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
Shy Yorkie

Although you shouldn’t push your dog, you can encourage her. Say she’s eyeballing a garbage can that’s suspect because it’s not in its usual place. You know her signals well and you can see that she’s just teetering on the verge of worry. Try softly playful, silly talk--“Oh, my goodness, will you get a load of that garbage can? How dare it move like that?”--and then take her away from it. Dogs are exquisitely sensitive to human emotion, so in marginal situations we can often help them by taking a happy, playful tone. Keep the excitement level down, though, because excitement and fear are two sides of the same physiological coin.

Calmly Praise Your Fearful Dog When She Acts Brave

Suppose one day your fearful dog chooses to investigate that nomadic garbage can. Calmly praise and encourage this exploration, while never pushing it. Once your dog’s done, she’s done; take her away. When an experience like this is going well, even professionals are often tempted to try “just one more time,” and that’s invariably when a truck backfires at the moment the brave dog sniffs the garbage can. Avoid the exploding-garbage-can effect. Always quit while your dog’s ahead.

Use Caution When Your Shy Dog Checks a Person Out

Use caution if your dog’s sniffing and checking out a person who worries her. People who like dogs have a terrible time with the idea that a dog might be afraid of them; they say “Dogs love me!” and “I’ve got a way with dogs,” and then they bend over the dog and try to moosh her ears. If your shy dog has stepped outside her comfort zone, then human behavior like this will, at best, scare her. At worst, it can elicit a bite.


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).