Published: 27 June 2017

If you think your dog might suffer from anxious moments - or you want to avoid it ever happening - take a look at these top ten tips, which come courtesy of K9 magazine. Making sure your puppy or dog doesn't suffer from anxiety means less fractious situations and, therefore, less likelihood of accidents occurring. If you'd like to know how to respond should your pet need first aid, join us on our First Aid for Dogs course; we've a variety of dates and locations available, or host your own in-house course with a group of friends!

1) Define whether you are dealing with a shy or a nervous dog. There is a big difference, as with people. A naturally shy person will react in a certain way to a crowd of people. They will slink away and try and avoid as much of what is happening as they possibly can. Now imagine a very confident person in the same crowd of people but imagine that confident person happens to be wearing a Manchester United football shirt and the crowd of people happen to all be Manchester City fans. The confident person, due to the scenario they are presented with, will, in many ways, act exactly the same as the naturally shy person even though, under normal circumstances they would have no problems with what was happening. You must define if your dog is prone to nervous reactions to certain events and scenarios or if you own a naturally shy dog. To determine this ask the following questions: Is the dog scared of ALL people who come to your house or just certain people they’ve never met before? If the former is the case then you probably have a dog who is of a naturally shy disposition, in the case of the latter, probably just prone to reacting nervously to different situations. Is the dog scared of loud noises? What happens if you clap your hands for a long time? Does the dog eventually settle down and let the noise become part of the background or does he or she jump every single time? In the case of gundogs it is a commonly accepted fact that there can be dogs who are gun-shy and dogs who are gun-nervous. Gun-shyness is incurable and means the dog will never be able to be trained for the field, gun nervousness can be overcome through positive reinforcement and conditioning to noise. It is essential that you understand if you are dealing with a shy dog or a nervous dog as the way you approach certain training situations will differ. Nervous dogs can overcome obstacles through a process of a well-planned and expertly executed exposures to whatever it is they are nervous of. In the case of a shy dog, this course of action could traumatise them for life and lead to them losing all trust in you. So, before you dog anything ,define your dog as nervous or shy and understand the differences.

2) Similar to the advice given on not reinforcing fearful behaviour when socialising your dog the same theory should be applied when dealing with dogs who are frightened of loud noises such as thunder or fireworks. If you make a big song and dance over the noise or make an extra effort to reward your dog’s fear response by being excessively attentive toward the dog you may instil a thought-process into the dog that something is wrong or that the noises mean there is a possibility of incoming danger. You should show the dog that there is nothing to be frightened of by going about your business in the normal way, not reacting to the noise, not acting in a manner that is out of the ordinary and above all don’t react with a fearful or shocked response yourself.

Your dog is looking to you for leadership and you must show him or her that you are not in the slightest bothered or concerned with the loud noises by simply ignoring them.

3) Distraction is an excellent method to lessen the impact of fearful experiences amongst nervous dogs. Rather than increasing the dog’s fear by making the dog ‘face-up’ to whatever it was that may have frightened him or her, it can be beneficial to distract the dog’s trail of thought by engaging in an activity that is fun and stimulating for them. This will avoid the situation where a nervous dog may dwell on a frightening experience for too long, causing a particular fear to be prolonged or increased. Distraction is by no means a cure but it can lessen the intensity of fear at any given moment and can help the dog to regain composure quickly. For instance in an imaginary scenario where your dog may be startled by somebody riding past quickly on bicycle, as the moment will pass so quickly and you won’t be in a position to educate the dog or ‘control’ the environment at that particular moment, it would be good practice to engage the dog in a quick game of some kind where the dog will be rewarded for sitting or walking to heel or something similar. This way you can distract the dog from what has just passed and reward for good behaviour (i.e. sitting, heeling etc) rather than allow the dog to think you are rewarding them for the fear response they showed when the bicycle startled them. Now you are aware of your dog’s fear of bicycles you can, later on, ‘set up’ a situation with a bicycle where you ARE in a position to control the scenario and respond effectively to the dog’s fears. Always be ready to distract the dog and engage them in a positive experience when they show fear but never confuse the dog into thinking you are rewarding the fear response, always make them work for praise or a treat even if it is only something very simple you ask them to do.

4) Never, under any circumstances try and ‘cure’ a fear by over-exposing the dog to whatever it is they are afraid of. If this method has a 1 in 100 chance of working 99 out of 100 dogs will be far more fearful than they were to begin with. Dogs that are scared of the noise the vacuum cleaner makes, for example, will not overcome the fear if you make a big effort to ‘force’ them to confront it. Dogs that are of a naturally nervous disposition will react badly to such treatment and shy dogs even more so. In some circumstances ‘over exposure’ may even lead to aggression or in extreme cases the nervous dog might even attack. Balance is the key, if the dog shows fear don’t make a big deal out of it, simply carry on as normal and allow the dog to deal with their fear at their own pace.

5) Nerves can often be overcome by allowing the dog the opportunity to investigate and explore different environments at their own pace. Being too hands-on with the dog can lead to the dog getting a sense that you are concerned or worried about something. Simply leaving the dog to it, as it were, can often be the best way to allow them to naturally overcome certain fears.

Try sitting on the floor, legs apart and face turned away from the dog with your hands open in front of you with food. Don’t encourage the dog to come, just let him come of his own accord and take the food. Now sit to the side, food in hand and let him come again to be rewarded by food. Now put your hands behind your back and follow the same steps, with dog walking behind you. All the time YOU must not move, simply let the dog come and explore you.

Now put your hands out in front but close them, waiting for the dog to give you a nudge before giving him the treat. Extend this to lying face down with food in hands until the dog is so confident that he will come up and really nudge and push you until you release the food. Don’t over praise, don’t go to touch the dog, don’t offer your hand – just let him come and ‘work’ at his own pace to get a treat from you. If you can encourage other people to play similar games, he will develop a great deal of confidence around new people as well as just you.

6) In situations where your dog shows fear towards strangers or visitors to them home, try and explain to visitors that you would prefer if simply ignored the dog completely, not even looking at the dog once or paying them the slightest bit of attention. Very often visitors feel the need to try and ‘comfort’ the dog and this can lead to the dog feeling even more threatened. Once the dog has learned not to react at all to visitors, ask the occasional ‘dogknowledgeable’ guest to nonchalantly and without any ceremony, simply drop a treat by the dog and then walk off in another direction. It is important they don’t try and make a fuss of the dog or offer the treat from the hand. Doing this regularly with different guests will accustom the dog to the idea that all visitors are not intruders to the ‘den’ and they are not intent on causing harm to the dog or his pack.

7) Complimentary therapies and treatments can be very helpful for aiding nerves. Diet also plays an important role. If a dog is unusually nervous, listless, depressed or lacking coat condition a change of food may be in order. There are specialist dieticians and holistic vets who may be able to greatly increase your dog’s physical and psychological well-being, thus improving the dog’s confidence and reducing nervousness. Try the Internet or Yellow pages and look for holistic vets and animal dieticians.

8) Keep in your mind at all times how your body language impacts the shy or nervous dog. You are a very large creature with an ability to make all sorts of frightening noises (vacuum cleaners, washing machines, shouting at the TV). Imagine another creature that was the equivalent distance in size to what you are to a dog and you will have an appreciation of how the shy or nervous dog may see you. Now imagine that creature ‘bearing’ down on you with wide eyes, a booming voice and hands the size of saucepans on their way to touch your face. Frightening isn’t it? Well, to a shy or nervous dog that can be how they see the world of humans and your body language can be interpreted wrongly by the dog. The fact that you are so much bigger than him and the fact that people at large generally have a tendency to approach dogs from a standing position thus bearing down on them can make the world a scary place. Always try and narrow the size difference with a nervy dog by getting down to their level. Avoid direct eye contact at all times, don’t wear sunglasses (to a dog, they look like a pair of wide, staring eyes that never go away) and remember how the dog sees the world from different angles than you. Body language is vital in helping nervous dogs overcome their fears.

9) Make use of other dogs. Dogs, as a rule, will copy and emulate their canine counterparts. If you have a nervous dog it can be a wonderful experience for him or her to meet a carefully selected friend. Just one other dog to begin with. Let them play, let the explore and the nervous dog will very soon begin to absorb the confidence of their bolder playmate and mimic their behaviour around people. It may take a while but regular ‘play sessions’ with other dogs can be the ultimate technique for curing many of the nervousness dog’s hang-ups about life. Ensure the play mate is well selected, is playful but not boisterous and has no aggressive tendencies. Don’t, under any circumstances try and help a nervous dog by introducing them to an equally nervous playmate, it will double the problem. Meeting other dogs is a pastime best done socially where a ‘screening’ process can take place. Taking a nervous dog somewhere where there are likely to be lots of other dogs can be problematic. Explain your problems to friends, family, co-workers and be honest about your need to find a well-mannered, confident dog for yours to play with from time to time.

10) Consistency is a word used by all dog trainers and behaviour experts on a, well, consistent basis. Never is it more pertinent than in the case of the nervous or shy dog. You may be an erratic person, disorganised, impulsive, loud, prone to bad moods or shouting with none of these characteristics meant for the dog’s consumption. However even the most ebullient of pooches will catch the vibes if something’s ‘up’ in the household. Ensuring stability, calm and an even tempered approach to home life will not only allow you to live longer and avoid an ulcer it will, above any other training tip or technique, help the more nervous of dogs to adjust to the world. Be patient, be calm, be understanding and be empathetic towards the dog’s disposition. Even if he or she has done something particularly naughty you must accept that there are certain ways to correct the problem that may work on 99.9% of dogs, even on dogs you have previously owned, but on THIS nervous or shy pet, the wrong response from you could literally kill their spirit.

We hope these tips have been useful. Do check back on the blog for more doggie advice including essential information about first aid for dogs.

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