A nervous dog can either be born that way, or learn to be nervous through the experiences they have in life. Sometimes it is even a lack of positive experiences at an early age, when socialisation in so important to a dog’s confidence, that creates the problem.
Whatever the cause, to help a nervous dog gain confidence and face up to the things that make them anxious in life you need to develop 3 things:
- A calm and secure environment at home
- A careful, step-by-step approach to desensitisation training
- Your own skills of patience, consistency and observation so that you can read your dogs body language and progress training appropriately.
Creating a Calm and Secure Environment for a Nervous Dog
A calm household rather than one full of frantic rushing around, banging doors, loud voices and non-stop visitors will create a feeling of security for your nervous dog while you work on developing their confidence.
Avoid scolding your dog, punishing them or forcing them to face their fears by putting them into situations they can’t handle. This approach is only likely to increase their fear related behaviour and a dog could react with nervous aggression. Dog have 3 methods of dealing with fears which are flight, freeze and fight. Pushed too far and with no means of escape, a nervous dog will lash out in the only way they know how – with their teeth. It’s worth remembering that the majority of reported dog bites are related to dog fear.
The other thing you need to avoid is comforting your dog when they are timid or fearful as this is likely to reinforce the fear and the stroking and petting could be seen as a reward for their reaction to whatever they are nervous about. Treating the situation like it is nothing for them to worry about will have a more positive effect on your dog.
Using Desensitisation Training with a Nervous Dog
Desensitisation training will require a lot of your time and patience. You need to be consistently gentle and positive in your approach and take it one very small step at a time. If you try to move too fast, you may find their confidence shoots backwards.
Don’t set your expectations too high as some dogs take a long time to develop confidence and some may never become full on, fearless, enthusiastic and ‘in-your-face’ kind of dogs. But they will improve their confidence.
Dogs can be nervous of people, places, other dogs or objects, but the approach to desensitising them is much the same.
Start by working out how close your dog can get to the fear stimulus and still remain calm. Watch your dog’s body language carefully for signs of fear and stop and back up a little if that happens. Stay at the safe distance with your dog and play or give them a treat, or even just sit with them. Make sure you are calm yourself as any signs of anxiousness from you will increase your own dogs nervousness. Always act like the thing that makes your dog nervous is not a worry to you.
If people are the problem with your dog, find somewhere you can take them where people are visible, but won’t get too close, the same with dogs. Do this a few times and when you are sure they are confidence at this distance, gradually get a little closer in subsequent training session. Continue to use treats as a reward for staying calm. As you progress, try and create positive associations with seeing people, perhaps by staging it so that someone passing by drops a treat near the dog, but without looking at them or approaching them. As they gain in confidence, someone could offer a treat from their hand, again without making any eye contact with the dog at all.
In the house, introduce your dog slowly to people, always watching their body language, and don’t let anyone get too close too soon. Let it be the dog’s choice when they want, or feel brave enough to interact with that person. Use the approach above, offering treats as they get more confident, but make no fuss or comment when they do take the treats, keeping it all as low key as possible. Remember that a nervous dog will feel most confident when visitors do not speak to them or touch them or try and make eye contact.
Your Patience and Consistency Will be Rewarded
If you can be patient with your dog, learn to give them consistent messages about the things they fear and be prepared to move ahead slowly over weeks and months, you will be rewarded by knowing you’ve helped your dog overcome his nervousness and enabled him to live a fuller, happier and less anxiety filled life. Yours might be less stressful too! If you’re looking for a step-by-step programmed to help you deal with your dog’s anxiety, take a look at our Dog Anxiety eBook as it gives you all the training techniques you need to help a nervous dog.