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How can I help my anxious and fearful dog gain confidence?
What can I do to calm my dog's fears?
How do you go about training fearful dogs to overcome their anxieties and fearful behavior?
These are all common questions - plus many more - I hear from pet parents desperately trying to help their shy dog or scared dog learn to have more confidence and become more comfortable in the world.
We all want to help our dogs learn to be that confident dog, that relaxed dog who can simply enjoy life with us in this sometimes-too-human environment. As a certified, positive reinforcement dog trainer in this step-by-step guide I want to help you learn how to build up your dog's confidence and have tools to help your dog through tough situations.
What's behind our dogs' fears and anxieties and what we can do about it
(If you'd like additional context, watch as I take you through how to support fearful dogs in the accompanying video at the link at the top of this page and answer questions in a recorded live Q&A with dog parents like you who have a sometimes fearful, anxious or nervous dog.)
First, know you are not alone. It's so common to have a dog who feels fearful or anxious in our human world.
Does your dog struggle with general anxiety or is your dog fearful in certain settings, environments, or with certain types of unfamiliar people/places/things? Think about your dog's fear and your dog's triggers to plan what you can address with situation management.
Think about your answer to that question and make a list of the specific things that are behind your dog's anxiousness and fear.
Check those that can be managed situationally - at least initially while you take more time to work with your dog's emotional reactions.
In many cases, you'll find the best course is to take a layered approach - with both management and supporting your dog emotionally.
Give me an example
Management means mitigating the circumstances that induces fear as much as possible or removing them totally.
For example, you can't make thunderstorms not happen but you can anticipate them and help mask the sound with white noise, calming music, or tv, along with giving your dog calming aids in advance and something that might help consume your dog's focus like a frozen raw bone.
Or, if you know your dog's fear is triggered by other dogs on walks, you can put comfortable distance between your dog and other dogs by crossing the street or making a u-turn, etc, so your dog can feel safer and secure. You're giving your anxious dog physical and emotional space to work with you on building confidence over time to be the calm, sweet dog he or she is when not insecure and afraid.
(Obviously, avoiding the dog park is another simple example of smart management for dogs fearful around unfamiliar dogs. Why put your dog in a situation that by definition sends your pup over threshold and isn't happy for anyone?)
Tell me more
By using management, you're helping shape your anxious dog's environment to be conducive to feeling safe and open to learning. You're also training your dog to know that you always have his or her back, and it's safe to relax and proceed with confidence.
What helps give your dog the antidote to fear & anxiety?
Teaching confidence-building skills
One essential building block to helping your dog feel better and in turn, less fearful and anxious is teaching confidence-building skills! That makes sense, right? When we as humans get nervous or anxious, it's because we lack confidence in a certain situation.
It can be the same experience for our dogs. They are uncertain what will happen to them and don't know what to expect next, for a fearful dog who is prone to anxiety these situations are hard! When we help create predictability, it can build overall confidence.
Give your dog opportunities for active choice & to enjoy dog-specific behaviors
Providing dogs with these two things increases confidence, reduces overall stress, and teaches a dog how to cope better with a stressful situation in the future.
Give me an example
Dog-specific, soul-satisfying activities...
- Go on decompression walks on a long line rather than neighborhood walks on a short leash.
- Let your dog sniff - one of the most dog-specific, soul-satisfying de-stressors there is for dogs!
Give your dog choice...
- Let your dog choose the walking route (left or right? your dog's choice as long as it's safe), choose which enrichment puzzle toy or game to do (let your dog nose a couple of options and take time to signal a preference).
- Always allow your dog to opt out of a walk, game, training, or play at any time!
Building some choice into your dog's day lets your pup feel a sense of control that makes all of us, humans and dogs alike, feel less stressed and more relaxed in general.
Confidence-building on the go
Many of our dogs have difficulty keeping their confidence going in the outside world on walks and in public situations where people, other dogs, traffic, other things appear. Our dogs can lose all their confidence in the moment and become reactive to these stressors, making it difficult for them to walk, to stay calm, to function.
All these are behaviors we can work with by teaching our dogs alternate confidence-building behaviors to get them back into their thinking brain. Teaching alternate behaviors in advance is a way of helping fearful dogs learn they can make choices when the outside world gets hard.
Here are my favorite games/skills to teach dogs the world outside may be a little bit scary sometimes but they have control over what they're doing...
7 games/skills to fortify your dog's confidence
1) "Find it!"/treat scatter
Teach your dog that when you toss something or several treats in front of him/her to search for them. Not only a great management technique if you're trying to get your dog past something scary, but also refocuses your dog's brain on the interesting finding task.
I often do a couple rounds of "find it" to help a dog snap out of being scared or frozen and shift into their thinking brain to move on.
By teaching your dog to "u-turn," you're teaching your dog that when you say "turn" or "u-turn," you do exactly that and it's a happy thing to do, gets rewarded, and you're on your way.
Practice your u-turns on walks when you don't have to turn/when the environment is stress-free to get your dog used to it as a happy, positive, no-stress thing so it's just a normal cue your dog enjoys. Then you can use it in a stressful spot in the future if you need it. Your dog will already know how to turn around and move away from something with confidence.
U-turn is a great example of super useful management training - teaching your dog to work with you as a team to manage the outside world. (By the way, don't let anyone ever tell you management isn't training, that it's avoidance or whatever - management is training!)
3) "Go say hi "
By teaching your dog "go say hi," you're teaching your dog to approach something he/she may be nervous about if it's appropriate.
It's a way to teach your dog to go sniff the thing for a moment and then come away from it and get reinforcement from you rather than the thing.
Back in the day, we used to think the scary thing should give the reinforcements to the dog - now we know that's not a good idea, we want the reinforcements to come from you. So when your dog is cued with "go say hi" from you, your pup knows it's ok to check it out for a quick sniff, return to you, get reinforced, and repeat if he/she is comfortable. A good confidence-building skill when appropriate.
For more on training your dog to "go say hi," you can find my step-by-step guide on teaching it for specific uses (like stopping jumping) here.
4) Paws up on objects
One of my absolute favorites, teaching dogs they can use their bodies to explore things is a good way to let scary things pass them by (bikes, etc) as they enjoy the confident feeling of being able to put their paws up or jump up on objects. A simple, fun confidence-builder.
5) Talk to the invisible trigger
This is valuable in so many situations, and it's really practice for you. Before you need it, practice calling out loud on walks in a normal voice what you need to say to a trigger that isn't there right now (hence, invisible trigger). That means things like, "No thanks, he's not friendly!" or "Leash your dog!" ... all those situations that come up quickly that leave most of us fumbling to get the right words out before the scary, stressful thing is upon us. And too often in our "danger" tone of voice that by itself frightens our dogs!
Practice when you don't need it, get your dog used to your calling out in a normal voice to the air, so you're building their confidence when they hear these things that it's a normal occurrence and nothing to get nervous or skittish about. And you'll be ready to get off what you need to say in time to avert the trigger when it's real and not alarm your dog.
6) Magnet hand with treats
This is just a fancy name for having a lot of treats in your hand and creating a little magnet on your dog's mouth to lead your dog wherever you need him/her to go. Teaching your dog that when he/she sees that magnet hand you're going to take your dog to the safe place and lead your dog out of danger - and he/she get lots of yummy treats. Confidence is being built up that your dog can trust you and your magnet hand to guide him/her where they need to go to feel safe and secure.
7) Pattern games
Pattern games are useful for anyone learning about building confidence in anxious or sometimes-scared dogs through teaching predictability with games. There are so many valuable pattern games available - a couple of my personal favorites are the 1-2-3 training game and the super bowl training game. All focus on teaching dogs how to handle scary things in their environment through predictability.
Here's what I want you to know...
Confidence-building takes time and commitment but doesn't need to be extremely challenging.
It's about learning tips and tricks to help your dog.
It doesn't have to be some intensive behavior modification process. It's about helping your dog understand he or she has choice... using agency, patience, and positive reinforcement training strategies that will empower your dog to walk more confidently in his or her world.
Remember to jump into the accompanying video above for more detail on all this and to hear my answers to questions from other dog parents like you.
Next up in the Anxiety Channel on Dogly
Now that you've learned how to build confidence in your fearful dog, you're ready to continue on to other guides in the Anxiety Channel. Jump to Separation Anxiety step-by-step guides like how to make coming and going boring and how to set your home environment up for success, or check out other guides like how to teach your dog to stay calm outside of the house.
Hop over to the Anxiety Channel if you'd like to ask any of the Dogly Training Advocates who are all certified dog trainers a question in the Community discussion or start any of the step-by-step guides in Environment Anxiety, Separation Anxiety, or Understanding Anxiety.
And if you ever need more personalized training help, please reach out to work with me one-on-one here on Dogly!