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How I Taught My Nervous, Skittish Dog to Be Brave

Teaching a dog to be brave takes time, patience, and love -- and sometimes an umbrella!

Susan C. Willett  |  Nov 16th 2015


When Lilah first came to live with us as a puppy, she was a little timid. Then she became skittish. Then nervous. Then terrified. A hyper-aware Border Collie mix, Lilah lived in a world where there were so many new things and strange sounds that she was never really sure what was safe and what was not.

With the help of an incredible trainer and lots of practice and love, today Lilah is a sweet, friendly, well-adjusted dog who is quite comfortable and centered. Most folks who meet her today are surprised to hear about her struggles and fears.

A scared, nervous dog

In one of the early classes with our trainer, we practiced having different people approach us. Lilah barked nervously, backing up into my legs. “She’s okay,” I told the trainer. “She isn’t aggressive. She doesn’t bite.”

Her response shocked me: “Yet. She hasn’t bit anyone yet.” That’s when it became clear to me that scared, nervous dogs — reactive dogs — are potentially aggressive dogs. I was not going to let that happen to Lilah.

As a puppy, Lilah was nervous and skittish.

As a puppy, Lilah was nervous and skittish. (Photo by Susan C. Willett)

Touch it with your nose

So, I worked with Lilah. One of the most basic things we did was a little game I called “touch it with your nose.” To start, I just had Lilah touch my closed fist with her nose. Touch my fist, get a treat. Once she understood that and trusted the concept, I then had her touch my fist near a Scary Thing. A box. A trash can. A purse. Eventually we worked up to having Lilah touch the Scary Thing itself with her nose. A bag of groceries. A TV remote. A hairbrush.

She learned that every time — every time — the thing we’d asked her to touch was safe. So even if she approached the object with a little trepidation, wagging her tail tentatively, she did it willingly.

And each time, after she touched something new, I could see the pride in her eyes. She’d stand a little taller, wag a little swifter, and smile a lot broader.

Gaining confidence through agility

After the obedience classes were over, the trainer suggested that I try agility classes with Lilah; she’d had great success with nervous dogs in agility training, as their confidence increased through some of the activities.

At our first class, Lilah was obviously intimidated by a field full of Scary Things. At first, it was a huge success to just get her to sit near the tunnel as other dogs went through it. By the third class, Lilah touched the tunnel with her nose. The next class, she walked through a shortened version. The following week, she ran through the entire thing.

I also had agility jumps at home that I bought when one of my previous dogs was learning, and Lilah was rewarded for standing near them. Then walking between them. Then stepping over the pole. And finally leaping over.

That was four years ago. I continued to work with Lilah after we stopped taking agility classes, and still do. She began approaching Scary Things on her own and touching them with her nose. They were slowly becoming just new things, and not scary. Greeting people at the door became a joyful event, with Lilah wagging and smiling and happily accepting pets and hellos. Visitors walk in the door with suitcases, and it’s no big deal now.

Braving the weather – or at least the umbrella

Today, most people who meet Lilah would be greeted by a calm and centered dog. But every once in awhile, a new object comes into her environment that pushes her boundaries, and she’s a little wary. When this happens, we return to “touch it with your nose.”

The weather forecasters were predicting a long, rainy day — the kind that seem to last forever with alternating showers, storms, and downpours. Lilah is a bit suspicious of umbrellas, and since I’d be using one all day when I took the dogs outside, I figured it might be a good idea to get some nose touching in before the torrents began.

It wasn’t raining when I first brought the umbrella outside. Lilah watched me carry it — from a safe distance.

Lilah stood a safe distance away from the umbrella.

Lilah stood a safe distance away from the umbrella. (Photo by Susan C. Willett)

Jasper, one of our other dogs, came over to inspect the umbrella. He likes to play “touch it with your nose” since the tasks are always very easy, and he gets treats. He’s not nervous, just hungry.

For Lilah, seeing her brother touch something is usually a first step in increasing her comfort level. Once she saw that Jasper was getting treats and the umbrella wasn’t doing anything unpredictable, Lilah came over and touched it herself.

Lilah stood a safe distance away from the umbrella.

Success! Lilah touches the closed umbrella with her nose. (Photo by Susan C. Willett)

But a closed umbrella is different from an open one. Once you open an umbrella — even a little — all bets are off. It whispers and moves. It reacts to the wind or a slight touch. This requires more nose touching.

Lilah took on the challenge.

Lilah touches the unfurled umbrella

Now the umbrella is open, it’s a little more unpredictable, as the wind can move it. (Photo by Susan C. Willett)

Next step: Open it. The whoosh of an umbrella opening was a little startling, and all the dogs looked up to see what was going on. I put it down on the ground.

Jasper came over to inspect first. Then Tucker, my Terrier mix, came by, who up until that moment wasn’t interested in the game because there were too many sniffs he had to attend to first.

Lilah is happy to ignore the umbrella while her brothers touch it.

Lilah is happy to ignore the umbrella while her brothers touch it. (Photo by Susan C. Willett)

After observing both her brothers inspect the open umbrella, and with Jasper and Tucker by her side, Lilah cautiously reached out and touched the open umbrella.

Lilah touches the opened umbrella

Touchdown! (Photo by Susan C. Willett)

Then she did it again. And again. Lots of treats and praise were involved every step of the way. Her comfort level increased dramatically, enough that I asked all three pups to pose next to it.

Jasper, Lilah and Tucker pose by the umbrella

Notice Lilah is just a little bit behind the other two. She’s comfortable with the umbrella, but doesn’t necessarily like it. (Photo by Susan C. Willett)

After I gave them the release command and they knew they were no longer in sit/stay, Jasper touched the umbrella on his own, hoping for more treats. Emboldened by her brother, and without being asked, Lilah did the same.

WIth a little encouragement from Jasper, Lilah touches the scary umbrella.

Jasper and Lilah touch the umbrella while Tucker is distracted by something else. Notice Lilah’s body posture. Less tentative, tail high. You can see the confidence building. (Photo by Susan C. Willett)

Of course they got lots of praise — and treats.

By now the rain had started, so we headed inside. I put the umbrella in a corner as the pups came in, and put away their leashes and the treat bag.

When I turned around, I saw Lilah touching the umbrella by herself.

Lilah touches the scary umbrella

“I got you cornered, umbrella.” (Photo by Susan C. Willett)

Then she turned to look up at me, pride shining in her eyes. My sweet, brave Lilah.

Lilah is very proud that she touched the umbrella.

It may not be exactly in focus (blame it on the photographer), but you can see the pride in Lilah’s perked ears and shining eyes. (Photo by Susan C. Willett)

Being brave isn’t just doing things that others are afraid of; it’s doing the thing that you are most afraid of. That is what Lilah is learning.

Helping a dog overcome reactivity, timidness, and skittishness takes time, patience, and love. Generous helpings of all three. The results are worth every minute.

Do you have a skittish dog? What have you done to help her overcome her fears? Tell us in the comments!

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About the author: Susan C. Willett is a writer, photographer, and blogger whose award-winning original stories, photography, poetry, and humor can be found at Life With Dogs and Cats. She lives in New Jersey with three dogs and four cats (all rescues) and at least a couple of humans–all of whom provide inspiration for her work. Refusing to take sides in the interweb’s dogs vs. cats debate, Susan enjoys observing the interspecies interaction among the varied inhabitants of her home–like living in a reality TV show, only furrier. In addition to Life With Dogs and Cats, you can find more Lilah, Jasper, and Tucker (and the rest of the gang) on Haiku by Dog™,  Haiku by Cat™,  and Dogs and Cats Texting.