Living with a nervous dog is a challenging problem. Owners need to be realistic about their goals and what outcome they desire. Not every dog can learn to be completely comfortable in situations that make them nervous. Although working towards that outcome should be the ultimate goal, one must understand that improvement, at any level, is the desired response and a victory for both you and the dog. The main focus while living with a nervous dog should always be keeping them within their comfort zone, work on building confidence and take great pride in improvements that happen along the way.
1. Study body language: Learn how to read your dog and what their body language is telling you about how they are feeling. Ask yourself “what are you doing to help or hinder the situation?”. Petting a nervous dog on top of the head causes them to shrink down, physically. It is a submissive position for the dog. Instead, stroke them under the chin, and offer a good chest rub. You will see how your dog sits up a little straighter and heightens their pose. You are helping to uplift the dog, literally, and their spirits.
2. Quit while your dog is ahead: On days that your dog is making progress, when they gain that extra ounce of courage, stop them while things are on the positive side, way before something has the chance to go wrong. If you push that extra little bit, and something goes wrong, you not lost any advancements made but will have a tough time coming back from that setback.
3. Give positive feedback: At some point along the path to over coming their fears, dogs will begin to show interest in the object that once scared them. At this point, you need to gently encourage, with calm praise. Even if this is only a tiny advancement, praise, praise, praise. Allow the dog to set the pace.
4. Settle for tiny victories: Use space between your dog and the object that makes them nervous as a guideline for their comfort level. If on every walk, for example, you encounter something scary, take note at how much space is between you and it/them when your dog begins to show signs of discomfort. Over time, when you notice that you are able to get that tiny little bit closer before the reaction occurs, call it a day, and a success, and remove the dog from the situation. There is no need to rush and push a dog through this to get them ‘over’ this problem. A step in the right direction is still a step in the right direction.
5. Use your actions to create a positive response in your dog: If you are the brink of encountering a situation or object that you know will set your dog off, use silly voices and make the situation light. Your dog is looking to you for a reaction and feedback. You need to bluff about what an innocent thing awaits ahead. For example, in a high and light voice “Oh look at that big group of people ahead, this is no big deal, we got this!” as you take a wide swing around them to provide space, and comfort, for your dog.
6. Practice simple obedience: Further to the point above, training is also a healthy distraction when there is something scary lurking nearby. Create a diversion for your dog by asking the dog to perform a task until the ‘scary thing’ is out of sight.
7. Focus on building confidence: Practice anything the dog can do well, lots! This can be simple obedience cues or playtime. By allowing the dog to do a job, well, can do a lot for their confidence.
8. Provide a safe environment: Comfort is a key factor for working with a shy or nervous dog. You want to expose them to difficult situations slowly, and maintain a level of comfort the dog is capable of functioning in.
9. Consult with a professional: For the inexperienced, this is the no time for DIY. Working with an experienced behaviorist/trainer to guide you and your dog through situations can provide you with an action plan and know-how to work on overcoming the fear. A consultation with your veterinarian should also be performed. Nervousness, shyness, and fear can stem from environmental, behavioral, psychological, genetic, and medical conditions. In extreme cases, medication may be useful or required.
10. Know your dog’s threshold: “Threshold” is a term used by trainers to gauge a dog’s comfort level. As a nervous dog owner, it is important to know and understand your dog’s comfort level- keeps them under the threshold, or within their comfort level, while exposing them to new things, and working on training. Terrorizing a dog by pushing too hard can be detrimental to their progress and result in bigger setbacks.