Nervous dogs may be prone to biting as they are often in a “fight or flight” response mode and this is why when working with animals it is vital to identify the nervous dog so to restrain it properly. However, learning to distinguish the body cues of a nervous dog should not be limited only to people working with animals, rather, this may benefit just about anybody that owns a dog.
Dogs use primarily body language among themselves. Years ago, when still in the wild, dogs used to live in a pack and various emotions were continuously transmitted and perceived among one another. Dogs were able and still are able today, to represent a wide array of emotions by just using specific signals that were and still are readily understood by other dogs.
Today, as humans, we must try to understand what dogs are trying to tell us. This way we can better communicate and cherish the relationship we have with them. When it comes to demonstrating nervousness, some dogs may display very subtle signs of being uneasy and some instead manifest very prominent hints of such uneasiness.
Common signs to watch for are:
- Overall tense body
- Rigid muscles
- Stiff legs
- Tail between legs
- Ears folded tightly back
- Pulled back lips
- Licking lips
- Eyes showing white part
- Avoidance of eye contact
- Jumpiness to minimal noise
- Startling at minimal movement
- Hiding behind owner
- Backing away
When the nervousness escalates then other more evident and concerning signs may be added:
- Lunging forward
As we can see, if we catch the early warning signs we may avoid big trouble. There is still a big debate today on the growling issue. Many people tend to punish a dog that is growling, but more and more dog behaviorists are re-evaluating the meaning of growling. While once, growling was seen as negative warning of an upcoming bite, today a growl is perceived more on a more positive note. A growl may just be a way for the dog to manifest it’s uneasiness; try to take the growling away and very likely you will get a dog that will bite out of the blue without warning.
But why are some dogs more prone to being nervous? There are many different theories. The nature vs. nurture debate may be considered here. Some believe that some dogs are just plain and simple predisposed to nervous behaviors. For these believers, a dog’s temperament is genetically linked and there is not much that can be done to change it. They believe that it is in the dog’s nature, genetically instilled deep in their core.
On the other hand, there are those that believe that the environment is what will shape a dog’s temperament. Socialization, interaction with litter-mates and humans will bring out the dog’s temperament
While both theories will still be fully debated for a while, there are some pretty consistent theories of what may make a dog more prone to a nervous inclination, here are some examples:
- Dogs that were not properly socialized by the age of 12 weeks
- Dogs that were not properly trained
- Dogs that lacked leadership from their owners
- Lack of confidence
- Traumatic experiences
While some dogs prone to nervousness may be challenging to relax, most simply need lots of patience, time and consistency. Many animal shelters work hard on training dogs that lack confidence and a good percentage of them make great progress and are successfully re-homed.
Nervous dogs need guidance, they need to believe in their owner, which in their eyes is a leader. A lot can be done to help these dogs live a full life again.
For instance, dogs that are excessively shy and bark at every person or dog they encounter along the street may be gradually desensitized by making walks a routine. Not only will a routine calm down a dog but it may also turn into a pleasurable event. Passer-byers may toss a treat out for the dog, and the dog once shy, now will look forward to meeting new people.
It is a fact that owners may instill more nervousness into their dogs. One of our clients had a dog that was terrified of thunder. She had medications prescribed by our vet to help her dog cope with the anxiety. One day, dog and owner were in our waiting room. A rumbling thunder sounded off in the quiet reception area. The dog started whining and trembling in fear. The owner picked her up and started a whole cooing and cuddling session.
What the owner thought was a good comforting action, in the dog’s mind it was only a reinforcement, a reinforcement that was causing the whole anxiety issue. What the dog perceived was the following message” Good girl, you are so right for being fearful, continue to do so please”.
Dogs need a strong leader, somebody that will ignore their anxiety or even better give the dog a chance to inspect the source of their terror.
Relaxing a dog may take a lot of effort, here are some basic guidelines:
How to Relax Nervous Dogs
- Exercise your dog. A tired dog has less chances of feeding their fear.
- Study the sources of your dog nervousness and use positive reinforcement and desensitization.
- Show your dog your leadership, a weak leader may cause lack of confidence.
- Put your dog to work, inquire about the training method “nothing in life is free”
- At home, you can try a pheromone plug in diffuser
- If you believe in holistic remedies try Rescue remedy or Bach flowers
- As a last resort only, ask your vet about anti-anxiety meds
Nervousness does not necessarily mean that your dog is prone to behavioral issues, when caught early, an attentive owner may work on it on a timely matter. By recognizing the tell tail signs of upcoming nervousness, a dog may be taught that the anxiety may be managed and even overcome.
*Disclaimer: All remedies suggested are not to be used as a substitute for professional veterinary advice. If your pet is sick please refer to your veterinarian for a hands on examination. If your pet is exhibiting behavior problems please refer to a professional pet behaviorist.