Can my dog overcome nervousness?

Dog hiding behind wall

(Q) I recently lost my faithful friend and I've been given another German Shepherd Dog from a kennel. She's very nervous and is always listening in case somebody comes into the house. If they do, she'll go under the table in the corner. If it's my nephew with his young daughter, she'll let the girl stroke her but then hide away again and shiver. How can I help her to overcome her nervousness? She wants to lie under the table all the time and will only lie close to me now and again.

(A) Behaviourist Claire Arrowsmith says: I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your old dog. It's still very early days with your new GSD and it takes time for a nervous dog to settle in and build up her confidence.

However, it does sound as though this dog will need some extra help. She's using clear signals to tell you she's uncomfortable and it's important that you take note and work to make her feel safe, especially when around people. She shouldn't be approached while she is hiding, as the fact that she can't escape any further may force her to resort to a more aggressive response. Instead, give her space and reward her well when she does venture out, even if just for a short time. The reward could be some treats in a bowl if she is not comfy taking them from your hand at first.

Be careful not to go overboard on the petting and the fuss until she is more comfortable with interacting with people. A little attention and praise is better than overwhelming her as this could put her off approaching again.

A dog appeasing pheromone (Adaptil) diffuser may help to relax your dog and therefore aid your progress. This can be plugged in where she spends most of her time so that she feels more secure and less inclined to hide away under the table. Take this plan step-by-step, working with familiar family and then later on with new people. Never rush her as she will begin to show more interest when she is ready.

Nervous dogs

  • Naturally more cautious than other dogs, nervous dogs need extra care when being introduced to new situations or meeting new people.
  • Proper socialisation, and regular exposure to positive experiences, is key to these dogs, whose nervousness is generally inherited from their parents.
  • It is easy for them to become overwhelmed by certain situations so it is up to their owners to ensure this doesn't happen.
  • Lip licking, yawning, backing away, and hiding may all be signs of nervousness.
  • If you see this behaviour in your dog, either move away from the situation or distract him by doing something he enjoys.
  • In some instances it may be a good idea to seek professional help, from a qualified behaviourist recommended by your vet.