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.

  • Great advice; I have a lot of sympathy for fearful dogs. I’ve had some issues with anxiety and I know how stressful it can be, I know it’s not enjoyable for our dogs either. I’d also highly recommend (as you do) seeking out a trainer whose had experience with fearful dogs. There’s nothing wrong with seeking out help and things like thunder shirts are also great for helping out the process. If I had a fearful dog I wouldn’t hesitate asking my veterinarian about anxiety medication either; not as a lifetime “fix” but something to help ease the desensitization process.

  • These are such great suggestions. Once we figured out that Bruce’s aggression issues actually stemmed from anxiety and fear, we were able to make progress with him.

  • These are great tips!! I’ve found that the thundershirt works pretty good for Phoenix but not at all for Zoe. Phoenix can get really overstimulated when she’s around other dogs and then she gets nippy but I’ve found that using the thundershirt when we go to the park will help and I don’t take her multiple days in a row to avoid trigger stacking.

  • Wonderful ideas on how to approach working with a fearful dog. Haley had some fear issues when she was younger and I’m so proud of how she’s grown more trusting and confident over time. Building trust and “having your dog’s back” is definitely an important key in helping with fear issues.

  • We bought a rescue 9 month ago. He was fearful too especially to women. He even bit me once. I read a lot of books how to cope with it. And this showed us, it’s about bonding. Your dog have to trust you and you’ll have to show your dog, you’re the leader. I have written about it in my book.

  • Thanks for this nice ideas . I had the same problem also about my dog and i found it very difficult to resolve like this issue .

  • Haley

    I am getting a 1 1/2 year old Border Collie female that was left to me by my grandfather who passed. I was told she didn’t connect very well with my grandfather and I was also told that she was taken from her mother before she should’ve been. I was wondering if anyone had any tips for me introducing her into a new environment. She’s going to live in a bigger area and she doesn’t like strangers much, in fact the first time I saw her she ran into her cage and refused to come out. She doesn’t seem aggressive, I haven’t heard her bark, growl, or nip at people but I don’t want her to be scared and uncomfortable when she moves.

    • I’m very sorry for your loss, but also congratulations on the new addition to your family/household. This sounds so familiar – it’s a lot like our Tig when she joined us. During the move in the car, if there’s an issue, try a crate and a Thundercoat wrap. Remember to always be wary of open doors and make sure she is leashed and someone is holding the other end before the doors open. Really basic stuff, I know, but it’s a bit risky as she may be scared without her well-known humans, and this is when dogs bolt and get lost.

      I think the two main recommendations I would have, for when she arrives, is:

      Do not push anything, and let patience guide everything you do.
      Observe, observe, observe.

      Many fearful dogs will have overt signs of fear, but they will also have micro reactions. Learn her body language inside and out by careful observation. What does she tense at, look at (they stare at things they fear, or look and then panic/hide), etc. In all events of fear, it’s very important that you remain calm. They look to us for so much: should I worry about that? etc.

      Try to avoid elements of intense fear, and slowly and gradually get her more used to whatever it is. I’ve had luck with jogging and other distracting activities in areas of stress – often a distracted, moving dog will acclimatize to an area easier. They don’t sit and fret about the thing stressing them. And it’s fine to move away from what you can’t avoid. If you run into an unanticipated issue, just remove yourself and her from it as calmly and quickly as you can, and keep moving.

      With people – don’t push it. Maybe she will never be OK with strangers (she will get used to her own family most likely – with patience and time – but perhaps no one else), and remember that is OK. Keep everyone safe, them and her. Never force her to go up to anyone, and personally I never even encourage it. Let her do it if she wants to.

      And for us? We just let Tig do her thing. We didn’t keep looking at her or asking her to do things, we just sat and chilled when at home. Let her do whatever she wanted, and that seemed to be key for our bonding. She’d get anxious if she thought we wanted something from her, so we focused on just keeping her as calm as we could – and that was just letting her chill in the vicinity. Most of our bonding happened off leash at the local beach.

      And it could take 6 or 8 months or more to get used to your house. For Tig it was 8 months (exactly what our behaviorist consult suggested). She was OK prior to that point, but at 8 months she just seemed to relax.

      Anyway, good luck!