Working with Anxious, Shy, and Nervous Dogs

It is said that confidence comes from a feeling of well-being, acceptance of yourself, and a belief in your own ability. And that if we’re lacking in confidence, some of the ways that we restore it are to implement planning and preparation, along with gaining knowledge and training.

So How Do We Relate That to Dogs?

Actually, very much like us. A dog’s ability to act confidently often comes from their own belief that they will know how to act in a given situation – or in their ability to adapt to a multitude of different situations.

To build this confidence we need to practice, a lot. But not just anything, we need to practice each component, then build on it, until the dog is doing the behavior second nature. For example, the first time any of us drove a car, there were many components to think about – the brake pedal, the steering wheel, turning on the blinkers, checking your mirrors, the speed limit, etc. However, over time the more we drove, the less we thought about any of these individual things. They became second nature to us. The same can be true with dogs. In the beginning, we must go slow, as the dog learns to coordinate different behaviors. As they get better and better, we’re able to ask more and more, as it becomes second nature.

We have two options at our disposal. The situation we’re in will determine which option we’ll use at any particular time. Sometimes we may even use both or a combination of the two: management and training.

Management is what we do constantly when we have an unbalanced dog; or a dog that is nervous, scared, or otherwise less than confident when approaching the world. Management is a great tool to use while your dog is learning new behaviors, as well as something that you will refer back to throughout their lifetime, whenever a new or scary situation presents itself.

Training is teaching your dog different behaviors that you can use when your dog is scared or fearful. By getting them ‘into their heads’ we are able to give them an outlet to focus on, rather than being caught up in their bad habits. The more behaviors we can teach a dog, and the more they have to focus on, the less likely we will see a poor reaction to those stressors.

Eyes in the back of your head

One thing that is difficult, but necessary, when you have a scared or fearful dog, is that you must always have one eye on your dog, and one eye on the situation, to manage it. An easy way to do this is to stay ahead of the problem and address it before they react. For example, if your dog is scared of large men in hats, and you see one coming toward you, the best management tool is to walk your dog off to the side, put them in “park,” and ask them to perform a set of trained behaviors as the man walks past. By doing this, I stayed ahead of a situation I knew my dog would react poorly to, giving me time to manage it before it escalated.

Management, like training, is a joint effort between you and your dog. Often telling your dog not to do something won’t be enough; give something specific for them to do instead—for example, a safe position by my side. If I’m walking the dog I mentioned earlier off-leash, she’s often out in front of me. But anytime she sees something on the trail that scares her, she immediately runs back to me and walks just behind my right leg. This is a safe position that I taught her early on, and one that she uses often. Giving your dogs a safe place by your side is one of the best ways to manage your scared dog. Not only does it immediately cue you to your dog’s distress, but it also puts them in a location where you can protect them, and save the world from their behavior if need be.

To change your dog’s association from one of fear to one of confidence, start by teaching your dog a handful of basic behaviors (for example, touch, circle, look, high 5, etc.) Then practice at home over and over until they become second nature. Finally, bring your dog to a new place and practice the behaviors again and again. Teaching these behaviors will instill confidence in your dog over time and become a necessary tool to use while managing a less than ideal situation.

Important Guidelines to Remember

  • If your dog is nervous in a new place, don’t stay long, but go back within a few days
  • Use the same walking path each day, so your dog can relax and excel at it – don’t change your route too often
  • To gain confidence quickly, get good at something – the more your dog is praised, the happier and more confident they’ll be
  • The goal is to have them doing exercises so well that they do them automatically when you ask
  • Be consistent – don’t leave your dog guessing, be consistent in your behaviors and actions
  • Know your dog! Get ahead of any issues or react appropriately when you see them becoming upset
  • Focus on all the good and have fun! If we’re stressed out, we’re not empowered to learn
  • The way people perceive us, affects us-this is true for dogs too; if your dog looks better with a haircut or a brushing, give it to them! They want to look and feel their best as well
  • Always pet scared dogs under their chins, to encourage their heads up (much like us holding our shoulders back or smiling for 2 minutes each morning in the shower)