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How to Greet a Shy Dog

There are many articles out there about greeting dogs, but not many focus on the reserved or shy dog. These can be the most dangerous of all, as many fearful dogs will bite with little or no warning. As we wrap-up Dog Bite Prevention week, let’s focus on the shy dog and how to approach one successfully.

Fear Aggression

Before you greet a dog you know or suspect may be fearful, you MUST be aware of fear aggression. Dogs, like most animals, have a fight or flight response. If scared, they will either run or fight. Some fearful dogs, especially if they are on leash or backed against the wall of a kennel and feel they have no way to run, become aggressive and will bite out of fear, hoping you will leave them alone.

This puppy is worried - ears low, whites of eyes showing, low body position
This puppy is worried – ears low, whites of eyes showing, low body position

Signs of fear in dogs:

  • Stiff body posture
  • Low tail carriage (for the breed)
  • “Turn and freeze” – meaning when you reach your hand toward them, they will quickly turn their head toward it and then “freeze.” This is a warning that they can (and may) bite
  • Whites of the eye showing
  • Ears low and/or back (for the breed)
  • Baring of teeth
  • Growling
  • Barking
  • Lunging

The last three tend to cause the most confusion for many dog owners. They see a dog at the end of the leash acting like that and they immediately assume the dog is “dominant,” wants to greet, excited, etc. However, some dogs are using this as a way to say “I’m scared, go away!” Regardless of the reason, if a dog if giving you those signals, it’s best to stay away.

Greeting the Shy Dog

If the owner says “My dog is shy,” PLEASE listen to the owner! It is really best to just ignore the dog. Does a shy kid want every single person coming up to them and not only talking to them but trying to touch them? No and neither does the shy dog.

If you must greet…

Sometimes you may need to touch the dog – groomer, pet sitter, dog walker, family member, vet assistance, rescuer, potential adopter, etc. If so, follow these tips to make sure the greeting is a positive one, and to help prevent getting bit by a scared dog.

  • Move Slow! Fast movements make a nervous dog even more worried about you
  • Approach from the side.
  • Avoid direct eye contact. Keep an eye on the dog’s face and emotions by taking quick glances from the side, do not stare into their eyes, as this is threatening.
  • Treats. Do not underestimate the power of food! Start from a distance by tossing food to the dog. This associates you with something good.
  • Listen to the DOG, not the owner. The owner may tell you it is fine to pet their dog because they are not good at reading her signals. Use your judgment. If the dog’s body posture says “go away,” – heed the warning.
  • Do not reach for the head. If the dog’s body signals are telling you it is okay to pet them, reach for under the chin or the chest. Most dogs do not enjoy having their head touched.
  • Do not bend over the dog. Instead, kneel, sit, or crouch near the dog. This is a lot less threatening then you looming over him.
  • Speak softly, calmly, and soothingly. Loud, high pitched or gruff tones will make the dog more nervous.
  • Pet softly, slowly and no patting! A shy dog may have been abused, even a soft pat could be taken wrong. Use soft, slow strokes.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it will help you learn a bit more about dog body language and how to have a successful meeting with a shy dog.

Remember, the best advice to avoid being bitten is: IF YOU ARE IN DOUBT, DON’T GREET THE DOG!

About the Author

Based in Tustin, Calif., animal lover Kristina N. Lotz is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) and works as a full time trainer. She also owns her own custom pet products company, A Fairytail House, where she makes personalized collars, leashes, beds, keepsake pillows and blankets, and anything else your imagine can think up. In her spare time, she trains and competes in herding, agility, obedience, rally, and conformation with her Shetland Sheepdogs. She smartly married a Veterinary Technician, who helps keep the fur kids happy and healthy, and provides a quick resource for articles.

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Written by Kristina Lotz
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