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— February 10, 2015 —
What is a “Weak-Nerved” Dog and how can you help him?
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

We’ve been talking about exercising your dog and exercising his brain. Here are some thoughts on how training can help the “Weak-Nerved” dog.

In training circles, we have a term for dogs that are flighty, nervous or fearful. It can also include dogs that act out aggressively without any provocation. We often call those dogs “weak-nerved.” A weak-nerved dog may be any breed, size or gender. I personally have not seen a particular pattern as to male v/s female dogs. There are some types that tend to be weak-nerved, but not the ones you might think. These types follow patterns that are common through the entire animal kingdom. While not a guarantee as far as temperament goes, skinny, thin-bones dogs (and animals in general) are often more likely to be fearful while heavy bones dogs tend to be more confident.

Think about an elephant and compare his temperament to that of a gazelle. Which of this two tends to be more “flighty?” That’s easy. The heavier-boned animal tends to be much less flighty. This pattern of behavior has been discussed in the book “Animals In Translation” by Temple Grandin. She mentions that fine-boned animals are usually the more flighty, even when referring to horses. In one extremely interesting passage, she discussed the Russian Silver Fox experiment and mentions that after decades of breeding only purebred fox to purebred fox, the more tame, ergo more confident animals have started to develop thicker bones! As the animal’s temperament changes, so does its skeleton…or maybe, as its skeleton changes, so does its temperament.

I’ve heard a million times. Someone will say, “I want to get a puppy so I can raise him the way I want.” They think that if they get the dog at a young age, they will be able to control exactly how the dog turns out. This is only true to a certain point. If you have followed our Tails, you know that I regularly preach the importance of genetics to a dog’s temperament. When I advise people who want to adopt or buy a dog, I generally recommend that the new dog owners do their best to do one of the two following things. A) meet the puppy’s parents or B) get a dog that is about a year old. That way, you can have a better idea how confident the dog will be as an adult.

A dog’s confidence level can be graded on a scale. There are dogs that we call bulletproof. Dogs that can handle any situation that the world throws a them. Nothing upsets them. Our old boy Otto was pretty bulletproof and our current girl Jelly is as well. On the other end of the spectrum are dogs that spook very easily. They may or may not be aggressive, but they are very reactive to things that happen normally in every day life. The dog that panics when the wind blows a plastic bag or when a door closes might be an example of the other end of the confidence spectrum.

Usually, people think fearful dogs have a history of abuse. I believe this is usually not the case. Dogs that are weak-nerved are usually born that way. We have seen terribly abused dogs recover to be excellent, social family dogs. We have also seen dogs that were treated very well end up being very fearful and aggressive. Usually, but not always, we can see some warning signs in a dog when it’s young. I recently evaluated a 1 year old dog that was adopted at 8 weeks old. The owners reported that he was shaking and fearful when they met him at the shelter. He went home with them and they treated him well by their own account. When I met the dog, he was healthy and did seem well cared for, however he was extremely aggressive to everyone and everything that moved in our lobby. In fact, he panicked so badly that he lost control of his bowels for the same evaluation techniques that I attempt with every dog I meet at our open house.

Helping a weak-nerved dog is a challenge for any trainer. I will generally take on a dog like this, but only as long as he is not so aggressive that he can’t be handled by our staff. I have turned a couple of dogs down for training that I determined were either too fearful/aggressive to be handled by our staff or just too damaged to be helped by training. This is always a difficult decision from a personal standpoint. I am a dog trainer after all, and I am loath to admit that a dog is beyond my capabilities. Some dogs, however are just not candidates for training. Some dogs are just so mentally damaged that they are very much like humans that suffer from serious mental illness. These dogs may be helped by medications and even that is sometimes difficult.

So, how does training help the weak-nerved dog? The dog’s brain is like a muscle. It has to be worked to get stronger. Strengthening the dog’s nerve generally starts with obedience training. Obedience training, at it’s core, is a communication system that you teach your dog. This will ultimately allow you to tell your dog how to handle the world around him. By training him, you develop confidence in your dog and you develop your dog’s confidence in you. Training also allows you to socialize your dog to new situations, but on a deeper level, it challenges your dog. Every single time you teach your dog a new skill, you strengthen his nerves. Every time you ask your dog to perform a certain task to a certain standard, you are making his brain stronger. This increases the dog’s nerve strength.

There are literally limitless options for training to help strengthen your dog’s nerves. Obedience, agility, flyball, rally, you name it. (There is also the concept of desensitizing your dog to various environmental stimuli. If your dog is scared of dump trucks, you can work on that particular issue. For this Tail, I have focused on the dog’s overall mental strength versus individual issues.) They can all help your dog. The trick is to find something that he isn’t already good at, but likes to do. Just last night, I had a dog that I have been training for a few weeks perform a couple of simple of agility exercises. He just wasn’t ready for it before last night, but he thoroughly enjoyed himself. He charged across the balance beam, which scares many dogs at first, happier than I had ever seen him. I strongly suggested his owner take him through our formal agility program to further his training after his initial program is complete. This is exactly what I’m talking about in this Tail. Training the dog to get through new experiences helps him to be more confident in himself AND in you. If you tell him to do something, he knows he’ll be safe and get through it just fine…because YOU told him to do it.

So, just how far can you take a weak-nerved dog through training? That really depends on the dog. Every fearful dog will have a limit on what they can learn to tolerate. The dog that did agility last night has become much more confident through his training, but he’ll probably always struggle with some of his fears. His owner is committed, though and I am sure he will keep working with his dog over the long term to keep him moving forward. This is one of the tricks to working on a dog’s nerve strength. You have to constantly move forward. Look for new things to help build confidence. If you stop working his brain, like his muscles, it will atrophy. The gains made in nerve strength can be lost.

If you’re not living with a nervous dog, please keep this stuff in mind when you run across a dog that seems fearful or reactive. Take some time and perhaps give him (and his human) some space. Most likely, neither of them want to be difficult and hopefully they are working on strengthening their dog’s nerves.

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