How to Help Anxious and Nervous Dogs

All dogs benefit from structure, boundaries, purpose driven activities but anxious and nervous dogs need it more than anything else. 

It’s important to note that when we live with an anxious or nervous dog, we sometimes begin to hyper focus on the stressors that affect our dogs.  We alter the way we live around a nervous or anxious dog. We try to avoid all stressors.  We begin to alter where we go, who we allow over to visit and other such alterations to regular life.  It can grow to such an extent that we actually bring more stress upon the dog.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t acknowledge an issue and shouldn’t alter the way we go about things in our life with special dogs, I am however sharing that it’s been my personal observation after training thousands of dogs that a significant amount of nervous and anxious dogs get much less nervous and anxious when we treat them like dogs and when we put in place strategies that allow them to know the boundaries and experience more purpose in their life.

My foundation focuses on structure, spatial respect (no matter what), feed, bedtime & potty rituals and purposeful exercise, and what you need to do with your leash, your body and your tone for these dogs.  These elements bring order, structure and clarity to your dog’s world.  And order, structure and clarity (yes, it’s worth repeating), across the board, rooted in the very fiber of how you live with a dog, always reduces anxiety and nervousness in a dog. We don’t remove all the stressors, we actually change how they feel about those stressors!

Every living, breathing being will eventually learn that the world does not revolve around them. The world keeps spinning on its axis regardless of the individual emotions involved. It’s never easy to hear that it “isn’t all about you” right! This is true for you and true for you pup! Every emotion, every whim, every reaction, every feeling and nuance of your existence is not the only thing in the world. Your pup isn’t the center of the universe. It’s a TON of pressure on a dog to be the end all, be all, of a human’s life. The intense scrutiny, intense interaction is way too much for a sensitive dog. Dogs need to know that “Hey, It’s not all about you.”  Your pup will be relieved that she doesn’t have to play that role in your life.  

At APBC we help pups/dogs learn how to ‘just be’.  And, while we are going about our busy lives, we are constantly showing our dogs many things like: “Hey, I’VE GOT IT!” 

“You are a part of this world, not the center of it.”  “You’ve got me kiddo, you don’t have to weigh in on this issue.”  It is essential that your dog understands that stress happens, and it’s not the end of the world.  Loud noises happen and it’s not the end of the world. Things can go bump in the night, and it’s not the end of the world.  Dogs and people can pass you, and you don’t have to freak out. Dogs need to know that there are expectations about what behavior will or will not be accepted.  Dogs need to have meaningful purpose in their relationship with you!  Dogs need to be satisfied, challenged, fulfilled, exercised in body & brain.  Dogs need to have the job of learning how to navigate this human world.  Anxious dogs need all these things even more than the average dog.  

🐶One of the first things we do with anxious & nervous dogs is we tether them.  Yep, we tether and tether and tether and tether them.  We mop, sweep, vacuum, dust, do laundry, scoop poops, do gardening, weeding, raking–you name it we do it. Tethering lets your dog be part of your world, not the center of it and just experience everything right along with you.  Remember, tethering is not a time for you to be petting your dog, chatting to your dog, giving it commands, no obedience work or touching the leash.  Simply hook that leash to your waist at a nice walking length (about 24 inches) and go about your business.  You do want your dog’s leash long enough that if you stop walking, he can lay down. Never allow rudeness from your dog! Check out our most popular video on tethering. 

🐶We also play FOCUS GAMES for anxious and nervous dogs.  Basically you want to reward your dog for giving you eye contact.  I call my dog to me he sits, and I wait, wait, wait until his eyes meet mine, then I click or mark/reward.  You start doing these little fun games and before you know it, your dog is looking to YOU for all kinds of things. Eventually you name this FOCUS, and he looks at you and great things happen. You begin having small distractions in a controlled environment, he focuses on you, great things happen.  This will come in handy when you are approaching something that causes your dog stress because you can get your dog to FOCUS on you before he worries about something over there!   Don’t underestimate the role that basic leash manners and door manners can play in your dog’s ability to focus on you.  Clear expectations of your dog being able to FOCUS on you during a walk and your dog’s ability to focus on you at doors will go a long way in helping your dog to understand that there are basic rules and expectations of etiquette as you go through life together.  Here is a video about a focus game, Come When Called. 

🐶Another thing we do is we work PLACE after physical activities!  Your dog can learn that he can contain himself on a defined space with a clear boundary, once he trusts that you won’t allow anything at all to happen to him when he’s on this place. Most importantly, your expectation will be that he remains on place until invited off. Place also gives your dog a chance to learn that he can experience calm in the midst of something that would previously trigger him.  For example, a loud noise goes off in the distance.  Once your dog has learned place, he can be on PLACE when that noise happens and he can trust that nothing will happen to him.  Eventually he will even be calm and relaxed on place when the things that used to trigger him occur.  He learns that he can manage adrenaline surges on place.  He learns that he can actually manage his impulses and not act on every thought that flits through his brain.  

🐶 We get nervous and anxious dogs around balanced dogs. Your dog is figuring out that the pleasure’s in life are just being a dog.  Beneficial Socialization is powerful to help a dog learn how to COPE.  Dogs need to learn how to cope with stress, frustration, not getting their way, and have natural consequences for their choices.  Balanced dogs allow this to happen in a very natural way.  Anxious dogs learn quickly to be much less anxious or they experience the very real consequences of their choice to remain over-the-top.  Dogs help special dogs relax, and become part of the group.  Beneficial Socialization is beneficial because of the humans supervising the group of dogs.  Fantastic human supervision while dogs are socializing together is what makes it safe and effective for nervous and anxious dogs.  Left alone, they could become targets quickly.  Just remember that not every friend you ever had in your life was necessarily a good influence.  The same is true for dogs with other dogs.  For the experience to be beneficial it has to be supervised by people that have a very good read on dogs, and the ability to correctly intervene in the blink of an eye. 

🐶The last area that needs to be addressed with nervous and anxious dogs is YOU–the HUMAN part of the equation.  I know this can be hard to hear sometimes, but more often than not, when a dog is over-the-top in any area like anxiety or nervousness,, it is more likely a reflection of what is going on in your head than it is in theirs. Dogs are VERY intuitive and responsive to us. If we are overly concerned about anything (including too concerned for the dog itself) …the dog becomes overly concerned as well. Your dog is a dog. Period. And that can also mean they are opportunistic, meaning, when they choose a behavior, like whining, crying or barking, it works because you react. When your dog lunges and barks at a passerby, the passerby moves away OR you pick your dog up and walk away from the thing that he was making a fuss about. It worked, the dog didn’t have to cope or learn to deal with the situation that was uncomfortable for him. 

We often inflict our own human emotions onto a dog, for example, we’ll say, “Oh Look, she’s mad at me.” “Oh, poor baby is scared” “Oh, she can’t live without me, she goes crazy if she’s out of my sight”. When I hear things like that, what it usually means is– those are your emotions that your dog is merely reflecting back to you.

Dogs really don’t process their world like that. Dogs really do live in the moment they are in. Yes, they are devoted companions, and when there is balance in the relationship, it’s a healthy, wonderful, reciprocated devotion, and not an obsession. However, we humans must acknowledge that the needs of a dog are not the same as the needs of a human. We often rob our dog’s of opportunities to learn how to cope with layers of stress.  We need to watch dogs more and respond more the way they do.  When a dog is a nervous or anxious mess, dogs handle dogs in that state of mind quite efficiently.  They want him to relax and chill out.  They do things to make that happen; they define space, they correct, they get moving, they shut down excessive behaviors instantly, they move further away sometimes and they just carry on.  NO BIG DEAL.  So when the next scary thing happens and you are tempted to snatch your dog off the ground and carry her away, think about what you see dogs do when they are with each other.  Regardless of WHY your dog is getting stressed, the answer is always calm, confident, relaxed and clear stewardship and leadership from you.  I always tell my clients, “Keep calm.  Breathe.  Keep those hands down low and just GO!” 

Do you need more guidance and help with your anxious dog?  We have just the thing for that. 

Starting June 27th Aly will be personally hosting her Pillars of Pack Leadership Academy Workshop emphasizing working with nervous or anxious dogs! Get on the list HERE to be the first to know when registration opens.

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