Signs of a nervous dog
Nervousness can reveal itself in many different ways. Some of them are pretty obvious, while others are far more subtle. Of the obvious signs, body language is usually the biggest giveaway. Like humans, a nervous dog will assume a passive body stance. They may cower, or try to make themselves look as small as possible. They may start to whine and whimper, and a nervous dog will also usually tuck their tail between its legs. Other signs include flattened ears, drooling, and they may even urinate. Nervous dogs tend to avoid eye contact, and they may run off to find a safe place to hide. Alternatively, nervous dogs will cling to their owners as if their life depended on them.
The less obvious signs include panting, licking their lips, and even yawning.
Why is my dog nervous?
It might be something as simple as their genetics or personality type. Dogs have a range of character traits that can manifest in different ways. Certain breeds, like the Pomeranian, have a tendency to feel nervous around strangers. Other dogs, like the German Shepherd, have a natural confidence written into their DNA. But even a fearless-looking dog like the German Shepherd can have a nervous disposition. Remember, dogs are individuals - just like their human owners.
But nurture also plays a huge part; an early traumatic experience can have a profound effect on a dog's development. This is more common in rescue dogs. Unfortunately, some of these dogs have suffered abuse and neglect from a very early age. Nervousness then becomes an expression of fear and anxiety, but it also works as a self-defence mechanism. By constantly staying "alert" and keeping away from strangers, dogs are reducing the chances of “bad” things happening to them again. But there is hope for these dogs. The right owners, combined with the right training methods, can help build a dogs confidence. As that begins to grow, their nervousness starts to fade.
Many nervous dogs simply weren't socialised properly. Socialisation is very important. It encourages the right kind of behaviour in young pups, giving them a much better chance of developing into healthy and safe dogs. It lets them know that the world is essentially a safe place and that the vast majority of people are friendly. Socialisation needs to begin as soon as possible. Each new litter has a window of about 8 weeks. After that, unsocialised puppies tend to become nervous and shy, especially around strangers. Another window opens between four and five months. Again, if the puppy is not socialised, they may become fearful of strangers or particular groups of people. A scared dog is a nervous dog, but a scared dog can also turn into an aggressive dog.
Nervous dog behaviour
Nervous dogs can appear less social, especially around new people. This doesn't mean they're not friendly or kind-hearted. They're just a bit shy, or naturally introverted. Nervous dogs require a different approach. Don't overwhelm them with attention. This can often aggravate their anxiety. Approach them quietly and softly instead. Extend the back of your hand. Let them have a little sniff. If the dog backs away, leave them alone. Then let them come back to you in their own time. Any extra pressure will only make them feel more nervous.
How to help a nervous dog
Prevention is always better than cure, so start socialising them as early as possible. Introduce them to lots of different people. Take them on short trips. Show them that the world is a safe and happy place for a puppy.
Older dogs will require a lot more patience. Whereas a puppy is more of a blank slate, older dogs have developed habits and behaviours that can be deeply ingrained. These can be very difficult to “re-write”, but it's nowhere near impossible. One of the best ways to do it is through exposure therapy. For example, if your dog is afraid of strangers, don't just avoid new people, but introduce them to your dog in a safe and controlled environment. As soon as they appear too nervous, remove them from the situation. Once they've calmed down, bring them back into the room. Do this over and over again, gradually increasing the amount of time your dog spends with new people. It requires lots of patience and time, and you might take a few backwards steps here and there, but exposure therapy has been proved to help many dogs (and humans) overcome fear and anxiety.
Or you could try some aversion therapy. If your dog gets particularly nervous during a storm, then give them a toy to play with, or even a few treats. Again, with enough repetition, your dogs thought processes will begin to edit themselves. Instead of associating a storm with feeling nervous and afraid, your dog will link it with positive emotions or experiences. This isn't easy, but it does works. All you need is enough patience and a commitment to improving your dog's mental health.
Some dogs are just naturally more nervous than others. In many cases this is fine. In others, nervousness may be impacting your dogs quality of life, as well as your own. It could stem from a traumatic experience, poor socialisation, or other negative associations picked up during their formative years. Whatever the cause, building up your dogs confidence is key. It takes time and effort, but it will dramatically improve your dog's wellbeing.