What to do if you have a nervous dog | TeamDogs

What to do if you have a nervous dog

Some rescue dogs may have issues with nervousness. Emily Chudy looks at ways we can help them.

Susan Griffin

Posted 31d ago

Some dogs – particularly rescues – have issues with nervousness around other dogs and humans, leading to cowering away, barking, or hiding. Rescues more often have problems with anxiety if they have had a difficult start to their life.

It's important to know the signs of nervousness in your pet, so you can help your dog feel calmer and, most importantly, avoid any danger of the dog becoming so scared they run away or put themselves in danger.

Here, Team Dogs shares tips and tricks from the RSPCA to help your pup feel safer and calmer.

Recognise the signs


Nervousness means that your dog is on-edge or fearful, just as humans can feel when we are in an anxiety-causing situation. If your dog is yawning (when they are not tired), moving away or backing away, pinning their ears back, or tucking their tail between their legs, they may be feeling nervous.

The RSPCA said: “If any of these behaviours are detected, then move your dog out of the situation or if possible, try to distract your dog with something fun and positive such as his/her favourite toy.

“Avoid reassuring your dog as this will only worsen the behaviour - your dog may think there is a reason to be nervous.”

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Try to understand what is causing the nervousness

Understanding why your dog feels nervous or stressed could be key to helping them feel better.

Nervousness could be caused by separation anxiety, age, or fear stemming from a bad experience – so ask yourself if something has happened in the past that could make them afraid of fireworks for example, or afraid of being left alone if they were previously neglected.

Separation anxiety is estimated to affect around 14% of dogs.

The RSPCA said: “Dogs are highly social animals who generally prefer to live in groups. Many dogs can be anxious when separated from their human family.”

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Have a think or talk to an expert, as it may help you understand what your pet needs.

Talk to your vet

Don't struggle alone with a nervous dog, as if your pet is suffering emotionally, a professional may be able to help them more than you can alone.

Your vet may be able to pinpoint where the nervousness is coming from, and could recommend all kinds of things, from a dog trainer to medication.

Some dogs may be put on anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication for severe anxiety, however your vet will be able to steer you in the right direction for your pet.

Make sure people don't trigger your dog's nervousness

(Emily Chudy)

My own tip from owning a rescue dog is to make sure people don't come up to him and touch him – my mixed-breed dog Dobby doesn't like children playfully reaching into his face to stroke him, as he feels he's in danger.

Having a warning sign in place, for example a collar that says “nervous”, or a harness that says “do not touch”, will reduce the amount of times people and dogs get close to your own dog, hopefully keeping them calmer and less afraid.

Buy it here: www.friendlydogcollars.com/product/nervous-coat

Consider hiring a dog trainer

Your instincts in making your dog feel better may actually not be the correct way to train them – for example cuddling and comforting a nervous dog may “reward” them for their nervous behaviour and encourage them to keep doing it.

Training your dog depends on its personality, the problems it is having, and the way it responds best to training – my dog is highly food-motivated for example, and is best distracted from his nervousness with treats.

Hiring a trainer will give you tips and training tools that work, rather than accidentally doing the wrong thing, and it may help your dog feel less stressed in the long run.

The RSPCA said: “There are exercises and training activities that you can do to improve a nervous dog’s behaviour.

“This is usually done by carefully controlled exposure to certain situations and socialisation programmes, but these should always be done under the guidance of a recommended dog behaviourist.”

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Try some home remedies

If your dog's nervousness is mild, you could consider home remedies to calm your dog (though it's best to always talk to your vet before trying anything, as medication and training may be more effective).

Anxiety-reducing coats, sprays, or supplements could calm your dog down if it is mildly nervous, however just being patient and letting them sniff while on walks could help keep them calm and happy.

According to Preventive Vet, “sniffing can be self-soothing, reduce stress, and focus excess energy into more calm behaviour”.

Remember that every dog is different

Try not to get frustrated or impatient with your dog, and know that their behaviours, however difficult, may be just symptoms of being afraid.

The RSPCA said: “Never shout at or punish your dog. Punishment and frightening experiences can lead to behaviour problems and suffering.

“Be consistent in the way you, your family and friends react to your dog.”

Every dog is different, and may not respond to you being calm and gentle with them, which can be upsetting, but it's best to talk to a vet about how to go about easing their anxiety, as there may not be just one “fix” for this complex issue.

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