Pets – just like us humans – experience stress. Stress is caused by various factors like changes in the environment, separation from family, or exposure to unfamiliar situations like a new boarding facility or daycare.
Training an anxious dog can be tough, but it’s a rewarding experience that helps your dog build confidence, reduce stress, and create a lasting bond with you.
It’s important to understand anxious behaviour in dogs, develop a toolkit to help them, and build a long-term plan for success. As our very first dog trainer told us years ago, it’s about being firm, fair, and consistent with your training.
Understanding the underlying cause of your dog’s behaviour is the first step in helping them feel safe and secure. Anxiety in dogs can stem from a variety of sources, and the root cause of your dog’s behaviour is not always immediately apparent.
As my very first dog trainer told me years ago, it’s about being firm, fair, and consistent with your training.
The best way to help your dog feel safe is to provide them with a consistent, nurturing environment. As much as possible, create an atmosphere that is free from unwelcome surprises and chaotic events, which can further exacerbate their stress. Ensure your dog is properly exercised and has ample opportunities for mental stimulation, affection, and physical release.
Training should include both formal training with a certified trainer or dog behaviour specialist, paired with fun, recreational activities like agility or nose work.
Have you heard of desensitization? This technique is used to help a dog gradually build emotional tolerance towards something that triggers their nervous anxiety. Start by exposing them to the stimulus in low-intensity doses and rewarding them when they don’t become anxious or reactive. A few years ago, I had a trifecta of health issues and was in the hospital for a week and then home mostly in bed for two weeks after that. As I got stronger and started taking Ditto out again, I noticed his anxiety had ramped up BIG time. He became overly protective of me with both people and dogs – growling, circling around me and walks quickly turned very stressful. Interestingly, he didn’t exhibit this behaviour when walking with others – just with me. It caused me to be on ‘red alert’ with him, and I realized his responses were coming from my own fear of negative or reactive behaviour.
By working slowly, having him sit/stay while I went around the park, introducing myself to people, shaking hands, petting dogs etc., and then coming back to him and rewarding him for sitting quietly – over time, he relaxed and was able to ‘be a dog’ again. Desensitizing his triggers (for him, the need to protect mama – who’s been sick) and reminding him with a calmness that ‘I got this’ and didn’t need to be protected, we got ourselves back on track. Still, I learned a lot in that time about how our own fears and anxiety can translate wordlessly through to our dogs who feel they need to step up and take over. Start slowly with exposure to a variety of experiences. Start small and work your way up to larger or more challenging ones. Be sure to give your dog plenty of positive reinforcement and rewards, like high-value treats, as you expose them to different situations. Pack leadership can be a tricky thing.
Aside from formal training, fun recreational activities can be a great way to help an anxious dog. Things like interactive toys, puzzle feeders, and snuffle mats provide mental stimulation that doesn’t involve external stimuli. Activities like nose work or agility classes help provide a safe and positive outlet for energy while teaching them new skills to support confidence. We had great fun at agility lessons and are looking forward to exploring nose work with Ditto this spring, but be aware that some dogs become overwhelmed by too many stimuli, so take it slow and start with small steps.
Make sure you are clear and direct when communicating with your dog. They need concrete information about what you expect from them and what will happen if they do or don’t meet those expectations. Reassure them you’re there for them. This helps build trust and creates a deep bond. Use a calm tone of voice, comforting words, and an occasional treat.
Be patient and remember that progress takes time: Dogs with anxiety can take longer than other dogs to learn new behaviours and commands. You got this!