Shy Dogs and Friendly Human Guests

The Dog Trainer shares some tips for making your shy dog more comfortable around new people.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
2-minute read

Shy Dogs and Friendly Human Guests

Here’s the thing about shy dogs: they’re most likely to relax and warm up to new people if we ignore them. Don’t look at the shy dog, don’t talk to her, and for goodness’ sake don’t reach for her. Let her investigate you and get comfortable at her own pace.

Here’s the thing about friendly humans: when we see a shy dog, our first impulse is to reassure her of our good intentions. We do this by looking directly at her, talking to her, and reaching out a friendly primate hand in greeting. Oopsie.

As everybody with a shy dog knows, you can tell humans to ignore your dog till you’re blue in the face; many or most don’t follow directions. It’s not that they have bad intentions; I’m coming to think they just can’t ignore the dog. At a client’s yesterday, I offered two ideas for things human guests could do that would let the guests feel helpful without further scaring a timid little dog.

Arriving guests can throw the dog’s toy for her. This particular dog is a toy “serial monogamist” – her favorites change from week to week, but when she loves a particular toy, she loves just that toy. Her people can bring that favorite toy to the door with them and ask the guest to toss it for her.

Or guests can take a handful of the dog’s favorite treats and toss those behind the dog for her to forage.

Both tricks have extra advantages. First, while the dog chases down the toy or scarfs up the treats, she’s also moving away from the guest. This gives the guest a space to enter the apartment without crowding the dog (and potentially scaring her) as he does so. Second, if “guest arriving” = toy toss or treat toss, then the arrival of guests predicts a fun experience. That may help relieve the shy dog’s anxiety over the long term.

These tips aren’t a miracle fix. Many shy dogs have learned to respond aggressively to guests, or are just so worried that play and food aren’t on their radar. And usually, situational aids like the toy/food toss have to be part of a larger program to build up the dog’s confidence and expand her comfort zone. But they can help. And take this principle away with you: if your Zippy or Dogalini gets stressed out in certain situations, it’s always worth a try to leverage something he or she enjoys. You may be able to replace some of that stress with fun. 

Related Content:
How to Handle an Uninvited Dog at a Dinner Party
How to Get Your Dog to Stop Barking at Guests

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).