Updated: Dec 1, 2020
I love working with soft dogs - dogs that take instruction easily, that wilt if you're too firm with them, went are sensitive to you as a handler. I love building confidence in insecure or nervous or fearful dogs. It's one of my absolute favorite pieces of being a dog trainer. When I was still at the training center we had a wide variety of personality types that we had to deal with.
I had a fellow trainer there that loved the hard headed dogs, the dogs that pushed back when you asked for something. She loved the challenge that those dogs posed - having to channel and harness drive into productive uses, and she'd make progress quickly. I used to grit my teeth when working with those dogs because I hated dealing with push back, having to never give ground because they'd take advantage of it; I hated having to be strict. But give me a dog that I need to nurture and build up, a dog that I need to bond slowly and carefully with show them how to find their place in the world and I'm in my happy place. My co-worker, in contrast, consider the whole process slow, frustrating, and overly delicate. It meant we complimented each other greatly as trainers and I still miss working with her.
Over time, I've found the working with insecure dogs is something that can be difficult for many people - most don't know where to start, so I want to compile a list of some concrete things you can try to help your dog be more comfortable in their own skin.
But first, my cardinal rule:
To build a dog's confidence they need to opt in. You can't force them. It has to be on their terms.
I imagine everyone's has the experience where they weren't sure about trying something. They hesitated and someone, be it family or friend, pushed them into trying the potentially scary new thing and they ended up loving it. That's understandable in humans. We can speak to the person who's hesitating, rationalize, and build up their confidence.
But that's not a choice with dogs. They don't speak English. You can't just tell them that walking on a crinkly tarp isn't scary because it's not going to hurt them and have them believe you. And if you start dragging your dog over the tarp anyway you've both likely added to their fear and broken their trust because they still don't understand the crinkly tarp isn't scary. Drag them through enough scary things and your dog is going to escalate in their fear. Where before maybe they just balked, now they try to slip their collar or they bark or growl or, if you push them far enough to often, they snap either at you or the trigger (the thing that's scaring them).
So what can you do instead?
1. Work Them Under Threshold
A dog's threshold is the level to which they can tolerate a triggering stimulus (scary sight, sound, experience) while maintaining the mental capacity to think and reason. If your dog is terrified of other dogs and you walk right up to one and force yours to say hi on leash, you are taking your dog over their threshold.
Dogs who are over threshold might bark or growl or snarl or lunge. Dogs that are way over threshold might even bite. Some might panic and try to flee (often right into traffic). Some respond entirely differently and just stand their hunched and shaking.
My gauge for whether a dog is over threshold is: are they taking food. I have worked with some dogs who never take treats outside of their house because they are so hyper aware of their surrounding. In those instances you still need to keep as far away from the dog's triggers as possible and rely heavily on praise and petting. If the dog doesn't want either of those, I will use taking them out of the stressful situation as the reward. Ideally, I never want to work my dog while they're so stressed they're not taking food, but there are genuinely dogs who you would never take outside if this was the case. So in those instances I keep my sessions and outings short, during the calm part of the day, and try not to push my dog over threshold any further.
When in doubt, get more distance from the trigger. Meaning back up if your dog is showing signs that they are going to plunge over threshold and start barking or fleeing. Recognize, before those signs, your dog will tend to stare hard at the trigger and freeze. That is your time to say "Whee, let's go!" and move quickly in the opposite direction from the trigger (remember, keep it fun not panicked and your dog will respond better). If your dog starts barking at a dog or a person walking down the street, cross the street! Don't force them to interact while they're over threshold. They won't get any learning done that way.
2. Do As I Do
You can't explain to your dog in English why something isn't scary, but you can demonstrate that you're not scared of it. That's why when your dog gets nervous and you start fussing over them and making a big deal of the trigger telling them "It's okay!" over and over in a high, tight, anxious voice can do more harm than good. If your dog sees that you think the trigger is concerning because you're acting anxious (even though you're anxious about your dog being unhappy, not over the trigger itself), then that reinforces the dogs fear.
Instead, you can approach the trigger (hand your dog's leash to a friend or let them stay at the end of the leash while you approach the item). Touch the item, interact with it, be fascinated by it. Don't pay any attention to your dog while you do this (unless they're barking or trying to flee, in which case, back up). More often than not, dogs will start to approach the scary item when they see you demonstrating that you're not scared of it.
3. "What was that?!"
My coworkers used to make fun of me so much because this phrase comes out of my mouth a whole lot while I'm working with a nervous dog. A door slams - "What was that?!" in the happiest goofiest voice I can and then I go to investigate (see point 2). A dog barks - "What was that?!" And on and on. Eventually that cue becomes reassurance for the dog - yes, I heard the scary noise to, yes isn't that fun, come on let's go investigate it.
The other thing this does is it keeps you happy and relaxed and in control because instead of getting tight and anxious you stay loose and goofy.
4. Perching/Environmental Agility
One of my most common recommendations for nervous dogs is giving them some foundation in agility. Very often I get comments from clients confused why agility will help their fearful dog. Agility gives your dog something external to focus on. It gives them something physical and somewhat challenging to be successful at, which can build confidence. And it can elevate the dog's physical position and give them a better vantage to see things coming at them, which can help relax them.
You don't have to take agility classes to be competitive. They're an excellent bonding activity for you and your dog and good instructors should help your dog build confidence little by little.
Even if you don't take a class, find things for your dogs to jump on and teach them an "Up" or "Hup" behavior which you can use when things get scary for your dog. You don't need agility equipment for that. Have them jump up on a bench, low retaining wall, log, rock, or anything you have handy. When teaching this behavior, remember to let your dog opt in. Don't drag them into it. Put treats on it or lure them closer, but give them the choice to approach the obstacle. Also, remember that letting them walk away from the obstacle that is providing pressure on your dog is a reward in and of itself and utilize that fact.
5. Give Them a Job
This goes back to agility giving your dog something external to focus on aside from their own fears. That doesn't mean you have to get heavily into dog sports, though I will say Ash has always been a bit insecure and lure coursing and racing have greatly increased his confidence (I know a number of sighthound owners who can say the same thing).
I once worked with an insecure Rottweiler who was quite reactive. We did lots of desensitization and counter conditioning and decreasing reactivity exercises, but I can honestly say putting him in a backpack with light weight in it made the biggest difference by far. It gave him just enough to focus on instead of his triggers that it made a huge difference.
There are lots activities that can help your dog focus on things other than their fears such as Scent Work, Agility, Barn Hunt, utilizing a Back Pack, and more.
6. Tricks Are Worth Their Weight in Gold
Dogs tend to associate behaviors we ask of them with the emotional context they're taught with. For instance, most owners don't have a ton of fun teaching their dog to sit or lie down. Yet when they are trying to distract a dog from their triggers, those are the behaviors they ask of their dog. I like giving your dog a task to perform instead of just letting them stare at their trigger, but often "Sit" becomes a cue for the dog to associate something scary is coming; it also traps your dog in one place when they might feel more comfortable being mobile when scared.
In contrast, most owners love teaching tricks and thus the dog associates those behaviors with fun and happiness. I love Touch (dog touches nose to your hand), Spin, Find It (dog finds food on the ground), and more so the dog is both mobile, in a positive emotional state, and doing something other than fixating on the other dog.
7. Give Them a Place to Relax
I hear crates recommended quite often for giving a dog a calm, restful place to relax. Obviously this is going to vary by dogs and the amount of work invested in making a crate a safe space. It can be nice for dogs who want to feel cozy and I do often find anxious dogs actually able to relax in their crates.
However, perhaps even more important is giving your dog both the ability and the place to relax while you're out and about. For me this means teaching a Place behavior - essentially a target location where your dog goes and automatically lays down to relax. This can be taught by texting your dog to move to a mat (blankets, dog beds, and such also work). Once they are moving to a mat I start asking for a Down. Pair those two behaviors together enough and the dog will start going to their place and automatically laying down.
Why is this so important? Nervous dogs tend to do a lot of scanning and be hyper environmentally aware. They tend to be worried that their trigger will sneak up on them. By teaching them to relax in their place you are helping trigger those emotions of relaxation every time they see their mat. So bring their mat somewhere they you'll be relaxing for a bit then them Place and they often will start to relax when they otherwise wouldn't.
8. Counter Conditioning
This is a behavior modification technique. Most books you find on working with fearful dogs will touch on Counter Conditioning (CC) and Desensitization more than any other techniques. The reason for that is these techniques but rely on learning principles and allow you to reshape a dog's conditioned emotional responses.
The essence of CC is to pair a dog's trigger with a simultaneously presented positive reinforcer. That means a dog is scared of the vacuum so you take the vacuum out of the closet while simultaneously giving your dog a treat. Then you repeat that until the dog is no longer acting nervous and instead of anticipating their treat. Then you continue the process but this time you approach with the vacuum. Or you turn the vacuum in from a distance. And you pair that with a treat. And you slowly progress until the dog thinks that the vacuum is a party.
While this is extremely important information to know and will change your dogs underlying emotions, the process requires a lot of patience, short progressing sessions, and good timing. For instance, if you consistently present the treat before showing the dog the trigger, you can "poison" the treat. Meaning every time your dog sees a treat in a particular context they will anticipate the trigger and ultimately can even become scared of the treat. That's went the simultaneous pairing is so important.
This is the process where a dog is exposed to a very small controlled amount of the trigger. Once they are comfortable with that small amount you expose them to a slightly larger amount. And you slowly build up their tolerance to the trigger.
This can be done with noise phobias such as a dog's fear of fireworks. You start an audio track of fireworks turned all the way down and slowly start turning it up until it's very loud indeed. Similarly for dogs that are nervous of other dogs you can start with a calm, neutral dog 100 feet away and very slowly get closer.
Desensitization is a process I find that works best with a trainer (ideally a behaviorist) to help an owner correctly read their dog's body language to ensure you aren't introducing too much, too fast.
One final note on techniques to be wary and careful of when working with insecure dogs: flooding. Flooding is a technique where you expose dogs to stimuli far beyond what they can reasonably cope with. This gives them too much too fixate on and it can result in behavior that is more socially appropriate. However, this can be extremely stressful to the dog and can be done in such a way to cause lasting damage. I have seen flooding used successfully in cases of extreme aggression where it ultimately saved dogs' lives. However it absolutely should only be done by an experienced trainer.