However, a fearful dog tends to flatten his ears, begin to pant strongly, yawn and lick his lips as you approach. He is also apt to pace and do his best to dodge being pet or handled while scoping out the scene to see if he can escape or feels trapped and needs to defend himself. The closer you get, the better the chance he will start snapping and escalate to growling and then attacking you.
“Fearful dogs tend to feel threatened or endangered (whether it is genuine or imagined), whereas shy dogs are usually under confident and are doing their best in a non-aggressive way to get away or avoid being the center of attention.”
Avoid These Actions
When in doubt as to a dog’s emotional state, Dr. Kaplan cautions you to never:
• Attempt to invade the dog’s personal space.
• Lower yourself to be face-to-face with this dog.
• Touch his hind end, tail or paw pads.
• Speak in a loud voice.
• Move abruptly or use large gestures.
Predictability is one way to build confidence and a sense of security in newly adopted puppies or dogs.
“The best thing you can do is make life predictable for this puppy or dog,” says behaviorist Katherine Houpt, VMD, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Cornell. “Obedience classes using positive training techniques can give a shy dog more confidence. He learns, for example, that when he sits on cue, something good happens — like a treat or praise – when his rump hits the floor.”
Recognize that puppies can go through fear periods, starting as young as seven weeks of age.
“A puppy who loves everyone at first will become more selective by four months of age and can start to show fear signs,” cautions Dr. Houpt.
Adds Dr. Kaplan, “Puppies without good early exposure to new and novel stimuli may show strong fear responses, which may create problems. Owners need to recognize when a pet tends to be more timid or fearful and work within the limits of that pet.”
Dr. Kaplan encourages owners to be in tune with their dog’s individual temperaments and slowly but steadily work within the limits of that pet. Some dogs may just prefer less handling and attention than others.
Certain breeds, including Basenjis and Akitas, tend to be shy and reserved, points out Dr. Houpt. “These breeds were once used exclusively for guarding or hunting bears and were not selected for their ability to cuddle up with people.”
“These dogs need time to modify their behaviors. Moving quickly may hinder progress,” she says.
Incorporate These Safe Strategies
Experts offer these tips to help your newly adopted shy or fearful dog feel more at home:
1. Limit exposure to situations that create fear and anxiety. For example, feed the dog in a separate room from other pets. He needs to feel he can eat without being threatened by other pets.
2. Consider clicker training the dog to teach him new tricks and build his confidence.
3. Limit the amount of handling the dog initially and slowly build his trust in you.
4. Teach him new tasks to build his confidence.
5. Teach him how to respond appropriately in situations, making sure that the training takes place in a calm, quiet and secure environment.
6. Learn to ignore unwanted attention-seeking behaviors displayed by your dog to avoid unintentionally reinforcing them.
Recognize that your dog tunes into your emotional level as well and can sense when you are feeling impatient or afraid. When taking your dog to the veterinary clinic, for example, try to remain calm and reduce any outward display of fear or anxiety.
Also, understand that the source of your dog’s fearful response may be an underlying medical condition, such as pain or hormonal imbalances. Book an appointment with your veterinarian to exam your dog who may be an ideal candidate for a sedative or anti-anxiety medication that is given prior to an anticipated stressful situation, says Dr. Kaplan.
When it comes to handling a fearful dog, less is more.
“I’m a strong advocate of low-stress handling techniques,” says Dr. Kaplan. “Use a muzzle on a dog if needed for safety purposes and only if you can handle the dog without using excess restraint. If you need a second person to manage the dog and if the dog is flailing, urinating and defecating, the restraint technique is excessive and the plan needs to be revisited.”
Employ calmness and patience, especially during a veterinary visit.
“Some pets will do great during an examination if given more time (a longer appointment),” says Dr. Kaplan. “Be willing to stop the veterinary visit or leave the situation if your pet is getting too stressed. Once the pet is anxious, it will be next to impossible to get them to calm down, so reschedule for another day.”
By proper handling, offering a safe environment and when needed, using behavior modifications and/or anti-anxiety medications, many shy or fearful dogs can evolve into loving, trusting pets.
Dr. Kaplan knows firsthand. Her former dog, Dallas, was a newly retired racing greyhound who was petrified of everything, including leaves blowing in the wind. He hated going on walks, so to help him get acclimated to life outside, Dr. Kaplan began building his confidence by scheduling the walks very early in the morning and late at night when these triggers were not present.
"It probably took Dallas one year to really gain confidence and interact successfully with other people and dogs, but I lived with him for nine wonderful years before he passed away,” she says.
Reducing the Fear Factor for Veterinary Visits
All dogs need and deserve to be examined by veterinarians regularly. Marty Becker, DVM, America’s Veterinarian, is spearheading a national Fear-Free™ Initiative that includes veterinarians, animal behaviorists and other key pet professionals.
The campaign identifies these steps toward achieving fear-free veterinary visits:
1. Help the pet owner deliver a calm pet to the clinic by making sure the dog is safely inside a pet carrier or leashed and harnessed.
2. Limit the dog’s food intake before a veterinary visit. Some dogs may respond favorably to receiving a favorite treat during the appointment.
3. Call ahead and request that your fearful dog be allowed to go directly into an exam room rather than wait in the lobby area. Strive to select an appointment time during the typical “rush hour” times.
4. Seek veterinary clinics that may incorporate pheromones, calming music and a silent space heater to keep the exam room feeling safe and cozy.
5. Allow the dog time to explore the room to get used to the environment before beginning an examination.
6. Identify the best way to handle the dog in a calm manner and make sure the veterinarian puts down this information in your dog's chart.
7. Inquire about the safe option to choose vaccines that can be administered in a less stressful route through small-gauge needles or through a reduced dose. Also ask about warming injections to room temperature — as long as this does not impact the product’s efficacy.
To learn more about this fear-free campaign, visit the Fear-Free Center at
And to help you recognize body language identifying a fearful dog, you can download for free a poster from the late Sophia Yin, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist, at
Bravery Classes for Shy Dogs
Shy puppies and dogs can bolster confidence in customized bravery classes, such as the ones available at the San Francisco SPCA.
The shelter actually provides two training tracks: the “people” bravery class and the “environments” bravery class. In the first, professional trainers assist owners in building positive associations in their dogs who are currently overly shy now when it comes to meeting people in or outside their homes. The second class helps shy dogs adjust to feeling more comfortable in new neighborhoods or tolerate various sounds that may now startle them.
These five-week courses are open to dogs who are up to date on vaccinations and at least five months of age. They are for shy dogs — not those who have shown any signs of aggression toward people, ranging from lunging, growling or biting.
By Sarah Zumhofe