Tips and Tricks for Fearful and Insecure Dogs

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 &