Adopting a Fearful Dog

Some dogs may display fearful behavior in the presence of unfamiliar people and may be hesitant and/or slow to approach if they approach at all. Fearful dogs can take a while to warm up to their new pet parent and home. They require calm and patience to help them learn that the world is not such a scary place and that you and other humans are worthy of trust. 

Starting your relationship out on the right paw is crucial to growing trust between you and your dog and to building a strong relationship.  Take things slowly, move at the dog’s pace, and you’ll have the reward of seeing your shy dog overcome their fears.

Body Language of Fear

Fearful dogs will frequently express their fear through various body postures and positions. Every dog is different and may express their fear differently. While this list is not meant to be exhaustive, common behavioral indicators of fear include: 

  • Attempts to reduce physical size, by hunching their back, curling up, holding a lowered body posture and/or lowering their head
  • Tail is held low or tucked in 
  • Ears are held back and down 
  • Eyes are wide, with dilated pupils and clearly visible sclera (whites of the eyes)
  • Occasionally these dogs will roll over and expose their stomachs
  • Trembling

Dogs can also express unease by performing gestures in an attempt to calm themselves. Behaviors performed outside of normal contexts are called displacement behaviors and can indicate that the dog is uncomfortable and is seeking to comfort themselves. Displacement behaviors can include:

  • Lip licking
  • Yawning
  • Sudden and excessive grooming, scratching or sniffing

When Meeting a Fearful Dog

The best way to approach a fearful dog is to not approach them! All the things that humans do naturally when greeting one another—holding each other’s gaze, leaning forward, reaching out our hands—are threatening in dog language, and can further intimidate fearful dogs.  In their own polite greetings to each other, dogs approach each other in a circular way, avert their gaze and then sniff each other. When greeting a fearful dog, always let them make the choice to approach you, and try to mimic these same sorts of gestures in your own greeting ritual (without the sniffing, of course!)

Tips to help put your fearful dog at ease:
  • Maintain enough space between yourself and your dog that they remain comfortable. 
  • Lower yourself by crouching or sitting on the floor. 
  • Turn your head aside and look with your peripheral vision instead of facing them directly.
  • Speak softly and slowly to the dog
  • Super yummy pea-sized treats can also help put your fearful dog at ease while teaching them to associate you with good things. We recommend using real food such as boiled or grilled chicken, cheese or hot dogs. The way you give your fearful dog treats can be as impactful as the type of treats you give.

For the most success:

  • Gently toss treats in an underhand fashion toward your dog’s feet. Avoid over-hand tossing as this can scare a fearful dog. (Think softball pitch instead of baseball pitch.)
  • Let your dog choose to approach you at their own pace. Avoid luring the dog close to you by placing the treats closer and closer to yourself. This can backfire when the dog suddenly finds themselves too close for comfort once the treats are gone.
  • Don’t approach your dog to offer treats. Instead, if your dog chooses to approach you, reward that decision by tossing a couple of treats at their feet, and then tossing a treat behind them.
  • Tossing a treat behind your dog encourages them to move away from you, and then they have the choice to return when they feel comfortable. This step ensures that your dog is not lured past their comfort zone by treats. 

Wait to pet your dog until they are clearly soliciting petting. Watch for your dog to voluntarily approach you with calm and relaxed body language and nudge your hands with their head. Focus on petting your dog under the chin and on the chest rather than on top of the head. Petting the top of a dog’s head is an intimidating gesture and could increase their fear.

Introducing to New People

Avoid introducing your fearful dog to new people at least until they are comfortable and social with you. It is important not to rush this process, as moving too quickly may increase the length of time it takes for your dog to become more confident. It is possible that your shy dog will always be fearful around unfamiliar people. 

Always make sure to closely monitor your dog around people that are unfamiliar to them, particularly people that are tall, loud, or who move in fast, erratic ways. Closely monitor your dog’s body language and remember to let them decide when to approach. Feed your dog their favorite treat. If your dog starts displaying any fearful behaviors, move them to a more comfortable distance or ask the person to move away. When your dog gets more comfortable, you could ask the person to crouch and toss treats. Make sure they do not pet your dog unless the dog clearly solicits petting. Taking it slow is always key.

Traveling Without Your Dog

It can be difficult when you have to travel for an extended period of time and are unable to bring your dog with you. This is particularly true with fearful dogs, as they may not have the same level of comfort with anyone else, making finding them a caretaker they are comfortable with difficult. There are many stories of shy dogs who have gotten scared and darted away from the caregiver while their owner was away!

Tips that might help:
  1. Have a professional dog-sitter stay at your home, where your dog is comfortable and happy. 
  2. If having someone stay at your residence is not possible, consider using a boarding kennel.  Having a secure kenneling facility with a staff of professionals caring for your dog will be the best safeguard against them getting loose. 
  3. Have the caregiver follow as much of your dog’s normal routine as possible.
  4. Caution the caregiver to be vigilant around doorways leading outside. A scared dog may try to escape by slipping through a cracked doorway or jumping a fence and, once loose, will be extremely difficult to get back.
  5. If your dog likes other dogs, arrange for them to go for walks with other dogs who will give them an added level of confidence on the street.
  6. Make sure that your dog’s walking equipment is very secure. Look into harnesses advertised as being “escape proof.”
  7. Ask the caregiver to use two leashes, one attached to the collar and the other to another piece of walking equipment. 
  8. Make sure your dog is microchipped and always wears a collar with the most up-to-date information on the identification tags.

For more information on living with and loving a shy dog, we recommend the book The Cautious Canine: How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears by Patricia McConnell.

Still have questions?

Contact our Behavior Specialists at [email protected] or (212) 876-7700 ext. 4971

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