The Worthwhile Journey To A Shy Pet’s Heart

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For many of us, when we got our pets, it was love at first sight for both. There’s a meet-cute story: face kisses, lap sitting, instant purrs, and a “she picked me!” feeling around the whole thing. And often, they settle right in at home and, within the first 24 hours, you’re snapping pictures of them sprawled confidently in the middle of the floor or curled up at your side. 

But not every pet is like that. Animals have all different kinds of life experiences and personalities and some are more reserved, less outgoing, or even shy. Not everyone is a “free love” type, after all.  

So if you’ve decided to take a chance on a shy pet or one who is slow to warm up, how do you go about winning them over? Here are a few tips for you as you go on the worthwhile journey to a shy pet’s heart.

Have patience.

This is the absolute most important part of the process. It’s so simple, but it sure isn’t easy. There’s no real way of predicting what any animal’s timeline will look like. Some are quick, while others are lengthy. Sometimes progress is steady and other times, it comes in stalls and leaps and tumbles. 

And for those whose road is a little longer, it may be really easy and tempting to give up once you pass some arbitrary point. Do you wait a week? A fortnight? A month? But if it’s worth it to you, the only answer is “as long as it takes.” With lots of shy animals, you’ll find that you’re still seeing hints of progress after years together.

Bribery helps.

A little bit of a good thing can go a long way! A hesitant pet may become a new bestie after just a few minutes with some bacon treats to grease the wheels. If your first treat attempt isn’t cutting it, change it up! Maybe toys are the way to their heart or they can’t resist the call of catnip. And maybe treats ARE the answer, but they prefer a different kind. 

If you know you’re going to be trying to make a friend, leave the plain dry treats at home. Go stinky. For cats, try squeeze-up style treats or Temptations. The squeeze-up style treats seem to be really tempting, but work best if the cat is comfortable enough to take it from you. Temptations are good because you can put some within reach and then back up and give the cat some space. For dogs, the variety of smelly, tempting treats is vast. It sometimes helps to stick to small treats or treats that can be broken into small pieces. Not only can you give more of them if the treats are small, but the dog will learn more quickly that the treats come from you and it will strengthen the association. 

Don’t worry- you’re not actually buying their love. Your pet will love you because they love you, not just because you gave them treats. Offering treats (or toys or ‘nip or lots of walks) just helps in the beginning, when they’re not sure what’s what and whom they can trust. It helps them to associate you with things they know they like and want and that opens the door to a beautiful and lasting friendship!

Make yourself less threatening. 

Animals are smart… but they don’t actually understand a lot of what’s going on. They don’t speak our language. They look for different cues. A human might be the nicest person ever, but if they’re big and loud, if they move too quickly and come too close, a shy animal will naturally be hesitant around them. Check yourself and be aware of this sort of thing. Get down on the ground with them if possible. If not, just be aware that looming over them can freak them out and try to make yourself look small. Lower your voice and speak softly, gently, and encouragingly to them. If you’re wearing a hat, a mask, sunglasses, or some other accessory on your face or head, try removing it. Avoid too much direct eye contact. With a cat, if you make eye contact, blink slowly at them- it’s cat language for “I mean you no harm.” Move slowly and deliberately- no stomping around or sudden movements. At home, let your pet see you lying down or sleeping. Letting them see you vulnerable like that gives them a chance to get used to your smell and presence and build up the courage to come closer and closer to you. 

Don’t push too hard.

I get it. You got a pet because you want to smother them with love and have them return the sentiment. And when it’s not happening as fast as you’d like, you want to throw everything at the problem. 

But the best thing you can do is to meet your pet where they are. Are they not ready to take treats from you? Toss treats gently toward them or place them on the ground a few feet away from you and then sit very still while they come to investigate. Are they not ready to approach you at all? Just sit quietly nearby and read a book to show them that you’re a safe, non-demanding presence. Are they uncomfortable about being picked up or being handled in a certain way? Respect their boundaries, especially while you’re getting to know them. Part of teaching them that you’re safe to approach and safe to be around is ACTUALLY BEING safe to approach and to be around. If, every time they come close to you, you do something that hurts or upsets or frightens them, it’s going to hurt your relationship and slow down the progress you’re trying to make. Sure, one day you may be able to tote them around the house in a baby sling and blow raspberries on their bellies, but part of getting to that point is letting them know that you respect them. 

Abandon your expectations.

I’ll admit, it can sometimes be a little tough to bond with your pet when they don’t seem to reciprocate your love. But it just means they need you to love them enough for both of you. 

The secret to having the patience it takes is to love your pet wherever they are. 

If you start with a vision of who your pet will be and can’t love them until they fit that mold, you’re going to end up frustrated and disappointed. There’s every possibility that, for example, they’ll never be wild about being picked up. Or they’ll never be comfortable around strangers. Or that being very cuddly just isn’t in their nature, no matter how comfortable they are around you. 

Your pet isn’t a batch of kimchi that should develop into a specific and predictable end product. They’re not manufactured for your enjoyment. They’re individuals and they deserve to be loved for who they are. 

When you first meet them, decide within yourself and encourage your family to get on board with the idea that you’ll love them even if they never come out from under the bed. And if you do that, the day they do come out will be a wonderful bonus. And the day they come to you for affection will be a bonus. And the first time you see them play with toys will be a bonus. And soon, you’ll find that life is full of bonuses and victories. You’ll see your dog wag her tail at a stranger and think, “Wow, look how far we’ve come!” and not “Ugh, she’s still a long way from what I wanted her to be.” 


However long the worthwhile journey to a shy pet’s heart is, you’ll find that the bond you form with a pet who took a little extra work to get to know is like nothing else in the world. It’s absolutely worth the time and patience it takes! 

Whether your pet is everyone’s best buddy or the weird specter who haunts your halls, we’re there for them when you can’t be! Our pet-sitters are trained and experienced and know how to handle a wide variety of personalities. Want us to stay and cuddle? We’re on it! Want us to leave a food offering for your house-ghost, scoop their litterbox, and then skedaddle? Your wish is our command. Check out our Pet-sitting services and book a visit today!

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