Why Are Some Dogs Shy and Nervous?

Is your dog shy or nervous? Afraid of new things? Find out why.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #67

Many dogs are lucky enough to be cheerful, gregarious types. They make friends easily with new people and they approach new experiences with happy curiosity. But for shy dogs and nervous dogs, life can be quite a trial. “Oh no, the stranger wants to pet me!” “Yikes--somebody moved the garbage bin!” This week, I’ll discuss the reasons why some dogs are shy or nervous, and next week’s article will explain how to help your shy dog.

Why Are Some Dogs Shy?

Nature or nurture? In general, both. Behavior of all kinds can be genetically inflected. For instance, Border Collies are predisposed to a sequence of behaviors that makes it relatively easy to teach them to herd sheep. Nervous dogs and shy dogs can be deliberately bred. A famous experiment at the University of Arkansas produced two genetic strains of pointers. One strain is friendly and sociable; the other strain is fearful. The fearful dogs don’t explore or even move around much and they freeze up when people come near. You won’t be surprised to learn that they’re also hard to train. (1)

The nervous pointers are an extreme case, because their condition has been purposely accentuated. They remind us, though, that dogs--like us--have a genetic predisposition somewhere in the range between super shy and super outgoing. We should also remember that “has a genetic basis” is generally not code for “can’t be changed.”

Your Shy Dog May Have Had a Stressed Mother

If a mother dog is under stress, her puppies may be anxious or shy.

Nurture, the other piece of the puzzle, includes your dog’s life experience and also her mother’s. Do a web search on “maternal stress” plus “effects on offspring” and you’ll uncover hundreds of studies on rats, mice, rhesus monkeys, and humans. The human studies are retrospective, of course, meaning that women are asked about what their lives were like when they were pregnant. But many stressors have been inflicted on pregnant nonhuman animals, from unpredictable noise to random temperature changes. (2)  To oversimplify the findings of a huge body of research that I have no hope of mastering, if your mother experienced significant stress during pregnancy then you are likely to grow up more anxious and reactive than the average bear. Or rat, or human, or dog.


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).