SHY DOGS FAQ
DISCLAIMER: This FAQ is intended to be helpful resource,
not an authoritative text. Suggestions were gleaned from the reading and
personal experience of shy-k9s list members. If in doubt, please check
with your vet, trainer, or behaviorist.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
These are merely links to sections further down within this page.
So you have a shy dog! Shy dogs come in every size, age, and breed, or
mix of breeds. Shyness in dogs can range from a mild discomfort in new
situations to complete panic that culminates in the dog biting someone.
Such dogs are frequently condemned to a life in the backyard, since they
are unreliable around people or in new situations. They may be abandoned,
turned in to the pound, or euthanized by owners who are unable to cope
with their behavior.
But learning how to help your shy dog can make you a much better dog
owner. Your finding this FAQ is proof of your love and concern for your
dog, and we hope to provide you with tools you can use to help him or her
become more confident.
The shy-k9s list was founded in 1994 by Kim and Judi, who met on
rec.pets.dogs while trying to find ways of helping Kim's fear-aggressive
Belgian Sheepdog (see Shaman's web page at
Judi's shy German Shepherd. As the list has grown, we find the same basic
questions and recommendations being posted repeatedly, so we've gathered
some of those recommendations into this FAQ. We hope you find it
Dogs can exhibit a wide variety of shy behaviors, depending on their
personalities and the extent of their fear. Behaviors to look for include
the ears going back flat against the head, dilated pupils (glassy-eyed),
inappropriate panting, tucked tail, raised hackles, and refusal to make
eye contact. A frightened submissive dog may crouch or turn belly-up and
urinate (submissive urination), while a frightened dog of less submissive
temperament will usually first try to run; if this is impossible, or
sometimes even when it is possible, the dog may bare its teeth, bark,
growl in warning, snap, and even bite. Some fear-biters wag their tails
slowly--don't be misled!
As with many other types of behavior, there is an ongoing debate
about nature vs. nurture concerning shyness in dogs. There is a growing
body of evidence that shyness has a genetic basis and can be inherited
(Willis, Genetics of the Dog, Howell, 1989; Willis, Practical
Genetics for Dog Breeders, Howell, 1992).
Other reasons for shyness include:
- Puppies learn a many of their behaviors from their mother; a shy
mother can teach her puppies shy behaviors.
- Certain physical ailments can contribute to shyness: deafness or
ear infections, thyroid problems, chronic pain, epilepsy, rage
- Shyness can spring from lack of
socialization in the important early months of puppyhood, or
adverse experiences during the fear periods (8-10 weeks and 4
Unfortunately, many people assume that a shy dog has been abused.
While this may sometimes be the case, and while I have no numbers to
support the assertion, I suspect this happens less frequently than most
people think. There are a number of people on the shy-k9s list who have
had their dogs since puppyhood and who know the breeder well enough to
know the dogs have never been abused. Dogs in general have greater hearts
and more forgiving natures than most people give them credit for; a dog
with a stable temperament will survive abusive situations with its spirit
intact. However, inappropriate handling will certainly make a shy dog
worse, and may cause fear aggression.
While your shy dog may never be a social butterfly, you can help your
dog become less fearful and more confident. It's never too early or too
late to start work with your dog.
To begin, ask yourself some important questions and answer them
- How much time, money, and energy are you willing to commit to this
- What are your resources for helping this dog?
Only you can answer the first question; this FAQ and the shy-k9s list
are dedicated to helping you answer the second.
The old saw has it that knowledge is power. The more you know about
shy dogs, and about dog behavior in general, the better prepared you'll be
to help your dog. Read as many of the books listed in the bibliography. Subscribe
to shy-k9s. Talk to your vet, trainers, behaviorists, local
kennel-owners, members of the local dog club and animal welfare
organizations. Take everything with a grain of salt and tailor all
suggestions to your dog's personality. Above all, know YOUR dog. Know
what situations are likely to make her afraid. Know when to insist and
when to quit. Know when your dog has had enough. YOU are the expert on
And finally, keep in mind that, at least for now, YOU are your shy
dog's confidence. Or, to put it another way, your shy dog finds
confidence in your presence and leadership. If you are not clearly the
alpha in the relationship with your dog, take steps now to remedy that.
Becoming alpha need not involve harsh or confrontive methods that will
only frighten and confuse your dog more. There are several fair and
nonconfrontive methods of establishing yourself as the lead dog of the
pack, including NILIF ("Nothing in Life is Free") which is available from
the shy-k9s mailing list archives or on the Web at
http://www.goof.com/~pmurphy/NILIF.html; Job Michael Evans' Radical
Regimen for Recalcitrant Rovers, in his book People, Pooches, and
Problems; and Alpha-betizing by Terry Ryan (order from Direct Book
Your confidence will rub off on your dog. If you are tense or
worried about a situation, your feelings will travel right down the leash,
increasing your dog's fear. Try to relax and be happy and confident when
taking your dog into new situations.
DO NOT give in to the temptation to comfort your dog when she becomes
frightened. It's only natural to want to try to make her feel better, but
what you're really doing is giving her the message that being afraid is
ok! So, instead, ignore the fearful behaviors, and be alert for any
indications of curiosity or interest so that you can praise them
Now, on to specifics:
- Begin by taking your dog to a reputable vet and ruling out
physical causes for your dog's shyness. Epilepsy can contribute to
fear aggression. Thyroid problems may affect a dog's mood. A dog
with vision or hearing problems may be afraid of what they cannot
hear or see; a dog with an ear infection may become unusually
sensitive to sound. A dog in chronic pain (such as a dog with hip
dysplasia or arthritis) may be cranky and indisposed to tolerate
nonsense. Be sure your dog is physically sound first.
- It is sometimes thought that breeding a bitch will help her "settle
down." This is a fallacy. Please do not breed your dog. Have your
dog spayed or neutered. Enough evidence exists to suggest that
shyness can be inherited (from either parent), and that a bitch can
teach her puppies her own fears. There are enough unwanted dogs and
cats in the country. Please don't add to the problem. As a bonus,
you will be helping to prevent several forms of cancer and some
undesirable behaviors by spaying/neutering your dog.
- Once you've ruled out physical problems, you can start training your
dog. Begin by sizing your dog up. Read about your breed (or
breeds, if your dog is a mix). Is it likely to be distracted by
sights or scents (the hound groups)? Is your dog bred to work with
man(herding dogs, retrievers and pointers) or on its own (guarding
dogs, Northern breeds)?
In Open and Utility Training the Volhards include a
series of questions designed to help you rate your dog's prey drive
(desire to play and chase things), pack drive (desire to be with
you), and the two defensive drives (fight and flight). (This can
also be found on the Web at
http://188.8.131.52/kettenhund/volhard.htm). Then they help
you apply what you've learned to how you train your dog: a dog with
high prey and fight and low pack drives would be trained very
differently from a dog with high pack and flight and low fight
- Every dog should have obedience training, but it's even more
important for shy dogs. In the first place, nothing will build up
the relationship between you and your dog like obedience training.
Secondly, a strong foundation in obedience gives you an important
tool to use in teaching your dog how to cope with strange
situations. If you live in a part of the country where obedience
classes are scarce, a number of excellent books about dog training
are listed in the bibliography.
Otherwise, look around for a class. Try to attend a class without
your dog, to see what the instructor's philosophy and techniques are
and how big typical classes are. Talk to the instructor. Explain
that your dog is shy and/or fear aggressive and will need special
help. Ask if the instructor has experience with shy or aggressive
dogs, and if they have experience in training your breed. An
obedience class can be a wonderful, controlled environment for
socializing your dog with people and other dogs.
As you do your research, think about the various philosophies
of training and how you feel about the use of slip collars and prong
collars, head halters (such as the Halti and Gentle Leader),
muzzles, positive reinforcement (such as treats or clickers), and
negative reinforcement (such as leash corrections).
- Members of the shy-k9s list repeatedly attest to the positive
effects of agility training for their dogs. Learning to master the
physical challenges of an agility course seems to bolster a dog's
self-confidence as nothing else can, plus the training is just plain
fun! You will need to have mastered some basic obedience commands
to enroll in most agility courses. Early training is done on- lead,
and more advanced training is done off-lead. Owners of
dog-aggressive dogs find that muzzling their dogs allows both of
them to relax and get into the training, instead of worrying about
the next attack. If there are no agility classes near you,
improvise. A dog can learn "over" and "under" with a plain wooden
bench. Bleacher seats can make good catwalks, and tires set on end
good tunnels. If you work alone, remember to go slow and make every
experience a positive, fun one for your dog.
Desensitization and socialization are important parts of
rehabilitating a shy dog. Desensitization exposes the dog to things that
frighten it at low levels, gradually increasing the level as the dog
becomes accustomed to it. Socialization involves exposing the dog to
other dogs, people, and situations.
Much of your work with your shy dog will involve desensitizing him to
things he's afraid of--loud sounds, running children, men with hats, big
black dogs, little white dogs--whatever. It takes time, and requires many
small steps, patiently increasing both the time of exposure and closeness
to the frightening object. A happy, upbeat mood on your part is
essential, as well as a sharp eye on the dog's mental state; knowing when
to quit can prevent backsliding.
Socialization is a vital part of every puppy's education. Even dogs
with stable temperaments benefit from learning to interact quietly with
strange dogs, people, and situations. With a shy dog, don't plunge right
in, taking them to the nearby street fair. Instead, start small, with one
or two people at a time. This is not a time for you to
be shy; most people don't know how to behave around shy dogs and will do
all the wrong things. It's up to you to instruct them carefully how to
- If possible, ask them to sit on the floor--or even lie down!
- They must NOT look your dog in the eye--this is a challenge in dog
language and will frighten your dog more.
- They should not try to touch the dog. They should let the dog
come to them. They may offer the dog a treat. The best way for
them to do this is to hold it in their open palm and sit quietly,
waiting for the dog to approach them. With a very shy dog, they
may try offering the treat from behind their back.
- They should not try to touch the dog's head or neck if the dog
does approach them. This is often construed as a threat by a shy
dog, and can lead to a warning growl or a snap. If they must pet
the dog, ask the person to move their hand in from the side, and
to touch the dog's shoulder or back.
- You should be watching your dog carefully, praising each
indication of interest and curiosity (positive reinforcement), and
ignoring fearful reactions (extinguishing a behavior). It is also
your responsibility to know when your dog has had enough and to
break off the encounter.
Socialization possibilities are endless. Take your dog to shopping
centers. Some malls will allow a dog on a leash. Go to PetSmart. To
accustom your dog to children, take a walk by the local grade school or
day care center. Go to Little League games. At first keep your dog's
interactions to a minimum; the idea is to accustom her to groups of
people. Keep her mind off her fear. Ask her to heel, to sit, to lie
down, and praise and reward her lavishly. If she doesn't obey because
she's distracted by her fear, you are allowed to correct her for not
obeying a command--not for being afraid. Most dogs will quickly learn
that you will not put them in danger and that staying close to you and
obeying your commands is a safe and good thing to do.
As your dog becomes accustomed to the situation, you can start
to allow one or two limited personal encounters. Try to keep control of
them. Warn the person that your dog is shy and ask them to let your dog
approach them rather than the other way around. Let them give your dog a
treat. Children (one at a time) can be surprisingly cooperative about
this. Everyone will try to touch your dog's head; it seems to be
ingrained human behavior and they will do it even if asked not to. After
your dog ducks, try to salvage the situation by explaining again that your
dog is shy and doesn't like to be touched, but maybe they can pet his
shoulder. Set the dog up for this by asking him to do a sit stay, and try
to keep the dog's attention on you. Praise for success.
With a shy dog, socialization is a never-ending process.
Use your imagination.
In some cases, an individual trainer or behaviorist may be
useful. If you decide to go this route, be sure to find out as much about
the individual as possible. Ask for references. Ask what qualifies this
person to hang out his or her shingle. Ask if they have experience with
fearful and/or aggressive dogs. Ask if they have experience with your
breed(s). Ask for more references. Try out a lesson. If at any time you
feel uncomfortable with the person's methods, ask for clarification. If
you don't like the answer, leave! Ill-advised training methods can ruin
months of progress.
Veterinarians and behaviorists are beginning to prescribe such human
drugs as Prozac for dogs with various kinds of problems, including fearful
behavior. If you are interested in this as an option, ask your
veterinarian, and please don't expect medication to be the Magic Bullet
that will solve all your shy dog's problems. As with humans, these drugs
work best when combined with other therapies-- obedience training and
socialization in the case of dogs.
In some extreme cases--such as fear of thunderstorms or
fireworks, a vet will prescribe a tranquilizer. But again, while this may
provide some relief for you and your pet, it will not solve all your shy
Some dogs benefit from daily use of "natural" remedies like
Bach's Rescue Remedy (a combination of flower essences) in their drinking
water, or Stop Stress (a preparation of various herbs) sprayed on their
food. Other people believe that upgrading a pet's diet (from grocery
store food to premium foods or a home-cooked diet) is helpful as well.
Find professional help!
Aggression is a leading behaviorial reason for euthanasia. It is a
natural behavior; therefore, it cannot be cured, but in most cases it can
be controlled. If your dog is already biting, seek professional help.
Very few can go it alone. It's not always easy to tell the difference
between fear aggression and dominance aggression, but correct diagnosis is
important or the aggression may worsen. Also, fear aggression may
manifest itself in other forms, such as protective, intraspecies, people,
etc., making correct diagnosis even more difficult.
Typically, fear aggression is expressed in mixed signals. Ears may
be laid back but hackles up. The dog may be hunched, wagging its tail,
yet growling or snapping. A fear-aggressive dog is often a combination of
poor breeding and poor socialization. Confidence levels must be raised in
order to reduce the aggression. Always be aware of the risk in dealing
with an aggressive dog. And most importantly, if it's a problem you
simply can't deal with, humane euthanasia is far kinder than passing the
problem on to someone else.
Up to now, this FAQ has addressed what you can do to help your dog,
but this final section is a word about YOU. Having a shy dog can be
stressful. Owners of shy dogs frequently wonder what they could have done
that made their dogs so shy, or what they could have done sooner to help.
They get discouraged when progress seems slow or nonexistant. They have
to deal with the accusing looks or words of uninformed people who think
they must treat their dogs terribly for the dog to be so afraid. They
wonder if they will ever be able to enjoy their dog the way owners of
"normal" dogs do.
So I'd like to leave you with a word of encouragement. A shy dog
*can* lead a relatively normal life, go everywhere you go, even earn
obedience titles or function as a therapy dog. It takes patience and
dedication, but you can make a real difference in your dog's well-being.
Find people you can talk to when you feel discouraged. Keep a journal so
you can look back and see what progress you've made together. Take a
moment to think of all the good things there are about your dog, and how
much you really do love him or her. Give yourself a little time off, and
just enjoy being with and interacting with your dog. You'll feel better,
and return to training with a better attitude.
This list is for discussion of the problems, trials, tribulations,
etc. of people who have shy and/or fearful dogs, as well as trainers and
shelter workers who can contribute knowledge or simply wish to learn
The shy-k9s list ran on the
An extremely comprehensive and regularly up-dated FAQ of catalogues
and mail-order companies can be found in several places on the
goof.com system for many
years, thanks to the generosity of Matt Mead. In November 1998, it moved
list-server.net, and underwent a change of list ownership
(Kim and Judi stepped down, Dawn and Nancy took over). In January 2000,
it moved to the
vlists.net server, and in October 2001, from
there to Yahoo groups (when Dawn stepped down). See their Yahoo page for
details of how to subscribe.
Copyright © J. L. Hardin, 1997. Dedicated to
Valiantdale's Midnight Star (Stella) and to the
memory of Blue Moon's Shaman Eclipse (Shaman).
Special thanks to Kim Murphy for help in putting it together, and to Margy
Golant, Vicki McCabe and Lynda Oleksuk for beta-testing. If this will
help you and your shy dog, or someone you know who has a shy dog, feel
free to reproduce it.