Helping your nervous dogs

Dogs, Dog behaviour

Key points 

  • Interact with your dog calmly but don't make a fuss, it is best for you to remain relaxed giving gentle reassurance where necessary
  • Create a safe space indoors 
  • Familiar walking routes help them feel safe
  • Growling is good!

Nervousness in dogs can show in many different ways; some dogs will run away and hide whereas other dogs will show more active behaviour such as barking or growling. 

Spot the signs of nervousness 

Some signs will be obvious and others will be more subtle, and may show differently in different situations.   

  • Licking lips – if you are fussing your dog and they do this then stop and see if they ask for more fuss or walk away 
  • Ears back – when a dog’s ears may go back until they are almost flat to their head they are feeling uncomfortable – this will vary between breeds
  • Lowered body – A dog can lower its body slightly or to the floor
  • Turning head away to avoid eye contact – this is a c'alming signal’ that is often used when they are feeling threatened. This means they are actively trying to ask that person to stop what they are doing 
  • Rolling onto back exposing stomach – often mistaken for a dog asking for a tummy rub, this can actually be a sign of nervousness 

Creating a safe space 

Nervous dogs benefit greatly from having their own safe place to retreat to when they feel unsure of a situation. Ideally the safe place is where your dog eats and sleeps; lots of owners use the kitchen or utility room as this is easier to dog-proof and make safe for your dog. A table with a blanket over the top and the dog’s bed underneath it could act as a den. 

A crate can help but your dog should not be shut in for long periods and not at all until they are comfortable and happy in the crate (see our advice on crate training). If your dog is not trained to be comfortable in the crate they might become more distressed and potentially injure themselves trying to escape.

ADAPTIL® (collar, spray or plug-in) has been proven to help reduce anxiety in some dogs – for a nervous dog you can aid them by spraying it on the bedding ten minutes or so before putting the dog in that area – this will help make that area more relaxing for the dog.  

Music can be very beneficial in relaxing your dog and making their safe space a highly relaxing place to be. You can find specialist playlists and music, such as Through a Dog’s Ear.

Out and about

Using the same routes to the same walking areas can help ease worry in a nervous dog.

Introducing a new route can take time. Remember to watch your dog’s body language to judge how comfortable they are feeling and praise your dog for calm, confident behaviours. You could encourage them to sniff by throwing treats to the floor, or allowing reach to interesting spots (for example, posts and trees). Practice some simple commands such as sit to give them something to focus on and distract them. 

Growling is good!  

Contrary to popular belief growling is not something we should discourage in our dog – it is a form of communication. Growling is a dog’s way of saying ‘I am uncomfortable in this situation’. Instead take notice of what is happening and act to alleviate your dog’s fear. 

Walking away from the situation will help diffuse things and allow you to re-focus them onto another activity. Do not tell your dog off. Think about how you can avoid putting your dog in that situation again.

Will my dog always be nervous?  

It depends on the dog. Some dogs may show signs of nervousness throughout their life when exposed to new situations, however the good news is that there is so much positive training that can be done with nervous dogs to help them gain confidence and lead a fulfilling life.  

Shouldn’t I try to expose my nervous dog to as many new situations as possible?

It’s so important to do this slowly though, the reason being that when a dog is feeling stressed it is unable to retain new information and may end up feeling completely overwhelmed and reluctant to explore new places in future.

By gradually exposing your dog to new experiences at a pace they are comfortable with you will not only help your dog so much more in the long run to learn that the outside world can be enjoyable, but you will also gain their trust in the process.  

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