How to Relax a Nervous Dog - Simply For Dogs
Nervous Dog

How to Relax a Nervous Dog

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I’m always telling you about my adventures at the dog park. Regular readers will remember being introduced to Joanne, and her purse dog, Pierre, in 23 Crazy or Just Plain Stupid Things Some People Think About Dogs, and might also remember me saying, in subsequent posts, that I’m actually starting to like Joanne.

She’s still a bit clueless at times, though, and it took me, Al, Debbie and the rest of the gang a while to convince her that it would be okay to let Pierre out of the purse so he could play with the other dogs – none of our canine crew would be a threat to the little guy.

So, now Pierre is starting to fit in with the rest of our group of people and dogs, although he’s still a little nervous at times – more comfortable with the dogs than he is with their people. Joanne’s fitting in, too – she doesn’t show up draped in fur and wearing untold amounts of bling anymore. In fact, the other day she showed up in jeans!

Now I’m still sure that her jeans probably cost more than my car, but hey, she’s trying!

Anyway, now that Joanne has seen how much fun Pierre can have when he’s freed from his designer purse, she wants to learn more about how to relax a nervous dog in other social situations. She asked me if I had any suggestions.

Nervous Dog

FKIA

I was forced to point out to Joanne that I don’t have all the answers – I don’t know everything. Although, as I’ve pointed out from time to time, my sister Colleen often says “Ash, you’re such an FKIA!” and that I’m pretty sure it stands for “Famous Know-It-All.”

I said I’d try to help, and Joanne and I got talking about some of Pierre’s behavior outside the dog park. It seems that every time somebody enters Joanne’s penthouse apartment (with its seven bedrooms, two kitchens, rooftop garden and swimming pool, but hey, who’s keeping track?), Pierre runs and hides in one of the 20 closets or under one of the seven beds. Sometimes, if the “intruder” actually manages to locate Pierre (perhaps while trying to locate one of the 12 bathrooms), Pierre squats and pees. Then Joanne has to have her butler, or one of her maids, clean up the mess.

Pierre, simply stated, does not feel comfortable around other people. For a long time, to Pierre, there were only two kinds of people – Joanne, and not-Joanne.

Background

Before going any further, I wanted to know what kind of dog Pierre might be. I was assuming that he was one of those ridiculous “designer breeds” and that she’d probably paid a small fortune for – in other words, a dog that back in the day (OMG, I just said “back in the day” – I must be getting old!) you wouldn’t have been able to give away.

You can imagine my surprise when Joanne said, “I’m not sure. I got him at a shelter.”

You can probably also imagine that this was the point where my assessment of Joanne went from, “I guess I can stand her” to, “Hey, there’s a lot more to Joanne than I thought!”

Apparently, Joanne had no idea of Pierre’s background, age, or much of anything else when she adopted him. The conventional wisdom is that if a dog is fearful, he was probably abused at some point. This isn’t always the case, though. Sometimes, it’s bad socialization, and sometimes there’s even a genetic component.

We were probably never going to know what caused Pierre to be fearful, so we just had to work with it. The cause really didn’t matter all that much. Our goal, plain and simple, was to figure out how to relax a nervous dog.

Triggers

I asked Joanne if there were any specific types of people that made Pierre nervous. This can be different for every dog – some might be afraid of large men, others afraid of short women, and others afraid of anyone wearing a uniform. There’s usually something you can go back to. Once you identify the trigger, you can work to control the dog’s surroundings – in other words, develop a management strategy involving gradual exposure to the “triggers.”

With Pierre, a big problem was that Joanne couldn’t really identify any specific type of person that made Pierre uncomfortable. We didn’t really have any one trigger that we could work on, so we had to proceed from the assumption that Pierre was just afraid of people in general. I figured this probably made sense, since it took him quite a while to get used to the dog park gang of humans.

I suggested some general management strategies. Pierre was pretty comfortable at the dog park, so there was definitely potential there, but I thought it might be best to keep him away, at least in the short term, from places where he might feel overwhelmed – shopping malls, for instance, and crowded sidewalks. I also suggested setting up a “safe space” for Pierre in Joanne’s apartment – dividing off certain areas using a baby gate, so that Pierre could be in proximity to “threatening” people while still feeling that they couldn’t get to him.

Respect

I also suggested that Pierre’s fears shouldn’t be indulged, but they should be respected. As an example, if Pierre didn’t want to be petted by a stranger, then it would be Joanne’s job to say, “No, I’m sorry, but you can’t pet him. He’s not comfortable with strangers.”

Some people react to “stranger approaches” by holding the dog firmly and then allowing petting. I don’t think this is exactly going to do much to make the dog feel comfortable and receptive to social contact. He’s more likely to think, “Why is my Mom allowing this to happen to me?” and become even more nervous.

Another thing I suggested was that if it looked like there were too many people around, Joanne should calmly take Pierre to a less “peoply” location – not to make a big deal out of it; just to find an area where Pierre would feel safe.

Training

Of course, the most important thing when it comes to knowing how to relax a nervous dog is knowing how to work on building his confidence. This can be just as simple as teaching basic obedience commands like “sit,” “down” and “stay,” or as advanced as agility training.

Remember when you were a kid, and you learned something new? Your reaction was probably something along the lines of, “Hey, I can DO this!” You felt great, right?

It’s the same with dogs. The more they learn, the better they feel about themselves.

Rewards are important. Any time your dog is around strangers, and does something good, offer a reward. If he responds to the “sit” command, for instance, give him a treat and tell him what a fine, remarkable, outstanding boy he is! For that matter, even if he sits without being prompted, give him a treat. What you’re doing is teaching your dog that, even in the presence of strangers, good things can happen.

Desensitization

Everyone is afraid of something, and it doesn’t matter in the least how much you know that your fear is illogical – if you want to run screaming every time you see a harmless little grass snake, if you start to hyperventilate whenever you’re in an elevator, if you get water all over your bathroom floor every time you take a shower because you can’t stand being confined in a shower stall, no amount of telling yourself, “I really have to stop this irrational behavior,” is going to help.

What does help is desensitization. If you’re scared of snakes, maybe the next time your local mall brings in a “reptile zoo,” you go and look at the snakes. See how pretty they really are. Ask questions about them. Ultimately, maybe you’ll even touch one.

If the problem is elevators, maybe you just get in one, close the door, then open it and get out. Later, maybe you ride the elevator for one floor. Then two.

With the shower, you might start by closing the stall door just a little bit. Then a little more. Eventually, you’ll probably get to the point where you can close it all the way, and stop flooding out your bathroom every time you need to clean up.

You get the idea

Desensitization can work the same way with your dog. If he’s fearful around people, take it one at a time. You can recruit a friend to help you with this – have them approach your dog quietly and gently, offering treats. You’re teaching your dog that some people can be very nice.

Then bring another friend into the equation. And another.

If your dog seems anxious, stop the exercise and give him time to regroup.

The idea here, when it comes to how to relax a nervous dog, is that you’re changing the stimulus. Where before, people (for Pierre, the “not-Joanne” people) inspired fear, now the stimulus has shifted. Encountering people means treats, and what could possibly be bad about that?

Always make sure, though, to understand your dog’s “fear threshold.” How close does a person have to be before the dog is afraid? If your dog’s comfort level stops at 20 feet, have your helper move back a foot or two, and then toss out a treat. Then, the helper can move a bit closer, and toss more treats.

You’re going to go through a lot of treats with this exercise, but I think you understand what we’re trying to do here – get the dog closer and closer to the person that he perceives as a threat, all the while having that person dole out treat after treat, until the dog is so invested in getting the treats, he’s no longer obsessing over potential threats.

Now, we’re going to switch it up a bit – have the “threat” leave, and take the treats with them. When your helper leaves, don’t give the dog any treats. Then, call your helper back in, and have them dole out the treats again.

You can see where I’m going with this – you want your dog to be happy, not nervous, when the “threat” enters the room.

You might need to repeat this exercise over and over, on different days for it to be effective. If your dog is only slightly nervous, it might only take a few attempts before he’s fine with strangers. If he’s extremely apprehensive, though, it might take longer.

The main thing is to be patient. This isn’t going to be an overly exciting exercise for you – in fact, it’s probably going to be pretty tedious. But imagine the payoff when your nervous dog is happy to see strangers!

Train Your Helper

For this type of desensitization to work, you’re going to have to train your helper before you have him or her work with your dog. So, make sure that your helper knows to wait for the dog to move towards them – they shouldn’t approach the dog, at least not early on in the desensitization training.

Also, tell your helper to stand sideways to the dog, not directly in front, and not to make direct eye contact.

Treats should be held out on the flat of the hand, not in a closed fist (which might make the dog perceive aggression where none is intended). It’s also fine to toss treats on the floor or ground.

Keep in mind that even the most fearful dog might become aggressive if not approached properly.

Let your dog set the pace – if your helper is moving too fast and too close, then this is not how to relax a nervous dog. In fact, it’s going to be very counter-productive. This goes back to patience – it might only take a couple of weeks for your nervous dog to relax. On the other hand, it could take considerably longer. The thing to keep in mind is that, no matter how long it takes, it’s going to be worth it in the long run.

The Final Word

So, what’s happening with Pierre and Joanne?

Well, I think there’s been progress. Not just with Pierre, but with Joanne and me! She actually invited me over for coffee the other day.

I got in the elevator (and yes, I used to be elevator-phobic, but I worked on it), nervously checked my clothes and my shoes, thought to myself, “I so do not belong here!” and then rode up to her penthouse.

Joanne greeted me warmly.

Pierre jumped over his baby gate and into what I think might have been a ballroom, if you can believe that, and glared at me suspiciously.

Joanne said, “Pierre, it’s just Ash! You know, Ash from the dog park? C’mon out, baby!” and then she gave me a handful of treats to throw to Pierre.

I’d like to tell you that Pierre jumped into my lap and we all had a wonderful visit, but the fact is, he remained on his side of the baby gate while Joanne and I had coffee (served in china cups that are probably worth more than my house).

So, there’s still work to do. But I think Joanne has it under control. She knows the basics of how to relax a nervous dog. And now you know, too. I’ll keep you posted on Joanne and Pierre, and in the meantime, if you have any suggestions on how to relax a nervous dog, leave a comment!

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