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Changing Your Pet’s Behaviour: Shyness

This is the second part of our guide examining how to change pet behaviour. This section focuses on how to combat shyness in your pet. Have a look at part one for how to cope with aggression.

Understanding shyness

There are varying degrees of shyness in animals. Some can be encouraged to interact after they have got to know another animal or a person more, whilst the lives of others are constantly affected by crippling anxiety. Healthy, well-socialised animals, especially dogs, will usually enjoy a lot of human contact, with many encouraging it through seeking interaction with people. Confidence is gained due to socialisation and treatment starting from a young age, so begin touching and showing your puppy or kitten affection from the moment you bring them home.

Starting early

Socialising your pet will also help them to overcome shyness. Their exposure to other animals and people will help them to develop skills that will increase their confidence. Beginning socialisation from as early as possible will benefit your pet later in their life.

It is important to provide them with lots of affection using your hands, otherwise they may become hand shy. This is where the anxiety or shyness is derived through contact with human hands.  Every pet has particular areas they prefer to be touched, and you will eventually learn where those are. If they tense when you touch a particular area of their body, stop moving your hand and don’t restrain them. To show them that touching them in the area they don’t like isn’t a bad thing, move your hand to another area they prefer when they relax. Remember to always communicate with your pet to reassure them whilst doing this, and repeat the exercise a couple of times a day. Your pet should eventually learn they have nothing to be afraid of.

Safe place

A shy and anxious pet needs a place where they can escape to and feel safe. Provide a warm, comfortable bed, carrier or crate with the door open and away from anything that may cause alarm. Pheromone sprays can also be used to relax dogs and cats.

Identifying what makes your pet shy can help them to overcome their behaviour. Continue your daily routine as normal, despite their anxiety, to get them used to everyday sights and sounds within the home. However, make sure the pet isn’t directly confronted with items that could have scared them until they are ready, such as the vacuum cleaner, as this can sometimes have a negative impact by increasing the level of anxiety. Instead, make sure you vacuum clean in the next room so the pet can still hear the noise, as this will desensitise them. When your pet ventures out of their hiding place or goes near something that might have previously frightened them, make sure you praise them.

Overcoming hand shyness

Some pets can be hand shy. It is a misconception that animals are like this because they experienced maltreatment, and although this can sometimes true, it isn’t always the case. The reason may simply be because the animal wasn’t given enough affection. Also, some might just be extremely sensitive to being touched, whilst others don’t mind their owners touching them but don’t respond well to strangers. There are ways of overcoming this through teaching that associates the hand with positivity.

For dogs, hold one of their favourite treats in your hand, something they will find extremely difficult to resist. When they approach and take the treat, make sure you praise them. Gradually move up to the stage where your dog has to touch your hand for you to open it and give them the treat. This type of training is called hand targeting. Place your hand in various positions as your dog progresses such as over their head, so they will not be afraid regardless of where they are approached from. Eventually they should associate human hands with something positive.

Small dogs can become hand shy because they are picked up and handled a lot, often without warning. They may react in a scared or anxious way by cowering, shaking, growling or even biting. Therefore, always make them aware you are going to pick them up by saying their name so they can prepare for it.

With cats, allow them to approach you in their own time and hold out your hand for them to smell, if they will let you. Use reassuring words to make them feel safe.

Other reasons for shyness

Sometimes animals feel anxious when people talk to them, so use praise to encourage them to feel good when their name is said. Others may find looking at people difficult. As with hand targeting, use their favourite treat to encourage them. Try calling their name and throwing one, praising them when they look at you and respond.

Dogs with long fur can sometimes become shy because their view is hidden by their own hair, so a hair band can prevent it from entering the eyes. Ensure you only use an accessory designed specifically for dogs as human hair bands might have parts that could fall off and be consumed by an animal.

Another reason for your pet’s shyness and anxiety may be because they are in pain. To eliminate this possibility, take them to a vet to have them checked on.

What not to do

Don’t punish your pet for being shy, as this is only likely to increase their anxiety and might even lead to aggression. Particularly if your pet is hand shy, hitting them will have a detrimental effect when teaching that the hand indicates something positive.

Seek help

If you are struggling to help your pet overcome their shyness, consult your vet, who may refer you to a behaviourist.


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Hello, fellow animal lovers! I’m Elena, and I take care of social media for Animal Friends Insurance. I’m here to share the latest on animal welfare, our charity work and pet care. I foster and adopt rabbits and have a rescue dog called Luna.

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