Enrichment For Fearful & Nervous Dogs
Updated: Sep 1, 2022
Canine Enrichment is often seen as something fun, enjoyable, and stimulating for our dogs - but for some owners, enrichment can feel challenging when it comes to pets who are fearful and nervous.
While enrichment often leads to wagging tails and happy dogs, in some cases, you may find that dogs retreat, hide, or show stress signals (i.e. whale eye/lip licking/barking/inability to settle) when introducing something new into their routine.
Whether or not we see a dog's fear of a small toy as "silly", the reality is that no matter the cause, the fear your dog is feeling is very real to them. Therefore, helping them to feel safe and comfortable is key in making enrichment enjoyable.
Not only that, but there are many benefits to providing enrichment to fearful dogs. After all, enrichment games are great for confidence building, and also a great tool for mitigating FAS (fear, anxiety, and stress).
HOT TIP: Research and become familiar with your dog's body language cues. This is extremely helpful in order to properly assess how your dog is feeling during certain enrichment games and activities.
Here Are Some Things To Be Mindful Of For Your Nervous Pups...
Allow Time to Decompress (Before & After)
While it can be exciting to offer your nervous dog enrichment, slow and steady wins the race. Allow your dog some time to decompress if their enrichment is in a new space or setting, and allow some time to decompress and relax post enrichment. Think of this as "pre and post" enrichment care.
Start enrichment at the most simple, basic level to allow room for easy "wins". These little wins can solidify a positive experience and help your dog gain confidence in the activity that they're partaking in. I usually recommend something easy like a basic snuffle mat, snuffle towels, or scatter feeding to start.
Example: If your dog is struggling at obtaining treats, sprinkle some free treats above the game and offer praise when they find one on their own.
Be Mindful of Noise
For fearful dogs, loud noises can be overwhelming. Try setting up enrichment on a mat or a rug to muffle loud sounds, or try quiet enrichment options that don’t clang, bang, or smash into things
Example: Try the soft interactive Planet Dog Snoop instead of the clunky Kong Wobbler.
Try Toys & Activities Without Sporadic Movements
While many dogs love small, skittery movements, something moving too fast has some dogs headed for the hills! Try starting off with something relatively stagnant, such as lick mats, snuffle mats or even a stuffed Kong. When your dog is ready, gradually transition to toys with small, anticipated movements.
Example: Opt for a PawzNDogz snuffle mat with suction cup over a Kong Spinner.
Encourage & Provide Help
They key to positive enrichment is positive engagement. As a result, never be afraid to offer lots of praise and help when needed! For some dogs, this may mean creating a positive association around a toy before it's used for the first time.
Example: Providing help and setting your dog up for success can help them feel more comfortable navigating the new activity. Sometimes getting down on their level and showing them how something works is a good place to start.
Follow Your Dog’s Lead / Modify Accordingly
Enrichment isn’t a linear experience, and it doesn’t need to be difficult to be effective. Small, lowkey activities are often just as enjoyable for our furry friends. Start small, and increase the challenge as your dog is ready for more. If they tend to like the simple games, that’s cool too!
Example: If something is too hard, never hesitate to take it down a notch so that your dog can enjoy without struggling or frustration.
Want to learn more about Enrichment Basics, without having to comb through content across platforms? Take a look at our new Enrichment Guide!
Sources & Further Reading:
Enrichment for Fearful Dogs (amatterofmannersdogtraining.com)
5 Ideas to help you calm your nervous dog using enrichment activities (rufflesnuffle.co.uk)
How Enrichment Can Help Your Nervous Dog (cognitivecanineco.co.uk)