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Shy Dogs

Original Publication Date: June 8, 2015
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

Shy dogs come in every size, age, breed and mix of breeds. Shyness may be caused by genetics, unhappy experiences or inadequate socialization. We may never be certain what makes a pup timid, but the signs are unmistakable. A shy pup will cower, tuck his tail, urinate, bark, growl, attempt escape or even bite.

An unfamiliar person is a common reason for fear. It may appear that a dog dreads all strangers, but the anxiety may be specific to certain types of outsiders. Keep a list of unfamiliar people and circumstances that frighten your dog. You may find he reacts just to people outside of your home. They may be timid only around certain types of people like children younger than five, very tall men, very short women or some other kind of individual.

Your dog may tolerate most people and react only to strangers who reach a hand out to pet him. Hand shyness can occur in dogs of any size but is particularly common among small dogs. Kind-hearted strangers too often swoop a small dog up to cuddle them. A tiny dog may not take kindly to being whisked off their feet and held against its will. Try to see your dog's fear from their point of view, but resist the temptation to comfort a frightened dog as consolation sends the message that it is all right to be afraid.

The more specific you can be about what scares your dog, the easier it is to minimize his fear response. Once you know who or what frightens them, try to avoid the thing that triggers his anxiety. Managing a dog's environment can be very helpful as you employ techniques to curtail its fear.

Ask strangers not to pet your pup, or stand between them and an unfamiliar person. Speak calmly to your frightened dog. You might ask the scary person to slowly turn or back away. Little by little, you can assist your dog in becoming more comfortable around the sight that scares them.

It is helpful to develop a default behavior for your dog. Find a treat they cannot resist. It has to be a really yummy favorite. Work with your dog several times a day. Say their name. When they look at you, immediately give them the treat. Soon they will associate looking at you with the wonderful tidbit. When your dog is faced with a scary person or situation, say their name and give them a treat when they look at you. They will be distracted from the frightening person and maintain composure knowing you are beside them.

Your dog may never be a social butterfly, but they can become more comfortable facing frightening situations. The knowledge that their favorite person is nearby to offer support will bolster its confidence and make them a more self-assured pup.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at