How Confidence-Building Exercises Can Help Timid Dogs

Sarah Wooten, DVM
By Sarah Wooten, DVM on May 3, 2019

Do you have a timid dog? Some dogs are born with a shy personality, while other dogs have had life experiences that have caused them to become fearful. Whatever the reason, there are ways that you can help your pup gain some confidence and feel more comfortable in their day-to-day life.

Where Does Fear Come From?

Between the ages of 7 and 14 weeks, puppies undergo what is known as the critical socialization period. This is the time period when part of the brain that builds associations is rapidly developing, and it is also the time when dogs can develop fears or phobias.

Many times, a dog develops fear because something happened during his critical socialization period that scared him. As a result, he may be conditioned to be fearful of that thing, or he may have become a timid or nervous dog in general.

These nervous or timid dogs can benefit from confidence-building exercises that can help to retrain their brain and remove the fear stigma attached to various situations or things.

How Do Confidence-Building Exercises Work for Dogs?

In canine behavior, confidence-building exercises are referred to as desensitization and counterconditioning training. The idea is that the exercises desensitize the dog to the fearful stimulant—whether it is strangers, children or loud percussive noises, like fireworks—so that the dog is no longer scared in the presence of these things.

At the same time, the counterconditioning exercises will help to establish a new behavioral response to the object of the dog’s fear. For example, if a dog is afraid of bicycles, then the exercises will be designed to help the dog stop being afraid by focusing on a different activity, like sitting politely.

How to Desensitize Your Dog to a Fear-Inducing Stimulus

The first secret is to find a training reward that your dog really, really likes and only use that during the confidence-building exercises. If it is dog treats, then the treats need to be able to be broken down into tiny bits that require minimal chewing.

The idea is to slowly reintroduce your dog to the stimulus that causes their fear at a far enough distance away to avoid eliciting a fear response. I call this, “training your dog under the freak-out threshold.”

The amount of space needed will vary for every dog; for some it is 20 feet, and for others, it may be a football-field length. If your dog is scared of a sound, such as fireworks, play a recording at a soft enough volume so that your dog isn’t scared.

To start, put your pup on a dog leash and, at a safe distance or volume—where your dog knows the scary thing is present but isn’t exhibiting any signs of fear—ask your dog to sit and pay attention. When your dog does, reward her lavishly and give praise.

If your dog is acting happy and confident, take one step toward the scary thing, or turn up the recording, and repeat the exercise. Repeat daily or twice daily, getting closer and closer to the scary thing with each repetition.

Your dog will start to build a positive association in his mind between the scary thing and his favorite thing, and pretty soon, your dog may automatically sit and look expectantly at you, waiting for a treat whenever the scary thing is present. 

If your dog exhibits any signs of fear, quit the exercise and try again the next day at a greater distance from the scary thing. If you can’t even start training confidence building because your dog is too shy, nervous, timid or fearful, then you may consider enlisting the help of a dog behaviorist.

Just remember, your dog needs your compassion and patience. It takes a lot of courage for dogs to work through their nervousness issues, and they will need your support. It is also important that you remain calm and relaxed, as your dog will look to you for emotional guidance and cues.

Featured Image: Kurylo

Sarah Wooten, DVM


Sarah Wooten, DVM


Dr. Sarah Wooten graduated from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. A member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists,...

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