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Training an anxious dog too quickly

My foster dog Cosmo is teaching me to rely mostly on positive reinforcement training, to be patient and relaxed and to be creative in finding ways to boost his confidence.

He reminds me to simplify everything I ask of him.

Instead of expecting Cosmo to remain in a 20-minute stay, yield to me in doorways and never pull on the leash, I need to focus on one of these concepts at a time and break them down into smaller steps. That way Cosmo can be successful and encouraged to learn more.

Cosmo is a very sweet, friendly guy. He wants to make me happy. He wants to make everyone happy. He just needs to work at his own pace. I can relate!

Sometimes my expectations are way too high for him. That’s important to point out, because it’s a mistake most dog owners make. Dogs are capable of learning quite a bit, but they need clear, simple directions with sometimes 100s of repetitions.

For dogs that haven’t experienced much in their lives, even the tiniest challenges can be extremely difficult.

Cosmo is a good example of a dog who has very little tolerance for stress. He gets frustrated very easily, especially when asked to do something new. I can also tell he experiences some amount of fear in new situations or if I express any frustration myself.

I don’t know why Cosmo has a low stress tolerance. It could be his personality. It could be genetics. But it’s also painfully obvious that he’s had very little training and socialization. I don’t think he’s been expected to do much for the last nine years or so.

Here’s an example:

Cosmo knows how to step over his leash if it gets caught under his armpit. But if it gets tangled further, he goes into a panic – rolling and biting and making the situation worse. A dog with a higher tolerance for stress would remain collected and either figure out how to get the leash untangled or wait for help. No big deal.

If I ask Cosmo to do something new, it’s typical for him to shut down. He avoids eye contact. His ears go back. He turns away. He shakes. He tries to retreat to his kennel or a corner of the house away from me. He licks his lips. If I push him too far or try to use force, he will snap.

Cosmo is very good at clearly expressing his stress levels. It’s my job to pay attention and to slowly build his confidence without pushing him too far.

Just the other day, I asked Cosmo to lie down on a towel for a treat. You would think I had asked him to jump off a cliff! He became terrified, showed signs of shutting down and was not going to put one toe on that towel!

Rather than give up, I decided to use this opportunity to build Cosmo’s confidence.

So I got out the treats and rewarded him for sitting next to the towel.

Wow! What a good boy!

Then, he got a treat for putting one paw on the towel. Next, I rewarded him for standing on the towel. Then, for lying down on the towel.


The whole process took at least 10 minutes.

Cosmo was mentally exhausted after that and needed a long nap to recover. I probably pushed him too far, actually.

I realize most dogs are not going to experience stress over something such as a towel or a piece of trash blowing in the wind. But it’s still important to break concepts into small steps for all dogs.

Now that I’ve lived with Cosmo for a few months, I can see why people with reactive/aggressive or fearful dogs find it easier to just keep the dogs away from other dogs or away from new people.

I also realize some dogs are so dangerous they truly can’t leave their homes. I probably would not be able to work with a dog like that. I need to be able to get out of the house and take my dog for walks and to take him anywhere dogs are allowed.

Although Cosmo is 9 years old, I know he will be able to slowly stretch his limits and feel more comfortable in new situations. He loves to go to adoption events and training classes, and he loves to go on walks, so that’s great!

Break dog training into small steps

American Eskimo dog for adoption with 4 Luv of Dog Rescue in FargoCosmo and I got to help out with a beginner’s obedience class. Cosmo was the demo dog, showing off his mad “skills” such as sitting and staying. He’s very good at this because he is treat motivated. It’s easy to guide him, and he loves the class environment.

Most of the dog handlers in these classes know how to teach sit and stay (some don’t), but everyone is there as a reminder to work in small steps with our dogs.

Even the concept of “stay” is complex, but beginning dog trainers move way too quickly all the time.

I teach “stay” by giving the dog lots of treats for not moving even when I’m standing right next to him.

Once he has that down, I pivot so I’m facing the dog but still right next to him. The treats keep coming as long as the dog stays.

I use a verbal release word – OK – to signal to the dog he can move again. But the real rewards come only when the dog is actually staying, not after he is released.

A dog cannot possibly grasp the concept of “stay” right off the bat, even if I take just one step away. But dog owners try to take several steps away all the time, before the dog understands the “stay” concept. This is frustrating to both the human and the dog and often results in the human giving up for good.

My dog Ace will pretty much stay no matter what. I don’t know how people live with dogs who won’t stay for more than 30 seconds. It would drive me crazy.

Ace didn’t even know what “sit” meant when I got him. I remember the difficulties I had communicating with him on that first day. I had to hold onto his collar if I didn’t want him to move. This was quite the challenge with a 65-pound, excitable dog. And paws are always muddy during Minnesota springs.

After I adopted Ace, we would go on an hour-long walk every single morning. We’d stop in the church parking lot by my old apartment and practice sit-stay over and over again. Every. Single. Day.

First he learned to stay while I turned and faced him toe-to-toe.

Next I’d tell him to stay while I took a step away or a step in any direction. Once he understood that, I’d go halfway to the end of the leash. Maybe the next day I’d try walking in a circle around my dog (always a tough one!), and so on.

If we practiced in a new area, I’d start all over from square one or from wherever my dog could be successful.

When I taught him “down” and “stay,” we started over again.

We went through lots of jerky treats and 100s of little training sessions.

Cosmo will be able to sit and stay just as reliably as Ace. It all depends on how much time I put into his training. And because of his low tolerance for stress, I have to make sure to work very slowly and set him up for lots of success.

Cosmo wants to run and hide if he knows he’s done something “wrong.” This is teaching me to truly ignore his mistakes and praise him when he does something right. It’s harder than it sounds! Like Cosmo, I can get easily frustrated, so he and I are working together on our stress tolerances!

Set specific criteria for each training session

It helps me to ask myself what I want to work on during each particular training session with my dog. Otherwise, I get overwhelmed because I will be thinking too broadly.

Not specific: I am going to teach my dog to heel.

Specific: I am going to stop moving forward every time my dog pulls. “Pulling” means the leash is tight or the dog’s shoulder is in front of my hip. The dog will get a treat every time he looks at me. If my dog pulls, I will not get frustrated. Instead, I will switch directions often, walk in a zig-zag and walk at different speeds so my dog never knows what I’ll be up to. I will keep the walk fun and interesting and reward my dog with food when he’s doing what I want.

Not specific: I am going to teach my dog to come when I call him.

Specific: I am going to grab some chicken and run away from my dog in the backyard yelling “Cosmo, come!” in a firm but friendly voice. My dog will get the chicken when he sits directly in front of me. I will use the chicken to guide him. He will have a long lead on so I can catch him and re-direct his attention if needed. I will remain happy and fun even if my dog is having a hard time focusing.

First-time dog owners or dog owners who’ve just gotten a new dog (like me and my foster dog) don’t always have a clear understanding of what it means to really break dog training down into small steps. It isn’t natural to us. We tend to look at the big picture and expect results right away.

But you typically can’t teach a dog to roll over right away, for example. You have to first teach the dog to lie on his side and then to start shifting in one direction and then to roll completely over.

You can’t teach a dog to stay on his dog bed while you eat dinner unless you’ve already taught him the concept of stay. Then you have to practice moving away from the dog and slowly increasing the time he stays. Then you can add mild distractions like a steak dinner 🙂

What are your suggestions for training an anxious or fearful dog?

As for Cosmo and I, by no means do I have him figured out. He has a lot more to teach me – mostly about patience and remaining positive.

For those of you who have worked with dogs with any kind of fear or anxiety issues, I would love to hear your suggestions for how I can build Cosmo’s confidence. I have him signed up for another obedience class since it’s something we both enjoy.

Cosmo is up for adoption with 4 Luv of Dog Rescue in Fargo. Read more about him in my post American Eskimo dog for adoption in Fargo. If you would like more info about Cosmo, send an email to

Black lab mix and American Eskimo dog lying next to each other


Friday 4th of November 2011

Hi Lindsay,

I had to comment after reading your response about about how Ace will sort of "shut down" when he wears his vest. It reminds me of a situation with Coco, a chocolate lab that I dogsit on occasion.

Coco is about two years old and she tends to pull on her leash. Her owners recently got her an easy walk harness and it is a total 180, to the extent that we don't know if it's positive or not. She does not want to wear it, and when you get it on, her energy level just plummets. Instead of pulling ahead she walks fully behind you. You aren't exactly dragging her but she is going just a little slower than you are. I'm wondering what is your take on this; is this behavior better than the pulling? Would you stick with the harness?

I don't visit Coco that often but I'm spending next weekend at her house and so I'm trying to decide if I will use the harness or not. My inclination is to keep using it, but her owners are especially hesitant about it.

Lindsay Stordahl

Saturday 5th of November 2011

I would keep using the harness with the goal of weaning the dog off the harness. But you may want to try a different training collar rather than the harness, something that doesn't make the dog feel so insecure. Maybe a Halti or Gentle Leader could work well.

Lindsay Stordahl

Thursday 3rd of November 2011

It sounds like she is not taking you seriously, and she is trying to play. Be more firm with her, without getting upset. And make sure she has an outlet for her energy. Take her running or for long walks if you aren't already. Another good way to help a dog burn through some energy is to play a good game of tug of war. And then when you are working on sit or down or stay and your dog is still ignoring you, just go back to the basics. Don't challenge her too much if she is not successful. And step on the leash if you need to in order to hold her in place. This works especially well when the dog is in a down position. Just step on the leash near her collar so she can't pop up. Once she settles, remove your foot.


Thursday 3rd of November 2011

This was very helpful,as far as training a dog goes. ^-^; I have a 4-year-young lab/pit bull mix,she is the sweetest thing ever and i do love her a lot! But she has this thing where i tell her to sit/stay/lay down [she already knows these,as i have taught them to her] but she will ignore me completely and then pull her ears back and wag her tail,then bump into my legs.. Any idea what i can do for this? How can i make her listen to me,without getting frustrated? And i don't have money for obedience classes.


Thursday 8th of September 2011

Interesting post! I adopted an Eskimo dog two years ago. He was about a year old and afraid of everything--pine cones, trash can lids, really, everything. It took two weeks to get him to climb down a set of stairs. And, as Eskies tend to do, he barked at everything, too. Even when he could see what it was, like me closing a cabinet door--crazy barking fit. Combined with almost inexhaustible energy (he can follow me on my bike at 15mph for 45 minutes and still have energy until his bedtime), he's been a lot of work.

Well, two years later, he's a great dog. Knows his commands, somehow learned "roll over" when I wasn't looking, stays close. But, as per his breeding, he thinks he's a mighty watch dog, but has no aggression whatsoever. Which is nice at times. I think it has to do with his love affair with the routine. He wakes up at 8:04. He goes to sleep at 9:30. Every day. And he tends to get frustrated easily, too, especially when strangers invade his territory--if he can see, hear, or touch someone, he's going to bark at them. And what I've learned, but what's very, very difficult to remember sometimes, is that it's all about positive re-enforcement with Wyatt. Otherwise he folds his ears and runs under the bed.

So I got Wyatt a Thundershirt, thinking that might help. We got it today. So far, instead of lessening his anxiety (he still barked at distantly-barking dogs), it's as though I lobotomized him. Despite all the positivity I could muster regarding the shirt, he hid under my chair and wouldn't come out. Barked at the neighborhood from there. Growled at the traffic from there. When I finally got him out, he stood stock-still. Nothing weird about the fit of the shirt, nothing pinching or chafing.

I just think he felt stupid. Insulted. Vanity?

I'll try it a bit more, but I think his rather strong personality might win on this one. Any thoughts?

Lindsay Stordahl

Friday 9th of September 2011

Interesting comments about your American Eskimo. I notice a lot of similarities.

A lot of dogs sort of "shut down" when they have to wear a coat or vest or backpack. My dog has had a vest for the winter for about three years - nothing new. But every time I get it out, he walks away from me, cowers and lies down with his tail between his legs, head as low to the ground as possible. Even though the vest means we get to go out and play ball (his favorite thing!) or to go for a walk, he still shuts down at the sight of it. Then once he has it on, he stands there like he can't move. Once we get outside, he forgets about it for the most part. But if we ride in the car or don't head outside right away, he just lies there. Sometimes he even trembles. It's very pathetic. I've actually stopped making him wear it since he hates it so much. He would much rather be cold. However, it works a lot like the Thundershirt would and calms my dog dog down instantly.

You're doing everything right.


Thursday 8th of September 2011

I'll add to that -- as soon as Wyatt leaves his territory, which is basically the house or the car, he's confident (almost comically so) and friendly. Never barks at anyone. He's the showboat of the dog park. And people tell me he's much more relaxed at home once I leave. Strong guard dog instincts, but hard to train.


Saturday 6th of August 2011

My dog Diesel is a perfect example of a dog that responds to positive reinforcement over the negative. My boyfriend's brother is actually the one who came home with Diesel after the family dog had passed. He began teaching Diesel basic obedience and then started taking him for schutzen training. When trying to teach him to fetch, one of the trainers began getting very aggressive with him. Yanking on his choke chain everything he dropped the ball short. Diesel eventually shut down and stopped listening to the trainer or his brother. His brother gave up on him and went out and adopted two more shepherds that were already partially done with their schutzen training. My boyfriend had felt terrible that Diesel was basically being ignored now, and essentially rescued him. He moved in with me shortly after that and brought Diesel along and now I can't imagine my life without him! He is such a lover! We have been able to reverse all of the negative training and now he is the most obedient dog I know. He still has his slip ups now and again, but I know I can count on him when it matters the most.

Lindsay Stordahl

Saturday 6th of August 2011

I'm not against using corrections for a dog, but it has to be done in a kind way. But some dogs, like Diesel and Cosmo, do so much better with mostly positive training.

I'm so glad you and your boyfriend ended up with Diesel!