How to help a shy dog gain confidence in you

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How to help a shy dog gain confidence in you

Updated Dec 21, 2021

Dear Cathy,

My adult daughter and her family have a female lab mix named Scooby. Despite my seeing her three to four times a year (they live in Atlanta), she is always afraid of me and will sometimes bark and growl at me. Eventually she calms down and I can pet her. Even though she jumps on our bed and seems glad to see us, she avoids me later. She also got very upset with my other son-in-law and never calmed down enough for him to pet her.

Is there anything that I can do to make her less apprehensive. I’ve tried treats, but have a hard time getting her to come over to take them.

— James Cohen, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

Dear James,

What a great guy you are to seek advice about bonding with your granddog Scooby.

Some people may say that something bad must have happened to Scooby to make her so afraid of people. But that’s not always the case. Some dogs may not have been properly socialized as a puppy or, like people, may be shier than other dogs and more stressed by social situations. Scooby also may associate your visits with increased activity in the house, which may make her uneasy.

Scooby needs some confidence-building. There are ways to help her become a more confident dog all year-long, but I am going to focus on what you can do when you visit. 

Scooby needs to know good things happen whenever you arrive. Bring her a treat, toy or chew you know she will enjoy. Make sure you are the one to give it to her and only give it to her in a quiet place. Put it on the ground, and then step back so she can check it out on her own.

Next, ask your daughter and her family if you can take over Scooby’s care while you are there, like feeding her, taking her for her walks, and playing with her, if she will let you. Pets bond with their caretakers, so these activities can help build trust and show her you are part of the family.

You also should spend quiet time together, which helps Scooby associate calmness when you are around. Get up in the morning, while everyone is still sleeping, and spend time with her, either watching TV or sitting out in the backyard. Rather than face her, sit sideways to her, like two people watching a baseball game, and wait for her to come to you. This body language is less intimating and makes it easier for shy dogs to approach.

During the visit, speak softly to her and give her a few tasty treats. Your extended arm might scare her, so toss some strong-smelling treats on the ground a few feet away from you, eventually tossing them closer to you as she gets more comfortable with your new friendship. If she is trained to not eat things off the ground, then put her dog bowl near you and put a few treats in it at a time. Whenever she comes towards you, toss a treat on the ground (or place in the bowl), and tell her “good girl.”

Just be present with her and don’t force anything to happen. Don’t make sudden movements or use loud, booming voices that could startle her. Do these things on every visit, and eventually Scooby will be relaxed and happy to see her grandpa from Ft. Lauderdale.

Cathy M. Rosenthal is a longtime animal advocate, author, columnist and pet expert who has more than 25 years in the animal welfare field. Send your pet questions, stories and tips to cathy@petpundit.com. Please include your name, city, and state. You can follow her @cathymrosenthal

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Cathy Rosenthal, CHES, CFE
Animal Welfare Communications Specialist

Cathy brings more than 25 years' experience in the animal welfare field. She is a sought-after speaker, Certified Humane Education Specialist, a syndicated pet advice columnist, an author, a publisher, and of course - a loving pet parent.

Read more about Cathy here or check out her Non-Profit's page to see more ways she can help you and your organization.

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