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What to Do About a Shy Dog

If you have a shy dog, you know that sometimes shyness can be every bit as tedious to do with as blatant aggression. Maybe one day you took your dog for a walk, and a stranger approached in the dog park, and suddenly your dog went crazy, barking like mad and attempting to flee.


Feeling embarrassed, you tried to apologize, but when you went home that day, you still had no idea what you could do about this kind of situation. You knew very well that behavior was likely to repeat again the next day.


There are a lot of reasons why some dogs may have shy dispositions. In some dogs, this is a hereditary trait. In others, it may relate to a medical condition. Dogs may also develop shyness as a response to poor training or to trauma.


How can you know whether you have a shy dog? There are all kinds of behaviors which are giveaway signs. When you greet strangers, does your dog keep her tail tucked between her legs and her ears flat?  Does she pant or shake a lot?  Does she whine, bark, cower, or attempt to escape?  Does she bite or urinate?  All of these probably indicate your dog is very frightened of new encounters.


What can you do about it? 


  • Don’t expose your dog to unnecessarily frightening situations.  Yes, desensitization training can work, but not by going overboard.  You need to pick controlled situations, and you need to look for times when you can pair enjoyable experiences for your dog with those situations.  In other words, a bad approach is tying your dog outside a shop while you step inside.  That is a situation you cannot control, plus you have left your dog alone in a vulnerable state.  That will only increase trauma, and with it, shyness. 


  • You can try obedience training as well.  Start out in a calm environment with just the two of you, and then practice the same commands in an environment with a TV or radio, and then one with a friend or family member present or kids playing nearby, and so on.  Always use positive reinforcement with treats and dog toys for training.


  • Socialize your dog gradually and not in chaotic environments.  Instead of taking your dog to a crowded park, just invite a friend over and spend some time quietly in the room together and give your dog some treats.  This comes back to the desensitization method discussed before.  You want to teach your dog to associate social experiences with rewards.


  • Regularly schedule play time with your dog, and if possible, start including another dog that your pooch is friendly with.  Then gradually consider introducing a new dog to the mix, and so on—but make sure that you introduce any new dog friends gradually before expecting them to play together. 


  • Walk your dog quickly by other dogs without stopping to greet.  Stay on the very edge of the range your pet is comfortable with.  As your pet becomes more comfortable, you can reduce that distance very slowly.  Eventually you should get to the point where you can stop and greet.


  • When you have people over at your house, take some steps to ensure your dog is happy and comfortable.  Take her out to play a game before your friends come over; that way she has used up some of her excess energy.  Give her some toys for dogs with anxiety to keep her occupied and feeling safe while your guests are around.


The most important thing to remember is that shyness is not a behavioral problem.  It may be an inherent part of your dog’s disposition, or it could be a learned trait.  If it is the former, it deserves your respect since it is simply a part of your dog’s personality.  If it is the latter, remember that it is probably the result of trauma. 


Your goal is to help your dog not just for your own sake, but for hers as well.  You want to get her to where she can be more social so that she can get more out of life and feel safe.  All of your efforts should help toward that end.  If they are increasing her trauma, you are doing something wrong.  If they are reducing it, then you are on the right track.


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