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How to Help a Nervous Dog Gain Confidence


Written by Kim Rain

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 05/25/2021, edited: 10/05/2022

Do you have a nervous pooch? If your precious pup cowers behind you when new people approach, or trembles when in a new place, you just might. While the image of a friendly dog who wags their tail and happily greets guests may seem normal for a lot of people, not all dogs have the confidence to feel safe in any situation.

Whether lunging, barking and growling, or hiding or pacing, it’s hard to see your dog stressed out. For a nervous dog, the world can be a scary place, and they often look to their human pal to keep them safe. Luckily, there’s lots of ways you can help your dog relax and gain more confidence. Let’s take a look at the best techniques to help your dog be braver. 

Your New Best Friends: Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning

Dogs can exhibit fearfulness for a variety of reasons, such as a medical issue that causes them pain or discomfort, a past trauma or abuse, or even a genetic predisposition. Commonly, a lack of proper socialization between 3 and 14 weeks of age when a dog needs exposure to plenty of different people, places and animals to learn what is and isn’t safe is to blame.

Regardless of why your dog is nervous, you should always start with basic commands like “sit” and “stay” that set the framework of a trusting relationship between you and your dog, and begins to build their confidence. Always pairing training with positive reinforcement can help to replace negative feelings the dog may have with good ones.

If your dog is showing fear of a particular person, place or situation, the best way to change their view of it is to expose them to their fear at a low level of intensity, then turn it into a pawsitive experience. This is called desensitization and counter-conditioning. Here’s how they work:


The goal of desensitization is to repeatedly expose your dog to their fear, or stimulus, in increasing degrees until they are no longer afraid of it. During each session, you’ll need to be very watchful of your dog’s body language to be able to gauge how slow or fast you can proceed.

Let’s take an example of a dog who is afraid of new people. Invite a friend your dog hasn’t met to come over. Have your dog sit a considerable distance from your friend, and watch your dog for signs that their fear level is decreasing. Then, move a little closer. When relaxed again, move even closer. Go at a pace that fits your dog, and back off if they get overwhelmed. Eventually, your dog should be comfortable enough to go up to your friend and explore.


This technique goes along with desensitization and adds a reward, often in the form of a treat. Unlike when you are training your dog a command, you won’t be treating your dog when he performs the desired action, but rather you’ll be treating them because of what happens in the situation. Using this trick changes your dog’s emotional response to the stimulus and replaces fear with a happy anticipation of the reward.

In the above example about introducing a new person, you’d give your dog a treat when they see the person. Move a little closer, and give a treat. Each time you move a little closer, you give a treat, regardless of how your dog reacts. You are, in essence, giving your dog something pawsome to look forward to as they move closer to the feared stimulus, and soon, they will be more focused on the imminent treat than the fear.

These techniques will go a long way to building confidence, especially if your dog has a fear of a specific thing or place. But for dogs who are just nervous by nature, or need to continue building on their desensitization and counter-conditioning work, there are a lot of ways you can increase your pooch’s confidence while having fun!

Games to Boost Your Dog’s Confidence

Games and playtimes are furbulous ways to keep your dog’s attention on feeling great while increasing their confidence levels. They’ll be enjoying stress-free activities with you so much that they won’t even notice you are pulling them out of their nervous shell.

#1 Target Touching

With target touching, you’ll be getting your dog to touch their nose or paw to a designated target, usually your hand. Treat your dog whenever they touch your hand, and soon your dog will intentionally touch it to get the reward. Once learned, you can hold out your hand and use your “touch” command to divert their attention away from a feared stimulus, and happily get back into playful mode.

#2 Play “Find It”

Nose-work is a great way to engage your dog’s senses and focus, and help a nervous dog feel safer exploring. Start simply by tossing a treat to the side and say “Find it!” Once your dog comes back, toss another treat further away and repeat. Continue sending treats further away each time to encourage your dog to get their sniffer involved. Then, up the difficulty by hiding treats in a separate room before letting your dog loose to find them, or use toys or other objects. You can also use this game to redirect your dog from a fearful stimulus.

#3 Puzzle Games

These interactive toys force your dog to problem-solve, which then helps them to deal with new situations. They also work to boost confidence by rewarding their diligence in exploring with a treat. Puzzle games come in several varieties, such as boards, mazes, boxes, and rugs, and vary in difficulty from beginner to expert. Try out different ones to see what your dog likes, or make your own at home.

#4 Learning New Tricks

Training can seem like work, but for a dog, it can be a rewarding experience that blends bonding with their furvorite human and getting yummy rewards. Each time your dog correctly performs the trick, they are happy they’ve pleased you which increases their confidence. From giving you a high five to agility jumps over hurdles, these new behaviors are fun ways to spend time together and work out that pooch energy!

#5 Playtime

Using regular playtime games like fetch or tug of war as confidence builders is easy, and the same principles apply as for training. Whenever your dog effectively catches a ball or frisbee, they get a sense of accomplishment and happiness while working their muscles and releasing stress. Activities like doga, or dog-yoga, can help them to learn to focus on you in a stress-free environment, a practice you need them to master when confronted with a scary situation.

By remembering to always keep it positive, and giving lots of praise and love, you can help your dog boost their confidence and be ready to take on the world!

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