Dogs can be fearful for all sorts of reasons. They could have been neglected by less than kind humans, but there’s also other causes. Some dogs are just born more nervous in nature, which may be to do with their breed, their parents, or just how they turned out. It’s the same as people, certain people just have shy personalities and can find certain things overwhelming. If your pup is a little nervous of certain things, or just a bit fearful of life in general, there are some things you will need to consider.
Fearful dogs can be quite unpredictable, because if they are suddenly terrified by something and feel threatened, it’s difficult to know how they will react. Some fearful dogs can display signs of aggression if pushed too far out of their comfort zone, and need patient and understanding owners. Other fearful dogs may not be aggressive at all, and will cower, shake or be completely submissive, but are still obviously very stressed.
The fear stage
Dogs also go through a fear stage, although some experts disagree on when exactly this occurs. Many agree it’s around the age of eight and ten weeks old, although it can vary depending on the breed and size of dog.
During a puppy’s fear imprint period, if they experience anything scary or traumatic, it’s more likely to have a last effect on the dog. In other words, they are more likely to remember the incident and develop an ongoing fear of whatever the trigger was, whether it’s loud noises, people or other dogs. So, during this time, negative experiences should be avoided as much as possible.
How to help your nervous dog
It’s important to note that if your dog has a serious fear issue, then the first thing you should do is talk to a canine behaviourist. This article simply provides general tips to help dogs that are a nervous and non-aggressive.
Figure out their triggers – One way you can help your dog is to figure out what the source of their fear is. Then once you know what scaring them, you can limit their exposure and refrain from putting them in uncomfortable situations.
Is your dog just generally fearful and needs to build their confidence going out and about? Or do certain things make them nervous? Pay attention to their behaviour around certain things that might make them anxious such as loud noises, certain objects or busy places with a lot of people.
Signs of nervousness/anxiety in dogs include things like:
- Ears down
- Excessive tongue licking
- Excessive panting
- Tail between legs
- Head down
- Whale eye
Knowing what the triggers are is also handy if you plan on taking Fido to a dog trainer, because you can tell them exactly what the problem is. They can then give you expert advice on how to try and improve your dog’s confidence when it comes to certain things. Often behaviourists will suggest gradually exposing your dog to the thing that they are scared of (desensitisation). So, if your dog gets nervous around people, you can get someone to walk by from a distance and give your dog treats. Then gradually ask the person to move closer once your pooch gets more comfortable.
Be patient – Don’t push your pooch too far, too quickly. They will need a lot of time and patience to help build their confidence, and pushing them too much might actually cause them to get a lot worse. Avoid forcing them to do things they don’t want to do, such as confronting what they are scared of.
Positive reinforcement – Punishment really doesn’t work well with nervous dogs. As well as not being very effective, it can make their problem a lot worse. The best thing you can do is reward your dog as they get more confident, and show them that the things they thought were really scary aren’t actually that bad.
If you give them a positive reward, they will start to make more of a positive association with what they are scared of. You can choose the type of reward that your dog responds to the most, whether that’s verbal praise, toys or treats. Some nervous dogs will be so scared they won’t take any treats, so you may have to find other ways of rewarding them.
Manage how people approach your dog
If your dog is nervous of people, then you need to control how and when they are approached. Warn people not to approach or stroke your dog verbally. Some people assume all dogs want to be stroked and cuddled and don’t consider whether a dog is nervous or not. You can get special bandanas, leads and collars that say ‘nervous’ which should help warn people to stay away. If there are people your dog trusts, make sure they know how to approach your dog in the right way. Here’s how to approach a dog:
- Offering them a closed fist to have a sniff.
- Don’t rush in and stroke them straight away.
- If they are happy with sniffing your fist, and it’s safe to approach them, give them a gentle stroke under their chin.
- Avoid reaching over their head to stroke them as a lot of nervous dogs really don’t like this.
- *warning, do not approach a dog you don’t know without asking the owner if it’s safe to do so.
Create a predictable routine
Nervous dogs will often struggle when things keep changing too much. Dogs like to be settled and get set in their ways, so when things aren’t how they expect, they can feel a little uneasy. Get your nervous dog into a consistent daily routine that they feel comfortable with. Things like house moves can take a while for any dog, let alone a nervous dog to settle.
Well balanced, friendly buddies
One way you can help your nervous dog (providing they are dog friendly) is enable them to spend time with a friendly, confident dog. Spending time with another dog who isn’t phased by things will build their confidence and gradually show them that they don’t need to be so afraid of everything.
You can get a wide range of handy calming products that will help Fido feel more at ease. These products have calming ingredients or release calming pheromones that instantly make your pooch relax. Try a calming collar, a diffuser or some calming tablets.