" with little emotion in your voice is best or a quick leash correction to snap them out of the mode they are in. One key concept is to keep moving forward. Do not allow your dog to dwell on what frightens them.

For example, one dog that was a case of mine was extremely scared of passing cars and especially trucks. The owner was stopping everytime the dog stopped out on a walk and would reach down to comfort the dog. To remedy this situation the owner began not changing ANYTHING about how they were walking and totally ignored the dog being so fearful. If the dog tried to stop the owner said nothing and gave a quick jerk to the leash and kept going. Within weeks the dog started to ignore passing vehicles. Many dogs will try to throw a tantrum about facing their fears. IGNORE this and keep moving!

As far as dog that are afraid of people, confining them is about the worst thing you can do. Dogs must confront their fears in order to get over them. Desensitization and socialization are important parts of rehabilitating a shy dog. Desensitization exposes the dog to things that frighten it at low levels, gradually increasing the level as the dog becomes accustomed to it. Socialization involves exposing the dog to other dogs, people, and situations.

Much of your work with your shy dog will involve desensitizing him to things he's afraid of--loud sounds, running children, men with hats, big black dogs, little white dogs--whatever. It takes time, and requires many small steps, patiently increasing both the time of exposure and closeness to the frightening object. A happy, upbeat mood on your part is essential, as well as a sharp eye on the dog's mental state; knowing when to quit can prevent backsliding.

This is not a time for you to be shy; most people don't know how to behave around shy dogs and will do all the wrong things. It's up to you to instruct them carefully how to act.

  • If possible, ask them to sit on the floor--or even lie down!

  • They must NOT look your dog in the eye--this is a challenge in dog language and will frighten your dog more.

  • They should not try to touch the dog. They should let the dog come to them. They may offer the dog a treat. The best way for them to do this is to hold it in their open palm and sit quietly, waiting for the dog to approach them. With a very shy dog, they may try offering the treat from behind their back.

  • They should not try to touch the dog's head or neck if the dog does approach them. This is often construed as a threat by a shy dog, and can lead to a warning growl or a snap. If they must pet the dog, ask the person to move their hand in from the side, and to touch the dog's shoulder or back.

  • You should be watching your dog carefully, praising each indication of interest and curiosity (positive reinforcement), and ignoring/correcting fearful reactions (extinguishing a behavior). It is also your responsibility to know when your dog has had enough and to break off the encounter.

Socialization possibilities are endless. Take your dog to shopping centers. Some malls will allow a dog on a leash. Go to PetSmart. To accustom your dog to children, take a walk by the local grade school or day care center. Go to Little League games. At first keep your dog's interactions to a minimum; the idea is to accustom her to groups of people. Keep her mind off her fear. Ask her to heel, to sit, to lie down, and praise and reward her lavishly. If she doesn't obey because she's distracted by her fear, you are allowed to correct her for not obeying a command--and for being afraid. Most dogs will quickly learn that you will not put them in danger and that staying close to you and obeying your commands is a safe and good thing to do.

As your dog becomes accustomed to the situation, you can start to allow one or two limited personal encounters. Try to keep control of them. Warn the person that your dog is shy and ask them to let your dog approach them rather than the other way around. Let them give your dog a treat. Children (one at a time) can be surprisingly cooperative about this. Everyone will try to touch your dog's head; it seems to be ingrained human behavior and they will do it even if asked not to. After your dog ducks, try to salvage the situation by explaining again that your dog is shy and doesn't like to be touched, but maybe they can pet his shoulder. Set the dog up for this by asking him to do a sit stay, and try to keep the dog's attention on you. Praise for success. With a shy dog, socialization is a never-ending process. Use your imagination.

Having a shy dog can be stressful. Owners of shy dogs frequently wonder what they could have done that made their dogs so shy, or what they could have done sooner to help. They get discouraged when progress seems slow or nonexistent. They have to deal with the accusing looks or words of uninformed people who think they must treat their dogs terribly for the dog to be so afraid. They wonder if they will ever be able to enjoy their dog the way owners of "normal" dogs do.

So I'd like to leave you with a word of encouragement. A shy dog *can* lead a relatively normal life, go everywhere you go, even earn obedience titles or function as a therapy dog. It takes patience and dedication, but you can make a real difference in your dog's well being. Find people you can talk to when you feel discouraged. Keep a journal so you can look back and see what progress you've made together. Take a moment to think of all the good things there are about your dog, and how much you really do love him or her. Give yourself a little time off, and just enjoy being with and interacting with your dog. You'll feel better, and return to training with a better attitude.

Good luck!

If your dog is acting aggressively, STOP and contact us at (608) 658-1366 or

Written by Melissa Smith