Helping fearful, nervous dogs though enrichment

Training a fearful or nervous dog can become very tricky. When your dog is in a state of fear, they go into fight, flight, fidget or freeze mode. These emotional responses can be intense, resulting in biting or scratching, running off into dangerous areas, or shutting down completely from the stress. Some trainers might recommend using aversive tools to stop these behaviors. However, these tools will make the situation worse. Using aversive tools like prong collars, shock collars, or e-collars to address fear just adds more reason to be fearful and destroys the trust you have built with your dog.

Instead, we recommend using enrichment to build up your dog’s confidence. In addition to helping your dog be more comfortable in new scenarios, enrichment opportunities help develop a bond between you and your dog. They will learn to trust you and have more fun when they are with you.

So, what is enrichment?

Enrichment is the practice of identifying and providing environmental stimuli to enhance the animal’s physical and mental well-being by encouraging their natural behaviors. For dogs, enrichment can be a huge variety of things: playing tug, digging in a dig pit, running through sprinklers, taking a new route on their walk, sniffing unique smells, or even watching TV.

Most of the time, enrichment will bring out the fun-loving, excited side of your dog. But what happens when your dog shows signs of stress when introducing something new? If you notice your dog lip licking, giving you whale eye, growling or barking, or pinning their ears back, respect their feelings and take a step back. You may need to start from square one to make sure your dog can interact with the enrichment in a positive way.

Here are some tips on how to introduce new enrichment to a fearful dog:

Give your dog time to decompress before and after the activity.

Start with something easy. Dogs can become frustrated or discouraged by difficult puzzle toys. Try a licking mat or crumple a towel and toss some treats on top so they are easy to find. The key here is to get your dog to engage with the new thing without showing any signs of stress.

Be careful with noisy enrichment.

Some dogs are sound sensitive and get spooked with sudden noises. Be wary of toys with squeakers or heavier toys that can make sound when dropped. You can try introducing the toy on a rug or mat that can reduce the sharp sounds, or look for soft/squishy alternatives your dog can try.

Be wary of sudden movement.

Toys that have sporadic or sudden movements can startle your dog. Start slow. Introduce the toy without any movement at first, and slowly building up from there.

Always be encouraging

Help your dog if they seem to get stuck or can’t seem to figure it out. Make it an engaging activity for both of you to build up your relationship as well.

By introducing new types of enrichment to your fearful dog, you will slowly build up their confidence and explorative abilities. Continue encouraging this kind of behavior, and you will see progress over time. Maybe this looks like your fearful dog finally walking up to the fire hydrant outside, they might start relaxing more often in the house, they may show more interest in playing with you or other people in the house, or they might not try to dart away when they hear the garbage truck.

If you need help figuring out what kind of enrichment would be best for your situation, speak with one of our trainers by calling us at 786-299-1552.