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

Predictable Routines Can Help Anxious Dogs Cope

Shy and fearful dogs are often a bit inflexible or brittle; they do okay with predictable, familiar patterns, but fall to pieces when objects appear out of place, or humans make sudden movements, or there’s a change in your household. So help your anxious dog by establishing clear routines and by directing her behavior through reward-based training.  You can let a sociable, relaxed dog meet visitors without any choreography (though you may want to teach him to keep all four feet on the ground when saying hi). On the other hand, an anxious dog might feel more at ease if you carefully teach her that the doorbell is a cue to lie on her bed and stay there instead of trying to make doggy small talk.

[[AdMiddle]I hesitate over human analogies, but I think it’s fair to say that predictability eases your dog’s worries in the same way that being dressed right and knowing what fork to use for the salad makes us less anxious about formal dinners.

Confident Dog Friends Can Help Your Anxious Dog Relax

If your shy or anxious dog has some confident, relaxed dog friends, try walking them together. There’s evidence that an anxious animal’s fears can be eased by the presence of nonfearful companions. (1) So if your dog’s pals look up when they hear a truck backfire, but then immediately return to their close study of the nearest hydrant, your dog may be able to relax too, at least to some extent. These effects may not hold up when your dog’s relaxed friends aren’t there, and it’s not likely that they’ll spontaneously spread to other contexts. Still, every good experience will improve your dog’s quality of life. And even a tiny confidence-building effect at least points in the right direction.

Does “Dog-Appeasing Pheromone” Work?

Finally, try “dog-appeasing pheromone.” This manufactured version of a pheromone secreted by nursing mother dogs is supposed to ease anxiety. It’s sold under the brand name Comfort Zone, and you can get it as a plug-in diffuser and also as a spray that you can put on a collar or bandanna. It’s no miracle cure, but it’s not expensive and there is fairly good experimental evidence that it helps some dogs. (2) By the way, I can just barely smell something if I plaster my nose to the diffuser, so don’t worry that it’ll stink up your house.


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).