How to Help a Shy, Fearful Dog Build Confidence

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

If your dog has a shy personality, it’s possible he was born that way, as some dogs have a genetic predisposition toward timidity. However, in most cases, shyness in canines is rooted in fear. Certain medical conditions can also cause a dog to display timid behavior, but more often the root cause is insufficient or improper socialization during the first 10 weeks of life.

Signs of Shyness

Some dogs are shy around people but fine with other dogs; some are timid only around other dogs; and some are nervous in the presence of both people and pets. And as you might guess, many shy dogs are very reactive to storms, fireworks, traffic, and other situations they perceive as threatening.

Your dog’s behavior and body language will clearly display her timidity if you know what to look for, and will include some or all of the following signals, according to pet behaviorist Steve Duno in an article for Modern Dog magazine:

Shying away from other dogs and/or people Tail tucked Whining or barking
Fear of eye contact Raised hackles Skulking, pacing, hiding, or escaping
Dilated, glassy eyes Cowering Sneering, nipping, or biting
Ears flattened Panting or shaking Submissive urination

Creating a Safe, Nurturing Home Environment

If your dog is on the shy side, it’s important to set realistic goals — for her and for you. Take care not to expect an overnight change or a complete turnaround. It takes time to help a shy pet learn to look at the world differently and trust. Here are some general guidelines for creating a safe home environment for a shy pet:

  • Make her feel loved and needed; communicate gently, consistently and clearly with her
  • Don’t force anything on her — provide her with her own safe place where she can be alone when she feels like it
  • Protect her from whatever she fears, while at the same time creating opportunities for her to be successful and build confidence

  • If you've rescued a shy dog or are considering adoption, I highly recommend a program called A Sound Beginning, which is designed to help rescue dogs and adoptive guardians learn to communicate effectively and form an unbreakable bond. I also highly recommend Susan Garrett’s game-based learning and training program, which you do in your own home.

    Suggestions for Helping a Shy Dog Build Confidence

    While it’s unlikely your shy guy or girl will ever become an extrovert, Duno suggests steps you can take to help your dog feel more confident and less stressed.

    Obedience training — “A shy dog that knows exactly what you are asking of her will be less likely to panic,” writes Duno. It’s important to teach your dog basic obedience commands such as sit, stay and come, but just is important is using fear free, positive reinforcement behavior training. Never use intimidation or yelling to train any dog — especially a timid one.
    A doggy mentor — If there’s another dog in your family who is well-balanced with a calm temperament, you have a built-in mentor for your shy dog. Another option is a professional trainer with a confident canine helper, or a doggy friend of your pet’s that she’s comfortable with. Oftentimes, a timid dog will relax and begin to mimic the attitude and behaviors of a more confident dog she trusts.
    Subtle socialization to other people — The usual socialization strategies are often entirely inappropriate for shy dogs and can make them even more nervous. Duno suggests inviting a few dog-loving friends over (one at a time), to sit quietly in the same room with your pup and randomly drop treats on the floor without making eye contact or attempting to communicate. The goal is to help your dog learn to associate people with good things.

    Once she trusts a person enough to regularly pick up the treats, ask the person to stand and continue the treat-dispensing, then move to another room or into the yard. Once your dog seems relaxed around your friend, ask him or her to go on walks with you and even take the leash from you. If all goes well, soon your dog will have her own small crew of human friends she feels comfortable with.
    Play sessions — Duno recommends teaching your dog to play games such as fetch and hide-and-seek so he can find distractions from his worry, relax, and just be a dog for a while. Try to schedule at least three play sessions each day, and if possible, change the location occasionally to places where your dog might be exposed (from a distance) to strangers and unfamiliar activity.
    “Timid dogs have a ‘worry radius’ that is fairly predictable; as long as something or someone stays outside this distance, the dog is usually fine,” says Duno. “If you can, try to reduce this distance ever so slowly, over time, while playing games. After several months, you should be able to play games within plain sight of activity. (Keep a leash on your dog if the area is unfenced.)”
    Trick training — Teaching a shy dog to perform a few tricks (e.g., shake hands, spin, roll over) can be a great way to focus her attention and distract her. Use training treats as enticements and offer them whenever she performs a trick on cue. “It may sound simplistic,” writes Duno, “but, for a nervous dog, just learning that they can initiate a reliable, predictable interaction can be a great comfort.”
    K9 nose work — Nose work takes advantage of your dog’s keen sense of smell and natural curiosity to build confidence and provide mental stimulation as well. This is the very best interactive sport you can choose for a shy pup.
    Exercise — Physical activity is great therapy for all dogs, including nervous ones, so give yours as much exercise as possible every day, and make sure a good percentage of it is sustained aerobic exertion. Include a variety of different types of walks in your exercise routine, but only in areas where it’s unlikely your dog will encounter stress triggers. Go to the same safe places to exercise until her confidence builds.
    Desensitization and counter-conditioning training — The goal of desensitization exercises is to gradually expose a dog to fearful stimulants (e.g., strangers, children, loud noises, etc.) until he’s no longer frightened by them. Counterconditioning exercises are designed to create a new and more appropriate behavioral response to fearful stimulants.

    Since there’s lots of room for error (and for making a bad situation much worse) with desensitization and counter-conditioning training, if you’re considering it for your shy dog, I recommend consulting an animal behaviorist experienced in these techniques.

    Please DON’T Do These Things to Your Timid Dog

    These are behaviorist Duno’s don’ts for parents of shy, timid dogs:
    1. Don’t tie him outside a public place such as a coffee shop or store and leave him, because you’ll make him a sitting duck for exposure to things he fears, and you won’t be there to calm him or intervene if things go badly.
    2. Don’t force her into situations you know or suspect she fears as a method of desensitizing her. It won’t work, and it will only make things worse.
    3. Don’t ask other people to make eye contact with your dog or reach for him. Instead, ask them to wait for the dog to approach them.
    4. Don’t have large groups of rowdy guests in your home (adults or kids), especially if your dog is noise sensitive and shy around people. Putting her in a separate room or in her crate will only increase her anxiety because she’ll still hear the noise but won’t be able to escape it.
    5. Don’t subject your shy dog to dominant, force-based, punitive or overbearing trainers.
    6. Don’t force a dog who is hiding out of his hiding spot. Let him come out on his own. If you must get him out for some reason, gently coax him out with a treat and immediately attach his leash.
    7. Don’t take your shy dog into noisy environments or areas with unpredictable activity, or to a fireworks display. Always think ahead and choose places you’re reasonably sure won’t cause her to be fearful.