How to Train a Shy or Anxious Dog

Shyness and fear are problematic traits; they can lead to aggression and biting if not handled properly. One of the most frequent causes of shy or fearful behavior is poor socialization.

Dogs can become shy or fearful for a variety of reasons, including genetic predisposition, inadequate stimulation, negative experiences and social influences. One of the most frequent causes of shy or fearful behavior is poor socialization. A dog’s optimal socialization period is during the first 3 and 12 weeks of life. During this 2-month span, puppies are most likely to be accepting of new and different people, places and objects. After that time, they begin to develop caution about new experiences. Early exposure and positive associations are important steps to prevent fearful behaviors later in life.

Start with socialization.

Shyness and fear are problematic traits; they can lead to aggression and biting if not handled properly. Pet owners can help their dogs mature into confident, stable dogs by carefully but consistently introducing them to other people, other friendly dogs and new environments outside the home. Daily walks on leash are often the most practical way to do this.

Special circumstances require special training.

The shy or fearful dog can be frightened and even traumatized by forceful training methods. Use gentle, positive methods to gain your dog's trust. Next, build your dog’s confidence. Reward desired behaviors, and incremental progress, with gentle, happy verbal praise and small tasty treats. For those behaviors you want to eliminate, try ignoring them, or at most, issue a clear but gentle "no".

Behavior therapy for shy or fearful behavior has two key components:

  • Relaxation. Reward your dog for relaxed, calm behavior. Have him sit for 10-20 minutes a day in a relaxed state. You can use massage to help him attain this state, if need be. Gradually add distraction, such as quiet hand claps, so that your dog can establish a pattern of calm, relaxed responses.
  • Counter-conditioning. After a pattern of relaxation is established, expose your dog to small amounts of whatever makes him fearful – and then add in something that the dog loves so he will begin to associate the fear trigger with pleasure. For instance, if your dog is afraid of the vacuum cleaner and loves fresh-baked chicken, create an association between these two objects.

Most shy dogs can become confident, happy canines with proper training over time. Let your dog set his own pace, and remember to praise him liberally whenever he overcomes a hurdle.