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How to Help Your Shy or Nervous Dog

Simple, everyday techniques to help shy and nervous dogs feel more relaxed.

By
Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
July 6, 2010
Episode #068

In last week’s article, I discussed the inborn factors and life history that can leave dogs prone to shyness and anxiety. This week, I’ll explain how to help shy dogs cope better with this big, scary world.

How to Help Your Shy or Nervous Dog

Canine shyness is one of those topics calling for an off-the-bat disclaimer. The tips in this article can help a dog with a mild problem. But if your dog’s issues are more severe, he needs a program tailored for him by a trainer well educated in behavior modification. The trainer may also wish to refer you to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, because the right medication can relieve your dog’s anxiety and maximize his progress. In short, if your dog has significant problems, then this article may be most useful in helping you judge whether a potential hire is familiar with science-based methods of behavior change.

How to Know Which Situations Scare Your Dog

Shyness and fear are hard to shake under the best of circumstances, whereas fearful responses are easily learned. And the more time your dog spends feeling anxious or fearful, the deeper that anxious groove gets worn. So, as much as you can, protect your shy dog from things that scare her.  Trainers and behaviorists use the concept of “threshold,” meaning the point at which an animal just barely becomes alert to something that worries or upsets her. She might watch whatever it is, or breathe faster, or give some other sign that she’s less than 100 percent relaxed and happy. That is your cue. Make it your business to create more distance between your dog and the object of her alertness. If you live in an urban environment or if your dog is afraid of many things, you may not be able to avoid them all. Do the best you can.

Don’t Push Your Shy Dog

Dogs are exquisitely sensitive to human emotion, so in marginal situations we can often help them by taking a happy, playful tone.

After that, it probably goes without saying that you shouldn’t push your dog to engage. Nor should you use food to lure her toward something that scares her. If your offer of a treat frequently predicts situations in which she’s pressured to approach scary things, you can even wind up with a dog who’s afraid of treats.

Although you shouldn’t push your dog, you can encourage her. Say she’s eyeballing a garbage can that’s suspect because it’s not in its usual place. You know her signals well and you can see that she’s just teetering on the verge of worry. Try softly playful, silly talk--“Oh, my goodness, will you get a load of that garbage can? How dare it move like that?”--and then take her away from it. Dogs are exquisitely sensitive to human emotion, so in marginal situations we can often help them by taking a happy, playful tone. Keep the excitement level down, though, because excitement and fear are two sides of the same physiological coin.

Calmly Praise Your Fearful Dog When She Acts Brave

Suppose one day your fearful dog chooses to investigate that nomadic garbage can. Calmly praise and encourage this exploration, while never pushing it. Once your dog’s done, she’s done; take her away. When an experience like this is going well, even professionals are often tempted to try “just one more time,” and that’s invariably when a truck backfires at the moment the brave dog sniffs the garbage can. Avoid the exploding-garbage-can effect. Always quit while your dog’s ahead.

Use Caution When Your Shy Dog Checks a Person Out

Use caution if your dog’s sniffing and checking out a person who worries her. People who like dogs have a terrible time with the idea that a dog might be afraid of them; they say “Dogs love me!” and “I’ve got a way with dogs,” and then they bend over the dog and try to moosh her ears. If your shy dog has stepped outside her comfort zone, then human behavior like this will, at best, scare her. At worst, it can elicit a bite.

Predictable Routines Can Help Anxious Dogs Cope

Shy and fearful dogs are often a bit inflexible or brittle; they do okay with predictable, familiar patterns, but fall to pieces when objects appear out of place, or humans make sudden movements, or there’s a change in your household. So help your anxious dog by establishing clear routines and by directing her behavior through reward-based training.  You can let a sociable, relaxed dog meet visitors without any choreography (though you may want to teach him to keep all four feet on the ground when saying hi). On the other hand, an anxious dog might feel more at ease if you carefully teach her that the doorbell is a cue to lie on her bed and stay there instead of trying to make doggy small talk.

[[AdMiddle]I hesitate over human analogies, but I think it’s fair to say that predictability eases your dog’s worries in the same way that being dressed right and knowing what fork to use for the salad makes us less anxious about formal dinners.

Confident Dog Friends Can Help Your Anxious Dog Relax

If your shy or anxious dog has some confident, relaxed dog friends, try walking them together. There’s evidence that an anxious animal’s fears can be eased by the presence of nonfearful companions. (1) So if your dog’s pals look up when they hear a truck backfire, but then immediately return to their close study of the nearest hydrant, your dog may be able to relax too, at least to some extent. These effects may not hold up when your dog’s relaxed friends aren’t there, and it’s not likely that they’ll spontaneously spread to other contexts. Still, every good experience will improve your dog’s quality of life. And even a tiny confidence-building effect at least points in the right direction.

Does “Dog-Appeasing Pheromone” Work?

Finally, try “dog-appeasing pheromone.” This manufactured version of a pheromone secreted by nursing mother dogs is supposed to ease anxiety. It’s sold under the brand name Comfort Zone, and you can get it as a plug-in diffuser and also as a spray that you can put on a collar or bandanna. It’s no miracle cure, but it’s not expensive and there is fairly good experimental evidence that it helps some dogs. (2) By the way, I can just barely smell something if I plaster my nose to the diffuser, so don’t worry that it’ll stink up your house.

Recommendations are often made for the product called Anxiety Wrap and for flower remedies, aromatherapy, the massage-like TellingtonTouch, and on and on. (3) Many of my colleagues swear by these, but as far as I’ve been able to learn there’s no objective evidence to support the efficacy of any of them except, perhaps, the scent of lavender. (4)

Get Professional Help for Behavior Modification

The suggestions in this article can alleviate mild worry and anxiety. You should work with a professional if your dog has intense fears or is afraid of many things. An expert can help you apply behavior modification methods and specialized training that I haven’t covered here-- counterconditioning and desensitization;  the cue “Look at That,” which turns looking at scary things into a fun game; techniques that reward confident behavior by removing the dog from the presence of whatever frightens him. Behavior modification is usually simple in principle, but always subtle in practice. Don’t fly solo.

You can follow The Dog Trainer on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini, as well as on Facebook, and write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and I answer as many questions as I can. That’s all for this week. Thank you for reading!

Notes

1. See Steven R. Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training.Vol. 3: Procedures and Protocols (Blackwell, 2005), pp. 139-140, “Social Facilitation and Modeling.”

2. To find abstracts, do a Google Scholar search for “dog-appeasing pheromone.” There have been studies of shelter dogs, dogs going to the vet, dogs going on car trips, dogs afraid of fireworks, newly adopted puppies … In general, effects on anxiety-related behaviors seem to be small but statistically significant. I don’t think any studies have found an effect on aggression or house soiling.

3. This patent application illustrates a wrap pattern intended to alleviate anxiety, if you’re interested.

4. For lavender, one recent study is Komiya, M., et al. 2009. Evaluation of the effect of topical application of lavender oil on autonomic nerve activity in dogs. American Journal of Veterinary Research 70(6): 764-769. The authors found a lowered heart rate among dogs treated with lavender, but also found higher-frequency activity on a heart monitor (which suggests increased activity of the autonomic nervous system – the opposite of the effect one would hope for).

Resources

For the “Look at That” game, see Leslie McDevitt, Control Unleashed:Creating a Focused and Confident Dog (Clean Run Productions, 2007). Leslie McDevitt’s website is here.

The ASPCA’s excellent “Virtual Pet Behaviorist” site includes this good article about counterconditioning and desensitization. While I disagree that it is always necessary to consult a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, it’s true that dog trainers are insufficiently professionalized; evaluate prospective hires carefully, to be sure that they offer you solidly science-based help instead of folklore and outright fantasy.

The Fearful Dogs website offers many helpful resources.

Nicole Wilde’s book Help for Your Fearful Dog (Phantom Publishing, 2006) has much to offer, but unfortunately includes chapters on homeopathy, flower remedies, and other modalities that have either been thoroughly debunked or for which the evidence is feeble at best. Go with the solid behavior tips and skip the woo.

The Constructional Aggression Treatment is a scientifically grounded training technique that can be adapted for work with fearful dogs. A “cousin” is the excellent Behavioral Adjustment Technique elaborated by Grisha Stewart. If you are interested in trying either method, seek out a trainer experienced in it.

There’s a Yahoo! group devoted to shy dogs, with good discussions of how to manage them and modify their behavior. Plus, you can’t beat the emotional support factor—life with a shy dog can be difficult.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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