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Tips For Getting a Nervous Dog to Trust You

Updated: Feb 13

Building trust with a nervous dog requires patience, consistency, and understanding. Depending on the severity of the nervous condition, medicinal intervention may be in order. Here are some tips to help you gain a nervous dog's trust:

  • Be Calm and Patient: Dogs can sense your emotions. Dogs are much more intuitive than human beings realize. If you're calm and patient, your dog is more likely to feel at ease around you. Use a very sweet tone of voice.

  • Respect Their Space: Give the dog space and time to approach you on their terms. Forcing interaction can make a dog more anxious. Not only are they more anxious, but you can put them into defense drive where they will go into flight, and if unable to go into flight, they can go into fight drive, and lash out with biting. This is not truly the aggression of an aggressive dog, but it can be damaging to the human being and other dogs. You need to draw your dog into your space.

Dog bite on hand
This is one of many types of injuries that can be sustained by a spook dog.

The dog in this video is the type of nervous dog that can cause serious injury to human beings. This is an example of a dog with amplified defense drive which tips into true aggression. At Acadia Canine Academy, we explore the instinctual drives of all animals in our care and custody and make a determination as to whether they are truly a threat to public safety. This dog’s issues were predicated by genetically weak nerves through breeding, and/or trauma/abuse. We, professional dog trainers, commonly call these dogs, “spooks”.

The injury depicted in this blog is one of many types of injuries that can be sustained by a spook dog. Said depicted injury was from an 8-month-old Golden Retriever puppy that went into a panic and suffered from genetically weak nerves. Most people would never imagine that such a sweet-looking puppy can cause such serious injury. The public must be aware that they are animals first, and then possibly can become our best friend. This particular dog needed to be euthanized. Try to imagine for a moment of what this dog could've done to a child.


  • Use Positive Reinforcement: Use treats, praise, a sweet tone of voice that is calming, and toys to reward the dog when they exhibit positive behavior or show signs of trust. Positive reinforcement can help build a positive association with you.

  • Establish a Routine: Dogs feel more secure when they have a predictable routine. Feed them, walk them, and play with them at the same times every day. It’s all about building trust and making them a pack member. They are a pack animal!

  • Respect Their Body Language: Learn to read the dog's body language. If they seem uncomfortable or scared, back off and give them space. Body language to look for varies with each dog but the common thing is their ears stiffened backwards or down. Trembling of their muscles. Yawning indicates avoidance behavior. It’s them indicating that they are no longer interested in being in the present situation. Excessive panting and/or drooling. Cowering in a submissive position such as belly-crawling or rolling onto their back, showing their belly. Their tail is tucked between their legs.

  • Speak Softly: Use a calm, soft voice when speaking to your dog. Loud or harsh tones can make a nervous dog more anxious and put them into a defensive state of mind that can be risky for the human being interacting with the dog. Children should not interact with nervous dogs! I have seen all too often, nervous dogs go into defense drive and lash out at dogs that are too gregarious and outgoing in their excited friendliness. This quickly can turn into a dog fight!

Building trust with a nervous dog requires patience, consistency, and understanding.
  • Avoid Eye Contact: In the dog world, direct eye contact can be perceived as confrontational and a threat. When first interacting with a nervous dog, avoid direct eye contact and approach them from the side rather than head-on. A good exercise to do with a nervous dog is to play tug-of-war with a rope and get the dog to engage the rope, but you face the other direction from the dog and allow them to fight against you by pulling the rope, and let go of the rope, allowing the dog to win. This is an excellent exercise in building relationships and confidence.

  • Be Predictable: Dogs feel safer when they can predict what will happen next. Be consistent in your actions and reactions. Always leave off on a good note when you interact with your dog. Dogs operate by reference. They refer back to their last experience with you and the environment they interacted with you in. Try to be consistent in the appearance of the environment in which you interact with your dog. Dogs take visual snapshots of their environment and if there is even a slight change, they become wary and nervous.

  • Play Gentle Games: Engage in gentle games like fetch or tug-of-war. This can help build trust and create a positive bond.

  • Be Mindful of Touch: Some dogs are sensitive to touch, especially if they've had negative experiences such as abuse and/or trauma. Start with gentle touches in areas where dogs usually enjoy being petted, like their back or chest. Avoid sensitive areas like their paws or ears until they are more comfortable with you.

  • Be a Source of Good Things: Provide food, treats, and toys. By associating you with positive things, the dog is more likely to trust you.

  • Socialize Gradually: If the dog is nervous around other people or animals, introduce them to new experiences slowly and in a controlled environment.

  • Consult a Professional: If the dog's nervousness is severe, consider consulting a professional dog trainer or behaviorist. They can provide personalized guidance based on the dog's specific needs. Our vast experience with nervous dogs has resulted in referring our clients to solicit their veterinarian to prescribe Prozac (Fluoxetine). We have seen near-miraculous results with this medicine with nervous dogs. Trazodone and other sedatives are not a viable long-term solution!

Remember, building trust takes time, and every dog is different. Don't be afraid to contact a professional. Be patient, understanding, and consistent in your interactions, and over time, the dog will likely learn to trust you.

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