How can you help a nervous dog?

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Anxiety is as able to affect dogs as it is humans and the symptoms can range from mild nervousness or general reluctance to do something, to outright fear. This can be problematic for dog owners as it can prevent your dog interacting with other animals or humans and really impact both your relationship with your pet and their own growth and well-being.

Rescue dogs can be particularly prone to being nervous. A simple thing like being settled in a new home can be a big deal for a dog, and that’s before you consider that many rescue dogs have been abandoned or suffered abuse. They may have specific triggers that cause their anxiety, which have been learned over many years.

But, before this puts you off rescuing a dog, please remember canine anxiety can be relatively mild and it’s always manageable. This article looks at some examples of anxiety, what you can do to prepare to bring home a rescue dog and offers some tips to help raise your dog’s confidence.

The reasons your dog is nervous can be situational

When I was younger, we had a black Labrador who was a well-natured dog and never exhibited any nervousness. Until one day we went for a walk on a route that took us over a footbridge across a dual carriageway. She outright refused to cross over. She was a rescue dog, so we never knew why she was so scared of crossing the bridge.

A couple of years ago, my parents rescued an older Staffie. Again, he’s very good-natured and gets on with everyone and most other dogs (like most Staffies, he seems to end up fighting with the biggest dog on the street, but that’s another story!). He was very nervous about trips in the car though. He had been at the rescue centre several times (sadly, people kept returning him), so he had began to associate car trips with being abandoned. It was such as shame as he is a lovely dog too! He’s been settled for several years now (and had many road trips to beaches, parks and various other places – he’s better-travelled than I am!).

The point is, there can be different things that trigger nervousness in your dog, and you might not even know what those triggers are. But with a bit of care, you help your dog past their issues and ensure their relationship with you is as good as it can be.

So what can trigger nervousness in dogs?

This is a very broad question – after all, how many different things can trigger anxiety, nervousness or fear in humans? It’s a near limitless list, but what we can do is break it down into the main types of trigger:


It could be people in general, or specific individuals or types of people – for example, some dogs may simply have had bad experience with a “man with a beard”, so all men with beards may trigger anxiety.


Most pets, like humans, prefer a good degree of routine in their lives, so change can really make them nervous. Imagine being taken from your home when you have no capacity to ask or understand why? That’s why it’s super-important to help rescue dogs feel comfortable when you bring them home.

Other animals

Dogs can be protective of their home and their humans, so the presence of other animals (even if they’re outside the house), may keep you dog anxious and unable to settle. Barking at a cat strutting its stuff outside is normal behaviour, but if your dog is getting too anxious from the presence of other animals, it’s perhaps worth addressing the issue.


From fireworks to thunderstorms, there are a number of environmental triggers that may cause anxiety in your dog. These can be things you can prepare for, or even take measures to mitigate the impact of them (like keeping your pet indoors on the 5th of November).

Past experiences

As I said before, when you take on a rescue dog you might have to put in time and effort to overcome past experiences that may be causing them problems. A big part of this is getting them settled and used to their new environment and humans.

In summary, some tips to help build your dog’s confidence

All behaviours are learned and generally the best way to do this is through routine and positive reinforcement.

The first thing you want to do is try to identify the triggers for your dog’s anxiety. Is it simply the change of environment due or a deeper issue? When you understand what the problem is, then you can help build your dog’s confidence by:

  • Rewarding them for remaining calm if the situation may trigger them.
  • Don’t punish negative behaviour.
  • Protect them from being exposed to triggers (for example, other people).
  • And then, when they’re ready, gently introduce them to the situation, with positive reinforcement.
  • Consider a dog camera with treat dispenser – they’re a great way to keep an eye on your dog while you’re out.

For example, when my parents got their Staffie, they took him on short car trips at first and rewarded him with treats when they arrived and got home. He’s gone from being nervous about car journeys to jumping in the back seat whenever the door is open (regardless of whether he’s going on the trip with them!).

And finally, be calm and patient. Change doesn’t occur overnight, but with a bit of effort your new dog will settle into their new life with no problem at all. If you do need more assistance, consider a local dog trainer who will be able to help you out.

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  1. Pingback: Tips for adopting a rescue dog |

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