Many herding type dogs, including Border Collies, are anxious and fearful dogs. Some of this issue may be due to their sensitive and attentive natures. Border Collies are in touch with their surroundings and reacting to visual cues, and as such they can easily become fearful and anxious due to this and other genetic factors. Understanding where Border Collies are coming from and adjusting our behavior, reactions, and environments to accomodate for them, we can greatly help our sensitive herding friends. Here is a question about an anxious and fearful Border Collie. In my response, I include four different ways to help alleviate some of the anxieties and fear. And they don’t just apply to a herding type dog – any breed or personality can benefit from these ideas and techniques.

This question and my answer originally appeared on the Pet360 Community Forums.

The question: I have an anxious and fearful dog

Hi! I have an almost 4 year old female boxer/Collie mix. We got her from a rescue when she was 11 weeks old. At the time she was pretty tiny, 4 pounds (runt) but she was happy, playful cuddly etc. When we got her, the rescue advised the vet was unable to do her spay because she was small, and recommended that we wait, but we were able to get her with a second contract. She was great and pretty eager to learn! Potty/crate training, simple commands, leash walking. All was easy and we had her house trained withing a couple of months. She got her spay when she was 5.5 months old. Rescue picked her up and brought her back when they were done. She seemed fine, but by a couple weeks later, I started to notice some behavior changes. She was starting to mistrust of other people, barking when anyone walked by, or drove by, and she started climbing fences. Other people, especially men, really did bother her, but she’d calm down eventually and it was bearable. Beginning of last year we moved state to state and her behaviors have gotten much worse. Now, it is not safe to have her out of her kennel when someone comes to the door. She gets upset, hair standing, barking, crying… She will stay that way until they leave. Men, tall boys, seem to upset her more then girls. But, she really doesn’t trust anyone, nor will she even try. Introductions are completely out, We moved her kennel into our bedroom and she goes there with a barking collar so she doesn’t disturb our neighbors. And, she has to stay there until they leave.

She is very difficult to walk at home now. Because other people walking by upset her. However, if we take her away, on a road trip, she is wonderful. We can walk with her on the beach a she can care less about other people and is social with other animals. It’s at home that she is completely neurotic.

I just don’t know what to do. Her behaviors are really impacting my household. We are unable to entertain unless we board her, my kids can’t play with their friends (inside or out) because she is unhinged. Or, she’s stuck in the kennel. And that is not fair either. We feel trapped. And it’s difficult for my children, especially if they do not remember to put her in the kennel. She’s scratched and scared and torn clothing, but has not bitten anyone. I do not know what to do or if I can continue. We’ve had complaints about her barking, and I am worried she will hurt someone. And we do go through bouts where she just runs out the front door. . We love her, but do not know how we can keep her with her behaviors. She is great if it’s just us. Help!

One way to approach to the issue with any type of dog

I’m so sorry to hear about Bella’s behavior issues. With a sensitive dog – as many herding dogs are (I have two of such types) – fear can be instilled pretty quickly. And most of what you’re describing is firmly rooted in fear. Something happening at 6 months of age can really make a long term impact. You could be describing one of my two in the beginning there.

There are a few recommendations I would make (keep in mind while I have done a lot of study with professionals, I am not a professional myself).

  1. Know that your behavior, and the overall tone of the household, will have a big impact on a sensitive dog. Just the vibes, perhaps even smells, we give off involving emotion will impact a sensitive dog. A sensitive dog needs to have trust instilled, needs to know things are cool, things are good, things are calm, you got their back, and all that kind of thing. They will understand this from everything that includes your face, body posture, tone of voice, very possibly heartrate.
  2. Work with a behaviorist or experienced trainer to help guide you in #1. They will be able to see the interaction between Bella and the members of the household, and guide you about some of the changes to make. Take this with a huge grain of salt because I have only read the above and it’s not enough to make a diagnosis – but I think the core work will be on building trust (you of her, and her of you), and the relationship. This can take time. For a dog I rescued that was a panic case, it took her 8 months to walk into our kitchen. But they can come around – it takes patience and a very specific, consistent program to get you there.
  3. When choosing a trainer, ask them very specific questions about how they will work with your dog. Absolutely make sure they do not use force – anything that makes your dog feel fearful or have pain such as shock/bark collars, prong collars, nudges, jerks of the collar, and so on. This is playing with fire especially with sensitive heading-type dogs. Think of them like a bandaid covering a wound… eventually that bandaid will come off but the wound will still be there. The wound could be much worse, deeper. The trainer needs to help determine where that anxiety is coming from in order to help you move forward. You need to solve the root of the problem – what caused that first event, and the events since that are keeping the level of fear raised – and then take the steps you need to move forward and rebuild the trust in order to reduce the anxieties.

    For more ideas and questions to ask a prospective trainer, see this post on DOGthusiast that contains our exclusive interview with Victoria Stilwell.

  4. Look at tools like iCalmDog, Thundershirts or other anxiety wraps, and natural/herbal remedies that are calming. There is probably a lot of stress and anxiety not only from the fears, but from being in the kennel and without a doubt the bark collar.

Patience, determining the source of the fear and addressing it, and rebuilding the trust on both sides. In a nutshell this is what you probably need to address, but I really encourage you to speak with a good, positive, force-free trainer to help get you there.

About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.