How to Help Your Shy or Nervous Dog

Simple, everyday techniques to help shy and nervous dogs feel more relaxed.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
7-minute read
Episode #68

In last week’s article, I discussed the inborn factors and life history that can leave dogs prone to shyness and anxiety. This week, I’ll explain how to help shy dogs cope better with this big, scary world.

How to Help Your Shy or Nervous Dog

Canine shyness is one of those topics calling for an off-the-bat disclaimer. The tips in this article can help a dog with a mild problem. But if your dog’s issues are more severe, he needs a program tailored for him by a trainer well educated in behavior modification. The trainer may also wish to refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, because the right medication can relieve your dog’s anxiety and maximize his progress. In short, if your dog has significant problems, then this article may be most useful in helping you judge whether a potential hire is familiar with science-based methods of behavior change.

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How to Know Which Situations Scare Your Dog

Shyness and fear are hard to shake under the best of circumstances, whereas fearful responses are easily learned. And the more time your dog spends feeling anxious or fearful, the deeper that anxious groove gets worn. So, as much as you can, protect your shy dog from things that scare her.  Trainers and behaviorists use the concept of “threshold,” meaning the point at which an animal just barely becomes alert to something that worries or upsets her. She might watch whatever it is, or breathe faster, or give some other sign that she’s less than 100 percent relaxed and happy. That is your cue. Make it your business to create more distance between your dog and the object of her alertness. If you live in an urban environment or if your dog is afraid of many things, you may not be able to avoid them all. Do the best you can.

Don’t Push Your Shy Dog

Dogs are exquisitely sensitive to human emotion, so in marginal situations we can often help them by taking a happy, playful tone.

After that, it probably goes without saying that you shouldn’t push your dog to engage. Nor should you use food to lure her toward something that scares her. If your offer of a treat frequently predicts situations in which she’s pressured to approach scary things, you can even wind up with a dog who’s afraid of treats.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).