Updated: Jul 24
Humans aren't the only ones that can become nervous wrecks. Chimps, ostriches, and even elephants can have fits of anxiety. Man's best friend, your beloved dog, is perhaps the most susceptible of all.
If you have a dog with anxiety, obedience training may seem near impossible. They get into that hunched-down position with their tail between their legs, too scared to give your commands a try.
Fortunately, even an anxious dog can learn new tricks. Keep reading as we discuss seven training tips for an anxious dog.
1. Be Patient With a Dog With Anxiety
Dogs are a lot like humans. They're very emotional creatures, and they have evolved to read our emotional state very well.
Like you, they can begin to feel the pressure when you become frustrated with them. Just like any other human, this pressure of expectations will harm their ability to perform.
Therefore, the first step is for you to take your foot off the gas a bit. Take a breather, and calm yourself down if you find yourself getting annoyed. Notice when your dog is stressing out and recognize its limits.
It's a common myth that you need to be the alpha with your dog. Treating your dog with love, patience, and respect will go a much longer way. It will even make it easier to train them in the future.
2. Avoid Using Negative Reinforcement, i.e. Punishment
Be very careful if using Negative reinforcement, which refers to the act of waiting until you see your desired behavior (obedience training) before you withdraw a negative action. An example is: you yell at a dog until it does what you want it to.
Punishment is typically a poor method for teaching humans, and the same goes for animals. Instead, use reward-based encouragement.
An anxious dog will react very poorly to punishment. Punishment with an anxious dog may make training take much longer--or become impossible because they shut down emotionally.
3. Give Your Dog Regular Breaks
Just as they are very emotional, dogs also relate to humans in that they need a lot of rest. Training a dog non-stop for long periods of time may exhaust them. Negative emotions get noticeably worse when dogs are tired, just like you.
Break up obedience training into sections. Do a brief ten minutes of training, separated by a few minutes of play or relaxation. More little breaks here and there will be a huge benefit.
4. Don't Hesitate to Stop or Pause Training in the Event of a Panic Attack
Dogs can have panic attacks just like humans. Of course, a dog's panic attack will differ wildly from a human's.
They may get low to the floor, tail between their legs, and avoid eye contact. They may run and hide in a corner or elsewhere. Dogs outside may find a good hiding place to get away from their owner.
Pursuing training even when a dog has been pushed past their limits is a bad idea. It may make your dog even more likely to have a panic attack in the future, too.
5. Learn to Recognize the Early Warning Signs of Anxiety
Dogs, like humans, tend to be very emotive. They have noticeable facial expressions, and their body language is well understood by humans. But identifying the signs of anxiety may be more subtle than you were aware.
Here are some common signs that a dog may be anxious:
Snapping, lunging, or growling: this is an aggressive behavior that may have an anxious underpinning, rather than a desire to do harm
Excessive barking: any kind of bark done more than normal
Any form of destructive behavior
Pooping and peeing despite being trained
Restless behavior, such as pacing back and forth
Displacement behaviors: dogs may do things to avoid the task at hand, such as sniffing the ground
Panting: stress can make dogs, like humans, overheat, forcing them to cool down
Lack of interest: a dog becomes apathetic, no longer taking joy in the things it once did
Yawning: it's easy to mistake this as a sign of boredom, but yawning is also a means of expressing emotional discomfort
Make sure to properly identify the source of anxiety, too. The anxiety may not come from the training, but rather from a nearby stimulus. In some cases, it may just be separation anxiety, and they're too excited to see you to do any training.
6. Countercondition Your Dog (AKA Desensitization)
Believe it or not, you can train a dog to have a less extreme response to its common stressors.
For example, many dogs are scared of a vacuum. They may keep their distance from the vacuum even when it's powered off and doing nothing.
Using the vacuum as an example, your dog may not perform as well when the vacuum is in the room. The key to desensitization is to pair a positive stimulus with a negative one. First, you should keep your dog "below threshold," i.e. minimize the stressor as much as possible without removing it.
Then when you pair actions with treats, the dog becomes desensitized to the stressor. Over time, you can bring them closer to the vacuum until they no longer experience anxiety.
7. Consider Anxiety Medication
This is the last resort which may be necessary if you've tried everything else but had no success. Dogs can benefit from anxiety medication, which works similarly to how human anti-anxiety medication does.
Do make sure that you take your dog to a veterinarian. Have them do a thorough analysis, and provide as much info about their behavior as you can. They may suggest another course of treatment before going with the nuclear option.
But, when push comes to shove, your dog may just be better off with it. Make sure that they take it on time each day.
Train Your Dog With K-9 Culture
A dog with anxiety may seem like a lost cause of obedience training. Fortunately, there are a lot of training tools and tips at your disposal. Avoid punishment, exercise patience, and learn how to better read your dog.
K-9 Culture dog training is your go-to source for K-9 training programs, grooming, and dog boarding. We specialize in training all sorts of dogs, especially anxious ones. Book a consultation today and see the difference it can make.