Scaredy dog - Tips for dealing with a nervous canine
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Scaredy dog - Tips for dealing with a nervous canine

If your dog is of a nervous disposition, it can have a wide reaching effect on a variety of factors in both of your lives. Whether your dog is simply generally jumpy, or has a particular phobia about some harmless everyday occurrence that there is no getting away from, it can be hard to know how to best handle the problem. The automatic and very natural response of many dog owners is to make a big fuss of their frightened dog, spend a lot of time soothing them when they are nervous, and to go out of their way to accommodate for their dog’s fear to try to ease their worry.But did you know that responding to fear and nerves in this way might actually be enabling your dog’s fear, and exacerbating their stress levels? Are you confused about the best way to proceed? Read on for our top tips on dealing with a nervous or scared dog.

Triggers and underlying reasons for nerves and fear

Identifying the root cause or causes of fear or nervous behaviour in dogs can be complex, and often, a range of factors combine to elicit the fear response that your dog might display at any given time.If you have not owned your dog since they were a puppy, and particularly if the full history of your dog’s life before you got them is unknown, being able to pinpoint the issues in their past treatment or interactions with the world that continue to effect them long after they are gone can be difficult or even impossible. This is often particularly true for dogs that come from rehoming shelters or dogs homes. Whether or not you can pinpoint the origins of the fear, be it generalised or specific to one object or environment, however, how you should ultimately manage it on an ongoing basis will generally be the same.

All about trust

One of the key elements in helping your dog to manage fear, or nerves of a certain situation or environment, is ensuring that your dog trusts you to take care of them and believes in your direction and reassurance. Even if your dog has an uncertain history or if you are sure that something bad has happened to them in the past, their trust in you to protect them, keep them safe and reassure them can go a long way towards undoing the effects of past traumas and how they affect the dog in the future. Make sure that you have taken the time to build up a solid relationship with your dog, and that your dog is happy around you, takes your direction, and listens to the cues and commands that you give to him; this will ultimately enable you to work on your dog’s stress triggers or fear responses.

Managing your dog in situations that cause fear or stress

The key to minimising situational fear or stress in your dog comes from convincing them that there is nothing to fear in the first place. You as their owner can play a big part in this, and how you react to the situation or trigger itself is the most important aspect that dictates whether your dog will ultimately settle down and get over their phobia, or will continue to be afraid and nervous in the future. These guidelines should help to direct your interactions with your dog when they are afraid.

  • Make sure that your dog feels safe with you, and in his own home. While many triggers of fear are outside of the home, ensuring that your dog feels secure and happy in his safe place every day is a big part of keeping him on an even keel and enabling him to deal with any unexpected issues or situations that may arise. If your dog reacts to triggers or phobias within the home itself, make sure that they have a safe place that they can retreat to, such as their bed, crate or another area that they seek out when they are in need of comfort.
  • Teach your dog by example when they are afraid or nervous. Fussing your dog, soothing them and intensively trying to encourage them to stop hiding or to calm down can in fact increase your dog’s fear or stress, as by doing this, you are indicating to your dog that the cause of their fear is legitimate. Speak in your normal voice, carry on as normal, and generally do not acknowledge the source of the problem at all. Talking to or in the presence of your dog while they are afraid is a great idea, as the sound of your voice will soothe them, but keep your tone conversational and normal rather than sympathetic and soothing. Be businesslike, and indicate to your dog that you are not afraid; and so they should not be afraid either.
  • Keep your dog to their regular routine, and ensure that feeding, walking and everything else within your home is well structured. Routine and understanding the boundaries of their lives and lifestyles is a big part of how dogs find their security and stability in any situation, so do not neglect their routine, training or discipline in the wake of fear or phobias, as this is very counter-productive.
  • Consider getting a DAP collar or diffuser for your dog; these items contain a synthetic feel-good pheromone that can go a long way towards making your dog feel comfortable and safe within their environment.

Exposure to triggers of fear and stress

If your dog is particularly scared of a certain place, object or situation, on the one hand, you may be able to negate the issue by simply keeping them away from it. However, this can prove to be counter-productive in the long term, as you will never ultimately address the root cause of the issue or be able to teach your dog that there is nothing to fear. Over time, with regular exposure to the particular issues that frighten them, your dog should become more at home with them and the extent of their fright or unhappiness should become less and less. Providing that you work closely with your dog in the right ways to build up positive associations of safety and security, there is no reason that any dog should not be able to learn to manage their phobias and fears, as part of their ongoing development and lifelong training. Good luck!

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