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Help a fearful dog or a shy dog – Six tips

Last week I wrote about five tips to help a fearful dog. Many of you shared some great ideas from your own experience. Thank you! Here are some additional tips from myself and some of you on how to help a shy dog.

Help a fearful dog

How to help a fearful dog

1. Work on your dog’s overall obedience skills.

Most of you know this, but the general dog-owning population doesn’t. Dogs with solid obedience skills have more confidence and self-control. People wonder how they can stop a dog’s separation anxiety or stop a dog’s whining, and it all comes down to obedience. If you can get your dog to sit at your side and check in with you in any situation, it will be that much easier for your dog to handle stressful situations. This can’t happen overnight, of course. It’s about starting small and slowly building your confidence as well as you dog’s confidence. Start by working on the basics at home and gradually work in more and more challenging environments. Don’t work too quickly. Take the time to build a solid foundation.

2. Observe an obedience class with your fearful dog.

Most dogs will benefit from a group obedience class. If you have a shy dog, I recommend you take her to an obedience class to help her feel more confident working around other dogs. For some shy dogs, an obedience class will be too overwhelming because of all the other people and dogs in a new environment. If your dog is freezing up (like a statue), crouching to the ground with her tail down, closing her eyes and looking away, shaking or frantically trying to jump into your lap, you may want to consider working one-on-one with a trainer and maybe one other dog.

Another option (if you get permission from the instructor) is to simply bring your dog to the class to observe. You would not participate in the class with your dog. Instead, you would sit or stand with her in the same room as the class and just watch. Just being in the same room as the others will be mentally tiring and overwhelming for your dog, but it’s a way to slowly get her more comfortable. You can  leave if she seems too stressed. Maybe take a short walk or sit in the car a few minutes and go back in. Make sure you are not causing too much of a disturbance for the class. A little distraction is good for the other dogs, but you don’t want your dog barking or whining the whole time.

3. Teach your shy dog a command for “watch.”

If you teach your dog to make eye contact on command, you can use this to help her focus on you in stressful situations. Teach your dog to “watch” by holding treats by your face and giving them to your dog when she makes eye contact. This command comes in handy in many situations such as when you pass other dogs on walks, when your dog is feeling overwhelmed at the dog park or when she is having trouble focusing due to stress. Checking in with you should always be a positive experience that makes your dog feel safe.

4. Force the dog to face her fear.

Help a fearful dog overcome a fear

There comes a point where it’s best to just force the dog to face her irrational fears. You can shower a dog with treats all you want and encourage her to follow you, but at some point this becomes impractical.

For example, I walked an English bulldog who was terrified of the blue recycling bins people put out on recycling day. When he saw those bins, he seemed to think “Oh dear God! This is not right!” And then he’d try to run home.

I had a few options on how to deal with this. I could’ve ignored the behavior and kept dragging him along. (Keep in mind that walking an English bulldog is like walking a bowling ball with legs.) I also could’ve taken him home, or I could’ve bribed him with treats. When a dog is in panic mode, however, treats are not much help. So in this case, I kept the dog’s leash short and I forced him to walk circles around one of the blue bins with me. Our circles were wide at first, and then we got closer and closer until we were walking in a tight little loop around the bin. I’m sure I looked like an idiot, and we did this for about two or three minutes. After that, the dog had forgotten why he was scared. The bin was no longer a big deal, and we continued on our walk.

The next recycling day, the dog was a little worried again, but not as much. We did our circle routine again and he was fine. After that, he never showed a fear of the bins again.

So, you can spend hours and hours over several months using treats to help a dog overcome his fear. Or, you can “flood” his brain and face the fear. Dog trainer Ty Brown has a great post explaining how to help a dog overcome a fear using this “flooding” method. This will not work for every dog in every situation, but it’s an option other than treat-treat-treat-treat-treat to keep in mind.

5. Ask your dog to do something new every day.

It will go a long way if you can encourage your shy dog to try something new every day. It doesn’t have to be huge like visiting the dog park. It can be small, like jumping onto a park bench, walking in a different neighborhood, sitting on a mat or visiting a friend’s house. Each dog has a different comfort level, so find something that stretches your dog just a little every day. Reward her big time when she attempts to try these things, even if she’s not successful. Give her praise for trying. For example, if she’s unsure about the park bench but puts her two front paws on it, that’s great! That’s progress.

Gradually, you will visit more “stressful” places as your dog increases her confidence.

6. Don’t encourage your dog to lean on you.

Your shy or fearful dog probably spends a lot of time leaning on you or jumping into your lap. While I don’t believe you need to worry about “rewarding the fear” I do think it’s best to stretch your dog’s comfort level a bit. As I said in my earlier post, I’m a shy person and I know I need to stretch my own comfort level from time to time. I can’t just hide at home 24/7. It’s good for me to get out and meet new people and socialize. The same is true for your shy dog.

My former foster dog Cosmo is an example of an insecure dog who would always lean on me at adoption events to feel more secure. When he did this I would move away from him or practice having him lie down and stay. This was very hard for him, but it helped build his confidence and self-control. It also made him more appealing to adopters.

Additional tips readers shared

  • Try not to be self-conscious yourself. Many dog owners worry too much about what others may or may not think about our dog’s behavior. – NancysPoint
  • Make a distinction between shyness and anxiety. “Shyness is a character trait that doesn’t necessarily need to be fixed. Anxiety is a lesser ability or an inability to process certain stresses.” –Ty Brown
  • Laughter sometimes helps. “It didn’t take long for him to associate laughter with fun because I always laugh when I play with him.” – Dawn
  • Try to take advantage of the moments when the dog is more outgoing, like in the mornings when she has more energy. Also, sometimes it helps for the dog to hang around another dog. – Rachel @ My Two Pitties
  • Visit places from afar and slowly move closer as the dog is more comfortable. “I try to get as close as possible without an anxious reaction.” – Alison

What are some additional tips to help a fearful or shy dog?

Thank you for your input!

Stevie Swendsen

Friday 30th of August 2013

Thank you so much! This helped me take a fearful lil beagle. She was probably abused a bit before I got her. She's a rescue pup. Your site is stocked full of goodies! Thanks for sharing!


Wednesday 19th of June 2013

Re: Here is the link:

I read the link, and I'm glad it worked out for this trainer, both with the dog and with his daughter.

I wouldn't use this method, though. It would trip my no pain/no fear training alarms. Too easy for it to backfire and either make the fear worse or tip the dog over into biting.

It's also a bit of a false dichotomy to state that forcing the dog to get over a fear (or maybe learn that the dangerous human is going to force him to do the scary thing and there isn't a darned thing he can do about it) takes 30 minutes and counter-conditioning with rewards takes 2-3 months.

There's a good video here by Kikopup (a supremely talented trainer) on helping her dog get over a fear of a slippery floor using counter-conditioning. It doesn't take months. Of course, she IS a talented trainer, with an inventive mind and excellent timing. The same approach might take longer for those of us who are not so gifted.

There are a couple of things I find charming about this video ...

The dog clearly has enormous trust in her trainer. She trusts that the trainer will not ask her to do something she CAN'T do, and she trusts that the trainer will let her retreat if she needs to. At no point is the dog not a willing partner in the training.

The video is also a good example of rewarding the second dog (the one not being trained, the BC) for lying quietly and waiting his turn.

Lindsay Stordahl

Wednesday 19th of June 2013

Great points. What it comes down to is there is more than one way to train a dog, and that's what I was getting at with the tips in this post. Each of us has to do what is best for our specific dog based on the situation. You know your dogs best and I know mine.


Monday 17th of June 2013

I have the same problem but its only moving motor bikes (its actually the sound of the engine is what she doesnt like!). I was away down the country last week and there was a guy cutting grass with an engine similar sounding to a motorbike. I asked him could I just follow him around as he was cutting the grass! Within 10 mins, Chip was over the noise and looking at me saying "why the hell are we following this guy"

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 17th of June 2013

Haha! Great story! :)


Sunday 16th of June 2013

I agree with the people before who have said that I wish people would've read this before giving up on their dogs. Also, doing a lot of those things while the dog is young will avoid fearfulness issues when the dog gets older, but people so often forget to socialise their dogs properly.

My number one tip for dealing with shyness would be to keep a patient, cool head! I fostered a very shy, fearful, shut down puppy a few months back who really tested my patience, and I'll admit I occasionally lost my cool a bit and raised my voice at her (to be fair, you could cough and she would think she was in trouble so my, "ugh stop it!" was as bad as I got!) and my boyfriend lost his cool many times too. I noticed that she was so fearful of doing something wrong that she couldn't learn new things, and I realised I simply COULD NOT lose my patience with her. She needed to trust that no matter what happened, I was a safe person for her. Once we started being calm 100% of the time and mastering our frustration, she came ahead leaps and bounds. It's the hardest rule to follow, I find, but it made such a difference.

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 17th of June 2013

Ace is like that only less extreme. He is not a fearful dog by any means, but if I lose my temper he shuts down and is afraid to try anything new. He doesn't want me to scold him. I've learned a lot from him about patience.


Saturday 15th of June 2013

My mastiff, Bella, was terrified motorcycles (moving and parked). There was always one in the apartment parking lot, so I would intentionally walk by it really slow. I'd have Bella sit in front of it (without looking). We would get closer slowly. Or I would play 'find it' (toss a treat and have her smell for it) as a distraction. Problem solved.

I love your tips.

Lindsay Stordahl

Sunday 16th of June 2013

That is a great idea. Thanks for reading.