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a wealth of information on training and living with shy dogs

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So you have a shy dog! Shy dogs come in every size, age, and breed, or mix of breeds. Shyness in dogs can range from a mild discomfort in new situations to complete panic that culminates in the dog biting someone. Such dogs are frequently condemned to a life in the backyard, since they are unreliable around people or in new situations. They may be abandoned, turned in to the pound, or euthanized by owners who are unable to cope with their behavior.

But learning how to help your shy dog can make you a much better dog owner. Your finding this FAQ is proof of your love and concern for your dog, and we hope to provide you with tools you can use to help him or her become more confident.


Dogs can exhibit a wide variety of shy behaviors, depending on their personalities and the extent of their fear. Behaviors to look for include the ears going back flat against the head, dilated pupils (glassy-eyed), inappropriate panting, tucked tail, raised hackles, and refusal to make eye contact. A frightened submissive dog may crouch or turn belly-up and urinate (submissive urination), while a frightened dog of less submissive temperament will usually first try to run; if this is impossible, or sometimes even when it is possible, the dog may bare its teeth, bark, growl in warning, snap, and even bite. Some fear-biters wag their tails slowly--don't be misled!


As with many other types of behavior, there is an ongoing debate about nature vs. nurture concerning shyness in dogs. There is a growing body of evidence that shyness has a genetic basis and can be inherited (Willis, Genetics of the Dog, Howell, 1989; Willis, Practical Genetics for Dog Breeders, Howell, 1992).

Other reasons for shyness include:

  • Puppies learn a many of their behaviors from their mother; a shy mother can teach her puppies shy behaviors.
  • Certain physical ailments can contribute to shyness: deafness or ear infections, thyroid problems, chronic pain, epilepsy, rage syndrome.
  • Shyness can spring from lack of socialization in the important early months of puppyhood, or adverse experiences during the fear periods (8-10 weeks and 4 months).

Unfortunately, many people assume that a shy dog has been abused. While this may sometimes be the case, and while I have no numbers to support the assertion, I suspect this happens less frequently than most people think. There are a number of people on the shy-k9s list who have had their dogs since puppyhood and who know the breeder well enough to know the dogs have never been abused. Dogs in general have greater hearts and more forgiving natures than most people give them credit for; a dog with a stable temperament will survive abusive situations with its spirit intact. However, inappropriate handling will certainly make a shy dog worse, and may cause fear aggression.


While your shy dog may never be a social butterfly, you can help your dog become less fearful and more confident. It's never too early or too late to start work with your dog.

To begin, ask yourself some important questions and answer them honestly:

  • How much time, money, and energy are you willing to commit to this dog?
  • What are your resources for helping this dog?

Only you can answer the first question; this FAQ and the shy-k9s list are dedicated to helping you answer the second.

The old saw has it that knowledge is power. The more you know about shy dogs, and about dog behavior in general, the better prepared you'll be to help your dog. Read as many of the books listed in the bibliography. Talk to your vet, trainers, behaviorists, local kennel-owners, members of the local dog club and animal welfare organizations. Take everything with a grain of salt and tailor all suggestions to your dog's personality. Above all, know YOUR dog. Know what situations are likely to make her afraid. Know when to insist and when to quit. Know when your dog has had enough. YOU are the expert on YOUR dog.

And finally, keep in mind that, at least for now, YOU are your shy dog's confidence. Or, to put it another way, your shy dog finds confidence in your presence and leadership. If you are not clearly the alpha in the relationship with your dog, take steps now to remedy that. Becoming alpha need not involve harsh or confrontive methods that will only frighten and confuse your dog more. There are several fair and nonconfrontive methods of establishing yourself as the lead dog of the pack.

Your confidence will rub off on your dog. If you are tense or worried about a situation, your feelings will travel right down the leash, increasing your dog's fear. Try to relax and be happy and confident when taking your dog into new situations.

DO NOT give in to the temptation to comfort your dog when she becomes frightened. It's only natural to want to try to make her feel better, but what you're really doing is giving her the message that being afraid is ok! So, instead, ignore the fearful behaviors, and be alert for any indications of curiosity or interest so that you can praise them enthusiastically.

Now, on to specifics:

Begin by taking your dog to a reputable vet and ruling out physical causes for your dog's shyness. Epilepsy can contribute to fear aggression. Thyroid problems may affect a dog's mood. A dog with vision or hearing problems may be afraid of what they cannot hear or see; a dog with an ear infection may become unusually sensitive to sound. A dog in chronic pain (such as a dog with hip dysplasia or arthritis) may be cranky and indisposed to tolerate nonsense. Be sure your dog is physically sound first.
It is sometimes thought that breeding a bitch will help her "settle down." This is a fallacy. Please do not breed your dog. Have your dog spayed or neutered. Enough evidence exists to suggest that shyness can be inherited (from either parent), and that a bitch can teach her puppies her own fears. There are enough unwanted dogs and cats in the country. Please don't add to the problem. As a bonus, you will be helping to prevent several forms of cancer and some undesirable behaviors by spaying/neutering your dog.
Once you've ruled out physical problems, you can start training your dog. Begin by sizing your dog up. Read about your breed (or breeds, if your dog is a mix). Is it likely to be distracted by sights or scents (the hound groups)? Is your dog bred to work with man(herding dogs, retrievers and pointers) or on its own (guarding dogs, Northern breeds)? Answering these questions will help you rate your dog's prey drive (desire to play and chase things), pack drive (desire to be with you), and the two defensive drives (fight and flight).  A dog with high prey and fight and low pack drives would be trained very differently from a dog with high pack and flight and low fight drives.
Every dog should have obedience training, but it's even more important for shy dogs. In the first place, nothing will build up the relationship between you and your dog like obedience training. Secondly, a strong foundation in obedience gives you an important tool to use in teaching your dog how to cope with strange situations. If you live in a part of the country where obedience classes are scarce, a number of excellent books about dog training are listed in the bibliography. Otherwise, look around for a class. Try to attend a class without your dog, to see what the instructor's philosophy and techniques are and how big typical classes are. Talk to the instructor. Explain that your dog is shy and/or fear aggressive and will need special help. Ask if the instructor has experience with shy or aggressive dogs, and if they have experience in training your breed. An obedience class can be a wonderful, controlled environment for socializing your dog with people and other dogs.
As you do your research, think about the various philosophies of training and how you feel about the use of slip collars and prong collars, head halters (such as the Halti and Gentle Leader), muzzles, positive reinforcement (such as treats or clickers), and negative reinforcement (such as leash corrections).
Members of the shy-k9s list repeatedly attest to the positive effects of agility training for their dogs. Learning to master the physical challenges of an agility course seems to bolster a dog's self-confidence as nothing else can, plus the training is just plain fun! You will need to have mastered some basic obedience commands to enroll in most agility courses. Early training is done on- lead, and more advanced training is done off-lead. Owners of dog-aggressive dogs find that muzzling their dogs allows both of them to relax and get into the training, instead of worrying about the next attack. If there are no agility classes near you, improvise. A dog can learn "over" and "under" with a plain wooden bench. Bleacher seats can make good catwalks, and tires set on end good tunnels. If you work alone, remember to go slow and make every experience a positive, fun one for your dog.

Desensitization and socialization are important parts of rehabilitating a shy dog. Desensitization exposes the dog to things that frighten it at low levels, gradually increasing the level as the dog becomes accustomed to it. Socialization involves exposing the dog to other dogs, people, and situations.

Much of your work with your shy dog will involve desensitizing him to things he's afraid of--loud sounds, running children, men with hats, big black dogs, little white dogs--whatever. It takes time, and requires many small steps, patiently increasing both the time of exposure and closeness to the frightening object. A happy, upbeat mood on your part is essential, as well as a sharp eye on the dog's mental state; knowing when to quit can prevent backsliding.

Socialization is a vital part of every puppy's education. Even dogs with stable temperaments benefit from learning to interact quietly with strange dogs, people, and situations. With a shy dog, don't plunge right in, taking them to the nearby street fair. Instead, start small, with one or two people at a time. This is not a time for you to be shy; most people don't know how to behave around shy dogs and will do all the wrong things. It's up to you to instruct them carefully how to act.

  • If possible, ask them to sit on the floor--or even lie down!
  • They must NOT look your dog in the eye--this is a challenge in dog language and will frighten your dog more.
  • They should not try to touch the dog. They should let the dog come to them. They may offer the dog a treat. The best way for them to do this is to hold it in their open palm and sit quietly, waiting for the dog to approach them. With a very shy dog, they may try offering the treat from behind their back.
  • They should not try to touch the dog's head or neck if the dog does approach them. This is often construed as a threat by a shy dog, and can lead to a warning growl or a snap. If they must pet the dog, ask the person to move their hand in from the side, and to touch the dog's shoulder or back.
  • You should be watching your dog carefully, praising each indication of interest and curiosity (positive reinforcement), and ignoring fearful reactions (extinguishing a behavior). It is also your responsibility to know when your dog has had enough and to break off the encounter.

Socialization possibilities are endless. Take your dog to shopping centers. Some malls will allow a dog on a leash. Go to PetSmart. To accustom your dog to children, take a walk by the local grade school or day care center. Go to Little League games. At first keep your dog's interactions to a minimum; the idea is to accustom her to groups of people. Keep her mind off her fear. Ask her to heel, to sit, to lie down, and praise and reward her lavishly. If she doesn't obey because she's distracted by her fear, you are allowed to correct her for not obeying a command--not for being afraid. Most dogs will quickly learn that you will not put them in danger and that staying close to you and obeying your commands is a safe and good thing to do.

As your dog becomes accustomed to the situation, you can start to allow one or two limited personal encounters. Try to keep control of them. Warn the person that your dog is shy and ask them to let your dog approach them rather than the other way around. Let them give your dog a treat. Children (one at a time) can be surprisingly cooperative about this. Everyone will try to touch your dog's head; it seems to be ingrained human behavior and they will do it even if asked not to. After your dog ducks, try to salvage the situation by explaining again that your dog is shy and doesn't like to be touched, but maybe they can pet his shoulder. Set the dog up for this by asking him to do a sit stay, and try to keep the dog's attention on you. Praise for success.

With a shy dog, socialization is a never-ending process. Use your imagination.


In some cases, an individual trainer or behaviorist may be useful. If you decide to go this route, be sure to find out as much about the individual as possible. Ask for references. Ask what qualifies this person to hang out his or her shingle. Ask if they have experience with fearful and/or aggressive dogs. Ask if they have experience with your breed(s). Ask for more references. Try out a lesson. If at any time you feel uncomfortable with the person's methods, ask for clarification. If you don't like the answer, leave! Ill-advised training methods can ruin months of progress.


Veterinarians and behaviorists are beginning to prescribe such human drugs as Prozac for dogs with various kinds of problems, including fearful behavior. If you are interested in this as an option, ask your veterinarian, and please don't expect medication to be the Magic Bullet that will solve all your shy dog's problems. As with humans, these drugs work best when combined with other therapies-- obedience training and socialization in the case of dogs.

In some extreme cases--such as fear of thunderstorms or fireworks, a vet will prescribe a tranquilizer. But again, while this may provide some relief for you and your pet, it will not solve all your shy dog's problems.


Some dogs benefit from daily use of "natural" remedies like Bach's Rescue Remedy (a combination of flower essences) in their drinking water, or Stop Stress (a preparation of various herbs) sprayed on their food. Other people believe that upgrading a pet's diet (from grocery store food to premium foods or a home-cooked diet) is helpful as well.


Find professional help!

Aggression is a leading behaviorial reason for euthanasia. It is a natural behavior; therefore, it cannot be cured, but in most cases it can be controlled. If your dog is already biting, seek professional help. Very few can go it alone. It's not always easy to tell the difference between fear aggression and dominance aggression, but correct diagnosis is important or the aggression may worsen. Also, fear aggression may manifest itself in other forms, such as protective, intraspecies, people, etc., making correct diagnosis even more difficult.

Typically, fear aggression is expressed in mixed signals. Ears may be laid back but hackles up. The dog may be hunched, wagging its tail, yet growling or snapping. A fear-aggressive dog is often a combination of poor breeding and poor socialization. Confidence levels must be raised in order to reduce the aggression. Always be aware of the risk in dealing with an aggressive dog. And most importantly, if it's a problem you simply can't deal with, humane euthanasia is far kinder than passing the problem on to someone else.


Up to now, this FAQ has addressed what you can do to help your dog, but this final section is a word about YOU. Having a shy dog can be stressful. Owners of shy dogs frequently wonder what they could have done that made their dogs so shy, or what they could have done sooner to help. They get discouraged when progress seems slow or nonexistant. They have to deal with the accusing looks or words of uninformed people who think they must treat their dogs terribly for the dog to be so afraid. They wonder if they will ever be able to enjoy their dog the way owners of "normal" dogs do.

So I'd like to leave you with a word of encouragement. A shy dog *can* lead a relatively normal life, go everywhere you go, even earn obedience titles or function as a therapy dog. It takes patience and dedication, but you can make a real difference in your dog's well-being. Find people you can talk to when you feel discouraged. Keep a journal so you can look back and see what progress you've made together. Take a moment to think of all the good things there are about your dog, and how much you really do love him or her. Give yourself a little time off, and just enjoy being with and interacting with your dog. You'll feel better, and return to training with a better attitude.

Good luck!

Copyright © J. L. Hardin, 1997. Dedicated to Valiantdale's Midnight Star (Stella) and to the memory of Blue Moon's Shaman Eclipse (Shaman). Special thanks to Kim Murphy for help in putting it together, and to Margy Golant, Vicki McCabe and Lynda Oleksuk for beta-testing. If this will help you and your shy dog, or someone you know who has a shy dog, feel free to reproduce it.