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Shy & Fearful Dogs

Shy & Fearful Dogs

Fearful, Shy and Nervous Dogs… Can Get Better!

Regardless if a dog is a rescue or from a breeder, regardless if he is a big, brave looking Rottweiler, regardless of how loving an owner you are – your dog still maybe a fearful or shy dog. Shy, nervous and fearful dogs come in every size, shape, breed, or mix. At Canine Path we are very experienced helping owners and their dogs work through anxiety and fear.  Outlined below are some of the things to keep in mind when working with shy, fearful anxious dogs:

Why are some dogs shy or fearful of people, dogs or noises in their environment?

Popular sentiment holds that dogs that exhibit fear toward people, other dogs, fearful of certain noises may have suffered abuse or serious trauma. While this may be true in some instances, the combination of genetic predisposition, under socialization or lack of exposure to various experiences in early puppyhood probably play a much larger role.

Most of us who have lived with shy dogs never know the root causes. Fortunately, you don’t have to know why a dog is shy or fearful to help him or her overcome those fears. Click here to see a helpful handout defining fearful dog responses. The better you can read the better you can avoid undesirable altercations.

Avoid These Common Myths and Pitfalls:

  • He Just Needs More Training: Many people believe that that shy, fearful, and/or reactive dog “just need training.” While training your dogs various cues and commands (sit, stay, down etc.)  No amount of “obedience” training alone is going to stop your dog’s fear based behaviors. At the same time training combined with proper management, behavior management and even medication can help many fearful, anxious dogs become less reactive and better adjusted.
  • Mistakes Happen: No person and no dog is perfect. Perhaps you didn’t properly socialize your dog as a puppy. Perhaps he had a negative experience during his fear periods. However, it’s very likely that owners with fearful dogs are working with dogs that have usually have poor genetics or have had traumatic experiences prior to coming to live with them.
  • Ease Up: Don’t give your or other members of your family a hard time for having a fearful dog. Even seasoned trainers ask themselves “if only I had known this sooner” or “maybe if I’d done this, he wouldn’t be so afraid.” You should always be learning about the latest science-based training techniques and managing your dog in a safe, responsible manner to help your dog.
  • There is Hope: You may not have created the problem, but you can be part of the solution. It can help immensely to work with a reputable dog trainer. Do the best you can, steer clear of punishment-based training methods, and accept that you are going to make mistakes. Be patient with yourself and your dog.

There is more help than ever available for fearful and reactive dogs. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that you do your research when looking for a dog trainer. If you’re willing to put the time and effort in to truly change the way your dog thinks and feels, you should see significant, positive changes.

Canine Path has years of experience using positive training and management techniques to build the confidence of nervous, fearful and shy dogs (and their owners too!).  

Canine Path



Owning a fearful, shy dog can be challenging. Having a reactive dog often limits places you can go (even neighborhood walks can be challenging) and whom he can meet (shy dogs are often afraid of strangers or even a family member).  Whatever the cause, It is imperative to isolate the triggers that cause your dog fear and stress. A trainer who is experienced with training fearful dogs can quickly help the owner and the dog get in synch. Canine Path has years of experience using positive training and management techniques to build the confidence of nervous, fearful and shy dogs (and their owners too!).  Delving further into training fearful, shy and anxious dogs outlined below is information we have learned over the years that may be of help to you and your dog:

First Steps: The first step in helping and training dogs that are fearful, shy, anxious or reactive is to understand how to help them feel safe in their world.  At Canine Path we have worked with many fearful, shy and anxious dogs and we have found that consistency and keep their world ‘small’ helps keep a dog more comfortable and less reactive. By keeping a dog’s world ‘small’ this may mean (initially):

  • Not going to the dog park.
  • Not going to pet stores.
  • Not interacting (petting, meeting) with new dogs and people.
  • Not letting people or kids hug your dog.
  • Putting your dog away in a room or crate and not letting him interact with newcomers until he has gained more confidence (usually achieved by training, consistency and time). If your dog can’t handle the crate consider a dog run, separate room etc.

Learn to read your dog!  If you are paying attention (this is a must) fearful, shy dogs will exhibit some or all of these stress signals:

  • Pay attention when your dog suddenly seeks out a quiet, “safe” place and hides when people arrive at your home. He doesn’t feel comfortable!
  • Hiding or trembling when a person or dog approaches.
  • A stiff, rigid body.
  • Hard, glassy eyes
  • Other responses to fear:  4 Fs: Freeze, Fight, Flight, and Fool Around.
  • Behaviors that may indicate uncertainty or fear include jumping up or seeking attention, urinating, panting, drooling, tight mouth, licking lips, excessive shedding, tucked tail, wagging tail and refusing to make eye contact.
  • Growling, barking, and biting are more overt signs, and we want to try and settle a dog down before the behavior escalates.

Click here to download the handout on Dog Stress Signals

Other Helpful Tips:

  • Until you begin training your dog to be more confident with strangers, protect him from becoming more frightened by managing his interactions with people. Keep them positive or keep them away!
  • Also make a list of all the people, or types of people, whom your dog is shy with. This will help you organize a desensitization and counter-conditioning program.
  • Understand his threshold. What this means is how close (in feet/inches) can your dog be to a stranger or another dog etc. before he becomes reactive. Keep your dog under threshold meaning keep enough distance between you and the trigger so your dog is no longer reactive allowing you to work with him on commands and behaviors that he does well and should be rewarded for.

Managing a Shy, Fearful, Dog

Management, simply put, is avoiding the problem or thing that triggers the problem (scary people, new dogs etc.) by controlling the dog’s surroundings. Management alone won’t solve fears, but it can help prevent your dog’s fear response – such as cowering, submissive urination, barking, or growling – until he can become more comfortable around things that trigger him.

Management can help lower the stress for you and your dog, and help create an atmosphere favorable for training and behavior modification. In some cases, management is essential for safety. Each dog in unique and he will require slightly different management strategies depending on whom or what he is afraid of. For dogs that are reactive, shy or fearful listed below are a few recommendations:

  • Avoid crowded areas where strangers may overwhelm your dog.
  • Use a leash, crate, or baby gate to prevent your dog from interacting with strangers in your home.
  • Think about ways you can protect your dog if you are caught off guard, too.
  • If a stranger approaches and asks to pet your dog, you can say, “No, my dog is in training.” NO MATTER HOW MUCH THE PERSON WANTS TO PET YOUR DOG DO NOT ALLOW THIS. We cannot emphasize this enough. Many well meaning people get bit by nervous, fearful dogs – after claiming all dogs love them.
  • If necessary put yourself between the person and your dog. (Many well intentioned people will not listen to your instructions.)
  • Create distance by crossing the street or going a different direction.
  • Remember your dog is your responsibility – you make decisions for him so he does not have to.

Once you know who or what scares your dog, you can take steps to minimize his fear responses until he can become more comfortable. Environmental management is your best friend in the early stages of helping a shy dog.

After you have implemented management techniques and your dogs overall stress levels decrease, get ready to train, desensitize, and counter-condition!

Rewarding Shy, Fearful Dogs

When your dog is acting nervously or in a shy manner. Resist petting him as this usually worsens the behavior (petting is telling your dog to keep doing what he is doing).  We suggest:

  • Exercise him as much as possible, walks, ball chasing, puzzles and games to get your dog physically and mentally tired.
  • Reward him for ‘getting it right’ – for being quiet or settled. Give him his favorite treats or chew toys!
  • Play dog-calming music (we love ‘Through A Dog’s Ear’ – click here).
  • Train your dog for confidence – contact a trainer to help you train your dog to be a confident canine!

Train Your Dog for Confidence

Training is fun and builds your dog’s confidence – even simple commands will build a dog’s self-reliance!. Teaching a dog a few simple behaviors such as sit, down, and stay sets a good foundation for your dog to look to you for direction when he or she is uncertain.

Mardi Richmond, MA, CPDT a renowned trainer has some great recommendations (Whole Dog Journal, 2006) for helping a fearful canine:

While all positive training will help settle a fearful dog, these three specific training exercises can really pump up a scared dog’s confidence:

  • Ask politely for everything: Have your dog sit or down before you pet him, give treats, feed, play ball, open doors, etc. This builds structure, which appears to be stress relieving for dogs, and it teaches your dog to look to you for guidance and for the good things in life.
  • Rewards happen! Reward all positive behaviors around people. For example, if you are out in public and your dog sits in the presence of strangers, “mark” the behavior with a click, a clicker or a word such as “Yes!” and give him a reward. If your dog politely approaches a friendly child, mark the behavior (click! or Yes!) and give your dog a reward. Give your dog rewards for these behaviors even if you did not ask for them! If you reward offered, appropriate behaviors, your dog may start to use them as a coping mechanism, which may help him reduce his own stress level.
  • Train a default behavior; A default behavior (a behavior your dog offers when he doesn’t know what else to do) can be a great tool for an anxious dog. An excellent default behavior for fearful dogs is “Watch me,” meaning, “Look at my face and eyes.” This helps your shy dog orient toward you, as well as helps him disengage from people who are frightening to him.

If you have ever dealt with a fear – say, a fear of heights you know that you cannot reason that fear away. You can’t just say, “Well, it is silly to be afraid of heights, just climb some steps or take an elevator up in a tall building. Don’t scared anymore. You probably also know that very thought of going inside an elevator makes your heart race or head spin. You absolutely cannot control your body’s reaction. When a dog is afraid, he likely experiences something similar – an emotional and physical reaction

While training specific behaviors can help build confidence and teach your dog how to behave appropriately around the people who may frighten him, Desensitization and counter-conditioning can be key to helping a shy, nervous dog overcome those fears.

Canine Path has years of experience using positive training and management techniques to build the confidence of nervous, fearful and shy dogs (and their owners too!).  Call us today:

Canine Path



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