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Timid Behaviors in Dogs: Are They Normal?

By Paula Fitzsimmons

Have you ever been at a park, pool party, or event where all of the dogs seem to be having a great time…except for yours? While other dogs are sniffing, splashing, and playing, yours is content to sit by your side. Is this normal?

You’ll do your dog and yourself a huge favor by taking the word “normal” out of your vocabulary. Your dog is an individual, with her own personality and preferences—just like you.

“This is the analogy I use with my clients: It’s a lot like having someone who would much prefer to have a couple of friends over with a quiet dinner versus going to a cocktail party and meeting 200 people,” says Dr. Jill Sackman, a veterinary clinician with the behavior medicine service at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Southfield, Michigan. “Is there anything wrong with saying ‘I’m really more comfortable with a couple of good friends or a book or staying at home?’ Your dog has a smallish circle of friends and that’s OK.”

We asked the experts for insight into why your dog might prefer the company of just a few friends (human or canine), or enjoy hanging out solely with you—and whether there’s anything you should do about it. If you have concerns about your dog’s behavior, especially if it seems severe, consult with your veterinarian.

Why Your Dog Is Aloof

It’s really not that unusual to find a dog who’s a loner. Generally speaking, dogs were bred as our companions and to aid in hunting and protection, says Dr. Jason Sweitzer, a veterinarian at Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital in Thousand Oaks, California. “None of those require social behaviors with other dogs,” he says. “Since they haven’t been selected for social behaviors with other dogs, many breeds have not had their behaviors bred out or selected against. Dogs are no longer pack animals—and even wolf packs are families of parents and children—so it is not surprising to have antisocial dogs.”

Vets say the number one cause of antisocial and aggressive behavior is fear. Most dogs will walk away or stay away from a situation when disinterested or uncomfortable, says Dr. Liz Stelow, chief of service of Clinical Animal Behavior Service at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at University of California, Davis. “Dogs that want to keep away from other dogs or people (or even objects) may show signs of aggression, like barking, growling, lunging, snarling, snapping, and/or biting, in those settings.”

Situations that instill fear differ by dog. “There may be some dogs that are afraid or uncomfortable around water; some (like my dog) avoid sprinklers in an effort to stay dry,” Stelow says. “Some are worried about other dogs; perhaps they had a bad experience or were never adequately socialized to other dogs as puppies. Others may be aloof or not playful in general; again, maybe they were never exposed to dog play when they were young. Lastly, they could be worried in crowds of people they don’t know.”

Aggression that originates from fear is normal, says Sackman, who is also board-certified in veterinary surgery. “And I am convinced that it’s both genetic and environmental.” The mother’s health and parenting skills are also factors, she adds.

How Much of a Role Does Breed Play?

There aren’t any scientific studies suggesting certain breeds are more outgoing and less anxious than others, says Dr. Tara Timpson, a staff veterinarian at Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. “However, anecdotally, we see that certain puppy litters are more outgoing and confident while others are more shy. Some of this confidence is likely due to early socialization, but some of this may be inherited as well.”

As a general rule, Stelow, who is board-certified in veterinary behavior, says breeds that tend to be more independent and aloof include Greyhounds, many Nordic breeds including the Malamute, Samoyed, and Husky; livestock guardians like the Anatolian Shepherd and Great Pyrenees, Terriers, including the Cairn, Scottie, and Airedale; and Asian guard-dog breeds like the Chow Chow, Shar-Pei, and Akita.

Don’t bank on a dog’s breed to dictate personality, however. “Certain breeds have been bred for different tasks and may be more likely to be independent, though individuals within the breed could be quite the opposite,” says Sweitzer, whose professional interests include behavior and emergency veterinary medicine.

In other words, you may find yourself living with a gregarious Greyhound or a reserved Labrador Retriever.

If Your Dog Is Happy, You May Not Need to Make Changes

Is it acceptable to let your shy dog avoid other dogs and people if she’s otherwise healthy and content?

“My answer is a resounding yes,” Sackman says. “I’ve had clients tearful in my office because they’re like, ‘Oh my god, he doesn’t have to meet the whole family over the holidays?’ And I’m like, ‘yes.’”

Sackman advises her clients to work to change behaviors with people the dog is regularly in contact with, not the cable guy who comes over once a year.

If a dog seems overly uncomfortable at an event or public place, Stelow says the pet parent should take him home. “Under no circumstances should he be forced to participate,” she says. “He’s holding back for a reason that should be honored, even if it’s not completely understood.”

Understanding what makes a dog happy is the most important factor, says Robin Bennett, a certified professional dog trainer in Stafford, Virginia. “I think dogs need food, shelter, enrichment, stability, and interaction with some humans (such as the ones they live with), but I don’t think there is a requirement for dogs to actively engage or play with numerous other dogs or other people.”

She says training should be used to ensure dogs are comfortable in the presence of other dogs or people, “but they don’t have to play or interact with them.”

How to Help Your Timid Dog

Socializing your dog when he’s a puppy is, of course, the ideal. “Lack of socialization can lead to all kinds of concerns in the adult dog, which is why behaviorists make a big push for people to socialize their dogs before the age of 14 to 16 weeks,” Stelow says.

Early socialization is not always possible, however, nor is it a guarantee. “I am impressed by how many clients do everything they’re supposed to do, but then the dog turns about 12 to 18 months and becomes fearfully aggressive,” Sackman says. “It says to me socialization is not enough.”

Because a dog’s aloofness is often tied to fear and anxiety, it can be beneficial to use desensitization and counter-conditioning techniques to alleviate some of that fear. “Imagine if you were scared of planes but lived near an airport,” Sweitzer says. “You might avoid flying but seeing the nearby planes would still affect your quality of life some. Wouldn’t they be better off truly being comfortable in their own environment?”

The focus should be on accentuating the positive. “Build their confidence by praising them for things they do right,” Sweitzer says. “If you want a more calm dog, praise them when they are calm, even just laying there doing nothing. Also pair something they really love, something that motivates them with a very small amount of what they are nervous about. Such a small amount they don’t even seem to notice. This can help to desensitize and counter-condition them.”

Confidence-building exercises and games can help, says Bennett, who also chairs the Association of Professional Dog Trainers board of directors. “Controlled exposure to things that make the dog nervous if the exposure is done in a way that can change the dog’s emotional state from ‘this is scary’ to this is fun.’”

Avoid being negative or forcing behaviors. For example, “Be warned that using prong, pinch, choke, shock, or spray collars to help encourage proper behavior often results in dogs that try to avoid anything that caused them [pain], which means the other dogs they used to be excited to see and were pulling towards, now they fear and try to avoid or attack,” Sweitzer cautions.

Experts stress the importance of working with a vet, a veterinary behaviorist, or a certified dog trainer, especially if the behaviors are severe.  “They can worsen over time and with exposure, if not addressed correctly,” Stelow says. A vet can also determine if your canine companion is suffering from underlying medical issues. “Pain can cause a dog to hold back,” she says.

If your dog has no underlying medical conditions and is otherwise healthy and content, experts advise respecting your dog’s individuality, even if that means she tends to go solo. If being an introvert is what makes her happy, isn’t that what counts?

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