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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

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