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7 Ways to Bond with a Shy Dog

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Plenty of pets love cuddling with their owners, but dogs are individuals and not every one enjoys being held for long periods of time or meeting new people. Bonding with a shy dog can be a challenge, especially if you’re used to cuddly animals, but it’s certainly not impossible.

Here, find seven ways to bond with a shy dog and learn more about how to give your dog the attention he wants.

Get to Know the Dog on Their Time

Nervous dog licking his lips

It takes time to earn a dog’s trust, and you need to focus on what the dog wants rather than what you think might be best. So, how can you determine what the dog’s needs are?

“Giving the dog plenty of space and letting him make all the decisions about approaching is all that can be done in the moment. If he growls or seems to want to get away, let that happen,” says Liz Stelow, veterinary behaviorist at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Signs that a dog needs space include stiffness, lip licking, yawning, panting, averting your gaze, a tucked tail and even growling. All of these signals should be respected and, if the dog you are approaching displays them, give them space.

You’ll also want to make sure the dog doesn’t view you as an intimidating person, says Stefanie Schwartz, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. She recommends avoiding big gestures and keeping your voice low and calm. If you’re tall, she advises sitting on the floor and letting the dog come to you. The overall idea is to create an environment where your dog can thrive.

“Making them feel safe is the best thing to do,” says Debra Horwitz, a diplomate of American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and a vet with Veterinary Behavior Consultations in St. Louis, Missouri. “What you want them to understand is that you’re safe, reliable, [and] when you show, up good things are going to happen.”

Take a Walk

Dog and owner on a walk

Most dog owners know this to be true: dogs love walking. And walking is a great way to bond with your pooch.

“It’s just quality time together. Nothing replaces the benefits of walking a dog,” says Horwitz. “Dogs like to be outside and sniff around. They get a lot of information about their world through their nose.”

Stelow advises walking your dog in a quiet neighborhood or during quieter times of the day to reduce the chances of running into strangers. If your dog is agitated by new people or unusually dogs, try to remove those triggers by walking away quickly, crossing the street or walking in another direction when you encounter then. She also recommends resisting the urge to approach the person or other dog to help the dog “get used to” the trigger, as that is unlikely to work out well.

Create a Comfortable Environment

Dog in bed

If you dog is new to your home, he might need time to adjust to the new space. Horwitz advises placing the dog in a mid-size room that’s not too large or small. Give him a nice dog bed or place to hide if he needs it.

“Understand that they may hide for a while as they’re trying to figure out what’s going on,” says Horwitz. By giving him time, space and an environment that he feels safe in, your dog will gradually begin to open up in his own way.

Use Food to Encourage Closeness

Dog with treat

As with many species, food equals love for many dogs, and Horwitz confirms that feeding your dog is a great way to bond. She suggests sitting in a room with your dog quietly while you read or check email and your dog consumes a delicious dog treats. Stay for 15 minutes and then leave.

“Keep repeating this so that the dog begins to learn that they’re safe,” says Horwitz. If your pet starts responding positively, encourage them with treats and kind words. Horwitz cautions that you’ll want to resist the urge to pick up your dog and hug him or her.

“Let them set the pace of how close they want to be to you,” She says. “Slowly, you’re going to figure out what your dog needs.”

Bring Some Toys into the Mix

Dog with toy

If your dog likes playing with toys, an interactive toy can be a great way to bond. Horwitz suggests experimenting with different toys to see what your dog loves (all dogs have different preferences on what types of toys are the most engaging).

Schwartz advises against using toys that require the dog to use his mouth or wrestle with you, like tug-of-war toys. Instead, try a softer toy or a ball first. Use a quiet, calm voice and give lots of praise when your dog is playing with the toy to encourage him.

Try Pheromones

Dog relaxing on couch

Adaptil is a synthetic pheromone (a chemical released by the body) that mimics the pheromones a mother dog emits after giving birth, Horwitz says.

“It helps the puppies find where they’re supposed to nurse and feel relaxed and comfortable,” says Horwitz. It can also help a shy dog relax and sense that it is in an area that is comfortable, nurturing, and welcome.

Adaptil is usually administered via a dog collar, diffuser or spray.

Stelow says she’s seen adaptil work in about 60 percent of dogs and prefers a collar to administer the drug, keeping the collar close to your dog’s neck so that his body heat helps dissipate the pheromone.

Brush Your Dog

Dog being brushed

If your dog enjoys being groomed, brushing is another great way to connect with your pooch. As with any activity with a shy dog, look to see if your dog likes it first and go slowly, Stelow says. If your dog’s eyes and body muscles relax, continue but if he freezes, pants, licks his lips, looks sideways at the brush or the person using it or becomes very tense, Stelow recommends stopping the session.

Above all, try not take your dog’s shyness personally.

“They need to take their time and understand that it doesn’t mean the dog doesn’t like you, it means the dog doesn’t know you,” says Horwitz.


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Teresa K. Traverse is a Phoenix-based writer, editor, traveler and dog mom to Chihuahuas Autumn and Rocket.