Thursday, August 9, 2012

Training Games for Shy Dogs

My shy pup Frosty

By Langley Cornwell

Even though I’ve had all types of dogs come in and out of my life, this is the first time I’ve ever had a shy, fearful dog. Because I like to write about what I know (or need to know), I’ve spent hours researching, studying and writing about shy, fearful dogs. In doing so, it’s been interesting to note how many shy dogs are out there, and how many compassionate humans are searching for ways to make their shy dog’s life easier and richer.  

In How to Train a Fearful or Insecure Dog, I wrote about our shy pup Frosty, and shared what’s been working for us. We’ve made good progress, but we still have a long road ahead of us. So now we’re learning a few training games.

One of the biggest problems Frosty has is interacting with other people. With a lot of patience and the help of some awesome dog-people, she’s finally learned good doggie social skills. She greets other dogs correctly and does fine in any canine-to-canine situation. But when it comes to dealing with strangers, look out! She either cowers and shakes or she cops a lunging posture, hackles raised, and starts to bark aggressively. My husband thinks she likes dogs but doesn’t like people. I think we can help her with that. asserts that teaching your dog how to communicate with people is a vital milestone in their journey towards becoming a healthy, well-adjusted dog – so that’s where we’re focusing our attention. They outline two training games that are particularly helpful when working with a shy dog.

Name Association

This game is designed to help your dog overcome trust issues by linking her name with a positive association. You will need a good supply of your dog’s favorite treats on hand. Our dog is so shy that she won’t eat treats that crunch too loudly, so we use CANIDAE Snap-Bits. They are the right size and texture for her, and she loves them.

Start in a comfortable position within easy reach of your dog. Say her name and give her a treat. It’s that simple. Repeat this exercise over and over, and do it several times a day. With time, your dog will start to look at you when she hears her name. When this happens, reinforce that behavior with your ‘good dog’ word (yes, right, good girl, whatever you naturally say). The goal is to teach your dog that hearing her name is a good thing and ultimately, feel comfortable when people talk to her.

When playing the name association game with your dog, adjust her food intake accordingly and/or use some of her daily food for the game.

Hand Targeting

Once your dog is comfortable when people address her, the next hurdle is getting her to approach strangers. Place a treat in the palm of your hand and offer it to your dog. When she takes it, say your ‘good dog’ word. Repeat this until your pup is comfortable. Next, gently close your hand around the treat and offer it to your dog. When she moves in to smell the treat, say your ‘good dog’ word and open your hand so the dog can eat the treat. Keep at this until your dog understands that she needs to touch your hand in order for you to open it and give her the treat.

Once the dog is confidently touching your hand in exchange for a treat, add a ‘target’ or touch it’ command. Repeat this until your dog understands that ‘touch it’ means, well, touch it. The progression is different for every dog but don’t move on until your dog is touching your hand for a treat with ease.

When she’s mastered that, hold out one (empty) hand and use your command word. When your dog touches your hand, say your ‘good dog’ word and give her a treat from the other hand. Do this a lot. Change your hand positions, having the dog look up, sideways, and down for the target/treat. You want to get your dog accustomed to having hands reach for her from different directions.

Work up to the point where you can begin to hold out other objects for your dog to touch on command, like a ball or a Frisbee, and then play with her. The winning moment is when your dog is comfortable, or at least not completely averse, to approaching strangers.

Good luck! I’d love to hear any tips, tricks or games that work for you and your shy or fearful dog.

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell


  1. I had a really shy dog a long time ago and I don't remember how I dealt with it. I think I just let her be shy. In fact her name was Bashful. I think she was fine around other people but just stayed to herself.

  2. I've a dog that won't walk outside of the yard, and fears /any/ noise while outside. If the neighbors are talking, mowing, or just puttering about in the yard making noise, she wants back inside and will tug and pull at her leash. Music from down the street, or even cars passing on the highway will do the same. She broke one of her leashes the other day in a bid to get back inside when I wouldn't let her- I sat down in the driveway and wouldn't move.

    Any ideas how I could get her to see that there's nothing wrong with outside? I can walk her to the mailbox or around the yard to do her business- with several attempts to circle around and go back to the house- but that's as far as she'll semi-willingly go.


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