Fostering Shy Dogs


We find them at gas stations, abandoned buildings, under houses, dumped on a roadside, in our driveways, on the highway, in cardboard boxes - the list could go on and on. All of our southern rescue dogs are strays, feral or abandoned by people who no longer want them. We don’t always know the where and the why, we just know their only chance of survival is rescue and that is the moment when Sweet Paws Rescue (SPR) steps in.

Most abandoned dogs go into “survival mode” when on their own where they may revert to feral behaviors and develop a fear of humans. Depending on how much human interaction they’ve had prior, and how long they’ve been on the run, those factors influence the degree of “emotional rehab” these dogs need in order to transition into an adoptive home. Dogs are resilient and forgiving. It’s always amazing to see what an animal has endured and then it’s ability to trust again. Sometimes that happens right away, but a smaller percentage of dogs need more time. That’s when having a foster that welcomes a shy dog into their home is critical to ready that dog for adoption and a family of their own.

As one of SPR’s southern rescuers, I am grateful for fosters like Nicole Dufresne. Nicole has fostered 15 of our dogs thus far, with some of them with her for as long as 3 months. She has continually opened her home to some of our shyest, and it is because of humble everyday heroes like her, that we can continue our rescue work in Mississippi and Alabama. At SPR, we always need more “Nicoles”. We hope the following Q&A with her may shed some light on this process and open your heart too.

– Jeanette Unruh, SPR rescue partner, Mississippi



What qualities should a potential foster have to successfully foster a shy dog?

Fostering shy dogs is an investigation of the soul. It requires patience, restraint, faith, and love to slowly peel away the layers that inhibit the foster dog from feeling at ease in its own skin and environment. 

Restraint? Why would a foster need restraint when fostering shy dogs?

It’s human nature to extend love through action. Reaching out, petting, and talking in a high pitched, baby voice are the go-to’s when most people meet a dog.  Shy dogs need the opposite. Humans to be still, allow the dog to approach them, and talk in a quiet, soothing voice. The foster needs to allow the shy pup to breathe, to give it space, and to give it time to adjust to its new surroundings.

What else do potential fosters need for the fostering experience to be successful?

A confident resident dog(s) is critical in the shy dog process.  Shy dogs are keen observers. They are witnessing every interaction. A friendly, well-trained, confident, resident dog can show the shy pup that their home life is fun, loving, and safe.

Restraint, confident resident dog…anything else?

A fenced in yard. Shy dogs need the freedom to breathe and to find their bearings in their own time. They also need to go to the bathroom. The kindest and most effective way to encourage a shy dog to go potty outside is to open the door to a secure fenced in yard and allow the shy dog to follow the confident resident dog outside. Once outside, the shy dog will relieve themselves privately, away from humans and the humans can be at ease because the shy dog is safe and secure.  Leaving a shy dog outside is never a safe option and the dog must be watched at all times when exploring the backyard. The fence safely contains the dog without restraint, giving the shy dog the freedom it needs to build comfort in their new home.

What are the challenges you have faced fostering shy dogs?

 Educating family, friends, and the public. It’s important that the shy dog has repeated positive exposure. It’s the foster’s job to ensure the shy dog process is honored. 

What is the shy dog process? 

The shy dog process starts before a foster picks up the shy dog. The foster home needs to be prepped with particular care to safety, not just for the dog’s safety, but also to avoid corrective language. In the beginning stage, a soft and steady tone is critical. A corrective tone could increase shyness.  A large crate should be placed in a corner, draped in a sheet or blanket, leaving the front exposed. The exposed side should face outward so the shy dog can observe the house happenings. Inside, the crate should feel like a den.  Don’t forget to hide a few treats inside! Once home, position the dog crate, gate the room off if possible, and let him/her be. Conduct your home life calmly. Zen-like. Love the resident dog like crazy, in view of the shy dog, so the shy dog sees that fosters are trustworthy.  Give resident dogs high value treats (like hot dogs!) that will peak the shy dog’s interest and rub the hot dog scent on your hands before opening the crate door so he/she associates humans with a positive scent. Don’t underestimate the value of opening that crate door. Opening the door signifies the first moment of the shy dog’s new life. From here, patience and instinct.  A trail of cheese nibbles (small squares of cheese) that lead to cheese on a human’s hand decreases space between shy dog and human.  

It takes time. Trust is earned. The foundation is formed in that first two weeks (two week shutdown). It may take days, weeks, or even months, but when you feel your foster dog is ready, introduce him/her to life beyond the homestead. Leash both dogs and start slowly. It is essential that the human is a firm advocate when encountering new people.  Teach restraint. Have them love your resident dog and over time the magic will unfold. Your shy dog may pull back from humans at first when you walk by them. Over time, they will begin to turn towards them after they walk by, beginning to grow curious. Eventually, you will stop and say hello to people with dogs and ask them to pet your resident dog. This is how the shy dog learns that strangers, too, can be kind. When you are introducing your shy dog, allow them to control the interaction Don't forget to share to the human what makes the dog feel uncomfortable/comfortable, so each new experience and encounter is a positive one for the shy dog and is part of his/her progression.

Why do you choose to foster shy dogs?

It’s simple. It’s the story of many, too many. As a child, I was at the mercy of humans.  To survive, I had to construct layers to protect myself. It has taken decades to deconstruct. In the turmoil of it all, in all of the abuse, neglect, and fear, there was always someone who took notice and helped me on my path, and acted as a bridge between terror and love. I choose to be that someone for the shy dog.

Is that why you find fostering so rewarding?

Yes. Most shy dogs I take on are on the extreme side of shy and there are many things in everyday life they find scary. To be part of their evolution is a gift. To see them go from fearful to curious, connecting, and trusting is a joy to watch.

Any heartaches?

Saying goodbye is incredibly difficult, but it helps to see pictures and videos of them adjusting to their forever homes and watch their families love them with all of their hearts.  That is the point of the entire process. My job is complete.

Why should someone consider adopting a shy dog?

If the potential adopter is looking for another dog to add to their pack and has a confident resident dog that needs a buddy, there is no better friend for canine and human than a shy dog. The shy dog will be the most loyal, affectionate, companion to his or her pack. The bond between the shy dog and his/her owner is unbreakable. The shy dog knows they are unique, that they require tender care, and they are profoundly grateful that their humans love them enough to take a chance on them.

Can you tell us about your latest foster? 

Oh my Farina. Farina was one the shyest dogs transported from south. She was terrified of people. Her tail tucked up into her belly. She trembled. Waves and waves of fear rolled through her if anyone approached her. Three months later, Farina, now named Lucky, is living life with a loving family and new best buddy -  Happy. Her home is surrounded by land and encircled in love. 

How do you process the “grief” that comes with letting them go?

I write myself a letter from them to me. It’s a letter I know they would write if they could. I shed tears on every word. Every letter starts the same…”Dear Momz, I let go”. 

– Nicole DuFresne

If you would like to learn more about saving a life through fostering, please read through our process and apply here. It may not change your life, but it will change a dog’s life forever.

Brenda Riddell