Ways to Build Confidence in Your Shy or Fearful Dog

I have always affectionately called my corgi Ty a “weenie.” He is a fairly shy dog, but through various activities, he has come a long way. Ty never was particularity afraid of people or other dogs, but he has always been afraid of strange objects and situations. A trip to the vet used to have him trembling for an hour. Seeing a new object, such as a box in the room, would cause him to frantically bark. He also was always quite afraid to try anything new physically. His first trip down the stairs took a while!

Having a shy or fearful dog can be troublesome, not only because you feel for the dog, but because a truly fearful dog can act out and bite out of fear. Shy or fearful dogs might also urinate or exhibit other unwelcome behaviors. But there are things that you can do to help your dog overcome shyness and fear, and that can really create amazing changes in your pet. For greater detail on some of these, see Help Your Shy Dog Gain Confidence in the Whole Dog Journal.

(1) Control the Environment : One of the easiest things you can do is control the environment so that your dog is not faced with things that makes him or her fearful. For example, crating your dog when strangers come over or avoiding loud crowds will help. However, this will not work to proactively reduce fear in your dog. Nor can you avoid everything that makes your dog afraid. That is where training comes in.

(2) Desensitization: You can work to desensitize your dog to scary situations through training. This involves exposing your dog to the things that makes him or her nervous at a low level and feeding treats until the scary situation goes away or your dog adapts to it. For example, a dog that is afraid of strangers could be fed treats while a stranger is nearby, but not close enough to cause a full blown reaction in the dog. Have the stranger move away and quit feeding. Repeat this with the person coming a bit closer each time. For excellent details on this type of training, see Help Your Shy Dog Gain Confidence.

(3) Using Agility and Other Canine Sports to build Confidence: The most successful method for me with Ty was doing agility. For a dog that just generally lacks confidence overall, agility is wonderful. Through agility, you and your dog not only learn some great communication skills, but your dog also is faced with multiple challenges to learn and overcome. Through doing so, the dog gains confidence and gets rewarded both for attempting to try difficult things and for successes. For Ty, learning to navigate a tall dog walk and learning or go over a teeter-totter showed him that he can face fears and overcome them. That in turn gave him more confidence in future new situations. Here is Ty learning to tip the teeter in the back yard. It took him quite a long time to learn it, but he did, and the process of learning it helped him become more confident overall.


I have seen agility do wonders for shy dogs. One great example is Bosley, a sweet three-legged yellow lab who has been in agility classes with us. Bosely reacts to strangers by trying desperately to escape the situation, hiding behind his owner, and shaking uncontrollably. His owner, Sheri Oslick, told me:

“As a mom to a fearful dog, it is heartbreaking to watch your dog struggle to function in the world around him, to have even the simplest and most normal of things cause so much stress and anxiety for your dog. All you want to do is to find something, anything, to help your dog be more comfortable inside his own skin.”

For Bosley, agility did wonders. I watched Bosely over the past couple of years move from being deeply afraid of any new person, to being willing to be in the room with strangers and able to fairly quickly meet and adjust to new people. Sheri described how agility helped as follows:

“Many people turn to canine agility to help build confidence in their shy or fearful dogs. Setting aside the fact that there are typically strangers present, most of the agility obstacles are inherently scary. Going into a dark tunnel and not seeing the other end is just one example. But doing so brings treats! And running around is fun! And so, over time, the dog begins to focus more on the fun and rewarding aspects of agility, and less on the inherent scariness of it all. And eventually, that hopefully translates into the world at large — the dogs come to understand, to some extent, that things which may appear scary are not necessarily so.

I can say in no uncertain terms that agility has been instrumental in helping my dog Bosley become a less fearful dog. And while today he still is not a “normal” dog and still reacts in fear in certain situations, and probably always will, he has made progress in leaps and bounds (ha! no pun intended).”

Sheri and Bosley’s story has been featured in the local newspaper. To learn more about Bosley and how he is able to do agility on three legs, read Meet Bosley, One Resilient Retriever. Below, Bosley navigates the weave poles in agility class.

Photo Credit Sheri Oslick 

Another shy dog in our agility class was Prince, a Sheltie belonging to Ward and Teri Witt. Ward told me that “agility has been instrumental in helping our shy rescue Prince build confidence,” and I saw that first hand, as Prince learned to face and overcome fears as he learned agility skills.

Photo Credit: Ward Witt

Aside from agility, other canine sports can help your dog gain confidence. Things like noseworks, or rally obedience can teach your dog control and how to explore new things. Since noseworks begins with training dogs to find scent in a box, when Ty started it, his apprehension of new boxes showing up in a room disappeared. Now he checks them for treats! For more ideas of confidence building sports to try, see 8 Canine Sports to Try With Your Dog. However, I personally think agility is among the best because of the number of physical and mental challenges it presents. Agility is also often readily accessible with many clubs and training centers offering classes nationwide.

To learn more about agility, here are links to four of the top agility organizations:

American Kennel Club (AKC) Agility

United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA)

Canine Performance Events (CPE) 

UK Agility International (UKI)


Article Posted 4 years Ago

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