How to Approach a Fearful, Shy, or Aggressive Dog

Learn Canine Body Language

A black dog
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Dogs communicate fear and aggression through their body language, showing signs such as shivering, cowering, tucking their tail between the legs, and averting their eyes. In addition, dogs often show aggression when they are afraid. While you might want to know how to get an aggressive dog to trust you, that's not always possible—sometimes it's best to leave the dog alone.

Be extremely careful as you approach a shy, fearful, or aggressive dog because your own body language and demeanor are important, too. If you see signs that indicate the dog may bite, do not approach. In these cases, it's best to find the owner or contact local animal authorities. If you think it's safe, you can use a few tactics to approach the dog.

Don't Loom Over the Dog

A dog who is already anxious might get even more stressed if you stand to face it with your body looming above. It's easy to imagine why a fearful dog would feel even more threatened when faced with someone at least twice their size. Be aware of your body position when you approach any new dog, especially one that is frightened.

Get Down on the Dog's Level

A better way to approach a fearful dog is to get down on its level. Don't put yourself directly in the dog's face, but keep in mind that you'll be less threatening if you're not towering above. You can squat or sit down close to the dog. For extremely fearful dogs, you may even want to lie down a little distance away to begin making it more comfortable with your presence.

Turn Sideways

Turn slightly so your side faces the dog, perhaps even leaning slightly away from the fearful dog. This isn't a natural position for most people; good manners usually dictate that we meet others face-to-face and make eye contact. For dogs, however, that sort of behavior is rude, and a fearful dog may perceive someone facing them head-on as a threat.

Avert Your Gaze

Humans usually consider it normal to make direct eye contact with other people. However, this is often considered rude, threatening, or even aggressive to dogs. To make yourself less intimidating to a frightened dog, avoid making eye contact. Instead, turn your head slightly to the side and keep your eyes averted.

Speak in a High-Pitched Voice

Deep, low voices can be daunting to a fearful dog. Try to talk to the dog in a higher pitched, happy tone of voice. Men may have a little trouble with this; try just speaking more quietly while remaining upbeat. A quiet, reassuring tone of voice can go a long way in making a nervous dog more comfortable.

Never Punish a Fearful Dog

It may seem obvious, but it must be said: Never scold or punish a fearful dog. You will only succeed in making it more fearful. You may also put yourself in danger because, as a dog's anxiety level rises, it becomes more likely to bite. Also, it's best to avoid using aversives when training a fearful dog. In most cases, these can hinder progress and escalate fear.

Don't Force Things

Give a dog a chance to become comfortable and approach the objects of their fear on their own. Never force the interactions. For instance, if a dog is afraid of men, don't hold its collar while a man approaches and pets it. This will only serve to increase the dog's fear, making it more likely someone will get bit if the dog feels the need to defend itself. Most dogs can be slowly introduced to the objects that they fear, but an already frightened dog is typically not ready to face additional challenges.

Stay Positive

Training can make a big difference in your shy or fearful dog's confidence level. Positive reinforcement dog training has the benefit of allowing you to open the lines of communication with your dog without pushing it beyond its comfort level. You can even start training without asking it to do anything. As your dog learns more and becomes more confident, many of its fears will decrease or even fade away.

Problems and Proofing Behavior

While the tips above will help you deal with a dog that is anxious and upset, you may also want to help your own pet overcome specific fears. Try gently exposing your dog to an object or person it fears from a safe distance (one that does not provoke fear in your dog). Act like it is no big deal and slowly inch closer. Stop advancing if your dog shows any signs of fear. You may even need to take a step back.

Offer your dog praise or gently hand it treats anytime it does something you like, such as walking towards an object or person it's afraid of. With time, your dog will begin to better understand what you expect from it and realize that it will be rewarded for doing those things. The dog will also begin to gain confidence and offer those behaviors more frequently.

Try this process every day or two for about 10 minutes at a time. Depending on the level of your dog's fear, you may need several sessions to see a difference. Be patient and don't give up.