If you’re wondering if it’s worth it to socialize a shy dog, take it from me: It most definitely is.
Case in point: When I first brought my Border Collie, Mack, home when he was 1 year old, I was surprised to learn he was afraid of Asian and African-American men.
Normally friendly, he refused to enter the room with the men and would growl and dart away if approached by them.
Mack had never been abused and normally loved people, so why was this dog afraid of the men?
Before living with me, Mack had lived with an older white woman out in the country. Although he regularly attended doggy daycare as a puppy, he wasn’t around Asian or African-American men during the first year of his life.
His issue? A lack of socialization.
I’m happy to say Mack warmed up to the men over time. One of his favorite people in the world now is the same Asian man he had first run away from.
In this expert guide to how to socialize a shy dog, we’ll cover:
- What causes shyness in a dog?
- Why it’s so important to socialize your dog
- How do you socialize a dog with a human?
- How to socialize a dog with another dog?
- How can you help a fearful dog gain confidence?
In short, we’ll talk about why socialization is important for dogs — and we’ll give you our best, most comprehensive advice on how to socialize a shy dog.
What Causes Shyness in a Dog?
When you see a shy rescue dog cowering behind their person, it’s easy to assume the dog was abused in the past. Although abuse is one cause of fear in a dog, shyness can also be caused by one or more of the following:
Dogs have inherited personality traits comprising their hormones, brain chemistry, neurological wiring and so much more.
Shyness in a dog, just like fear and aggression, can be an inherited, hardwired trait.1,2
The inheritability of temperament traits is one reason it’s so important to buy puppies only from reputable, ethical breeders. A good breeder carefully chooses the parents based on sound health and good temperament — making it less likely that poor genetic traits are passed down to the puppies.
Lack of Socialization
During the first year of life, puppies experience several developmental periods where they learn about the world around them and how to respond to it.
- The first period takes place before 8 weeks of age, in the neonatal state of development.
- The next happens at 8–16 weeks of age, and this is one the most crucial stages, according to many behaviorists.
After that, several intermittent fear periods take place, where a puppy further learns what is safe and what to avoid in life.
These highly sensitive times are crucial for puppy development. It’s not good for puppies to miss out on positive experiences that can help them learn about the world around them and form bonds with humans and other dogs.
A lack of positive interactions with people, other dogs, new environments, noises, sights and other experiences can lead to shyness and an inability to adapt to new things. Many dogs are genetically prone to shyness and then also aren’t socialized — which makes the problem even worse.
Abuse or Trauma
Hitting a dog, neglecting a dog or keeping a dog in a constant state of fear can certainly lead to shyness. The same goes for trauma stemming from incidents such as dog fights or injuries.3
If trauma or abuse happens during a key developmental period or fear period, your dog will tend to respond fearfully toward the world around them even more than if the experience happened later in life.
When your dog is already genetically prone toward shyness or isn’t socialized while young, abuse or trauma can be especially hard for your dog to overcome.
Why It’s So Important to Socialize Your Dog
With socialization, you teach your dog as early as possible how to behave around other dogs, people and animals.
Dogs who have been properly socialized have fewer issues with other animals in public, but animals with little to no socialization can have a difficult time coping with meeting new people and other animals.
“Socializing can help many fearful dogs get past their issues,” says Peggy Swager, author of Rescue Your Dog From Fear. “Conversely, the lack of socializing can create a fearful dog and can lead to behavior issues.”4
Here are just 3 reasons why it’s important to socialize your dog:
Dogs who have not been socialized (or not socialized enough) often display anxiety when confronted with a new situation, person or animal.
Anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways:
This is tough to watch happen, particularly when you’re not sure how to help.
Unsocialized dogs may display aggressive tendencies, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
To a dog, where they live and who they live with are their possessions, and they will defend them should another animal encroach on their territory. This is hardwired into their DNA.
Your dog may not display anxious or aggressive behaviors, but they may be difficult to handle.
New places and things cause such stimulation that you can’t control the dog, even on a leash, and they end up walking you. This type of behavior means they will be hard to handle (if not impossible) at the groomer’s, the vet’s and any other pet-friendly area.
The best way to avoid these problems? Socialize your dog from a young age.
OK, so now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dive into exactly how to socialize a shy dog…
How Do You Socialize a Dog With a Human?
A dog can be shy around anything, but people are usually the biggest concern since dogs in our society must be able to coexist with people.
Thankfully, you can recruit other dog lovers to help you socialize your dog around people by doing the following training exercises.
Pair People With Treats
If your dog is food-motivated, use that desire for food to help them overcome their fear of people:
- Recruit as many family members, friends and dog lovers as you can to help you.
- Working one at a time, have someone toss treats to your dog from a distance your dog is comfortable with whenever they’re being quiet or calm. Have the person ignore your dog — other than tossing the treats — while they do this.
- When your dog is completely comfortable with the person at the current distance, have the person toss the treats slightly closer so that your dog must come nearer to them to get the treats. Go slow with this — gauge your dog’s reactions. Avoid encouraging your dog to approach too closely before they feel comfortable to avoid any potential fear biting.
- When your dog willingly goes up to the person, even without the person tossing food to lure them in, the person can have your dog perform commands or tricks and reward them for their obedience with the food.
- Once your dog is comfortable with one person, move on to another friend and have that person practice the same training, starting from the beginning again. Your dog will need to warm up to multiple people gradually to learn that all people are safe.
- In general, you can also offer your dog a treat while they are calm around people they spot in public — walks are common examples of this. Keep enough space between you and the other person for your dog to be successful and remain calm. Keep your attitude calm and confident, too.
Pair People With Fun
Many dogs are not food-motivated, or they are equally motivated by games, walks and toys.
Pay attention to what your dog loves, what they focus on and when they relax. You can use other things that your dog loves to help them overcome their fears:
- Use toys in place of treats as a reward for calm behavior around people.
- If your dog loves to play fetch, have a friend play with them, but you be the one to take the ball from your dog and hand it to your friend to throw again until your dog is completely comfortable with the person.
- If your dog enjoys walks, have a friend go on a walk with you. At first, have your friend stay far enough away for your dog to relax around them. Keep the walk structured, and reward your dog for calmness and focus on you. When your dog becomes comfortable around the person at the current distance, decrease the amount of space between your dog and the other person gradually over time. Expect this to take several sessions before the person can walk within 5 feet of your dog.
- If your dog has a canine buddy, let your dog watch the other dog interact with your friend. Have the other dog perform tricks and commands for your friend, play games — like fetch — with them, and go for walks with them while you follow behind with your dog.
- Teach your dog commands like “Say hi” and “Touch.” Practice those commands with people your dog knows and have those people reward your dog heavily for obeying the commands. Once your dog can perform the new commands with friends — and if your dog is only mildly shy — practice the new commands with a calm person your dog does not know. Have the new person stand still and stay calm while your dog performs the command. If your dog has any aggressive tendencies, don’t practice these up-close commands yet.
Timid dogs have an even greater need for leadership, and they take a lot of their cues for how to behave and feel from the other dogs and people around them.
Providing a shy dog with clear direction, leadership and protection can help them feel more at ease and prevent fears from becoming worse while you work to address them.
- Protect your dog from overwhelming situations. Pay careful attention to your dog’s tolerance level. Work at that level, challenging your dog slightly more as they improve. While helping your dog overcome fears in controlled situations, protect them from scary, uncontrolled situations. If your dog is afraid of people, crowds of kids trying to pet them would be overwhelming. If your dog is afraid of other dogs, a face-to-face encounter with another pooch would probably be too much for them.
- Once your dog improves, avoid the temptation to put them in situations that could undo your hard work. For example, if your dog used to be afraid of other dogs, then don’t go to the dog park, where a fight might break out. Instead, pursue calm, controlled interactions with other dogs.
- Teach commands and give your dog direction when they are in uncertain situations. If you tune into your dog’s body language, you will often notice a few seconds of indecision happening before your dog reacts fearfully. In those few seconds, tell them what to do or think. You can do this by giving a command such as “Heel” or “Watch me.” You can turn their attention to something else or help them relax by acting silly and confident yourself. Pull out your best silly dance moves and a fun tune to help your dog feel happy again when things start to get tense.
- Have your dog work for things in life by performing commands before receiving things they want. Add more structure to their day by making them wait for a meal, wait before exiting an open crate, stay on a dog bed while you leave the room and generally follow house rules. Structure and predictability are important for insecure dogs. “It builds confidence to understand what you’re asking of [the dog], and to understand the consequences,” says Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA.5
How Do You Socialize a Dog With Another Dog?
OK, we’ve talked about how to socialize a dog around other people — now what about socializing a dog around other dogs?
Some pups are fine with people but are shy around other dogs, while others are shy around both.
If you’ve been wondering, “How do you introduce a nervous dog to other dogs?” try the following:
Nose-to-nose greetings between dogs should be no longer than 3 seconds, especially while on the leash, where neither dog can get away.
Anything longer than 3 seconds gives the dogs a chance to get past the initial taking in of information and move on to sizing each other up and competing — which can lead to fights.
If your dog is very shy, avoid nose-to-nose greetings at first. Instead, focus on pack walks and practicing obedience with other dogs in sight until your dog’s confidence and relaxation around other dogs improves.
Once your dog is confident enough to meet others nose-to-nose, be careful which dogs you let them meet. Don’t be afraid to be picky and tell well-meaning caretakers of less-than-friendly or overly rambunctious dogs that your dog can’t meet, is in training or is afraid of other dogs.
Protect your pet from potentially dangerous or overwhelming situations that could set back your training efforts. Look for dogs who are calm, friendly and attentive to their people for your dog to greet.
A good greeting is relaxed, brief and mutual — where each dog allows the other to sniff the behind and front. This caution is wise when socializing a puppy, too.
Pack walks are a great tool in learning how to socialize a shy dog.
Watch your pup carefully and pay attention to the distance they need between them and another dog to remain calm. Go on walks with other people or walking groups, but keep far enough away from others for your dog to stay relaxed.
After your dog has gone on enough walks with others to be completely relaxed during the walk, gradually decrease the distance between your pup and others. Take it slow, and watch your dog’s body language to gauge the proper distance.
Keep your dog’s attention on you during these walks. The walks should be structured with your dog in the heel position and focusing on you.
If your dog can respond calmly to treats or praise, give them to your dog when they’re acting calm, focusing on you or heeling.
Practice Obedience With Other Dogs in Sight
When you’re learning how to socialize a shy dog, you need to teach several obedience commands or tricks, such as “Heel,” “Watch me” and “Sit.”
Take your dog to a calm, spacious location, like a local field or park where other dogs are likely to roam on the leash.
Pay attention to your dog’s body language and notice how far another dog needs to be for yours to relax and focus on a treat or toy you have.
Once you have determined that distance, work on obedience commands, tricks or training games with your dog while other dogs are in the background off in the distance. Make the training fun, and try to act upbeat and confident.
As your dog gets more comfortable around the others, you can practice your training slightly closer to the dogs until yours can eventually work with other dogs close by and remain calm.
Expect this to take multiple sessions. Some dogs relax enough to get close in a few weeks, while others can take years if the shyness is severe.
How to Help a Fearful Dog Gain Confidence
Many shy dogs lack confidence in general.
Your dog might be afraid of children, other dogs, strange or loud noises, new places or something else. Building your dog’s overall confidence can have a huge impact on their ability to adapt to new situations and relax in life.
Below are a few things that can help build your dog’s confidence.
Obedience and Tricks
Shy dogs are typically just as intelligent as other dogs once you get them out of their shells.
Try to find what motivates your pup: Do they love food, toys, praise, walks or swimming? Use the things your dog loves to motivate them during training.
Be patient and recognize that it might take your dog longer to learn tricks and commands if they feel frightened. You may need to go slow, especially when practicing new commands around other people or animals or in new locations.
You may need to adapt the training to make it gentler or more structured for your dog — many shy dogs do well with a lot of structure and clear guidance.
The more you teach your dog, the more confident, able to learn and relaxed they’ll generally become.
Recognize that the training is new for them, so try to believe in their potential to learn and persevere with them. Doing so will also build their trust and respect for you.
Have a go at trying canine sports with your shy dog. They’re a lot of fun when you find one your dog loves.
Is your dog a runner, a herder, a ball fanatic, a swimmer, a jumper, a mover, a groover, a sniffer or a retriever?
There are so many different types of canine sports, and participating in the right one can help your dog become more confident by flooding their brain with wonderful chemicals during the fun.6
Those feel-good chemicals get associated with the things in the environment that your pup is nervous about, like other dogs or people — helping your dog feel less nervous.
Canine sports also stimulate your dog’s brain, exercise their body, require focus (and a relationship with you) and broadens their experience — all of which can be good for a nervous dog.
“The two of you may never step into the ring for competition, but because of your training, your dog will be happier and more confident, and your bond will strengthen,” says Stephanie Gibeault, CPDT. “And you never know — your anxious dog might blossom into a champion.”7
Some canine sports options include:
Check out these dogs competing in flyball, one canine sport that is a great way to help your shy dog build confidence and have fun:
Be a Dependable Leader
Have you ever been in a situation where you wondered, “How do you comfort a scared dog?”
If so, you’re not alone. Many people feel helpless while asking that same question.
The natural tendency is to pet, cuddle and talk softly to your shy dog. That’s typically the way we humans want to be cared for when we feel afraid.
Dogs need something a bit different, though.
Your dog looks to your body language, demeanor and instruction to decide on how to respond in many uncertain situations. What they need most from you is clear direction, confidence and help focusing on something other than their fears.
- If they start to worry about another dog down the street, then instead of comforting them, break out into song and dance and get them excited about the experience. You might feel silly, but watch as your dog’s body language changes from tense to happy and relaxed.
- As a leader, put clear boundaries and rules in place for your dog. Be consistent and enforce the rules.
- Work on increasing their independence with “Place,” “Stay” and distance commands. Give your dog opportunities to work through their fears in an environment with enough structure and control that they can succeed.
It can be hard to watch your restless dog hold a “Stay” when they don’t want to, but let them learn that they can — and then calmly reward them when they succeed.
Believe in your dog and help them succeed.
Please don’t do these things when working on socialization training with your puppy:
- Don’t strike, scream or yell at, or otherwise intimidate them. By doing so, you’re simply teaching them not to trust you and to be afraid of you.
- Don’t force them into new situations before they’re ready. Some dogs will take to socialization like a duck to water. Others need more time with each experience to feel comfortable. Proceed at your dog’s pace.
- Don’t ignore warning signs: excessive salivation, shivering, submissive posture, etc. They will tell you when they have had enough and you need to take a break.
Dog trainer Mary Belle Brazil-Adelman, PhD, puts it this way:
“Present each new learning experience in a positive manner that will be easy for the young dog to learn, and you will have an adult dog that can face each new challenge with strength, determination and confidence.”8
Final Thoughts on How to Socialize a Shy Dog
Once you’ve successfully introduced your dog to friends, other pets and children, keep that momentum going.
Enroll in group dog training classes, spend time at your local dog park and take your dog with you on trips to new places.
Always reward your dog for positive behavior — and never punish them for being afraid of a new situation.
To sum up this expert guide to how to socialize a shy dog:
- Take time to help your pet work through fears around people with the help of others.
- Give your dog opportunities to develop good associations with other dogs, while protecting them from scary or overwhelming situations.
- Work on building your dog’s overall confidence through training, canine sports, boundaries and clear leadership.
Undoing years of possible poor socialization can be difficult. Depending on the kind of life your dog lived before adoption, these steps may take days, weeks or months.
Most of all, remember to be patient and calm while teaching your dog to overcome fears. Socialization takes time, but with the right mindset, you and your dog should be able to enjoy a fruitful, happy life.
- Coren, Stanley, PhD, DSc, FRSC. “Why Are Some Dogs So Anxious and Fearful?” Psychology Today. Nov. 1, 2011. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201111/why-are-some-dogs-so-anxious-and-fearful.
- Zapata, Isain, PhD, et al. “Genetic Mapping of Canine Fear and Aggression.” BMC Genomics 17, no. 572 (Aug. 8, 2016). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4977763/.
- Mcmillan, Franklin D., DVM, et al. “Behavioral and Psychological Characteristics of Canine Victims of Abuse.” Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 18, no. 1 (September 2014): 1–20. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/266243383_Behavioral_and_Psychological_Characteristics_of_Canine_Victims_of_Abuse.
- Swager, Peggy O. Rescue Your Dog From Fear: Tried-and-True Techniques to Help Your Dog Feel Secure. Rowman & Littlefield. 2015. 25.
- Miller, Pat, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA. “Building Your Dog’s Confidence Up.” Whole Dog Journal. September 2011. https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/issues/14_9/features/Helping-Timid-Dogs_20348-1.html.
- Berns, Gregory S., PhD, MD, et al. “Replicability and Heterogeneity of Awake Unrestrained Canine fMRI Responses.” PLoS ONE 8, no. 12 (Dec. 4, 2013): e98421. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0098421.
- Gibeault, Stephanie, CPDT. “Agility Training Is Great for Anxious Dogs.” American Kennel Club. Jan. 3, 2018. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/agility-training-great-anxious-dogs/.
- Brazil-Adelman, Mary Belle, PhD. The German Shepherd Dog Handbook. B.E.S. Publishing. 2010.
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This article on how to socialize a shy dog was written by Caitlin Crittenden, a professional dog trainer. Additional contributors to this article included a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, as well as Petful publisher Dave Baker, professional dog walker Melissa Smith and dog behaviors writer Kristen Youngs.
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