Helping Shy Dogs Out of Their Scary World

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to provide some preliminary guidance for those dealing with a shy or fearful dog.  This is a complex and important subject, books have been written on the topic of shy dogs, and for severe cases a Veterinarian and/or Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist should be consulted. 

The goal when working with a shy dog is to improve the confidence level of the dog ,gain trust by showing them you mean no harm and with you comes rewards – company, treats, walks, and possibly play time with a neutral dog.  Reaching this goal can be challenging, taking a lot of effort and a good amount of time, but very rewarding.  Please be patient and always take small steps when dealing with a shy dog.

Discussion

Dogs who have not been properly socialized (see “Socialization” under Resources) will tend to be shy and could be over reactive.  Discussed below are three types of common reactions seen in shy dogs:

Reaction 1:  They flee.  Most dogs will default to the flight response and will try to get as far away from you as possible aiming to find a safe place to hide.  This reaction can be a very strong one, where the dog may even run into traffic or cause self-injury to get away from what is frightening them.

Reaction 2:  They fight.  If a dog feels trapped, then she may choose to defend herself, creating a dangerous situation.  Most aggression in dogs is fear based.  Signs of this type of fear are: hackles are up, growling, weight shifting from front to back paws, or advancing then backing up.  Never turn your back on a dog in this state, they may see this as an opportunity to attack.

Reaction 3:  They shut down.  This reaction is also observed in the case where the fearful dog feels trapped.  They can be catatonic or unresponsive, or they may pee when you approach to touch them.  This is a very sad sight!

The shy or fearful dog may exhibit a combination of the reactions mentioned above.  As stated, flight is the default response for shy dogs, but if they can’t run then fight or shut down are the next options.

Why some dogs or puppies are shy:  Most people who meet a shy dog often assume the dog was abused.  While this might be true in some cases, most often times it is not.  Poor breeding practices could produce puppies that are more timid than others.  Puppies inherit a lot of their shyness from their mother.  Some breeders may incorrectly place the greatest emphasis on the stud dog will often discount the importance of the mother assuming the father’s good genetics can overcome a mother’s marginal temperament.  In addition, puppies reared in isolated situations, such as pet store cages or large breeding farms (puppy mills) unfortunately often turn out to be shy and timid. 

Possible Steps in Helping a Shy Dog

Always be calm and project confidence.  Work with the shy dog at a distance where the dog feels comfortable (remember you do not want the dog to be in a fearful state), in a distraction free environment, if possible, and always reward any “brave” behavior. 

“Touch” or hand targeting is my “go to” method of working with a shy dog.  This is when the dog touches your hand with its nose for the treat in your hand.  This brings the shy dog close to you and shows her that you are safe, building confidence in the dog, and it raises her confidence in you and hopefully humans in general.  It’s a great, safe, simple way to start a relationship with the shy dog.  Touch can be used on walks, while doing dishes, and it can be used by a “new” person, that has proper instruction, when greeting a shy dog.  The “Touch” cue is discussed in greater detail in the Resource section in “Watch Me and Touch” paper, but here is a start:

1.     Sitting on the floor, at a distance where the dog still feels safe, making no eye contact with the dog, toss treats near the dog and if they are taking them, move the treats closer and closer to you.  Note:  If the dog will not take the treats or will not come close to you, then pull out a book and read while tossing her a treat every so often. This may not seem like much, but you’re giving the dog a chance to hang out with a human at a safe distance and nothing bad is happening!  They’re even getting a treat every once in a while.  This could be very meaningful in the long run. 

2.     If she is approaching, then hold out a high value treat in the palm of your hand and when the dog takes it and touches your hand, say “yes” in a calm, normal voice (dealing with shy dogs you want to keep the excitement level low, movements slow and easy!).  Repeat this until the dog understands that it needs to touch your hand. 

3.     Once the dog is reliably touching your hand to get the treat you can then add the cue “Touch” to ask for a touch, then “yes” and they get the treat.  Repeat this exercise again several times using the cue “Touch.”

4.     If things are going well, you can ask for a “Touch,” but treat with the other hand, bringing it to her slowly, in full sight and beneath their chin level – you’ve made some great advances to get to this point, please make no threatening moves by treating above her head or from behind.  Then start to decrease the treating to every other time, third time, etc.

If the shy dog has a friend, a neutral or friendly dog, use this to your advantage.  Everyone knows how much influence a friend might have on them, and the same can be true with dogs.  Just the presence of another dog can boost the confidence of the shy dog.  And if you are giving the friendly dog treats, this may encourage the shy dog join in the fun and approach for a treat.  This technique can also be used on walks or when going to a new “scary” place.  Having her canine buddy along will increase the confidence level of the shy dog, and show her new adventures are fun.

You can use a food treat to coax her across a slippery floor or into a new area.  You may also supply treats to a “new” person, giving them a relaxed and friendly welcome, and ask them to give the shy dog food treats encouraging her to approach them.  If this is too much, you can also have the “new” person toss food treats near the dog, while not interacting or looking at the shy dog, to teach her people are good.

There are some very good medications available that may help to correct a chemical imbalance and reduce stress in the dog.  Consult a veterinarian to determine if medication could help.  Another avenue, as stated above, is to seek the help of a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist.

Conclusion

To help a shy dog you must not demand interaction from her while she is in a fearful state.  Never try to force a shy dog into a situation or to perform a behavior where she then enters a fearful state. Careful introduction to new things and using food treats can help the shy dog to bravely choose to enter the situation or perform a certain behavior in order to get the treat and at the same time gaining confidence - pairing something the dog feels is scary with something she knows is yummy.  Attempt the guidance outlined above, but if after a time, the situation appears severe with no progress being made, please contact a veterinarian and/or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, because this is truly a delicate issue where progress needs to be made for the wellness of the dog and those around her.

Chris Guest, ABCDT, CTDI