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!

35 thoughts on “Help a fearful dog or a shy dog – Six tips”

  1. Step 1 is the biggest thing that I’ve found and yet it’s the most overlooked. Probably because it takes the most work.

    I’ve found that the obedience needs to be solid and very understood if it’s going to overcome fear. Most folks I meet for the first time have just very cursory obedience based on treats. That level of obedience will never overcome fear.

  2. I really enjoy your blog; lots of good advice and interesting viewpoints.

    However, I would be super, double, extra cautious recommending flooding as a technique for handling fear; it’s easy to use inappropriately and can do significant harm.

    Current behavioural research casts doubt on the effectiveness of flooding as a cure. It can be a short-term fix, but is questionable as a real solution. The technique can backfire, where the dog (when given no choice) shuts down, to a state of learned helplessness, but doesn’t actually become less fearful (and can actually end up being MORE fearful).

    Aside from that, it’s good to be reminded to get out there with our dogs, to find new and interesting things for them to see, smell, and touch.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      You do have to be cautious, and it can backfire. You’re right. Yet, sometimes it works as in the example I gave and in the post I linked to, wouldn’t you agree? I think it depends on the dog, the level of fear and the exact situation.

    2. I would also agree that avoiding flooding is the wiser choice, unless you’ve got a bit of training or experience up your sleeve, it can often do more harm than good. Graded exposure is a safer alternative because you can better read where your dog is at fear-wise, even if it can be frustratingly slow. The level of fear is probably the thing one should use to judge if flooding is an ok approach. Perhaps in your example Lindsay, the dog wasn’t very fearful in the first place.

      1. Lindsay Stordahl

        What did you think of Ty’s post that I linked to?

        I like his stairs example, because I’ve come across quite a few dogs that are afraid of stairs. For me, it makes so much more sense to just leash up the dog and then ask the dog to follow me up and down the stairs about five times. The dog learns – Oh! No big deal! – Problem solved.

        1. I hadn’t actually looked at the link before, just did. I know that it is often effective, and I’ve just realised I ‘flooded’ my dog a little while ago when I needed to blow dry him. It was our first wash of Jasper in the cold weather so I had to blow dry him and he hated it. I didn’t really feel I had a choice because he is very fluffy and long wet hair just isn’t a great combo in winter here! I essentially forced him through it, physically restraining him, and gave him a huge pile of treats afterwards, and since he has been less fearful of the hairdryer. He still dislikes it, but puts up with it and will even pop his head into the bathroom while I’m blow drying my hair. Even still, I am not proud that that was the way I got him adjusted to the blow dryer and I would do it differently if I had my time again.

          I will say that during that experience, had it been anyone else doing it, and if I didn’t have such a close relationship with him + him being very well socialised with lots of different experiences/sounds etc, I could easily have been bitten or if he was bigger we both could have been hurt. I generally don’t think it’s fair that we get to physically overpower smaller dogs, but have to find other ways with bigger/stronger ones (I’m not very big so it wouldn’t take much dog to be too much for me). So, I guess, in summary, I agree that it can be effective, but it carries greater risks of harm, both physical and psychological, and also ethically I would prefer another method. But I am not getting on my high-horse about it, because as I admitted, I’ve used it before too.

          1. Lindsay Stordahl

            Great story and good points. Thanks for sharing your experiences on all this. I’ve used the method by pushing my dog off the dock at the lake. I’m a horrible dog mom. But now he’s not scared to jump in anymore!

        2. I tried the link, but just got the main website, so couldn’t see a post about fear of stairs.

          But not sure I want to explore that site any further, with a big link to shock collars on the main page. Ick.

          Because I have a short attention span 🙂 I try to keep three things in mind when training: I don’t rush, I ask Suzanne Clothier’s “how is this for you?” question of the dog, and I stick to no pain/no fear. That’s overly simplistic, I know. If my dog’s running into the road, I stop worrying about the no pain/no fear rule.

          But in all other areas of training/management, the first method I would try would be the one that is easiest on the dog, which may not necessarily be the easiest one for me. I saw an episode of a Famous Dog Trainer’s show where he dragged a dog up and down the stairs to cure it of a fear of stairs. By the end, that dog was going up and down the stairs, by golly, but I don’t think he enjoyed it very much, and you can tell from the dog’s body language that he doesn’t think much of Famous Dog Trainer.

          We (and I include myself!) get impatient.

          My personal epiphany was training my rescue, off the track, TB ex-racehorse to load into a trailer, years and years ago.

          Given enough time, enough ropes, and enough helpers, we could get him on the trailer. No one had a good time. I wanted to go places on my own, so couldn’t always rely on having people around to help. Plus, it took about an hour every time I needed to load him. So I set out to teach him to self load.

          This horse was 16.3 and fit. No way was I muscling him onto the trailer. So I armed myself up with lots of treats (and water for me).

          The first time, it took me five hours to get him to calmly walk into the trailer (I would never do that long a session now). Five hours.

          The second time, it took an hour and a half.

          The third time, half an hour.

          After two weeks, I could loop the rope over his neck and he’d walk on.

          I didn’t use anything other than calm persistence and lots of treats when he made a move in the right direction. And best of all, he felt like it was his decision. He never gave me a problem loading again.

          I think about that first five hours a lot, whenever I’m tempted to rush my dog’s training. Sure, it took a lot of time. But it SAVED me hundreds of hours if I’d never made that initial investment of time.

          1. Great story Jo! I really agree with your ethic and it was what I was trying to get across in my previous post!

          2. Lindsay Stordahl

            I agree, great story! And thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this topic. We all have a lot to learn (myself included) and I think it’s great to have open discussions like this. You sound like an excellent trainer and very patient, even if you don’t consider yourself patient.

  3. Absolutely. And I too have been known to tell my dog to stop being such a drama queen and just get over it, whatever “it” is. As with anything, it’s important to know your dog, to be able to read your dog, and to assess each situation. Minor spookiness would be handled differently than a major fear reaction.

    I’ve taught my dog to “Look at THAT!” for scary things. We sit a safe distance away and together we take a good long look at whatever it is that is frightening, with some treats to make the process more palatable. We might get closer, or we might just walk away. But my dog trusts me not to push him when he’s truly frightened, which paradoxically makes it easier for him to approach the next scary thing.

  4. I LOVE this post! I wonder how many of the dogs which wind up on Craigslist would have stayed with their families if their owners had followed your advice. 🙁

  5. The way we help change how dogs feel about things that scare them is through desensitization and counter conditioning. For more information there’s lots of info on the website. Forcing a dog to face their fears, depending on what it is can lead to aggression. It’s a dicey suggestion to offer without knowing the dog.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      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.

      1. I wish Jasper would take a leaf out of Sophie and Ace’s books. I could rant and rave at him at the top of my lungs and it would be like I haven’t said a thing haha.

      2. My Lucy is the same way. I’ve realized if I raise my voice she shuts right down even though it’s not aimed towards her! It’s not very often but it could be a football game. We were in a store Mast General in NC when the person asked if Lucy had ever been on stairs. He took her up and down twice and she’s been fine ever since She’s very shy till the squirrels or woodchucks or cat come by then you’d think she was a lion!

  8. 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”

  9. 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.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      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.

  10. 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!

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