Building Courageous Canines: Help for Shy and Fearful Dogs


“We recently adopted a dog who seems really shy around people and other dogs. Will he always be afraid?”

Nia started out scared of other dogs and most people, but her foster mom helped her socialize and succeed!

Fear is a delicate issue with our dogs. It’s easy to make a dog afraid of things, and it can be very difficult to teach him not to be afraid. There are some extremely important do’s and don’ts when working with a shy or fearful dog, and usually the best thing to do is talk to an experienced, force-free trainer who works with positive reinforcement to help dogs with these issues. The good news is that we can help your dog be more comfortable in the world, but it can take some time.

Here are some pointers to keep in mind:

Your dog may be comfortable around certain types of people and not others. In every case, strangers should never just come right up to your dog—your dog should be allowed to approach people at his own pace, and not at all if he feels uncomfortable. Never force interaction as this can cause greater fear and also provoke fear aggression.  This can be tricky business, especially when people who say “All dogs love me!” or “I have been around dogs all my life” approach your dog without asking, or they ignore your polite requests. Sometimes with a fearful dog you have to be more forceful with strangers and even friends. Set boundaries and stick to them, for the sake of your dog. You are the dog’s voice in this situation.

It’s a good rule to ask the person on the other end of the leash whether it is okay to pet the dog before you approach, or better yet let the dog approach you first

If you are using food to help socialize a shy dog during exposure to new people, the food should come from you in the presence of the new person.  A stranger pushing food toward an anxious dog’s face can cause a fearful snap reaction, or the dog could become afraid of hands reaching for him. If your dog isn’t taking food from you that he normally loves, he is too anxious and you should create distance between him and the person or thing causing the fearful reaction.

Not all dogs are happy playing with or even greeting other dogs, and we should respect this.  Some dogs love the dog park, some only like to play with a small group of friends in a safe space or go on walks with another dog, and others are perfectly happy just to be with their human companions. You can and should teach your dog to be polite around other dogs and people at a distance where they feel safe, but again:  never force an interaction.

Leash greetings should be brief and your dog should be allowed to decide if he’s comfortable or if he prefers to move along

Confidence building is key with shy dogs, and basic obedience or advanced classes are fantastic for this. Even if your dog doesn’t really need training, simple tricks and games and even work-to-eat toys give your dog much needed mental stimulation and contribute to overall healthy behavior.