Features April 2006 Issue

Help Your Shy Dog Gain Confidence

How to help a scared dog gain confidence – and reduce his risk of biting out of fear!

[Updated December 26, 2018]


1. Until you begin training your dog to be more confident with strangers, protect her from becoming more frightened than she already is by managing her interactions with people. Keep them positive or keep them away!

2. Make a list of all the people, or types of people, who your dog is shy with. This will help you organize a desensitization and counter-conditioning program.

Mickey is a dog who hides under the bed every time someone enters his house. Chula barks and slinks behind her person if a child approaches. When Josie is approached by men, she involuntarily urinates.

What do these dogs have in common? They are afraid of certain people: strangers, children, and men.

nervous dog

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!

Dogs who are afraid of people are often described as shy, nervous, or cautious. Shy or fearful behavior is easy to recognize in dogs who move away, hide, or tremble when a stranger approaches.

But fear can show itself in a variety of other behaviors, too. Responses to fear include one or all of what trainers call the 4 Fs: Freeze, fight, flight, and fool around. Behaviors that may indicate uncertainty or fear include jumping up or seeking attention, urinating, panting, drooling, excessive shedding, and refusing to make eye contact. Growling, barking, and other aggressive actions can also be triggered by fear.

Why are Some Dogs Scared or Shy?

Shy dogs come in every size, shape, breed, or mix. Why are some dogs shy or afraid of people?

Popular sentiment holds that dogs who exhibit fear toward people must have suffered abuse or something very scary must have happened to them. While this may be true in some instances, the combination of genetic predisposition and a lack of social experiences in early puppyhood probably play a much larger role.

Most of us who have lived with shy dogs never know the exact root cause. Fortunately, you don’t have to know why a dog is afraid to help him or her overcome those fears.

People are Scary to Unsocialized Dogs

The first step to helping a dog overcome shyness is to identify exactly who your dog is shy around. Sometimes it seems as if a dog who is shy or afraid is randomly afraid. But thinking through and identifying exactly who he is afraid of and in what circumstances can be tremendously useful. It may be helpful to make a list of all of the people that your dog is afraid of. The list will be different for every shy dog.

For one dog I know, the list would include all strangers outside of the home. For another dog, it is only children younger than five. For yet another, it is only short, round women. The more specific you can be about what scares your dog, the better.

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

Managing a Nervous Dog

Management, simply put, is avoiding the problem or thing that triggers the problem (scary people, in this case) 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 those people who scare 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. (Note: If your dog has bitten anyone – even in fear – consult with a behavior specialist such as a certified applied animal behaviorist, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, or a certified dog behavior consultant.)

Each dog will require slightly different management strategies depending on who she is afraid of. For example, if you have a dog who is afraid of strangers, you might employ these management strategies:

• Avoid crowded areas where your dog may be overwhelmed by strangers.

• 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, I’m sorry, but my dog is uncomfortable with people she doesn’t know.”

• Put yourself between the person and your dog.

• Create distance by crossing the street or going a different direction.

Once you have management in place and your dog’s overall stress levels go down, get ready to train, desensitize, and counter-condition!

Train Your Dog for Confidence

Basic training is fun and builds your dog’s confidence. Teaching a dog a few simple behaviors such as sit, down, and stay can lay a good foundation for your dog to look to you for direction when he or she is uncertain. In addition, advanced level training such as rally obedience, musical freestyle, or agility can really boost a shy dog’s overall confidence.

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! of 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.

nervous dog

You’re too close! A shy dog stiffens in fear and averts his eyes from a stranger. At this point, he needs more distance between himself and strangers.

In addition, you can transform the presence of “scary” people into the cue or command for the behavior. Once a dog knows the “watch me” behavior well, begin practicing around strangers or other people who frighten your dog. Work at enough of a distance that your dog is not worried about the people being too close (see desensitizing section, below).

Every time a scary person appears, ask for the behavior and reward your dog generously. When the dog sees the scary person and does the behavior in anticipation of your asking, jackpot by rapid-fire feeding your dog 10 or more wonderful treats while you give him tons of verbal praise.

Shifting a Dog's Perceptions of New Things

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 dog overcome those fears.

If you have ever dealt with a fear – say, a fear of heights or a fear of spiders – you know that you cannot reason that fear away. You can’t just say, “Well, it is silly to be afraid of spiders, so I won’t be scared anymore.” You probably also know that any exposure to spiders may make your palms sweat and your heart pump faster. You absolutely cannot control your body’s reaction. When a dog is afraid, he likely experiences something similar – an emotional and physical reaction.

Desensitization and counter-conditioning are great ways to help a dog overcome the frightened emotional and physical response to people.

Desensitization is exposure to a fear-evoking stimulus (strangers, for example) at a sub-threshold level (far enough away that the dog notices them, but is not upset). Counter-conditioning is presenting a pleasant stimulus (such as roast beef) in the presence of a scary stimulus (such as a stranger). The goal is to use the pleasant stimulus to change the dog’s emotional and physiological response to the stranger from fearful to happy and relaxed.

Put Your Training Into Action

Here’s how desensitization and counter-conditioning might look for a dog who is afraid of strangers:

• Identify what scares your dog – the more specific the better!

• Pick something special to use for a conditioning treat. This is the time to use the best and most wonderful thing your dog can imagine! For many dogs, meat is the best choice: roast beef, hot dogs, chicken breast. For some dogs, a high-value play object or game can be a great option. (I know a dog who quickly got over his fear of children when the neighborhood kids began playing ball with him.) Make sure that your dog is motivated; if you are using food for the reward, the dog needs to be hungry!

• Figure out the dog’s threshold. Consider how close the person is, how many people are present, and what they are doing. Let’s say that the dog is comfortable with one or two people at a distance of 30 feet.

• Ask your designated stranger to come into the environment at 30 feet away. Each time the person appears – and your dog notices – start feeding the special treats in a rapid-fire fashion. Spill the food out as fast as your dog can gobble it up.

• When the person leaves the environment, stop feeding the special treats.

• Repeat this exercise until your dog is thrilled – and looking to you for the special treats – each time the stranger appears.

• When your dog is comfortable with the stranger appearing at 30 feet, have him come a little closer, say 28 feet away.

• Repeat this (over several sessions on different days) with the person very gradually moving closer, for as long as it takes for your dog to be comfortable. For dogs with mild fears, it may only take a few sessions before a stranger can walk up and your dog is happy to see them. For dogs with more severe fears, it may take months and lots of repetitions with different people.

Be patient! Effective desensitization and counter-conditioning work is about as exciting as watching paint dry (unless you are a dog trainer and get excited about these things!) Remember that the goal is to work sub-threshold. It is slow and tedious, but the payoff is worth the effort.

Use Real World Opportunies

In an ideal world, counter-conditioning would always happen in conjunction with desensitization (i.e., exposing the dog to the scary people at a sub-threshold level, when he is relaxed and comfortable). In the real world, however, it may not be possible to keep your dog from seeing strangers or other people who scare him while you are working with him to overcome fears. That’s okay. Keep up the counter-conditioning (feeding the treats) every time you see a scary person, even if the scary person is too close and your dog becomes worried.

In fact, for dogs with milder shy or fearful behaviors, you may be able to simply incorporate your counter-conditioning into your daily life. When you take a walk and see a stranger, start feeding treats. When a friendly stranger comes to your home, feed your dog treats in the presence of that person. If your dog is comfortable enough, he or she can even be fed treats by the “scary” person.

If you are asking others to help your shy dog by feeding treats, help keep it safe by offering your helper specific instructions on what to do.

• Ask your helper to wait for the dog to approach; not to approach the dog.

• If possible, have your helper stand or sit to the side of the dog. Ask him or her not to lean over the dog or make eye contact.

puppy exposure

Carefully engineer any opportunities for your dog to gain positive experiences with strangers; exploit his love of treats!

• Have your helper hold out a treat on a flat palm and let the dog come and take it from his or her hand. If the dog is too scared to approach, the helper can gently toss treats onto the ground.

• Caution! A fearful dog may temporarily overcome his fears in the tempting presence of a high value treat, then bite the scary person when the treat is no longer there. Don’t have strangers/helpers feed treats until you are sure your dog has been desensitized adequately – that he no longer appears fearful when approaching or being approached by strangers.

Praise your dog when he or she shows confidence and comfortably interacts with the person.

Let Your Dog Set the Pace

One of the most important things you can do for your shy dog is to respect his fears and let him set the pace for getting used to new or scary people. Protect him from making behavior mistakes by providing good management. Teach him basic behaviors so that he or she will know what to do in new situations. Lavish him with large doses of great things in the presence of scary people to help him overcome his fears.

I’ve seen shy dogs with mild fears become more confident in a few short weeks. But I’ve also seen dogs take up to two years before they were comfortable. Whatever amount of time it takes, the time and investment will be worth it – both for you and especially for your dog! Helping a shy dog build confidence and overcome fears is not only one of the greatest gifts you can give your dog, it is a very rewarding experience for the human side of the team, too!

Will Medications Help My Scared Dog?

We live in a Prozac-happy time. Drug interventions to help people and dogs deal with behavior issues are common.

In some cases, especially with dogs who have pronounced fears, medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac) can have very positive and dramatic results. However, medication is not a magic bullet; it generally will not solve behavior problems without also employing behavior modification. And, medications should never be considered lightly; they can have serious side effects.

If you choose to consult with a veterinarian about medication, find one who is well-versed in the nuances of psychopharmacology. The various drug interventions can have subtle and dramatic differences, so you want to consult with someone who understands them well. Ideally, consult with a board-certified veterinary specialist in behavior.

Questions to ask a veterinary behavior specialist when considering medication:

- Should we consider medication? Why or why not?

- What medication is best for my dog’s particular behavior issue? Why is it the best choice?

- What are the possible physical side effects? What are the possible behavioral side effects? What should we know about using this medication safely?

- How long will it take to begin working? How will we know if it is working? How long until we see full effects?

- What behavior modification protocol should be followed in conjunction with the medication?

Read "Understanding Behavior-Altering Drugs for Canines," (July 2006) for more information on medicating dogs for behavior issues.

Mardi Richmond, MA, CPDT, is a writer and trainer living in Santa Cruz, California, with her partner and two wonderful dogs.

Comments (8)

My 5 month old lab is quite shy and fearful of strangers, loud noises and any environment he isn't used to. My problem in training is that when he's afraid he loses total interest in any treat or food reward, so while your treat training method makes sense in most cases, it won't work in my particular circumstance and with my particular dog.
Any other suggestions?

Posted by: RickinJC | August 25, 2018 7:40 PM    Report this comment

I didn't read the article yet, because I would probably have forgotten what I wanted to comment. So, here is a way you can boost their confidence (and this is based on my own experience) it is a little weird, but it worked for me! I put cat ears on and if your really going for it, a tail (these 2 are optional but it might help a little) then i'll walk on the floor like a dog would, chasing my dog playfully. She grabbed her toy and did tuggle war with me ( of course I didn't put the toy in my mouth, I used my hand but stayed in my dog position). I was dumbfounded because ever since one of neighbors that moved behind us, she has been scared of their dog's bark and would hide in the hall and be scared to go over to the backyard door. But she'll still go do her business outside but after she is running over to the door and hiding in the hall, sometimes shaking. I watch her do her business to make sure our neighbors aren't throwing stuff at her. This has been helping little by little because she was playing by the door with me! You know what is weird? My neighbor's dog and my dog met each other face-to-face and they were literally best buds, but when she hears her bark at home, she will shake. Also, their neighbor's dog is 1 1/2 and mine is 5, i'm not sure why she would be afraid of a 1 1/2 year old puppy. Now i'm going to read this article, it seems helpful!

Posted by: Sort_of_a_Dog_Expert | March 26, 2018 11:01 AM    Report this comment

There is a very good video available by Peta Clarke, an experienced and gentle animal trainer re the importance of choice.
I don't know that I would be allowed to post the URL here, but you can Google it as "The Importance of Choice in Animal Training" Adding video and Peta Clark might help if you cannot find it.

Posted by: Jenny H | November 28, 2017 10:04 PM    Report this comment

No, Jiries Flooding makes problems like these worse, or turns fear into aggression. Been there, done that! :-( You are also placing these people whom you allow to touch your dog in danger of being hurt.
but you are right that shutting them away will not help. Exposing them to the fearful stimulus at a level or distance which they can tolerate works best. Gradually (or so gradually increase the level or reduce the distance - and reward the dog by letting them leave the situation. Let the dog use some signal to you that it wants out, and respect the choice.
Regularly so they learn that whatever it is is not dangerous to them.
Nothing is scarier that knowing that you cannot escape what you perceive as a danger.

Posted by: Jenny H | November 28, 2017 9:57 PM    Report this comment

some things here are really not making any sense.
dog who is afraid from people should be socialized which means seeing more people and being exposed to many different environments till it understands that there is nothing to worry about (to the right people and right environment off course) .
1) if some nice people will ask you if they can play with your scared dog you should say yes without any hesitation off course with explanation that they should be gentle because he is "shy " . you should act according to your dog reaction if hell be overwhelmed just stop them then.
2) how can a dog stop barking at guests if he will be in a crate when they come to visit ... he will never get along with the situation and the crate will make him feel traped and even more scared ... :/

Posted by: jiries | November 27, 2017 12:42 PM    Report this comment

I got a puppy three days ago I think he is a pit bull mix 4 1/2 months old. The person I got him off of got him from someone else and the person I got him off of thinks the dog was abused because of how shy he is. He is scared of me but follows me everywhere. He also wants to always sleep beside me. He is scared to play even. He is pretty good with my 3 yr old not scared of him which is good. When ever he had an accident I don't smack him I just tell him bad boy abd take him out side to finish. When he does his stuff outside he gets treats regardless if he had an accident before trying to teach him I won't hurt him just trying to figure out if there is a better way to get him more comfortable and les shy with me. Also he does seem shy around women but seems more ok with them

Posted by: ajfranki87 | December 9, 2015 8:05 PM    Report this comment

Here is my question, how do you deal with the idiots out there who insist on petting dogs no matter what? Even if you have asked that the dog be left alone they insist on bothering the dog. They mean well, they just want to pet her. She is a shy dog who she only wants her four family members and a few people who she trusts to work with her and live in peace. Sort of stuck as it is a relative that I cannot necessarily ban from the house, but especially now am saying leave my dog alone period. He is the sort that really wants to pet her but does not understand that she gives him all the signals of get the hell away from me. (Whale eye head down slink away) Nor does he realize the danger he puts himself in. Also the rough petting sort that has obviously never been told do not thonk the dog on your head with your hand it's rude. Would he like it if I did that to him? The problem gets to be I'm just a stupid kid and he knows better. (Even though I am a veterinary technician who has attended numerous conferences on behaviour)

Posted by: mcoe | June 14, 2015 8:10 AM    Report this comment

I have a mastiff mix that is very timid and I am looking forward to getting her out of her shell. I have already seen some progress.

Posted by: number1rhoda | November 15, 2012 9:24 AM    Report this comment

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