Structure Helps an Anxious Dog Build Up Confidence and Stop Reacting

By: David Codr

Published Date: November 11, 2016


Hendrick is a two-year-old Golden Retriever who is nervous about sudden sounds and movements; barking and charging at people who pass by. He lives with Marley a one-year-old Golden Retriever who is starting to bark and charge at passers by like Hendrick. The guardians set up a dog obedience training session with me to put a stop to these issues.

Both dogs met me at the door when I arrived for the session. I have to say I was a bit surprised by their behavior. Based on my initial conversation with the dog’s guardians, I was expecting Hendrick to display signs of territoriality, anxiety or keep his distance from me once I stepped inside the door.

Because of Hendrick’s fear and anxiety issues, I recommended that the guardian stop using the electric fence for him, at the very least for the short term. This sort of negative reinforcement can have long term consequences for sensitive dogs.

After exchanging greetings, I sat down with the dogs and their guardian in the living room to get a better feel for their daily routine and any other unwanted behaviors the family wanted to address. Many dog trainers skip this step, but getting a baseline of behavior and understanding expectation is something a good dog behaviorist makes a priority for any client.

In the course of this discussion, I observed the guardian repeatedly doing something that actually encouraged the dogs into one of the exact behaviors they wanted me to help with.

Now invading his personal space was not one of the primary issues the guardian wanted to work on, but it was directly related to them.  Anytime you pet a dog, you are agreeing with whatever they happen to be doing at that time. But the dog’s weren’t just invading his personal space, they were asking for attention in a way that masked an insecurity. I need you to validate me with your attention.

It was also clear that these dogs were feeding off of one another. When one of them invaded a human’s personal space for attention, the other dog quickly followed. This can very easily transition into dog competing to be needy.

I recommended that the guardian start practicing my Petting with a purpose philosophy. This involves giving the dogs a counter order to sit or lay down before petting them when the dog nudges or paws at them to demand attention. By asking our dogs to earn their affection, we can help them adopt new more desired behaviors while simultaneously helping them transition into more of a follower’s mindset. This sort of positive dog training works amazingly well and is really easy once you get into the habit.

By being aware of the dog’s emotional state before we start to pet them, and or asking them to earn their praise, the guardians can stop reinforcing unbalanced states  and communicate that calm and balanced energy is the new way to get attention or affection. This will also help boost the dog’s confidence which will go a long ways towards helping Hendrick increase his self esteem and stop his being anxious when he hears a surprise noise.

Because Hendrick had a tendency to be startled by unexpected noises, I wanted to show his guardian how he could help by teaching the dog to focus.

I recommended that each of the family’s two guardians practice this focus exercise five or more times a day with each dog for the next 2-3 weeks. Each practice session should be limited to 10 to 15 treats so they take no longer than about 60 seconds. Regular repetition is the key for this exercise to work most effectively.

Teaching the dog to focus will give the guardians a tool that they can use to redirect Hendrick anytime he starts to react in a negative way to an unexpected noise. It’s also a useful exercise in many other scenarios.

I have found that many dogs get anxious or nervous due to a lack of rules and structure in their daily lives. Just like us, rules and structure help dogs from going too far in any one direction. They provide us with an anchor that helps us stay balanced.

I recommended a few basic rules for the guardians to incorporate and then went over some ways that he could correct or disagree with his dogs in ways that they respect and understand.

Because the dogs got so excited and reactive when people pass in front or arrived at their home, I wanted teach the dogs a new way of behaving when guests arrive.

Increasing the distance between the dogs and the arriving guests will go a long ways towards helping Hendrick and Marley not get so over excited. By teaching them what we want them to do when guests arrive, we put them in a position to succeed. With enough practice, the dogs will start waiting at the line that I introduced in the above video on their own.

But in order for that to happen, the guardian has to enforce and communicate he wants them to honor the same line. We reset the exercise so that the guardian could practice claiming the area around the door himself.

I recommended that the guardians call or text one another when they are on their way home so that they can play the part of arriving guest. This removes the pressure that occurs when we have an actual guest at our door and their arrival catches us unexpected.

Usually it only takes 10 to 20 practices before the dogs adopt the new door behavior on their own.

By the end of the session, the dogs were starting to show respect for people’s personal space, they were not over excited and were listening to the commands and corrections given by the humans.

By consistently enforcing the new rules and boundaries, asking the dogs to earn their attention and mastering the new exercises, the dogs guardians will build up their confidence and put them in a position to start practicing the behaviors that they want while simultaneously helping the dogs give up those they don’t.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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