When people say that they have a“shy” or “nervous” dog, it can be easy to misinterpret what they mean by this. We tend to associate shyness or nerves with a more docile, submissive personality in dogs, but this is not always the case. Unlike people who may be shy around others, dogs express their unease in an aggressive manner. For dog guardians who are unprepared to deal with these challenges, they may not understand why their dog snaps at people they don’t know or even tries to bite others. Sadly, this behavioral problem can lead some to abandon their furry best friends when helping a nervous dog deal with their stress or anxiety is completely possible.

The first step in helping your four-legged BFF adjust to the stressful world around them is to understand the root of their anxiety. Typically, shy or nervous dogs have come from a background of abuse, neglect or have experienced something traumatic which leads them to be wary of others or new situations later in life.

I live with a sweet little brown terrier called Barnie who didn’t have a great start in life. He was thrown out on the streets when he was a couple of years old and ended up in a rescue. After being fostered by a dear friend of mine, he came to live with me just over two years ago. With him came many years’ worth of insecurities and fears. In particular, he was terrified of other dogs and this fear manifested itself in serious aggression. Much time has now passed and, with a solid foundation of love, trust, and patience, Barnie is now a much happier, more confident dog.




During the time I have been supporting my little friend in overcoming his anxieties, there were a number of occasions when, through no fault of their own, other people had a huge impact on Barnie’s progress. The list below collates four of the things that I would love people to bear in mind when around dogs who might need a little bit of extra support in order to feel safe in the world.

1. Start With Short Walks

While most dogs may jump at the mere mention of a walk, shy dogs might not be so eager to leave the comfort of their home. Remember, dogs are very fast learners and if they feel stressed or anxious in a new situation they will quickly begin to associate the signs – like a leash or a particular word – with that feeling. The more that your pup feels this way, the harder it will be to break this negative association so take baby steps and start with small walks to help them adjust. Be mindful of where you’re walking your pup as external stimuli like a busy street or lots of people might set off their nervous response.

2. Be Mindful of Other Dogs

Don’t be so quick to allow your dog to interact with others in public settings. When I take Barnie to the park, it is a regular occurrence for the guardian of a dog charging at high speed towards him to wave happily from across the field and shout “It’s okay, mine’s really friendly!” Sadly, for a nervous rescue dog, this can be terrifying and result in aggression, even if the approaching dog just wants to play. Try to avoid situations with other dogs until your pup is a bit more confident around other animals. Start by having a friend bring over their dog for short play dates and ease them into the situation at their own pace.

3. The Importance of Space and Quiet

Some days, and without any warning, Barnie would see another dog and something about that dog would result in what can only be described as a meltdown. The noises Barnie made at these times were something between crying with fear and barking at the other dog like he wanted to kill them. Barnie is small and often the dogs that he directed this reaction to would be huge in comparison.

In this instance, space and quiet are incredibly important things. If you start to tense up or yell at your dog as a result of their reaction, it will only make them feel more anxious and uneasy. Your first reaction may be to discipline your dog for behaving this way, but according to Paw Rescue, “The shy or fearful dog can be frightened and even traumatized by forceful training methods.” So try instead to emphasize positive reward-based training. Whenever your dog act calmly around others, give them a treat or praise and eventually they’ll feel confident that not only do you have their backs, but they will begin to associate interactions with others with a positive experience.

4. Be Vocal With Others Who Try to Pet Your Dog

For the safety of you, your dog and others, always, always be vocal about the fact that your dog doesn’t react well to strangers. People love dogs and many will contend that they are “dog people” and approach your pup without asking. Be sure to tell them not to. You can do this nicely, of course, but be firm or it could illicit undue stress for your pup and result in a terrible situation. This is really important for people who are with children as young people may not know how to approach dogs safely and carefully.

A steady routine will help your pooch gain confidence and slowly the aggressive behaviors will subside, but anything as simple as an unwarranted pet from a stranger could throw them off entirely. Know your dog and know their limits and most importantly don’t forget to speak up for them when they need you!

Patience Pays

It is every dog guardian’s hope for their furry friend that they will become a well-adjusted, well-socialized, dog who can run off the lead and play happily with others who cross their paths. But for those dogs who have been treated badly in the past, it can take a long time to get there. Everyone can do their bit to help little dogs like Barnie in their journeys by being aware of their needs and making minor adjustments where they can.

If you have a nervous doggy companion, you might want to check out the Yellow Dog Project. The group is doing great work in helping to raise awareness for nervous dogs and their guardians. For other helpful tips for dealing with stressed or anxious dogs, check out Natural Stress Remedies for Dogs and Cats.

Image source: ETersigni/Flickr