Nervous Dogs

Nervousness is a trait usually inherited from a dog’s parents. Nervous dogs need extra care when being introduced to new situations or people, as they are naturally more cautious than other dogs. It is vital that, all dogs as puppy’s, particularly nervous dogs, are correctly socialised and r exposed to situations & environments on a regular basis where all of their experiences are controlled to ensure  positive exposure to any of the stimulus as well as the interaction being a positive experience.

This must be done with great care to ensure that the dog is not overwhelmed or scared.

When nervous, a dog may display a number of signs or behaviours; some may be very subtle and go unnoticed.

When dogs are stressed they may lick their lips, yawn, avoid eye contact & look away or try to escape by backing away or hiding. If you notice any of these signs, you should either remove the stimulus to a greater distance where the dog is more confident, or take the dog away until you dog is willing to engage with you. By playing a game of Tug or having reliable obedience commands to run through with your dog, you are able to set your dog up for success which can assist your dog to associate the situation or stimulus with something pleasant & fun.

When these subtle behaviours are unnoticed (or ignored) the dog may then begin to cower, usually you will see the tuck the tail between the legs and the reparation rate increase (panting).

Do not force your dog into situations like this in an attempt to “get your dog used to it.

If an animal is continually forced into situations and unable to avoid or escape, it may resort to more intense behaviour as they can perceive that its life is in emanate danger. Some of the behaviours that dogs may display are growling, lunging forward, snapping in an attempt to remove the stimulus, which is whatever is causing the dog to feel nervousness, be it a real threat or not.

If this behaviour is allowed to present itself, it is important that the dog is not punished for the behaviour, this will only intensify the reaction, confirm the dogs “emotional” perception (fear) of the stimulus & or environment  & the dog will learn that exhibiting aggressive behaviours is an effective response to control situations that it believes to be scary.

Punishing a frightened animal may also result in your dog becoming afraid of you and may redirect it’s aggression onto you, e.g. biting you in defence.  Preventing your dog from having to feel the need for self-protection, starts by looking out early signs of behaviour as mentioned above.

Regardless of the breed of dog, each dog should be treated on its own merit & its responses & behaviour to the stimulus.

Socialisation & Habituation for a nervous dog can be helped by controlling the exposure to the specific stimulus, whilst engaging the dog with something that it enjoys such as a game of tug, ball or food.

When desensitising a dog to any stimulus that it perceives as a threat, it is important to remember that whilst is may not be a realistic threat or danger, the dog believes it to be.

Observe the dog carefully and when the first signs of nervousness are displayed, move your dog away from the stimulation until you are equipped & prepared to work on the issue correctly.

Keeping your dog in the situation with reassurances only reinforces nervousness, however by moving away, you have taken control and shown that your dog can trust you & in the future, with time & patience, the dog will learn to look to you for guidance when in stressful situations.

By having your dog understand basic obedience commands, this allows for confidence to build in the dog, simply by rewarding your dog when it complies, the dog is learning that if it displays certain behaviours, you will give it a reward which the dog have a positive experience.

Giving the dog positive behaviours can create almost a default behaviour that it can display when it feels stressed i.e. Sit & focus on the handler.  This in effect gives the dog some control in the stressful situation & can control an outcome by you rewarding the desired “default” behaviour.  It should be noted that the obedience commands must be taught via a reward based method in a calm environment where the dog is relaxed & gradually proofed in multiple environments.

Only when your dog is willing to engage with you & responds to the given command/s in multiple environments & distractions with confidence can you start the desensitisation to the perceived threat.

This process must be done gradually & the rate of progression dictated by the individual dog in any given situation.

There are different points at which each individual dog can / will react. First a dog must be aware that the stimulus is present via observation. From this point you can determine the critical distance, this being the moment the dog starts to display the first signs of stress.
You should start the session in a fun & positive manner well before the stimulus is present.  You are aiming for the dog to have multiple successful opportunities at a distance where the dog is relaxed.

After the dog has had multiple “wins” the stimulus can then be presented at a distance to obtain the first stage of desensitisation being, observation.

Only if & when the dog maintains a happy persona & confidence can gradually move the dog closer to the stimulus.

Desensitisation can take days, weeks & even months depending on the severity of the behaviour.

Food can be a great reward as this has a physiological effect on the dog as it decreases the cortisol levels (stress hormone) & increases the serotonin level (Happy Hormone) within the dog.

One thought on “Nervous Dogs”

  1. Rheana Nation says:

    Thanks Cat interesting in regard to “trait usually inherited” identifies homework really must be done when purchasing a dog. I understand this is extremely hard if purchasing from a shelter, but if a purebred there should be lots of questions asked and discussions had. Also fantastic support network like The K9 Company that can work with you as team to identify and work through the issues.

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