Help your anxious or fearful dog gain confidence

Barking dog

We humans have all kinds of personalities. We’re outgoing and shy, open and reserved, serious and silly, emotional and creative. Many of us are born with certain qualities or personality types, and sometimes our experiences influence the way we present ourselves to the world.

Dogs are no different. They can be affectionate or independent, approachable or shy, playful and energetic or even timid and fearful.

Easygoing dogs — happy greeters with wagging tails — are often the stereotype. But this stereotype can be a great disservice to many shy and fearful dogs who need a little extra help (especially around whatever frightens them). Strangers and unknown dogs are often a source or trigger for anxious or fearful canine behavior. But it’s nothing most dedicated dog owners can’t handle!

Why are some dogs anxious or fearful?

Fear is common in all animals. While it’s possible a fearful dog has suffered abuse or trauma at a young age, most of the time fear results from genetic predisposition or a lack of experience with what frightens them.

Scared dog

What does anxiety or fear look like in dogs?

Fearful dogs avoid what frightens them (just like people). If they can’t escape the source of their fear, they may do any of the following:

  • Appear depressed or uninterested
  • Tremble or cower
  • Yawn or pace
  • Lunge at other humans or dogs
  • Growl, whine, or bark

If your dog demonstrates any of these behaviors, don’t force them to interact with whatever it is that’s causing their fear. For example, if your dog barks or growls at your friend they’re meeting for the first time, don’t force them to get along. Your dog is telling you they’re uncomfortable, and, if pushed, it could lead to snapping or even biting. So give your canine companion some space.

Be your dog’s best advocate! Keep an eye on their body language and get to know their signs of stress or fear.

Will my dog get better?

It’s possible! Most fearful dogs gradually improve with time, training, and trust. But they won’t likely become outgoing if they’re naturally nervous or shy.

There is hope! You can learn to manage their fears with training, patience, and time. Treats and happy, positive interactions can go a long way, but don’t expect a total transformation.

What can I do to help my shy dog?

Dogs learn from positive association. The best way to help a shy or fearful dog gain confidence is to expose them to what frightens them at a low intensity. Pair this exposure with something positive, like a tasty treat. This is called counter conditioning and desensitization, and when done successfully, it helps them feel more comfortable around the source of their fear.

Sad pug

Tips for interacting with people

Remember, you should be your pet’s best advocate. It’s always ok to say no if a stranger approaches your dog and you don’t feel they’re ready to meet. You can step between your dog and the other person, preventing an interaction. This also gives you time to kindly explain your need for space.

Here’s a few more tips to help manage your dog’s fear of people:

  • Allow your dog time to get used to people. Instruct others to ignore your dog, and let your dog decide whether they want to approach someone. Dogs that adjust on their own are more likely to approach people safely.
  • Avoid direct eye contact, at first. Direct eye contact can be intimidating or threatening to a dog. Look at the floor or to the side.
  • Approach dogs at their level. Crouch down or sit on the floor. Don’t stand over a dog.
  • Throw out treats, decreasing the distance for a safe interaction. From a crouched position, toss out a treat, one at a time. This allows your dog to approach at their pace and get a reward at the same time. Don’t interact with them until they’re take a treat from your hand.
  • Pet under their chin or on their chest. Avoid patting their head — most dogs don’t like it!
  • Build up trust with your dog before bringing them to public settings like the dog park, a friend’s house, or a dog-friendly restaurant or brewery.

Putting your dog in a stressful situation will set their progress back. Go slow and give them time to gain confidence and trust.

Tips for interacting with other dogs

If your pup is shy or fearful of other dogs, don’t force the interaction — just as you wouldn’t with people.

Sometimes, interactions with other dogs are unavoidable, like out on a walk. Give yourself some space by going to the other side of the street or moving off the path.

If your dog reacts aggressively — such as barking, lunging, or growling at other dogs — don’t feel too discouraged! Classes like Animal Humane Society’s Reactive Rovers teach dogs and their owners new skills to gain confidence on-leash. In this two-part training course, you’ll get hands-on training tips before putting it all into practice.

Remember, it’s all about taking things slow and working with your dog as they gain more confidence. Success is possible — look no further than Thorin’s story.

Learn more about our Reactive Rovers class.

For caring, compassionate advice and resources to address all your animal concerns.

Contact the Pet Helpline