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San Diego Humane Society

Adopting: Shy or Fearful Dogs

When bringing any animal home, it is important to give them time, space and a safe environment in order to adjust. This is especially true for an animal who is shy and fearful. It is important to remember that while you may feel excited to have a new animal in your home and may want to interact with them, they have been taken to a strange new place and you are unfamiliar to them. The following information is basic information that will support your new shy dog as they adjust to your home.

Body Language

Dogs do not speak human languages and instead communicate primarily through body language and behavior. To learn about dog body language, utilize one of the many available resources about dog body language on YouTube.

Appropriate Interactions

Dogs and humans have different greeting rituals. Humans shake hands, smile, make eye contact and turn or face each other directly when they greet. ALL of these behaviors can be intimidating, or just plain rude, in dog language.

The most dog-friendly way to interact with an unfamiliar dog is to allow them to come up to you when they choose, to avoid eye contact, and to avoid looming or reaching over them. Keep your hands and all parts of your body in front of your dog where they can see them. Additionally, avoid approaching dogs directly by turning your body and offering your side, lowering to the ground and crouching or kneeling instead.

Finally, your face should never be near your dog’s face, as this is especially rude, and in some cases, dangerous.

Avoid Provoking a Fear Response

Keep your dog as comfortable as possible by minding the following:

  • Move slowly. Quick movements can cause your dog to startle, which may make them fearful of you. Move slowly when interacting with your dog. If your dog startles, remain calm and continue to move slowly.
  • Do not “surprise pet” or “sneak” a few pets in while your dog isn’t looking. Petting your shy dog when they are not looking, paying attention or are asleep, will most likely come as an unpleasant surprise. Make sure all interactions are predictable and consensual.
  • Keep distance between your dog and “scary” things. If your dog is fearful of men, garbage trucks or lawn mowers, avoid these things.
  • Avoid too many stressors. Imagine a day where you spill your coffee, lose your keys and get a flat tire all on the way to work. This is a day during which you are much more likely to metaphorically “snap” at your co-workers or family members for something you otherwise would not, due to compounded stress. This phenomenon is called “trigger stacking” and the very same thing happens to dogs. If your dog is made uncomfortable by something in their environment, identify, remove or reduce potential triggers (stressors) by creating space and moving away.

Form Positive Associations

In order to help your dog feel less fearful of things they perceive as scary, help them learn to associate “scary” things with positive experiences.

  • Space: When it comes to forming a positive association; remain at enough of a distance from the scary thing, so your dog does not appear fearful or uncomfortable. While maintaining this distance, offer your dog a treat each time they turn toward or look at the scary thing. If you observe any fear or discomfort, move further away and expose your dog to the scary thing for a shorter period of time.
  • Treats: While your dog is in the presence of a scary thing, it is important that a continuous positive association is formed. When a scary thing is present, the “bar” should be open, meaning that you continue to offer treats to your dog. When the scary thing is gone, the bar is closed and treats stop appearing. With consistency and reliability, your dog will begin to form a positive association.
  • Repeat: Remember space is your most important ally when it comes to working on building positive associations. Work at a distance where your dog appears comfortable. This method takes consistency, time and patience.

Create a Safe Space

At home, create a “safe space” for your shy dog. This space can be a crate, an ex-pen, a room, or a room or hallway separated by a baby gate. This safe space should include food, water, and an area to rest or hide. Before a guest comes over, guide your dog to their safe space. When the guest comes in, kindly ask them to ignore your dog and remain at a distance. Then, simply offer your dog treats, bones, play time with a ball or anything else that will help form a positive association with the arrival of a visitor.

Read and respond to your dog’s body language. If they appear comfortable or “happy,” you may allow them out of their safe space. If your shy dog and your guests will be in the same physical space, it is imperative that you coach your guests on interacting with your dog appropriately, as noted above. Monitor interactions with all guests, especially children.

Never Punish

Aversive punishment that involves yelling, striking, collar jerking or other forms of intimidation often results in unpleasant or negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, stress and frustration. These forms of punishment damage the human-animal bond and are often an ineffective way of communicating.

San Diego Humane Society does not recommend the use of intimidation or other tactics that result in unpleasant or negative emotions to punish behaviors.

Behavior Helpline: Contact our Behavior Team

For behavior questions, please contact our Behavior Helpline either by calling 619-299-7012, ext. 2244, emailing or filling out our Ask a Trainer form. San Diego Humane Society Adopters can fill out the Post Adoption Consultation form to schedule their troubleshooting session. We aim to respond within 7 days, but responses may take up to 2 weeks. Thank you for your patience!

Note: Due to the potential for serious injury, canine and feline aggression are best handled by a professional who specializes in aggressive behaviors. Because phone or email counseling is inadequate for addressing serious behavior concerns, we ask that you contact a qualified professional for help. Please refer to the list of behavior resources here.

Questions About Public Classes

San Diego Humane Society offers training classes and resources to address a variety of needs for companion animals.

Our training philosophy is based on the behavioral science concepts of positive reinforcement. Training your pet using these concepts will not only help them learn new behaviors more quickly, it will also strengthen the bond you share.

Our website includes a current schedule of training classes or call 619-279-5961. 

View Training Classes   Gift a Training Class


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