Six tips to help a fearful dog or a shy 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 his fear.


There comes a point where it’s best to just force the dog to face his irrational fears. You can shower a dog with treats all you want and encourage him 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.