~Tips for handling shy or fearful dogs: the short version!~



Watch your body language.

Don't stare; avoid looking directly at a shy dog. Turn your body, or at least your head, to the side.

Move slowly.

Make yourself small. Sit, or lie down. You can read or watch a show while sitting in the room with him; doing something else in his presence without any focus on him will be less intimidating, especially in the early stages.

Blink, lick your lips, yawn...these are signals dogs use with each other to show they mean no threat.

Present yourself as relaxed and confident.

Don't flail your arms around, or get too excited. Invading the dog's space in an animated way can startle him.

Pet from underneath, not by reaching above his head.

Grabbing the collar or hugging the dog can feel very threatening, and are a good way to receive a fear-bite if he is not socialised to those things (or doesn't have good bite inhibition).

Speak quietly. Tell the dog what you plan to do next; send him mental pictures. Some dogs are reassured by calm speech, while others prefer silence. Talking can add energy to the interaction, and additional nervous energy is probably not something you want. You'll have to gauge your individual dog's reaction.

Have other people ignore the dog completely. They should not make eye contact, speak to him, or approach him; let him make the first move. If he politely solicits attention or treats, though, they can reward him. :-)

Make sure you can read the dog fluently, as well! Build some "cutoff signals" into your shared language. This is a normal part of canine psychology, and we can tap into it by respecting his appropriately-made requests for space, such as turning his head, lifting a paw, averting eye contact, freezing, or tucking his tail. If you reliably respond to that action (and you can also teach a healthy action to pair this with, if he doesn't have one!), the animal will realise he can use this to communicate. He understands that someone is listening. When they realise they can "drive" your behaviour and it's not a one way street, you can make some breakthroughs with animals that are harder to reach. (I do the same thing with feral cats - I build an agreement that "I'm not going to touch you", and I look away to signal that. The wild cats here let me get pretty close because we have agreed that if I Look-Look away, I'm promising not to touch. They will test me, too, to see if I really mean it and can be trusted!) He will learn your cutoff signals as well, such as how a disapproving tone of voice means for him to stop doing something, or that a calm, still energy and your body standing still and looking away means that you aren't going to pressure him to interact. Silent body communication is very helpful with fearful dogs.


Provide clear, firm leadership.

A calm, assertive leader is probably the single biggest source of comfort to a fearful dog...aside from perhaps having other dogs around for moral support. The dominance hierarchy creates security, not tyranny. Consistently enforced rules will produce feelings of safety, and a framework for understanding his world.

Rules may sound like a downer, but think of it this way. If you are driving and come to an intersection, and the other guy has a stop sign while you do not, then you know you have the right of way to proceed. If he runs his stop sign and hits you, there is conflict. *Social rank defines the Right of Way.* This is why your dog is offended when (in his mind) he obviously has the right-of-way to his bone, and you have challenged him on it. You broke the rules, and now you are upset at HIM (???), and the world doesn't make sense any more.

No free lunches. Build a work ethic, so the dog has something to be proud of! The "Nothing in Life is Free" program is a wonderful way to do that, and there are many variations on it. The core exercise is that any time the dog wants something--like food, or a toy, or attention, or a walk--he is required to do something for you first, to earn it. This is usually something simple, such as "Sit". For a fearful dog, it could also be eye contact or a nose-bump to your fist...

NEVER free-feed. If he doesn't need you for food, he doesn't need you for much. So! "You eat with me...or you don't eat." A little tough love goes a long way here.

Hand feeding is a great way to build a connection, and reinforce your leadership. So is sharing your meal. I like to leave a bit on the plate, and deliver that plate to the dog when I've finished. You can also take a bite off a piece of food, or lick it, then give it to him. (It's a spin on the old "spit in his food trick", which, like most wives' tales, started with a grain of truth!)


Play strengthens social bonds. It also builds confidence and engagement.

Be sure to initiate some prey games, like you would do for cats! Try a flirt pole, or drag a toy across the ground to chase. Throw a ball. Try to get him to chase you while you squeak a toy.

You can also make up cooperative games, and be the Team Leader. Find-the-food games are great. Announce "Look!" and point, as you show him food or toys. Remember: don't focus directly on the dog--focus on the game.

Susan Garrett's "crate games" are a great way to acclimate him to a crate, as well as teach impulse control.


Don't skimp on training!

Successes build confidence. There are lots of shy-dog-friendly ways to train. Positive reinforcement training is quick, easy, and fun...especially target training, and luring. Be sure to use very high value treats, such as freeze-dried liver, or tiny bits of meat or cheese.

Pressure & release can be very effective. You don't always need a leash, either: try using your personal space to move the dog or enforce boundaries, the way another dog would.

Teach him to make eye contact, and reward him generously for "checking in" with you. (Avoid eye contact when catching the dog, though, as that can be overwhelming. Save your gentle, loving eye contact for when the dog is loose in a room or yard, and doesn't feel trapped.)

Rewards can be: Access to desired things like other dogs or a run in the yard. An increase in space / decrease in social pressure. Toys. Smells. (It's not just food!) Indirect access is a big thing with primitive dogs...all good things come through ME. Teaching the dog to work through you to get the things he wants, is the best kind of reward!

Once the dog learns that he can "remote-control" you, make you predictable, and affect his environment in that way, it's really a lightbulb moment for him. Fear often stems from a lack of control, because control is what a fearful dog uses to make up for his current lack of ability to cope. Making good choices that earn him what he wants, gives him that control. And, if more space is what he wants, be sure to use that as a reward sometimes, as well! (It's worth noting here that low-level e-collar stimulation is also "pressure and release", and gives the dog another means to control his environment. Best to save this for the professionals, though, if you are not well versed in the e-collar.)

Structure is MORE important for shy dogs, not less important (nor harmful). Strong leadership and consistent enforcement of the rules make them feel more secure. They feed off your confidence and strength. A weak leader, or absence of leadership, gives them nothing to put weight on.

Give him plenty of breaks--time to relax, and reset those stress hormones. Bones and puzzle toys can work off some stress, too. Chewing has a calming effect.


Here are some great exercises for fearful dog training and confidence-building, courtesy of All Basics Dog Training in NY. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4


You have handshakes; canines have similar affiliative (friendly, reassuring, team-building) rituals.

Utilize canine culture to communicate--meet them partway! That includes friendly gestures in their own language. They can't learn English, but you can learn their ways, and make use of the now-shared language.

The "muzzle grab" and the scruff pull can be reassuring gestures, during play. That probably sounds counterintuitive, but if you're already playing with him physically and are confident that he isn't scared enough to bite, you can give them a try. I've found that it really tickles them, and emboldens them, when they discover that you speak the language.

Give him a bath! Rubbing him down, enforcing the Settle while you rinse, toweling him off, and of course the crazies they get after they are wet and clean and smelly, can all increase your Owner Approval Rating. ;-)

Most dogs enjoy grooming, especially with a nice slicker brush, and the added bonus is that the good feelings afterwards (from not being matted, hot, or itchy) are attributed to you and your interference.

Pet 'em like you own 'em. Confidence and friendly social dominance at its finest!


Pack movement solidifies the pack.

Travel together. Take long walks (or drives) to new & exciting places. Run errands together; let him "help" you do things. Exploration and novelty build confidence. Plus, it is pack-reinforcing...and when you're out in the Big Scary World, YOU become the Safe Place! You might also look into "Faith in Handler" or "Advocate for Your Dog" exercises.

You can also tether the dog to you, so he gets used to moving in tandem as a team. Alternately, "Sit on the Dog" exercises are a great way for him to learn to manage his emotions and relax in your presence.

Use other dogs to your advantage. If you have them, let them serve as good examples (and perhaps a bit of jealous motivation!) for the shy dog. If you don't, play dates with a social dog can be a big help. For feral and fearful dogs, interaction with other dogs can be the absolute best reward you could offer.


Safety first!

Don't chase or grab at a frightened dog. If you have to corner him, be sure to use calm, slow, nonthreatening body language, with no eye contact.

If he is hard to catch, or nippy, it may be best to keep a drag line on him, so you can focus on the end of the leash instead of on him, and put your hands on the leash instead of on the dog's neck or collar. Some dogs will chew through a regular leash; an airline cable drag line without a loop handle (the loop gets stuck on things) is easy to make. All you need to do is go to the hardware store and buy a length of cable, and a dog snap, and a connector to attach them. If you absolutely need to touch or pick up the dog directly, consider covering his head with a towel first. You can also corral him into a crate, and move him that way.

If you push him a little too hard and end up with a bite, you may hold a grudge or develop a fear of him...and those things can have a far more lasting effect on your efforts to tame him, than the bite itself. Sometimes, slower is faster.

Remember, 2 collars and 2 leashes, when walking a fearful dog outside of his house or fence. If the hardware fails on a single leash, you may not get a second chance. Put clips on gate latches. If you are transporting in a crate, wire or zip-tie the joints shut (on a wire crate) or zip-tie the door shut (on an airline crate). Put clips on the latches. You can never be too careful with a dog who wants to run and hide.

If the dog will be outside off-leash, be sure to beef up your fencing security! Link here.


For more suggestions on handling timid or frightened dogs: http://wolfdogproject.com/spooky1.htm

And this one as well: https://spaystreet.blogspot.com/2014/11/how-to-safely-socialize-shy-dog.html?m=1

A case history: the rehab of a semi-feral Aussie (pdf download) -- http://play-therapy.com/playfulpooch/images_resources/APDTsemiferal0001.pdf


Thank you for committing to help a dog who was given a bad start in life! It takes a lot of patience. Please keep in mind that the past is the past. Dogs live in the moment. The sooner you let his "history" go, the sooner he will, too. It may take months, but others have travelled this road successfully, and you can too. <3




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