Fearful Dogs

When working with shy or fearful dogs, remember:

  1. Dogs respond well to having the choice to interact or not.
    1. “Approaching” dogs is a misnomer: dogs should always be invited to approach us, particularly shy ones.
    2. Don’t pet or handle a dog who doesn’t want to be petted or handled unless it’s an emergency.
    3. When a fearful dog chooses to approach, reinforce with the freedom to walk away.
  2. Choices, coupled with positive reinforcement, build confidence for future interactions.
  3. Positive reinforcement must be evaluated from the dog’s point of view. Petting a dog who does not want to be petted is NOT positive reinforcement.
A dog displaying shy/fearful behavior


  1. Show your side to the dog; don’t face him with your body or face.
  2. Squat down, still turned to the side. You can even turn your back while squatting down and still keep eyes on the dog. Move away and see if he’ll follow. This minimal freedom of choice allows the dog room to make a different choice next time.
  3. DO NOT reach your hand out to the dog’s nose. Keep all body parts close; keep your head turned away but your eyes on the dog. Give him some time if he remains nearby; let him decide whether he wants to approach. If he doesn’t, or if he walks away, don’t pressure him by begging and cajoling. Accept his answer of “no” and change techniques or try again later.
  4. Toss a treat on the floor in front of the dog. Taking it out of your hand after approaching may be too much for him. Don’t try to lure him over by providing a trail of treats leading to you; he may want the treats, end up really close to you, and be startled. Better to have him move away after mustering the courage to take a step toward you. Be consistent in your responses to his experimental behaviors. Toss a treat on the floor between the two of you, so he takes one step toward you to eat it; then toss another behind him so he moves away from you. If he’s into this game, do it again! Play the game as long as he’s curious and eating. Remember, this dog’s desire is to have more distance from you. Don’t take it personally; make a trade: “If you come a step closer, you can go back to your safe distance.” Help him predict how to get the treat and still feel safe.
  5. Approaching is one choice; it doesn’t mean the dog wants to be petted. ONLY offer petting if he shows solicitous behaviors like turning to the side, moving really close to you, rubbing on your leg, offering soft, low, slow tail wags, turning his head as though to give you better access to his neck, etc. If he solicits interaction, break it down: (A) extend your hand near him; see how he feels about that. (B) If he still wants it, pet only on the sides of the face and neck, under the chin, or on his side – ribs and shoulders. NEVER reach over his head or back to pet – this is likely to appear threatening. (C) Pet VERY briefly – no more than 3 seconds, then stop and see if the dog moves away or “asks” for more. Give him the choice; just because he wanted a little petting doesn’t mean he wants it for a long time! If at any time you notice the dog become still or stiff, even in a minimal way, immediately stop and allow him to walk away. This DOES NOT mean you’re his best friend now; you are probably still a “scary monster.” But this is big – you can build on it! This is conditioning. Never take your eyes off the dog: observe his body language to acquaint yourself with his needs and desires. Fearful dogs can help you develop the best handling skills. Minimize errors; avoid scaring him.
  6. Fearful dogs need your protection from intrusions they are not ready for. Pay attention. Predict what will frighten the dog and be bold in asking people to give him space, or make a U-turn and walk away. Petting from strangers is not required!
  7. If the dog trusts you but not other people, practice using the techniques in the following articles to help him learn to check in with you when a new person approaches; this will keep him from being in a situation in which he feels pressured or trapped.

Teaching Reactive Dogs a New Habit, Parts 1 and 2

Note that both articles focus on techniques for changing reactive responses in dogs, most often defined as barking, lunging, and other behaviors dogs use to increase distance between themselves and something they don’t like. However, fearful dogs are “reactive” in that they back away from what they don’t like, cower, growl, show wide eyes, stiff bodies, tucked tails and ears, and more. The same techniques that create calm, tolerant behaviors for barkers/lungers can create confident behaviors for fearful dogs and security in the face of scary things.

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