How to Be an Advocate for a Shy Dog

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By Nichole Myers-Youngquist, CPDT-KA, WHS Behavior & Training Instructor

Adopted dog Damien continues to work on his shy behaviors.

Now that more people are returning to an office building after a year of working from home with their dogs during the pandemic, they are realizing that their dogs aren’t too keen on greeting visitors or meeting strangers.  Their dogs feel fear, anxiety, and stress in these situations.  In previous blogs I’ve discussed what can trigger those emotions and how you can help your dog through these situations.

Know this: Space is the most important thing to a shy dog. The canine fight or flight response is an innate survival instinct that humans display, as well.  Dogs that need space will get it however they can. If they can get away, they will. If they are trapped, they’ll often use aggression to gain more space.  

Simply paying better attention to shy dogs and their needs can keep everyone safe. 

Photo by Dr. Sara Livesay. Adoptable WHS shy dog, Zoe, takes respite atop fresh laundry in a basket.

How to Greet a Shy Dog 

If you’ve encountered a dog that isn’t wiggling and jumping for joy to meet you, follow these tips:

  • The dog controls the interaction. Understand that even if you are good with dogs, the shy dog may not be good with people. Allow the dog to decide whether or not they want to interact with you. If the dog does not want to approach you, you are better off staying at a safe distance and trying to win their trust.
  • Food = Trust. Food builds trust. Cheese, chicken, or hot dogs could help you make friends, but not from an extended hand.  Toss the treat out to the side of the dog.  
  • Keep your distance. Even if the dog approaches you because of the food, toss the food away and, again, allow them the opportunity to choose to interact.  Don’t take it personally if the dog doesn’t return to you.  It’s not about your feelings; it’s about building trust with the dog.
  • Resist the urge to touch first. Don’t touch the dog unless they initiate the touch. If they curve their body into yours or lean against you, it’s okay to pet. Keep it short and sweet, about 5 seconds, then stop and see what the dog does. If they leave, let them go. Where you touch matters, too.  When the dog does invite you to touch, the shoulders, back, and rump are usually safe bets.  Stay away from the head; the mouth has sharp knives that can cut you!
  • Say goodbye. Keep the session short. People often try too hard, too long. Five minutes is a really, really long time for a shy dog.  Remember the goal:  building trust.

How to Advocate for Your Shy Dog 

Follow these tips so you can be your dog’s advocate and voice during meetings with strangers.

  • Keep your distance. Give your shy dog what they really want.  Protect their space bubble and don’t let strangers approach. 
  • Create a barrier. Stand between the stranger and your shy dog.  Train your shy dog to station themself between your feet or legs or behind you.  Use a food lure and teach a cute cue like “peekaboo”  or “take cover” to find their safe spot. Most strangers won’t reach into your personal body space to pet your dog.
  • Listen and learn. It is very important not to scold or punish a growling dog. Growling is a warning to you and strangers that they are uncomfortable and might resort to aggression to gain space. If your shy dog has resorted to growling, listen, do a U-turn,  and remove your dog from the situation.
Photo by Marianne Fox.  Recently adopted shy dog, Popcorn (now Hopkin), goes for a ride.

More Help for Shy Dogs 

If you’ve followed these tips and your dog still struggles with shyness, let us help. Consider our Smart Conversations course to help boost your dog’s confidence and learn resourceful games to use in stressful situations. We also offer private sessions, if your dog finds group classes too difficult. See all of your options here

As always, practice patience.