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How to Deal with a Shy Dog

Likes, dislikes, personalities, and temperaments. We all have them and we’re all unique because of them. The same goes for dogs. Some dogs are naturally more timid, shy, or nervous. But it’s one thing if your dog just takes a little while to warm up to new people or other animals, and another thing entirely if he is extremely shy or nervous.

That can be a cause for concern. If not addressed, sometimes a dog can become more nervous over time and exhibit unwanted behaviors such as extreme fearfulness or even aggression.

Is Your Dog Too Shy or Nervous?

Your dog can’t tell you in words what he’s thinking or feeling, but he will display behaviors that you can learn
how to interpret. Observe your dog objectively and if you can, compare him to dogs you know to be social, friendly, and confident. How does he act in situations where he encounters new or different elements, such as strangers, other dogs, or new places?

It’s natural for any dog to be a little uncertain of new things or people, but if your dog reacts overly fearful and cowers, urinates, or tries to avoid or run away from the situation, take note. Fear can also drive a dog to become defensive and aggressive, so watch for those behaviors as well.

Have Your Dog Thoroughly Checked by a Veterinarian

If you think your dog is overly shy or nervous, take your dog in for a full physical. Sometimes a medical problem is the underlying cause of the behavior. Once you’ve eliminated any medical reasons for your dog’s behavior, you may want to consult with a professional who can help observe your dog and suggest a course of action. You might want to get help from a trainer who specializes in shy or nervous dogs.

Try to Pinpoint the Source of Your Dog’s Behavior

After a check by the vet clears your dog of any physical problems, try to figure out what your dog reacts to negatively. Is it new visitors who come into the house? Is it a new place? Is it other dogs? Is it certain loud noises like thunder or the garbage truck? Once you isolate the cause, you will be better able to address
the problem.

Past Traumas May or May Not be the Cause

Some dogs exhibit shyness or nervousness because they were just born that way. Some have not been socialized properly. And others may have suffered past trauma. Previous experiences with abandonment and abuse can easily cause a dog to become overly fearful and distrustful of humans or other dogs.

If your dog is a rescue, this may be the case. Whatever the cause, if the result is extreme shyness or nervousness, you will have to commit your time, energy, and patience to help your dog overcome its problems.

Be Your Dog’s Trusted Friend and Guardian

Create a stable, safe environment for your dog. Feed and exercise him regularly. One of the best ways to build
a positive and trusting relationship with your dog is to invest in basic obedience training. Let him know that you are a consistent, predictable force in his life. You want your dog to trust you completely because you are asking him to change his usual way of being.

You may also want to use your dog’s breed to your advantage. For example, if your dog is a retriever, the dog will most likely respond well to retrieving games to distract him from his fears and to build confidence. Agility
training is another great way for owner and dog to bond and to create a positive experience.

Positive Association is a Great Tool

Food and praise are usually key components to training dogs. They are usually very receptive and responsive
to treats and praise. For example, you may be able to use a treat to encourage a dog that is nervous around new people to associate good things with those people.

If you have friends coming over, you can inform them about your training. Don’t allow your dog avoid the situation. Have your dog in the same room as the visitors. Friends should sit down (the height difference between humans and dogs can intimidate some dogs).

They should ignore the dog as fearful dogs do not like people looking at them in the eye and approaching
them and petting them without invitation. Let the dog approach your friends in his own time and have them give a special treat if he exhibits interest and comes close.

The treat-giver may have to start off by tossing the treat to the dog rather than feeding it directly, but this may eventually lead to the dog taking the treat from the giver’s hand. Sometimes, dogs are fearful of someone who lives in the same household. If that’s the case, the feared person should become someone the dog associates good things with such as food, treats, and play.

The feared person should be the sole provider of food, and the person the dog normally clings to out of insecurity should pay less attention to the dog. Don’t worry, they will still love you.

Facing the Fears

Most dog behaviorists believe in having the dog confront the source of their fears in order to get accustomed to them. Don’t ignore or avoid those things that trigger your dog’s negative reactions, but don’t bully or force your dog to face his fears.

Do things gradually and gently for the best results. For example, if the dog is afraid of loud thunder, have the dog listen to a recording of thunder. Start out at a low volume, praising and giving treats to the dog for not reacting fearfully. Increase the volume bit by bit until the dog gets used to the noise and only associates positive things with it.

Or, if your dog is afraid of other dogs, slowly expose your dog to other dogs. You can have your dog meet and interact with stable, friendly, well-adjusted dogs. Again, give praise and treats for positive reactions. Most trainers and behaviorists discourage coddling your dog when he is acting fearful. By giving affection and attention when the dog is exhibiting a negative behavior will act to reinforce the behavior.

Your Energy Matters

Remember that one of the most important elements in successfully helping your dog overcome shyness is your own attitude and emotions. Your dog can sense your moods, your confidence (or lack of), and your positive or negative state of mind.

Your dog must be able to trust you and count on you for a stable environment and all around good energy.
When you’re dealing with your dog, always be aware of your state of mind to ensure a positive, calm encounter every time.

Be Patient

As with any kind of training or behavior modification, be patient with your dog and with yourself. Every dog is
different and will improve at his own pace. And one dog may not respond to the same type of training as another dog.

Try not to get frustrated, and expect that it may take weeks or months to get the results you want. Don’t rush your dog into behaving the way you want him to. That might make the problem worse.

Never Punish your Dog

If your dog doesn’t react as quickly to training as you’d like, you might get angry or frustrated. When you do, give yourself a break. Don’t ever take it out on your dog and use punishment in place of rewards to help modify his behavior. Any trainer will discourage punishing the dog for unwanted behavior.

If anything, punishment will make your dog stop trusting you and become even more shy and nervous. And, maybe your dog needs a different incentive, technique, or even a different trainer or behaviorist.

Consider Medication (as a last resort.) to Help the Dog Along
If your dog is an EXTREME case, you might want to consider looking into medication for your dog. I don’t usually recommend this myself, but there may be cases where a dog just needs some help along the way to reform with some meds.

The reason I don’t usually recommend this is because some pet owners use medication in place of proper training and behavior modification. This is just treating the symptoms, not the cause. Proper training and behavior modification is the best route.
So please, consult with your vet, your trainer, and your behaviorist before thinking about behavioral medication. I would also suggest getting second opinions if necessary to make sure medication is truly needed, and your dog’s behavior cannot be changed without it. You may also want to consult your vet about natural remedies.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • dog obedience January 19, 2011, 1:29 pm

    This is the first article I have ever run across to explain dog shyness. I rescued a Sheltie that wasn’t socialized properly and was extremely shy. I found out then by trial and error what you have written above. Thank you for the writing it because others will have something to guide them.


  • Lila February 21, 2014, 7:50 pm

    yes, our Sheltie/Shepherd cross is a rescue dog – we got her at 3 mths of age She is now 14 months old. The only “shepherd” in her is her coloring. Her personality is ALL Sheltie. But she is definitely an extreme case of “shy dog”. We have begun exposing her to people but she becomes so stressed that she cannot control her bowels around a stranger, even though the stranger we first started with is extremely gentle, has lots of skills training dogs, and did absolutely nothing to rush her. We have decided to take a day off in between socializing days to help her try to recover. We definitely are concerned for her though.

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