Shy, Fearful and Reactive Dogs - Part 1

When discussing shy, fearful or reactive dogs, it is important to know what we mean by that. What does a shy, fearful or reactive dog look like, and what can you do about it?

A shy or worried dog will be uncomfortable with a person moving into their space. They will likely do what is called avoidance behaviors. Avoidance behaviors are things a dog will do to indicate to the person or dog that they are uncomfortable with the situation and want to avoid interaction or confrontation. Things like turning their head, licking their lips, averting their eyes. Think of things you would do if you wanted to ignore a person (minus the lip licking).

A fearful dog might be more overt in their body language and do more active avoidance such as: yawning, shaking, tucking their tail and trying to hide under or behind something or someone, or even growling and snapping in order to make the scary person go away.  

A reactive dog will most likely be moving toward, instead of away from, the scary person or dog. It is often mistaken for aggression. Reactivity is marked by barking and lunging on the end of a leash, barking from behind a fence or at a window. Reactivity is typically meant to increase the distance between the dog and the scary person/dog by making them go away. Dogs that bark from behind fences or windows are reinforced for making things go away because they usually do. Think about it: if a dog sits at a window and barks when a person walks past the house, the person continues walking and leaves the area. The dog is reinforced for “chasing” the person away, even though we know the dog’s barking had nothing to do with the person continuing to walk away.

We may see one or a combination of all these behaviors. Often, the dog will be conflicted about a situation, which is why we see signals that don’t match up. A dog might change from trying to avoid conflict to growling/barking/lunging. This happens because the more subtle hints they are throwing out there (lip licking, turning away) are not being picked up by the person they are communicating to and the person continues to infringe on the dog’s space by moving closer. At that point, the dog has fewer options and is going to be more overt to get their point across. It is up to you as the person they need to count on most to prevent them from being put into this position. Know how to read your dog, listen to what they are telling you and act accordingly.  

Although sometimes aversives can be used to stop reactivity, it only suppresses the behavior. In the long run, it can increase the dog’s anxiety and doesn’t teach them any coping skills or a better way to behave when in those situations. The goal is not to simply stop the behavior. We want to help our dogs through situations that cause them fear and anxiety so that in the future they are more confident in those situations and no longer feel the need to be fearful or anxious.

If your dog is nervous when visitors come to your home, create a safe space for your dog that is not in the traffic pattern. Some examples are: behind a baby gate in a room off to the side so people aren’t walking directly at your dog, on a bed in a corner where your dog feels safe and nobody will approach them. If you choose a spot and your dog barks at visitors from there, the spot is too close to the action. You will want to keep your dog below threshold. This means a distance at which your dog doesn’t feel the need to be reactive. Once your dog becomes reactive, you will have a much more difficult time getting them back to a calm level. They also are less likely to accept food rewards or follow commands because at that moment in time they are only worried about survival and keeping the scary thing away.

If you try to have a visitor hand your dog a treat, you are asking the dog to move closer to the scary person. They might even take the treat, but the big question after that is, what then? The dog has been lured in closer to the person they are uncomfortable with, they grab the food and are now standing way too close for comfort. Before being lured in close, the dog was avoiding the situation by staying back. However, now that they are closer, they will probably bark and lunge to try and make the person go away. Barking and lunging are much worse than avoiding. In addition, there’s the possibility that the person handing your dog the treat will then try to pet your dog. That is a big no-no. Just because your dog takes food from someone does not mean they are instantly friends, nor does it make it okay for them to pet your dog. We hear all the time, “but he took the treat” after someone tried to pet a dog they handed food to, and the dog growled or snapped. That is totally expected. Think of it this way – if you go on a blind date, does the fact that someone buys you dinner make it okay for them to start touching you? Or, if you are a man, if you buy a woman a meal does that mean you get to touch her? The answer to that is a big fat NO! Food does not equate to privilege.

This was Part 1 of a 2 part episode, so be sure to listen to Part 2 of Shy, Fearful and Reactive Dogs.


This video by The Family Dog shows many the aspects of dog body language. Learning what your dog’s body language means will help you better understand what he is communicating to you.

The Family Dog Body Language

© Laura Bourhenne, 2019