Intro - Welcoming a Timid Dog

Working with Timid Dogs

Not all dogs are timid.  Lab Rescue often finds that dogs are very quiet and reserved in the shelter and as soon as they're introduced into their new homes they become their normal, outgoing selves. A few times each year Lab Rescue hosts truly timid or fearful dogs who will blossom with a loving family that helps them come out of their shell at their own pace.  This section of our website provides some tips for those special foster homes.

About This Video

If a timid dog is entering your life, this video might help you prepare for their arrival and get a basic understanding of how to approach working with a fearful dog. Part two of this video is not yet available because, with the proper love and support of everyone who took care of the dog we were preparing to receive, a bouncy, happy boy came in and made himself at home.  This is the best example of why a good welcome can make a big difference.

What is a Timid Dog?

This page has also been written with the most fearful dog in mind.  You may find that if you welcome your shy dog in a way that lets them feel secure that the rest of the page will not be necessary.

 There is no single definition for a timid or fearful dog.  Rescued dogs sometimes come from situations that cause the dog to be afraid of different situations.  This results in some different behaviors that you may encounter.

Some of the characteristics of a timid dog include:
  • Tail tucked between their legs
  • Unwillingness to make and keep eye contact
  • Shying away or crouching in a corner
  • Submissive urination
  • Finding a 'safe place' in your home and being unwilling to leave it
These signs are often short lived in a dog and if you give them some time to investigate your home and household members on their own, they will warm up in no time at all.  Other times, a dog may look for a safe place and stay there or growl if you come too close because the fear is too much.

Welcoming a Timid Dog to Your Home

If you’ve adopted a timid or shy lab the best thing to do is to back off. Give him or her the time they need before rushing forward with love and hugs.  Instead – try this:
  • Ignore the dog; don’t try to make eye contact or call it to you
  • Speak softly; use your calm dog voice – slow and low
  • Minimize distractions in the home; turn off or down the TV and stereo, it’s a bad night for a family fight
  • Let your new lab come to you; don’t move towards it or it might back away
  • Get down to their level; consider reading a book while sitting on the stairs or on the floor.  Sit sideways to the dog instead of facing it.  Face-to-face in the dog world is bold and confrontational.
  • TREATS! Have treats and use them every time the dog comes your way, even if you gently toss or slide the treat in front of him or her
  • Lavish love on other dog if you have one, but don’t play; it’s a great time for them to get a belly rub and show your shy dog how fantastic it is to be loved in your home
All of these actions are non-threatening and will make it easier for your new lab to come to you.  When he or she makes that first step have treats at the ready and gush with praise (in a quiet voice).

What Not to Do - The Three P's

1. Don't Pity!

It’s heart wrenching to first work with a fearful dog.  It’s natural to want to protect it and coddle it but remember, dogs pick up on and react to our feelings more than you are probably aware.  Pity and overprotection are the fearful dog’s enablers.  So fight the urge to say ‘Poor Baby’ and instead make light of everything they’re afraid of so that they pick up on your willingness and joy over a scary situation.

2.  Don't Push!

Fearful dogs need to work at their own pace.  You can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do.  If your fearful dog sits while you’re on a walk and seems to root themselves into the sidewalk, pulling the leash won’t help them overcome their fear. Stop! Let them digest the situation and put on your happy voice and say ‘Let’s go’ and reward them when they do. If you get frustrated, they’ll feel that and dig in deeper because they’re afraid of punishment.

3.  Don't Punish!

Let’s face it – your dog is probably scared because it was made to be scared!  While our happy go lucky labs need boundaries and a good hearty ‘No’ sends them a strong message it can reinforce fears in a timid dog.  So the general rule of thumb is to be positive only and instead of punishing the behavior you don’t want, just ignore it and refocus your fearful lab on rewards for what you do want.

Helping Your New Dog Face its Fears

Let's Talk Treats

Treats are the most powerful tool of anyone welciming a timid dog into their home.  All work with a timid dog is rewards based and, for a lab, treats are just about the best reward there is.  But, all treats are not equal.  You’re looking for high value treats and it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, in fact, you might already have some of these items in your pantry or refrigerator.  

Initially, try string cheese, hot dog bits, bacon, leftover chicken or deli meats.  If you go for pet store treats, then liver, lungs and salmon flavored treats are usually the best.  Your fearful dog needs to be able to smell the tasty morsel.  

Don’t go overboard! Your goal is to entice the dog not to make it sick on rich foods. So cut everything into small bits (about the size of an orange seed).

Mix it up and use a variety of treats to entice your dog.  They will sometimes become blah about one treat and need something new to entice them. 

Keep some treats with you in a baggie at all times.  You never know when you’ll need a reward so having them handy helps AND, your own non-fearful dogs will think you’re pretty special too.

Treasure Trail

If your dog is so afraid that they won’t come out from behind the sofa or under the bed, entice them out with a treasure trail.  You’ll probably find that once you leave the room they’ll follow the trail and will get more comfortable outside of their safety area. You can repeat this a couple of times a day but try not to watch too closely or the dog may back off once they see you.  The idea is that they’ll follow the trail out of the room and then keep investigating so give them the space to do so.

To build a treasure trail, place treats about 6 – 8 inches apart on the ground in the path you’re trying to encourage the dog to follow.


It’s important to lavish praise on your timid dog.  Each time they face their fears and push past them they need to be recognized.  So a treat and praise together will help you bond and reinforces the dog’s own perception of how good they really were.

Don’t be squeaky or loud though.  Remember that loud or sudden noises can sometimes scare your timid dog so try to sound positive and upbeat but not loud or over exuberant until they’ve settled in. You’ll get a feel for what works for them.


The first time a timid dog faces a scary situation is always the hardest for it.  Imagine the first time they decide to poke their head out of the crate and look around OR they decide to let you touch them for the first time.  How much bravery must that take to do?

Once they take that first step (and naturally they’ve been rewarded with treats and praise) then help them repeat it over and over until it’s something they enjoy.

One New Thing At a Time, Please

To a dog, the world is where they are now!  Everything outside that world is new.  So help your dog get comfortable inside your home and in your yard before you venture into the neighborhood or larger community.

A good checklist for you to follow (more or less in order) is:
  • My dog is comfortable with my home
  • My dog is comfortable with my yard
  • My dog is comfortable with my dog
  • My dog is comfortable with me and my family in our home and yard
  • My dog can walk on a leash in the neighborhood
  • My dog can meet dogs when on a walk
  • My dog can meet people when on a walk

Additional Resources

Once upon a time there was limited help for people who adopt or foster a timid dog. Now there are great resources for you to look at.  Why? Because timid dogs are not as uncommon as you would think.  Here’s a few to get you started:

The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell
A Guide to Living with and Training a Fearful Dog by Debbie Jacobs Debbie Jacob’s website with lots of tips and tricks