Five Confidence Boosting Activities for Shy Dogs

Lea Jaratz
Increasing Confidence in Shy DogsConfident Kayden (right), posing
with his office mentor, Dubs.

When Kayden first came to be introduced to new people, you could expect one of two scenarios. Best case scenario, the new person wouldn’t even know he was there because he’d be hiding in his crate or under a desk, holding his breath in hopes that no one would see him. Worst case scenario, you’d get growls or barks, warning you to leave him be.

See, Kayden was a stray when he wandered onto the grounds of a remote sanctuary as a youngster, likely having never had a home or much exposure to people. As a result, he’s quite shy. “Skittish,” “nervous,” and “scared” are all words people use to describe him. But, two years of patience and supportive training have helped get Kayden over his social anxiety. While I’m not a trainer, I can tell you the confidence boosting activities that worked well for us.

1. Training

Most pet behaviorists agree that training is essential for building the confidence of insecure dogs like Kayden, and it has certainly proved helpful for us. We spent several weeks in basic obedience and canine good citizen classes with Kayden, teaching him practical skills like “wait” and “leave it,” as well as fun games like “high five.” No matter the skill, helping Kayden learn what we expect of him helps boost his confidence. Classes also helped him feel more comfortable with new people and dogs in new environments. Perhaps most importantly, instilling commands like “come” were (literally) lifesavers, in case Kayden is suddenly scared and tries to flee.

2. Passive socialization

The second key to helping Kayden become a more sociable guy came when I started bringing him into the office. I knew that expecting him to go desk to desk looking for treats and pats was unreasonable at first. So, I never asked him to “do” anything. He was free to hang out under my desk, but he would hear the voices of call center reps, watch the other dogs greet the UPS man, and occasionally be offered treats by co-workers. This passive exposure lead to him becoming more outgoing, and in the span of a few months he would sometimes explore, finding his way to other departments and seeking out snacks and the best toys. He’ll routinely return to a hidey hole under my desk if things get to be too much for him, but his willingness to make friends has increased tremendously.

Additionally, take a look at where your dog spends most of his time at home. If he likes to hunker down in his crate, consider moving the crate into a more common place in the home. We noticed that after moving his crate out of the spare room and into the living room, where he’d hear the TV, the mail man, and our other dog, Kayden became more interactive.

3. Adventures

What are normal errands for us are adventures for a shy dog. Whenever I get a chance, I take Kayden on excursions such as trips to the coffee shop, a ride through a drive-thru, the car wash, or a stop at a new park. Keep visits brief, try to avoid peak traffic times, always make sure your dog is safely on a leash or restraint, and give plenty of positive feedback when your dog does something social. Don’t praise or reassure when he retreats or backslides. It’s best to just ignore shy behavior and quietly let him know when he's done something good.

4. Exercise

Kayden has always been a sporty guy, into running, walks, swimming, and playing fetch. But it wasn’t long before we realized Frisbee was a special game for him. While he’s certainly not a champion disc dog in the making, the challenge of chasing down a big slobbery disc is so rewarding for him. Since he’s particularly shy with men, we encourage him to play a few games of Frisbee with the guys in the neighborhood. Sometimes I’ll wear a hood or carry an open umbrella (triggers for him) while playing Frisbee, to show him that good things happen even when these weird objects are in his presence. Whenever he’s had a good round of play, he’s confident, affectionate, and very attentive.

5. Overnights

Just as when a kid overcomes homesickness on his first sleepover, a dog can overcome social anxiety through sleepovers in dog-friendly environments. Kayden occasionally spends time with co-workers, pet-sitters, or at a dog spa. Just as he built confidence in foster homes before finding us, continuous exposure to new people, pets, and places pays into his confidence bank.

While Kayden is a long way from being the social butterfly we think of with most dogs, he now greets most visitors with a low wag of his tail and approaches them for a quiet ear scratch. All of his training and adventures have certainly brought him a long way from the timid desert dog we first knew.

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