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Nervous Dog Behavior – Avoidance & Collar Anxiety

As my family of five (2 humans, 2 dogs and a bird) prepares for our big move, a lot of to-do’s are popping up.  One big category on the list is dog training.  Because we will likely go into a temporary rental situation prior to finding our next property, the dogs need to be able to demonstrate proper manners and social skills.  This means nervous dog behavior has to be identified and minimized.

Nervous dog behavior can come out as fear, aggression, uber submissiveness….think about the variety of ways you behave when you’re nervous and understand your dog experiences a similar spectrum.  When I’m nervous, I’ve been known to smile excessively, develop a deep furrow in my brow, or start biting/picking my nails.  With Trooper, I’ve seen him be friendly and submissive to everything/everyone around (I witnessed this when he was introduced to a group of children) and fearful/borderline aggressive (how he responded to a random stranger after a long day).

In the past, Trooper’s charm and intelligence has helped us avoid monthly pet fees and has even opened doors at places that stated no pets were allowed.  Now, with Sydney as part of the pack and with the new dynamic of TWO dogs, we’re going to have to work a little harder to make our case.  There are two weaknesses that I believe, upon improvement, will cause a domino effect of better social behavior.  These are just two examples of nervous dog behavior – every dog has a different personality and their sources of anxiety will come out in different ways.

Nervous Dog Behavior – Face and Head Avoidance

Sydney is nervous about people touching her head. She pulls away almost every time.

Sydney is super lovable, even with strangers.  That is, until you try to touch her head; then she changes her tune.  We do not really know how she was treated in her previous household, but we do observe a pretty consistent skittish response to us raising our arm (i.e. to brush your hair, to touch the light, etc).  So despite her easy love of people, her nervous dog behavior is head avoidance, even with us.

It is fairly well understood that most dogs do not really enjoy head touching.  However, if you have a family dog, he/she probably tolerates it fabulously.  Head pats and big, over-the-head hugs are often times disliked but tolerated.  If your dog trusts you, they let you do it; doesn’t mean they like it.  Watch their face and body language and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s a very easy to observe nervous dog behavior.

If you reach for Sydney’s face, nine times out of ten, she will pull away very quickly.  Immediately after, she acts super submissive by leaning against you with her head down and out of your reach.  It isn’t really a problem for us.  We let her have her preferences.  However, with strangers, I’ve seen this nervous dog behavior bubble right to the surface, opening the door to actions we might not desire.

Nervous Dog Behavior – Collar Anxiety

Trooper does not enjoy people touching his collar – even me!   Notice the nervous licking.

Unlike Sydney, Trooper’s ok with people touching his head/face.  He doesn’t love it.  His eyes get all bugged out.  But he allows it.  He is much more sensitive about his collar.  If you reach over his head for his collar, he transitions into, “I could bite you if this unfolds in a scary way” mode.  And if you approach quickly or pull on it, better watch out!  Definitely NOT okay for meeting new people.

This has never been an issue in the past, because we don’t often go into an unknown situation.  The only places Trooper previously visited where there was a social element was work and dog class.  And the people in both of these places were aware of how to respectfully approach Trooper.  Now that we are looking at a new location with new people, I have decided to prioritize the improvement of Trooper’s social skills.  No biggie, we’ll just put balancing on one foot on the back burner.

Training and Conditioning

Because we’re in training mode, Sydney puts aside her discomfort and offers a ‘chin’.

This one is easy.  There are other examples of nervous dog behavior that require more extensive, arduous and repetitive training.  With both head/face nervousness and collar anxiety, the key to success is regular attention and positive reinforcement.  Think love fest with food.

I scruff Trooper up all the time. It’s not quite the same as reaching for his head.

I harass Trooper all the time – I push him from one side to the other, twirl him in a circle on the linoleum, grab his feet when he’s not looking, etc.  If you lovingly harass your dog, then you’ll have to take it down a few notches during your training sessions.  Think soothing massage.

A canine massage feels good for them and can be very therapeutic for you.  It should be sweet and fun.  It is not about discipline; it’s about patience and rewarding them when they allow you to do whatever it is you are working on.

For Trooper and Sydney, the training setup and routine is the same –

  • Settle in a quiet, safe environment (could be in front of the TV, outside, etc)
  • Speak calming and quietly
  • Do not start at the areas of concern; work toward them with lots of reward
  • Give loving praise, pats and snacks as they allow you to touch them

That’s it!  The key is to be consistent and always be gentle.  Don’t rush.  It’s their body so it’s their rules.  If they trust you and feel safe, they’ll improve quickly.  It’ll be one of their easiest ‘tricks’.  They sit still and get fed.

Once you feel the phobia or nervous dog behavior is pretty much gone, have another family member take over for awhile.  Then try a trusted friend.  Food plus loving touches should be a delightful routine.  If your dog is shy, be patient and go slow.  For more info on shy dogs and other examples of nervous dog behavior, check out Paw_Rescue.

Watch the video at the top to see Trooper and Sydney in action.  You’ll also hear quite a bit of chatter from Fred bird in the background.  Good luck and happy training!