Fear and Shyness

Preparing to work with a shy dog in the shelter? Be sure to view the full fearful/shy dog workshop online.

You can add items from the Basic Training Plan for Shelter Dogs as your shy buddy gains confidence.

Plan Basics

  • Introduce yourself through Treat/Retreat. Do this activity with fearful dogs from inside or outside the kennel. Toss a treat towards the dog just at the edge of the threshold it is comfortable approaching. We do not want the dogs leaving their comfort zone to get the food, but rather building their confidence to approach freely. After the dog eats the treat, toss another farther out, giving the dog the opportunity to “retreat.” This helps prevent them from freezing and teaches them how to leave a situation rather than feel trapped by their fear. Repeat. Close the distance between you and the dog by tossing the treats at closer distances as the dog is ready.
  • Pay attention to and reinforce Calming Signals. “Calming Signals” are actions dogs use to diffuse tension or avoid conflict: yawning, licking, turning away, sniffing the ground, play bow, freezing, sitting, walking in a curve, etc. We can reinforce this body language to promote behavior we want. Watch for these signals to create successful interactions. Reward the dog for making socially appropriate choices. Example: Dog walks in a curve and sniffs the ground while returning to their kennel instead of engaging with other barking dogs. Rather than pulling the dog towards the kennel, reinforce their socially appropriate choice.
  • Modify situations as necessary. If you notice an increase in stress behavior or calming signals, notice what might be causing it and modify the situation as appropriate. Example: Another dog walker joins you and your dog, who is fearful of other dogs, while out on a walk and your dog starts yawning or lip licking. Simply call your dog away in a cheerful voice and increase distance between yourself and the other pair.
  • Moderate your own body language so to be non-threatening. Soften your gaze, approach the dog in a slight curve and turn your body to the side, avoid looming over them, give as much space as the environment allows and make your posture small but inviting. Offer head turns and look aways to the dog and be aware of gestures or movements that are too invasive, such as reaching over the dog’s head.
  • As soon as possible, fit the dog with a secure harness to minimize flight risk and take pressure off of the neck.
  • Toys are tools. There are numerous ways to use toys to aid in your work with shy dogs. Use a large toy to block a nippy dog. Wiggle a small, soft toy enticingly to start a game or divert the dog’s attention to something other than the scary human (play training helps ease stress and tension!). Take a very small toy and use it as an “arm extension”: instead of touching the dog with your hand, draw some slow circles on the ground in front of the dog and then try touching the dog with the toy.

Fear-Based Reluctant/Shutdown Behavior

These dogs may have any number of reasons for their behavior and we don’t often know what it is. This could apply to feral or semi-feral dogs, long-term strays, backyard or chained dogs, dogs who have been abused or attacked, dogs who are seriously undersocialized, or even dogs who are exceptionally sensitive to the shelter environment. The common behaviors under this umbrella are pancaking, freezing, refusal to walk on leash, refusal or reluctance to interact, flinching/hand-shy, trembling or shaking, tail-tucked crouched walking posture, retreating or trying to escape (flight response engaged), and defensive displays designed to increase distance including growling, teeth baring, and air snapping.

When working with these dogs, patience is a must. We cannot ask more of them than they are able to give. It can be hard to wait patiently and let a dog come to you. However, studies of fearful dogs have shown that putting pressure on them doesn’t work. Slowly introduce things like the leash and toys by placing them in the dog’s range and letting them sniff and explore at their own pace.

If you are out on a walk with one of these dogs and they pancake or freeze, come down to their level and use your voice and soft body language to encourage them along. Move a few paces in the direction they wish to go and then gently curve back the way you were headed. Avoid putting tension on the leash; instead gently stroke your fingers along the leash in the direction you’d like the dog to go.

Use positive experiences to help build the dog’s confidence. TTouch, including work on the obstacle course, is a great tool for fearful dogs. Continue offering a variety of toys and tasty treats even if the dog is not initially interested. As you interact with these dogs and discover something they like and respond well to, share that information!