How to Rehabilitate an Overly Shy Dog

Three Methods:Being Conscientious About and Aware of Shy BehaviorIdentifying and Neutralizing Triggers to ShynessEncouraging and Rewarding Your Dog

Sometimes dogs can be shy. This shyness can occur as a result of a prior bad experience, poor socialization, or insufficient guidance. Changing your dog's behavior will increase his self-confidence and create a well-balanced dog accustomed to a human lifestyle. Here are some suggestions to encourage your shy dog to be more confident.

Method 1
Being Conscientious About and Aware of Shy Behavior

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    Remember shyness may arise from confusion. Although the behavior may seem irrational, dogs may become shy because of the things they do not understand. Be aware of your dog's reason for exhibiting this behavior, in this case acting timid. It could be previous experience or the opposite—inexperience with something they have not been introduced to appropriately.[1]
    • Dogs may become shy because of unfamiliar people, certain situations, or objects. Often this is simply because of a lack of familiarity.
    • Shy behavior could also be the result of poor socialization, insufficient guidance, or even past abuse.
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    Watch for other shy behaviors—the four Fs. Some behaviors in particular that are indicative of shyness include the four Fs: freeze, fight, flight, and fool around. The fight and flight behaviors are fairly straightforward, as they are the same as human response to fear. Freeze is simply when the dog freezes in place in reaction to a stressor. Fool around, however, can be more complicated, but it is similar to a person laughing nervously or fidgeting. In dogs, fooling around can be wild bursts of energy, jumping, pawing, etc.
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    Recognize shy behavior that stems from prior abuse. Many overly shy dogs have experienced abuse. You can recognize some potential signs of abuse if you pay attention to certain behavior and other things in your dog.
    • If you are bringing a new dog home, some signs of abuse may be cuts, sores, etc. If the dog has been out of the abuser's care for a long time, you may not notice sores, but there may be scars.[2]
    • The dog's shyness itself could be a sign of prior abuse, but you may also see hostility, aggressiveness, illness, distress, or other signs of inadequate socialization.[3]

Method 2
Identifying and Neutralizing Triggers to Shyness

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    Find what triggers shy behavior. Triggers, specifically, are what we call those things that cause your dog to exhibit shy behavior.[4] Triggers could be people who are loud or shrill talkers, walk in a way that seems aggressive or heavy, or are carrying items that scare the dog, such as work tools or garden items. Triggers may not even be humans; they could be hair dryers or slick flooring or pretty much anything. Observe the dog's behavior and, if needed, keep a journal for a few days to figure out specifically what the trigger to shy behavior is.
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    Find the dog's tolerance threshold to the item causing shyness.This is at what distance from the object it triggers his shy behavior. There are various ways to do this to desensitize a dog. Desensitization gradually exposes the dog to the stressor in such a way as to increase tolerance.[5]
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    Use classical conditioning. Classical conditioning consists of pairing a scary experience with a positive experience, changing the dog's emotional response. This will create a automatic or "Pavlovian" response to the item. A good example of this is that many dogs will become excited when presented with their lead because they expect to go on a walk. Here are 2 easy ways.
    • When feeding your dog, move the feeding dish closer and closer to the item over time, starting well under his threshold.
    • Preform training sessions by presenting the scary object and reinforcing any confident behaviors toward it with petting, praise, toys, treats, or access to the environment. Gradually decrease distance.
    • Do not add any other elements from the object such as motion or noise.
    • Do this several times a day, working at his pace. If he fails to do it three or more times, make it easier by moving the item a bit further away until he feels fully confident where he is, then begin again.[6]
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    For especially effective training, consider also doing counter conditioning. The idea is to teach an alternate response instead of acting shy.
    • Teach the response you want away from the stressor. A good example would be a sit or eye contact.
    • Expose the dog to the stressor well under his threshold, and ask for the trained behavior and reinforce.
    • Eventually decrease distance from the dog, advancing when your dig is fully confident in doing the trained behavior.
    • This will become an automatic response after a period of time and you will notice he will voluntarily offer the behavior when he sees the stressor, distracting him and making the stressor into an opportunity for reinforcement instead of a predictor of bad things.[7]
    • Desensitization can go beyond simple exposure to the stressor to include motion and auditory desensitization (see below).
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    Add motion to stressors during desensitization. Slowly add increasingly more motion to stressors. This adds a new dimension to the dog's ability to tolerate stressors.
    • Next, move the stressor while it is in close proximity to the dog. Combining movement and proximity intensifies desensitization.
    • For instance, if the dog is shy around a specific object, like a newspaper, make this the object you feed him near as in step two, then begin moving it around on the floor near him with your foot while he eats.
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    Add noise to desensitization exercises. Using the newspaper example, you could hide cellophane inside the newspaper, and, as you move it around with your foot, the sound of the cellophane crinkling inside adds noise. This, along with the proximity of the newspaper and you moving it around, can help desensitize the dog to the stressor, minimizing or even eradicating his shyness around the stressor.
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    Be aware of your contribution to your dog's shy behavior. Remember that some dogs love it when you get excited as a result of them exhibiting the behavior you want, but others prefer a simple treat reward. Knowing and respecting your dog's preferences[8] can help minimize unwanted shy behavior.
    • Your posture matters––keep it relaxed, happy, and positive at all times. This will reassure a shy dog.
    • When you speak, be sure you aren't shouting, and try not to sound angry. Remember, the dog doesn't understand why you are angry, and you will only lead him to believe that you are unpredictable, which will not help his shyness.

Method 3
Encouraging and Rewarding Your Dog

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    Encourage socialization with other dogs. If you notice your dog is shy around other dogs, find a very friendly and easygoing dog with whom to socialize your dog. Introduce the two dogs very briefly at first—at a distance—and monitor the interaction on leashes. Re-introduce the dogs daily, building up the time spent together.
    • Consider positive progressive agility or obedience training as another good place to meet new dogs and situations.
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    Reward the dog with treats. If the dog is performing a desired behavior such as being relaxed, improving confidence, etc., give him a treat. This will help him make a connection between you and good things, but, in particular, it will reinforce that good things happen when he isn't exhibiting shy behavior. This is called positive reinforcement, and it is very effective and highly recommended for shy dogs.[9]
    • Be sure to accompany treats with praise.
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    Be sure not to unconsciously reinforce shyness. If you notice any signs of clingy behavior, for instance, when confronted with stressors, encourage the dog to go out of his comfort zone. In general, you can achieve this by ignoring shy behavior and praising the dog's attempts at going outside his or her comfort zone.
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    Build trust with traumatized dogs. There are several ways to build trust with dogs who have experienced past trauma, which is important to helping your dog stop exhibiting shy behavior. If you have a dog that is showing signs of trauma, do your best to build trust with the dog to minimize shyness.
    • Trauma can result from many different circumstances, including mistreatment or abuse, time spent living feral, or even life in a so-called puppy mill, where the dog may be bred repeatedly but not receive love from humans.[10]
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    Respect a traumatized dog. Speak calmly and allow traumatized dogs to adjust to surroundings. He or she may mark territory—even inside—but be patient and careful with discipline.
    • Traumatized dogs may benefit from having a quiet place all to themselves indoors. If you have other pets, you should expose the traumatized animal to them carefully, but make sure the quiet space is off-limits to other pets.
    • Desensitize traumatized dogs to individuals they are shy around by having those people feed and play with him or her while you ignore the dog.


  • Another well-balanced dog will likely help your shy dog get over his fears by showing him the right way to behave.
  • Remember to work at your dog's pace and not to force him, as this will create negative emotions, plus could be dangerous in extreme cases.
  • Forcing your dog to act the way you anticipate through shock collars, prong collars, or other pessimistic tools will increase his fear of the root cause, because it is associated with the pain or confusion of you correcting him, even if it seems to be the quick fix.
  • Watch for any aggressive behavior, such as growling, biting, or aggressive body language. If this occurs, create a disruptive noise—such as a whistle, click, etc.—to pull him away from the situation, then redirect him to a different activity. Remember, aggression is a much more serious issue than shyness, so begin working on anti-aggression exercises before continuing.


  • If your dog attacks or attempts to bite you, contact a professional immediately. Do not attempt to rehabilitate such a dog yourself! Also, realize this is a separate problem from shyness, though if forced in a situation, one reaction can lead to the other.

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