ShynessLiaison: Helen L. Newman
Note: We thank Debbie Baird for collecting this information on shyness for the website.
Shyness has been said to rank only behind aggression as the most common behavioral problem in dogs.
The shy and insecure dog may be fear-ridden; afraid of noises and sudden movements. They may find strange people, strange places and new situations troublesome.
Shy dogs are more common than most people think, but unfortunately many dogs who suffer from this affliction are never seen by the general public because of their impairment. There are different degrees of shyness ranging from mild discomfort to panic resulting in a bite. No matter how vehement their behavior there are ways of not only managing it, but solving the problem. While it takes patience, sensitivity and understanding, most dogs can be helped
Most experts agree that, in most cases, shyness is caused by a combination of the dog's genetic predisposition (see “Current Research”) and a lack of socialization during the early months of life, with birth to approximately 17 weeks being a critical time for proper socialization.
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Signs and Symptoms
Most shy dogs will exhibit several different behaviors. These behaviors will fall under one of two defensive drives, which are (1) flight, or (2) fight. Not all signs will be exhibited during the earliest puppy time periods; real shyness may not appear until the dog is approaching puberty (5-12 months) or at some point between 12-18 months.
- Ears going back flat against the head
- Panting oddly
- Being reserved around strangers
- Tucking tail between legs
- Refusing to make eye contact
- Crouching or turning belly-up
- Urinating/leaking inappropriately (submissive urination)
- Trying to run away scared
- Barking madly
- Hiding (behind furniture, etc.)
- Having dilated pupils (glassy-eyed)
- Raising hackles
- Whining, baring teeth, barking, growling, snapping or biting
- Having shakes/being nervous
- If in a crate or pen, trying to plaster body up against back or side of crate or pen
- Being very tense
- Panicking over simple things like going for a walk or a car ride
- Having quick reactions to loud noises
Medical/Physical - Your first step should always be to consult your veterinarian to rule out any medical/physical problems that could be making your dog “appear” to be shy, fearful or nervous. If your veterinarian gives your dog a clean bill of health but you still feel the problem could be medically/physically related, then please seek a second opinion. A few medical/physical problems that could be causing your dog to be shy, fearful or nervous include, but are not limited to:
- painful hips – hip dysplasia
- painful spine or neck
- eye problems/poor eye sight/vision problems
- an autoimmune disease – numerous
- thyroid problems 2
- chronic pain
- rage syndrome
- ear infection
- rabies 3
Inadequate (lack of) Socialization – (thought to be the number one cause) - If dogs are not properly socialized when they are puppies they can develop into shy/fearful or nervous dogs. This can happen with any type of breeder, in shelters or pet shops.
If the puppies Dam (Mother) is a shy, fearful, timid or nervous dog she may also pass these traits along to her puppies through their imitation of her behavior.
Abuse (rare) or Bad Experience - especially during fear stages -
Unfortunately, there are humans in this world who have found many ways to abuse animals. Adults can be abusers, and children can inflict some of the cruelest abuse on puppies/dogs. This is especially true when the children are not taught and overseen by their parents or guardians. Children need to be taught the proper way to treat animals and how to respect them. Sometimes a dog may not have been abused by a human, but rather they were intimidated or had a bad experience with an older and larger dog.
It is a common misconception that shyness typically results from abuse In fact, this is only rarely the case.
Genetics (Nature versus Nurture) - Most research has shown that genetics are responsible for about half of an animal’s or human’s personality with the other half being defined by environmental factors (most likely causes for shyness per experts). This can be further shown by observing a litter that has been well socialized and without known medical/physical problems or abuse being a factor.
- Separation Anxiety
- Relinquishing Dog to Shelter or Rescue
- Shyness in Dam/Sire (genetics)
- Shyness in Dam (learned behavior)
- Lack of adequate socialization
- Being Hit by Vehicle
- Take your dog to your veterinarian to rule out any possible Medical causes for your dog's shyness. Please refer to –“Causes” within this section.
- Learn as much as possible about other related issues that may be contributing to your dog's shyness by speaking with your breeders, other breeders/owners, and other veterinarians. Join email support groups/lists, local dog clubs, etc.
- Learn what motivates your dog, what distracts your dog, what are his/her prey drive (the desire to chase things), pack drive (the desire to be in a pack or with a human) and defensive drives (fight or flight).
- Other Testing - Socialization Testing, etc.
There are several things you can do to help your dog overcome his/her shyness.
- It is very important that you do not give your dog attention for whining, barking or running off and hiding when strangers approach or when people come over to your home. Ignore these behaviors; don't try and force your dog into a situation it is not comfortable in.
- Always praise your dog when it is showing confidence and courage. If your dog is acting fearful or shy in certain situations it is important that you act happily and talk to your dog in an upbeat tone as if all is well. If your dog feels you are eased in the situation, it will most likely also relax.
- Use a soft tone of voice. Love, affection and quiet enthusiasm is important.
- Always let your dog approach a stranger rather than let a stranger approach your dog. Once your dog has approached the person instruct them to pet your dog on the chest, NOT the head. You can also try carrying along some food treats to give to people so that once your dog approaches them, it is rewarded with a pleasant surprise!
- Never physically or verbally reprimand your pup or dog for shy or fearful behavior. You will only make the behavior worse and intensify the problem.
- No leash corrections of shaking of cans.
- Dog Training - look for local dog obedience training schools/classes that have been highly recommended for the shy dog by breeders/owners you know and trust or local dog club members. Let the dog behavior training instructor(s) know why you want to enroll your dog and what goals you hope to accomplish with your dog.
See the “Suggested Links” for many more useful tips in managing shyness.
- Jerold S Bell, DVM, Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine “Practical genetics for Samoyed Breeders and Owners”- from 2002 Samoyed National Specialty talk.
- Thyroid Can Alter Behavior by W. Jean Dodds, DVM
- Mod Vet Pract. 1975 Apr;56(4):278-82. Problem behavior in dogs. Understanding the shy dog. Campbell WE. Abstract
Brief Description: The shy-k9s mailing list is for the discussion of shy, fearful and/or fear-aggressive dogs and positive solutions to their problems. Note: This list is an all-breed/mixed-breed group with a high volume activity level.
Suggested LinksHelp for the Shy Dog on the Pedigree.com website
Brief Description: Training Tips
Dog Tip: Help for the Shy and Fearful Dog on the Partnership for Animal Welfare website
Brief Description: Ways to help your shy or fearful dog in varying situations
Brief Description: What to Do, What Not to Do, Socializing Your Dog, Correction, Training
Shy Dogs FAQ from the Shy-k9s Mailing List
Brief Description: Frequently Asked Questions about the shy dog
Behavioral Genetics and Animal Science by Temple Grandin and Mark J. Dessing
Brief Description: Genetics and Behavior
Socialization Of Your Shy (or puppy mill) Dog on the Bichon Frise Information Station website
Brief Description: Socialization of the shy dog (Bichon)
Pet Information Sheet on Shy Dogs from the Mendocino Coast Humane Society website
Brief Description: Pet Information Sheet
The books listed below can be purchased at Amazon (www.amazon.com) or Dogwise (www.dogwise.com)
Help for Your Shy Dog-How to turn your terrified dog into a terrific pet; by, Deborah Wood The Cautious Canine - by, Patricia B. McConnell
with noises for behavior modification/training...on the Legacy Canine Behavior and Training website