April 15, 2021

Training Tips: How To Help A Timid Dog

by Steffi Trott


Do you own a dog who is timid around people? Perhaps you rescued him and he came to you already shy and aloof. Or you just ended up with a puppy who is naturally more fearful.  While this can be tricky to navigate, you can help your dog feel more comfortable around people with the right approach!

Natural Caution

It is important to note that not all dogs that are fearful around people have had traumatizing experiences. A good amount of puppies is naturally shy. This is especially true for breeds that were originally developed for work in remote areas with little human contact or breeds that were used as guard dogs. These dogs were never required to be friendly to strangers, in fact they were supposed to be on guard and not trust everyone.


If your dog is timid around people it does not necessarily mean that he has been mistreated. He might just not have the genetic make-up to be outgoing and friendly with everyone.

The Goal

For these naturally cautious dogs the goal of all training should therefore not be to walk up to every person and lick their hand. Your dog might never feel comfortable doing this.


Instead we want to teach him that is it ok to be around people and that they will not harm him or overstep his boundaries. The latter is very important: If dogs feel pushed into interactions (for example by strangers reaching out to pet them) they will often remember the encounter as particularly unpleasant and frightening.

Here is a step-by-step program to let your dog progress to a point at which he can be around people without feeling scared.

1. Distance Observation

Start out by bringing your dog into a wide, open environment with few people. Parks work very well for this step, as do spacious outdoor malls. It is important that you are able to bring as much distance as necessary between you and the people your dog fears.

You want to have him be as relaxed as possible. That means holding the leash loosely (the tighter you hold it, the more tension your dog feels) and not making him do anything.

Do not even ask him to sit. Sitting makes dogs feel more vulnerable than standing. For a dog who is already feeling uncomfortable being forced to sit can be very threatening!


Bring your dog’s favorite treats (https://www.spiritdogtraining.com/training/basic/can-my-dog-eat/). It is really important that you spend some time finding treats that he loves (https://www.spiritdogtraining.com/how-about-some-treat-recipes/). The higher he values his food (https://www.spiritdogtraining.com/stop-buying-dog-treats/), the faster he will learn.


Now give him treats just for standing there. He has nothing to do other than be in the vicinity of people and eat treats.


Note: Make very sure that your dog’s body language is reasonably relaxed. If you are in doubt about whether or not he is stressed, inform yourself about canine calming signals (https://www.spiritdogtraining.com/way-to-tell-your-dog-is-uncomfortable/) and learn to read his state of mind by watching out for them!

The duration of a session like this should be kept fairly short. Five minutes are sufficient while starting out! For a timid dog it is mentally very tiring to be close to people and he has to slowly get used to it without being overwhelmed.

2. Getting Closer


If your dog is doing well and does not react stressed, gradually decrease the distance during your distance observations. You can now also move into slightly more crowded areas. Try going to your local hardware store or a playground. Make very sure that you keep your dog’s boundaries. If people want to approach or touch him, politely decline. We want to teach the dog that he can be sure that no one will come too close and make him uncomfortable!

Keep on feeding your dog the treats for being around people. Again, he does not “need” to do anything. While it may look like your dog is not actively training, his subconsciousness is busy linking the treats with the people and creating all kinds of new connections and emotions.

3. Pit Stop

If your dog is getting even more comfortable around people it is time to take him along on all kinds of trips. Wherever you are headed, let your dog tag along. Going to the gas station? Bring your dog and walk him around there. Picking up a parcel at the post office? Bring your dog! Getting takeout food? Dog comes to get it with you!


At this point of the process your dog is relaxed enough that he can handle more exposure and it is all about getting mileage. Aim to take him somewhere every day. Again, this does not need to be a big outing to a park an hour drive away – just walking around the block and visiting a neighbor will work just as well.

4. Patio Dog

By now your dog has been to many places on many short adventures. Now we want to make him comfortable staying around people for longer and longer periods of time.

Look for a local pet-friendly coffee shop, brewery or restaurant patio. Take your dog there. Make sure to bring two important things:


– A blanket or mat that he is familiar with and that he can lay on.
– A delicious chew for him. This can be a cow hoof, deer antler, bully stick or a Kong that you fill with peanut butter, cream cheese or pieces of chicken.
Your dog now gets to relax and enjoy his chew item while you have a well-earned coffee or beer!


Until you get to the last step, expect to put at least one month of training into the completion of steps 1-3. Your dog will thank you for going slow by forming lasting new experiences.


He will associate being around people with his delicious treats and fun time spent with you and his timid tendencies will be an issue of the past.


Go slow and steady and follow your dog’s lead in letting you know how fast to progress. Soon you will have a companion who is less afraid of people

Steffi Trott, founder of SpiritDog Training,  is a dog trainer in Albuquerque, NM and offers local training classes, online classes and online consultation. Ask her questions in the comments below.

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