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

Recommendations are often made for the product called Anxiety Wrap and for flower remedies, aromatherapy, the massage-like TellingtonTouch, and on and on. (3) Many of my colleagues swear by these, but as far as I’ve been able to learn there’s no objective evidence to support the efficacy of any of them except, perhaps, the scent of lavender. (4)

Get Professional Help for Behavior Modification

The suggestions in this article can alleviate mild worry and anxiety. You should work with a professional if your dog has intense fears or is afraid of many things. An expert can help you apply behavior modification methods and specialized training that I haven’t covered here-- counterconditioning and desensitization;  the cue “Look at That,” which turns looking at scary things into a fun game; techniques that reward confident behavior by removing the dog from the presence of whatever frightens him. Behavior modification is usually simple in principle, but always subtle in practice. Don’t fly solo.

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1. See Steven R. Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training.Vol. 3: Procedures and Protocols (Blackwell, 2005), pp. 139-140, “Social Facilitation and Modeling.”

2. To find abstracts, do a Google Scholar search for “dog-appeasing pheromone.” There have been studies of shelter dogs, dogs going to the vet, dogs going on car trips, dogs afraid of fireworks, newly adopted puppies … In general, effects on anxiety-related behaviors seem to be small but statistically significant. I don’t think any studies have found an effect on aggression or house soiling.

3. This patent application illustrates a wrap pattern intended to alleviate anxiety, if you’re interested.

4. For lavender, one recent study is Komiya, M., et al. 2009. Evaluation of the effect of topical application of lavender oil on autonomic nerve activity in dogs. American Journal of Veterinary Research 70(6): 764-769. The authors found a lowered heart rate among dogs treated with lavender, but also found higher-frequency activity on a heart monitor (which suggests increased activity of the autonomic nervous system – the opposite of the effect one would hope for).


For the “Look at That” game, see Leslie McDevitt, Control Unleashed:Creating a Focused and Confident Dog (Clean Run Productions, 2007). Leslie McDevitt’s website is here.

The ASPCA’s excellent “Virtual Pet Behaviorist” site includes this good article about counterconditioning and desensitization. While I disagree that it is always necessary to consult a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, it’s true that dog trainers are insufficiently professionalized; evaluate prospective hires carefully, to be sure that they offer you solidly science-based help instead of folklore and outright fantasy.

The Fearful Dogs website offers many helpful resources.

Nicole Wilde’s book Help for Your Fearful Dog (Phantom Publishing, 2006) has much to offer, but unfortunately includes chapters on homeopathy, flower remedies, and other modalities that have either been thoroughly debunked or for which the evidence is feeble at best. Go with the solid behavior tips and skip the woo.

The Constructional Aggression Treatment is a scientifically grounded training technique that can be adapted for work with fearful dogs. A “cousin” is the excellent Behavioral Adjustment Technique elaborated by Grisha Stewart. If you are interested in trying either method, seek out a trainer experienced in it.

There’s a Yahoo! group devoted to shy dogs, with good discussions of how to manage them and modify their behavior. Plus, you can’t beat the emotional support factor—life with a shy dog can be difficult.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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).