Befriending the The Very Timid Dog

Sometimes you have to meet a very timid dog. Maybe the dog belongs to a friend or family member. Maybe you are hoping to adopt this dog. In any case, you need to make friends with this dog. Here’s a very rough outline of how to do it.

For our purposes, a timid dog is one who is reluctant to approach or interact with you, but who does not show signs of being terrified. If the dog is cringing, shaking, growling or hiding when you first encounter her, you need a different approach than the one we’re discussing here. We’re also not talking about situations where you need to take custody of a dog in an emergency situation, because that is a time when you might find yourself interacting with the dog far sooner than desired. This is for when you are trying to become friends with a dog the polite way, and you have some time. It might take a few visits. It might happen in a day if you are really lucky.

The first thing you need to do, before you meet this dog, is get the right mindset. A lot of animal lovers think they have magical skills and that any dog they meet will just love them. They probably are partly right: most dogs do seek them out because they recognize that animal lovers accept and welcome them. However, this rule does not apply for timid dogs, and if you are expecting that somehow you’ll be able to walk right in and become BFFs with the dog, you need to clear that idea from your head and stop making it about you and how awesome you are.

Here’s the first thing that can be hard to get your head around. Your role in your early interactions with the timid dog is NOT to connect. Your role is to let the timid dog become comfortable with you, and the best way to let a frightened dog check you out is to ignore him. Completely.

So here’s how you ignore a timid dog. Get yourself in a room with the timid dog. Make sure there are no other things in the rom that might stress the dog. For example, there shouldn’t be other people if you can possibly manage it. Then sit down at a chair and read a book. Don’t make eye contact or study the dog surreptitiously. Remove all desire for interaction and just be. The time you spend ignoring the dog is time well-spent, trust me. While you are reading and otherwise being non-threatening, the timid dog is checking you out, even if it’s from across the room.

When some time passes, it’s possible that the dog might come over to check you out. Do not succumb to the temptation to make eye contact or otherwise acknowledge the dog. Instead remember that the dog is being tremendously brave but could easily be spooked if you try to interact. Instead be happy that progress is being made.

At some point after that, the dog might even come sit near or even next to you. That’s very promising. Again, don’t make eye contact. However, you may slowly extend your palm so that it is next to your leg and leave it there. If the dog is ready, he will give it a sniff.

From there you can watch for signs that the dog wants attention from you. It won’t be as obvious as it is with a golden or lab, but the same principles apply — nudging, adjacency, poking his nose into your book. Respond to it. Move slowly and pet the dog gently. However, refrain from doing all the cuddling and cooing you have wanted to do, no small task since by now you are madly in love with how brave and hopeful this dog is being. Take it slow and let the dog set the pace.

Congratulations, you have made a friend. Be aware, though, that there will be backsliding in future meetings. You’ve  made your initial connection in an ideal setting, but in a new environment, the dog might retreat into old behaviors. Just continue to be patient, and remind yourself that your role is to let the dog evaluate you, not to force the dog to interact with you. It’s hard, but it gets easier, and it builds a special kind of discipline not to let your emotions get in the way.

Also, it might surprise you that there is no mention of treats in this article. That’s because a really timid or stressed-out dog typically won’t accept food while his guard is up. If a dog can be lured by treats, then he isn’t that frightened, and you’ve already been given the key to your friendship. In fact, we used to evaluate dogs that we were transporting to fosters’ homes using something called the French fry test. It was pretty simple. The place where we would hand off dogs for the last leg of the transport had a fast-food restaurant with a drive-through. We’d buy an order of fries and see how the dog responded when we offered one. If the dog immediately ate it from our hands and began to whine for more, we knew he wasn’t too traumatized. If the dog would sniff wistfully but refuse to take the fry, we’d drop it in his carrier and see if he’d eat it. If he did, we knew he’d come around. If the dog refused to even sniff the fry and it remained at the bottom of the crate, we knew that the animal was either in serious pain or very frightened. That test had a 100 percent accuracy rate.


By Moretta

Moretta will take that applause. Her Twitter is

7 replies on “Befriending the The Very Timid Dog”

Oh, no, nothing like that! We used this test on dogs that had just come into our care (e.g., owner surrender, stray, rural shelter, neglect case). We would administer this on the way to taking the dog to their foster. It was really helpful to be able to give the fosters that quick assessment from the road so they would know whether they needed to have a crate ready, for example, and I might be able to tell Victoria that a dog was probably going to spend more time in foster care before being made available for adoption.

We had one dog who had shrieked piteously in the car when she was touched and terrified us so much we almost drove off the road. When we got to the midpoint, we gave her the test assuming that she wouldn’t eat anything. She stunned us by gobbling them up happily. We were able to piece together after a few days that the shrieking was a defense mechanism because her owners had used a shock collar on her and any time someone touched her neck in a certain way she would make these horrific noises. We were able to desensitize her very quickly via liberal use of treats. In other word, she had a behavior, but was otherwise solid emotionally.

Ah! That makes equal amounts of sense and is still brilliant.

The dog my roommate and I were caring for didn’t eat for the first few days with us and was VERY possessive of her filthy monkey toy. At her new home, she’s voracious and has gutted said monkey (and has a doggy best friend to play with and is, by all reports, THE HAPPIEST DOG YAY!!!).

On the other hand, my Tiny Monster was fostered, and has been fearless and exuberant about ALL THINGS except for, you know, kitten pet peeves. (I’ve resigned myself to scratches and bites on my hands/arms from cuddling too long or cuddling WRONG or whatever.)

Brilliant, as usual. Bramble frequently fails the French fry test when he’s overwhelmed and its the sadest because he’s really a pig. I wish I could give this article to everyone, because he’s interested in people they just won’t follow your instructions and stop being so scary.

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