Some dogs didn't have enough positive socialization when young while other dogs may have had too many bad experiences. Many shy dogs are simply born cautious and reserved. No matter the cause of a dog's shyness, although rarely cured, many dogs can be helped so they are more comfortable living in their world.
Build a Bond with Your Dog
The most important thing you can do is establish a warm, trusting relationship with your shy dog. When I adopted my Australian Shepherd, Sisko, at seven months of age, he had little socialization or exposure off the ranch where he was born. He was shy and reserved with new people, fearful of strange dogs, and worried about the world around him. Before trying to do address his shyness, I wanted him to learn to trust me. He needed to know that if he was afraid, the best thing he could do would be come to me. So we spent lots of time together. We went for walks in quiet places, we snuggled on the sofa, I hand fed him his meals, and I gave him daily massages. Within a couple of weeks I could see him looking to me when he was in doubt about anything. I knew then that we had accomplished our first hurdle.
Shyness, Anxiety, and Fearfulness
Some shy dogs are simply shy and reserved; especially with strange people. Other shy dogs are also anxious in strange places or circumstances. Still other shy dogs are fearful and these dogs, when pushed, may lunge, bark, growl, and bite when they feel they are in danger. Sometimes the borders between shyness, anxiety, and fear are blurred and may vary depending on the situation but watch your dog and try to identify the emotion your dog is feeling at any given time. This will help you as you begin working with him.
Identify His Triggers
It wasn't hard to identify the causes of Sisko's shyness. He was slightly worried about new people but if they were quiet, he warmed up to them in a short period of time. Strange dogs, though, caused him more anxiety. Loud mechanical noises (garbage trucks were the worst) caused him to hide. Pay attention to your dog and watch to see exactly what causes your dog to go hide, to run away, or to growl. It's difficult to help your dog until you know what worries him the most.
Manage His Behavior
Once you've identified your dog's emotions and triggers, then you can develop a management plan. Management, by itself, won't solve your dog's shyness or worry, but it can lower your dog's stress and increase his trust in you. So, for example, with Sisko, as soon as I realized he was hiding when he heard the garbage truck turn on to our street, I made sure he was in the house with me when the truck was due to arrive on our street. I put a leash on him (so he couldn't run away in a panic) and I took all three of my dogs in a back room. This wasn't going to be what I did forever; but in the first steps of our relationship, moving him away from his fear was good. By managing the problem like this, I also taught him to trust me; that I would keep him safe.
Training Builds Confidence
As soon as Siko and I had a bond and I could see that he trusted me to keep him safe, I began some obedience training. We started with the basic sit, down, stay, watch me, and come. Since he was motivated by food, praise, petting and time with me; all of those served as both motivators and rewards. Since Sisko loves to learn and work, the basic exercises were learned quickly so we moved on to more obedience exercises, trick training, agility training, and herding instinct tests with sheep. With all of these successes, his confidence grew and his trust in me increased.
Change His Perceptions
At this point I wanted to change Sisko's perceptions to some of the things that caused his natural shyness to cross the line into outright fear. I started with that evil scary garbage truck. On the morning when the garbage truck was due, I had some high value treats in my pocket, Sisko on his leash, and when I heard the truck, I began doing some simple basic obedience with him so that he'd be paying attention to me. Then, as the truck got closer, instead of going to the back room, we went to the front door. As the truck got closer, I let Sisko watch the truck while I watched him. He was willing to maintain his position sitting next to me inside the front screen door so we remained there as I fed him some treats and talked to him. As the truck passed us, I opened the door and took one step forward. If he wanted to remain in that safe place, I would let him do that but he decided it was safe to step outside with me. I gave him treats and we watched the truck move down the street. Over the next few weeks, we moved closer and closer to the truck until we could walk down the street towards the truck. The key to making this work is finding where your dog's safe zone is and how and when to take a step out of it.
A dog who was born shy may gain confidence but will always have that tendency to be shy, reserved and cautious. A dog who became shy because of experiences may overcome that shyness but will probably retain some of the learned fearfulness. It's important to be aware of your dog's natural and normal (for him) behaviors and manage him and his environment to keep him safe. Never push him into situations where he may feel the need to protect himself by biting.