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Question of the Week: How Can You Train Dogs That Are So Nervous?

Lot of nervous dogs this week! Poor guys! Honestly, most dogs are nervous. We put them into our world and expect a lot of them, including calm behavior in a variety of scenarios. This week, I had a nervous dog walking, a nervous dog around kids and toys, and a nervous dog around loud noises.

There are many things to say about nervous dogs, but I am going to stay focused on the actual training. I am going to use Poppy as an example who is nervous walking under an overpass near her house because of the loud trucks.

Training nervous dogs requires you to first understand when you can train. If you think of a traffic light, we are going to use red, yellow, and green zones to visualize where we can train.

Red Zone: Can not train

Yellow Zone: Can train for a short amount of time

Green Zone: Can train and even advance commands

nervous dogs

Red Zone

On our first day, we walked with Poppy towards the overpass and at about 200 yards away from the overpass, she would stop walking, back away, had fear in her eyes, ears were back, tail was tucked and would not eat a treat. Everything from that point until the overpass is the red zone. She is only thinking about surviving and staying away from that overpass.

We do NOT train in that area, because it is almost impossible for her to focus. At this point, we get away from the overpass and redirect her attention to us so she can calm down as quickly as possible.

Yellow Zone

When Poppy is in the yellow zone, she is uncomfortable. She is looking between us and the overpass, she can do the command "With Me" for less time than she usually does, and she needs to be redirected to us with the cue "It's Ok".

Green Zone

When Poppy is far enough away from the overpass, she is walking on a loose leash without constant direction. She can do the behavior "With Me" (walking next to us) with great focus, ease, and control.

nervous dog zones
Zones on first day walking to overpass

Once you understand that you can train in the Yellow and Green Zones, and you can identify them in your own dog, you can back and forth between Yellow and Green a few times a day. Do not try to overcome their fears in a day!

When you are in the Yellow Zone, look for two things:

1. Does she eat a treat?

2. Can she do the command?

When Poppy gets close enough to the overpass that she is in the Yellow Zone, she starts to look at the overpass and walk slower. We redirect her attention with "It's Ok" and she takes a treat. If she eats the treat, that's a signal we are in the Yellow Zone. Then we ask for the command "With Me". If she walks next to us, we are validated that we are in the Yellow Zone. She is now closer to the overpass than she was the first day, therefore the Red Zone is getting smaller. Awesome!

Nervous dog walking
Training in between the Green and Yellow Zone enables you to make the Yellow Zone bigger and the Red Zone smaller

At this point, she might have a tough time doing the command again, or she might not take the treat after we say "It's Ok" because she is closer to the overpass. Turn around and go back to the Green. Or, she takes the treat after saying "it's ok" and she does the command again, making the Red Zone even smaller.

Nervous dog walking
Poppy on the other side of the overpass!!

You can hang in the Yellow Zone a little as long as your dog is responsive, but then eventually you want them to go back to the Green Zone to calm down. Over time, that Red Zone gets smaller. It's a little bit of a balancing act. It requires you to pay attention to your dog's signs and listen to them. It is sometimes hard to go at their pace, but you will get under that overpass and you'll do it in a kind, purposeful and sustainable way.

This can be tricky so if you are having trouble with a nervous dog, please reach out for training by emailing


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