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Some dogs are social butterflies who greet every new situation with enthusiasm and excitement. But at the other end of the spectrum are the anxious dogs who feel overwhelmed by the world. Whether it’s a fear of strangers, other dogs, or noises like the vacuum, it can be incredibly challenging to train a fearful dog. But these dogs are absolutely worth the extra effort it takes to bring them out of their shell.

Respect Your Dog’s Emotional State

Just as with people, a dog’s fear can interfere with learning. When a dog is anxious, they aren’t focused on you, but rather the scary distraction. It can be a struggle to get them to listen. And never mind feeding treats or playing games. An anxious dog won’t be interested. Fear makes dogs shut down, and training can’t happen when cognitive connections can’t form.

Rather than trying to train your dog when they are fearful, you need to respect how your dog is feeling and either remove them from the situation or modify it so your dog can cope. Be your dog’s advocate. Even if it seems impolite to walk away, put your dog’s emotional needs first. Training can wait until your dog is in a calmer emotional state.

Early Warning Signs of Anxiety and Fear

To help your dog avoid their fears, you need to be in tune with canine body language. If you can see the early warning signs of anxiety and fear, you can step in before your dog becomes overwhelmed. You can also learn your dog’s triggers by closely observing how they react to different situations. And once you know those triggers, you can begin to address them.

Some of the signs of fear are obvious, like cowering, shaking, or running away. But you want to prevent things from ever getting that bad. You need to be on the lookout for the often-misunderstood signs your dog is uncomfortable. The following list will help you see when your dog is experiencing anxiety:

  • Yawning. Don’t mistake this signal for boredom. Dogs may yawn to express emotional discomfort.
  • Disinterest. If your dog is ignoring treats or toys they would normally want, it’s likely anxiety has taken hold.
  • Panting. Your dog may be cooling off in the heat or experiencing stress.
  • Sniffing the ground. When they are anxious, dogs often show displacement behaviors like sniffing in an attempt to focus on something other than the trigger.
  • Growling or lunging. Some dogs will go on the offensive to hopefully scare off the trigger. This seemingly aggressive behavior can actually be underpinned by fear.

If your dog exhibits these signs, it’s time to build their confidence and help them face their fears in a safe and productive way. For help with your dog’s confidence-building program, consult a professional dog trainer or animal behaviorist.

Russell Terrier hiding under the bed.
Richard Unten/Moment Open via Getty Images

Building Confidence

Whether your dog is fearful from past trauma or a lack of socialization, you can make tremendous progress in helping them face their fears. However, don’t expect your dog’s personality to entirely change. A nervous dog isn’t going to become the life of the party, but they can become more comfortable in the world. And that will lead to a happier, more relaxed dog.

There are many ways to build your dog’s confidence in general. First, provide your dog with a reliable routine so their world is more predictable. Next, teach your dog basic obedience behaviors. Finally, use those behaviors to ask your dog to earn life rewards so they gain a sense of control over their environment. For example, ask them to sit before you put down their dinner dish, or ask for a “down” before you let them outside into the yard.

Training for dog sports is another way of building confidence. Don’t expect your dog to compete, that’s not the goal. It’s the experience of facing new challenges that matters. For example, in agility training dogs learn to conquer obstacles like the seesaw (teeter-totter) and jumps, and that can help them feel more confident about what they can handle.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

You can also build your dog’s confidence with their specific triggers. The key is to create positive associations for your dog with the things that frighten them. But how can you do that if your dog won’t eat or play in their presence? The trick is to expose your dog to their triggers at a level where they don’t react. That might be staying 20 feet away from strangers or being in the same room as the vacuum while it’s turned off. This is known as keeping your dog below threshold.

Once you have your dog below threshold, you can pair that exposure with something your dog loves like delicious treats. Once your dog is happy to be at that distance from the trigger, you can increase the intensity a tiny bit and pair with treats again. In time, you will slowly work your way to the full-blown situation. This is known as desensitization and counterconditioning and although it’s time consuming, it’s incredibly effective.

Tips for Training

Once your dog has newfound confidence, you will be able to train in more situations and introduce new distractions. In the meantime, it can be tricky to teach new behaviors. The following tips will help you train successfully:

  • Use positive training methods only. Ignore and redirect unwanted behavior rather than punishing your dog. Using rewards will encourage your dog to build positive associations with the training process.
  • Be patient. Don’t set unrealistic expectations for your fearful dog. For example, if your dog is nervous in training class, switch to private lessons or simply listen to the instructions and wait to practice at home.
  • Go at your dog’s pace. Remember that fear interferes with learning, so it can take your dog longer than expected to master new behaviors.
  • Teach your dog to nose target. You can use this easy and fun “touch” behavior to encourage your dog to approach new people or other dogs, plus it’s great to help redirect and distract them around their triggers.
Related article: How Much Language Do Dogs Really Understand?
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