Helping a Timid Pup Gain Confidence

By Cathy M. Rosenthal | March 4th, 2024

Tips from a pet expert

Timid pup on the grass. Image by Gunold.

Is there hope for a timid pup who is frightened of strangers? Pet expert Cathy M. Rosenthal has tips to help him gain confidence.

Dear Cathy,

My adult granddaughter has an eight-month-old Toy Australian Shepherd. She got the dog when he was three months old. The dog is friendly toward family members but will not allow strangers to go near him.

He will back away if I put my hand out to pet him and then run away. He won’t go anywhere near me, and it’s as if he is frightened of all strangers. He has been to a vet and has had all his shots. Is this something he will grow out of as he gets older? How can we make him a friendly puppy?

— Sherry, Massapequa, New York

Dear Sherry,

There are several things your granddaughter can do to help her timid pup gain confidence. While I will suggest a few things here, my first recommendation is for your granddaughter to enroll her puppy in a dog training class or sign up for private lessons with a trainer or animal behaviorist.

These professionals can identify the puppy’s triggers and help her create a plan to build up this puppy’s confidence through training.

Until then, here are some things she can do:

Create a home environment where the puppy feels relaxed and safe. This may include putting a pheromone collar on him, giving him some over-the-counter relaxing chews, or putting an Anxiety Wrap or Thundershirt on him.

Next, ask everyone outside his “friendly” circle to not approach or try to pet him. They can talk to and encourage the puppy, but the puppy or dog should always be the one to initiate physical contact with them. (This advice goes for all dogs. I never approach dogs to pet them. I always wait for them to come to me.)

Start training the puppy. Training builds a dog’s confidence and helps him learn the boundaries of his world. Training should include responding to his name, sitting, coming when called, downing, staying, and heeling on a leash. Begin training in the house. As his confidence and skills grow, expand training to outside the home or a nearby park.

Once he learns basic training, she can begin to focus on her dog’s triggers, which in this case is anyone approaching him. She will need to determine the safe distance for where a person can stand without him exhibiting fear. If he seems fine when someone is 10 feet away but reacts when someone is nine feet away, then 10 feet is where you start this training.

Have the person stand 10 feet away and ask them to toss treats toward your dog. The person can inch closer to him, but if he responds fearfully at any point, then the person needs to back up to 10 feet again.

This training may require many practice sessions to see progress, so tell your granddaughter to be patient and consistent with the training. Outside of the training, she should reward her puppy with a treat whenever he appears relaxed or responds positively to any engagement.

As the training progresses, she can slowly expose him to new environments, too. But she must never force him into any situation where he shows discomfort. Always encourage, praise, and build up the dog’s confidence over time so he learns to trust the people around him.

Is This Nipping Australian Blue Heeler Beyond Hope?

Dear Cathy,

I read about the “Slopper Stopper Water Bowl” in your column. I have a 130-pound “St. Dane” and a 120-pound “Labernard.” Boy, did they make a mess before. I tried the bowl, and it works amazingly well! I bought another for my house and one for my sister who has two goldendoodles.

— Angela, Lebanon, Oregon

Dear Angela,

Letters from other readers indicate that it works better with some dogs than others. But, in all cases, it reduces the amount of water left on the floor. So, it’s definitely worth a try with a sloppy drinker. So glad it’s working for you.

Cathy M. Rosenthal is a longtime animal advocate, author, columnist, and pet expert who has more than 25 years in the animal welfare field. She addresses reader questions as diverse as outdoor cat safety to bizarre dog behavior. Send your pet questions, stories, and tips to Please include your name, city, and state. You can follow her @cathymrosenthal.

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