Positive Reinforcement Helps a Nervous Wheaton Terrier Stop Fearing Strangers

By: David Codr

Published Date: December 21, 2016


Murphy (left) is a two-year-old Soft Coated Wheaton Terrier who lives with Maya, a five-year-old Morkie. Their guardians set up a dog behavior training session with me to address Murphy’s rough play with Maya and her instigating things with him. Another issue was Murphy’s nervousness and anxiety around new people who visit his home.

I was caught off guard a bit with how intense a reaction Murphy displayed when I arrived for the session.

Many people think petting a dog is a good way to ear their trust. But if you have a dog that is anxious, nervous or in any other unbalanced state, touching or interacting with them can actually reinforce or make matters worse. I recommended that all future guests avoid eye contact, don’t try to pet or move close to Murphy until he is calm and balanced.

While Murphy’s guardians knew not to pet him when excited or anxious, they had been tackling him and holding him down / restraining him when guests arrived. While you don’t want to let a dog run all over (that can intensify their reaction) physical restraint almost always is met with resistance. In many cases, this sort of restraint can make things worse as it causes the dog to feel powerless and enter a panicked state.

I spent a good portion of the session explaining how rules, and structure can go a long ways towards helping Murphy stop acting nervous or twitchy. A lack of structure often causes dogs to think they have the same authority as their humans and this can add in stress that leads to other problems.

Providing Murphy with rules and structure will help him relax and feel comfortable around new people, stop his excitement and allow him to develop new behavior when guests arrive.

Guests can help Murphy by positioning themselves so the dog is on their side as this is less confrontational to a dog. Also extending their hand low with a treat in an open palm that is facing the ceiling can help the dog approach them. If Murphy gets stuck, tossing a treat on the floor next between the dog and themselves, can help get him moving forward.

A few additional tips; guests should cough or call Murphy by name before getting up or moving around the room so they don’t surprise him.  When they do move, slow, deliberate movements can help prevent Murphy from reacting. Lastly, when giving him a treat, they should offer it to the side while looking away and leave their hand in place after Murphy takes the treat. This gives the dog a second opportunity to touch, sniff, lick or interact with the human on their own. The more of this sort of interaction Murphy has with new people, the more comfortable he will be with strangers in the future.

Next I went over new ways of communicating with the dogs that are closer to how dogs chat with one another. By ensuring that everyone is on the same page, we can help the dogs and humans better relate and understand one another.

Due to his twitchiness, I inquired about Murphy’s daily exercise. When I found out that he was only walked by one of the guardians around the block after going to the bathroom, it made sense. Wheaton Terriers are a pretty high energy breed. If you don’t give a dog the ability to release their excess energy, it usually manifests in behavioral issues. Its a safe bet that was the case here.

I recommended that the guardians look into some agility or flyball training as this sort of athletic and structured activity will go a long ways towards helping Murphy stop being anxious when guests visit his home.

Earlier in the session, I made some progress with Murphy by tossing treats while standing in the doorway. Because he was so worked up when I sat down to discuss the situation, I continued offering treats in a pseudo-game so that I could show the guardians how to use this approach when other guests visit.

This is a great example of how effective positive reinforcers or positive dog training can be. The guardians mentioned that Murphy had never settled down or taken treats from a guest’s hand so quickly before the session.

I outlined another activity that also utilized positive reinforcement to help Murphy feel better about a guest’s arrival. By increasing the distance between Murphy and the guest (and their walking path) and having the guest strategically drop treats on their way to the couch, they can help the dog start building a positive association with new people coming to his home.

By the end of the session, Murphy was much calmer. He was taking treats from my hand, allowing me to pet him, following instructions faster and responding to the nonverbal communication cues immediately.


  • Increase Murphy’s daily exercise to a minimum of 20 minutes a day(but 45 + min is a better goal).
  • Enroll Murphy in agility or Flyable training through Go Dogs.
  • Start taking Murphy to dog day care, especially on days where his guardians can’t provide the exercise he needs.
  • Make sure Murphy is sufficiently exercised before new guests come over.
  • Have guests drop treats when arriving. Lead Murphy to them after guest sits
  • Use leash to keep Murphy from getting more aroused when guests arrive.
  • Have guests play toss / catch with Murphy after he settles down a bit.
  • Enforce new rules that help both dogs to help them identify as followers to reduce stress
  • Pet both dogs with a purpose
  • Each guardian should practice the Focus exercise 2 or more times a day for the next 2 weeks
  • Teach the dogs a new trick or command each week for the next 2 months. Emphasis on tricks and commands that require the dog to wait or other skills that require control.
  • Add structure to the feeding ritual.
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This post was written by: David Codr

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