Features April 2006 Issue

Help Your Shy Dog Gain Confidence

How to help a shy dog gain confidence – and reduce his risk of biting!

by Mardi Richmond

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.

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 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.

Scary people everywhere
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.

Putting management to work
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 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.

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 emotions
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.

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.

Opportunity knocks
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.

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.

Your dog sets 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!


Also With This Article
"What You Can Do"
"Will Medications Help My Scared Dog?"

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

Comments (3)

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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