How to help a nervous chihuahua
A nervous chihuahua will present anxious body language like ears back and tail tucked under. Does he stand behind your legs when out, run and hide behind a chair when you are home or bark and display aggressive behaviour towards other dogs.
It starts with a breeder
One of the main reasons that dogs become fearful is lack of socialisation or not enough socialisation. Your chihuahua should mix with people and vaccinated dogs from day 1 and not be kept in a bubble of isolation.
Breeders have a lot to do with how your dog will turn out. The first 16 weeks of a puppy’s life are vital learning weeks and according to Dr Ian Dunbar, it is imperative, that by the age of 12 weeks, your dog has been handled positively by at least 100 people (not all in one session), met and played with other dogs and been exposed to a variety of different situations. Here are some vital things you need to do with your chihuahua puppy from the off.
It’s also vital that puppies get time away from the pack. This is the error I made with Prince. I didn’t pick up some of his behaviour issues because he seemed so confident at home and we had so many pups. Now he is an utter little stinker when we are out. His constant barking upsets the rest of the dogs and I have gone back to square one with his training and socialization. In fact I don’t walk them all together now. Prince walks on his own or with one other, less anxious dog. Sometimes I don’t walk him at all. (see give your chihuahua a break below)
Chihuahuas especially, prefer their own breed. So, getting them used to other breeds of dogs is essential unless you want your chihuahua to bark like crazy at every other dog they meet when you’re out for a walk. This is one of the reasons that you need to be very careful who you buy your chi puppy from, a good breeder will know this, a puppy farmer doesn’t care. If you want more information on how to buy a chihuahua puppy read this article.
Past the puppy stage
However, if you are way past this stage and you need to re-habilitate a nervous chihuahua there are some things you can do to help.
Firstly, if your chihuahua has been traumatised by a previous life experience, it is going to take time and a lot of patience to change his behaviours. You must be realistic about what you are going to achieve. If the distress is acute, it might be a good idea to speak with a dog behaviour expert who practices positive behaviour modification through shaping and confidence building games.
But for less serious anxiety you can work with your nervous chihuahua. But, don’t be tempted to throw him into a middle of a situations that clearly terrify him and leave him to get on with it. This is not how to make things normal. Change needs to happen gently over time.
Fear of other dogs is common for chihuahuas. Barking, growling and even attacking other dogs, is sadly, not uncommon. This is an aggression that comes from a place of fear. It leads other dog owners to understandably have a bad opinion of chihuahuas. You can read more about chihuahua aggression towards other dogs here.
The objective of distance learning is to take your chihuahua as near to the object of his anxiety as possible and stop as soon as he starts to show signs of fear, tail tucked under, ears flat. He may yawn or start to lick his lips or start sniffing the ground intently which are all signs of stress. Move him back to a place where he was last relaxed.
Then, play with a favourite toy, praise him and give him some high value treats. The object of the exercise is to give your chihuahua positive associations with the object of his fear. But, be careful how you handle this. You are not trying to lure your chi towards his fear with the treat. These sessions only need to last three minutes.
So, over several sessions gradually get your chihuahua to relax. You are working towards a neutral reaction. No barking or aggression. If the object of fear is another dog, try and get a friend to bring a trustworthy dog to the park to work with you. Remember your chihuahua does not have to interact with other dogs, unless he is ready.
Mika will now tolerate,n another dog sniffing him. He doesn’t encourage it, but if it happens he can handle it. But once this would have been unheard of. He would have gone bat-shit-crazy and run off. After a few seconds if this other dog doesn’t get the message that he doesn’t want the interaction.
One of the things owners do with chihuahuas is pick them up when we anticipate a fearful situation. If you do this, for instance, when another dog comes towards you then you’re re-enforcing your chihuahua’s idea that there is something to be afraid of. I know it’s hard, but you need to stop doing this. Obviously your dog should never be put in danger, but in general try to avoid picking him up.
Either use the method above or teach your nervous chihuahua ‘focused attention’. You also need to be positive yourself. Your chihuahua looks to you for guidance, if you show anxiety then your chihuahua will pick this up.
Ignore and play
We live very close to Sandhurst Military Academy. Early morning artillery fire is very common. All the chis used to do vertical take-offs and bark like mad. We got past this by ignoring the noise and playing with them while it was going on. Now no one raises an eyebrow when it sounds like a war has broken out.
So, simple situations that might start a round of fear related barking can be dealt with by playing and being positive while it’s going on. They will take their cue from you.
Teach focused attention
Focused attention is the art of getting your dog to focus solely on you. To make eye contact with you. It should form part of your everyday training and is very useful in a variety of situations. Barbara has this down to a fine art with her chis Rosie and Joe. It’s so effective I sit down on command!
You can use this when you are out to get your chihuahua to focus on you in a stressful situation. By doing this you are taking his mind away from the object of fear. I used this with Mika in the park when a jogger comes past. It stopped him chasing them and biting their ankles. Now he just ignores them.
How to teach focused attention (in brief)
Say your chihuahua’s name and when he looks at you, give him a treat. Sounds simple, but don’t let your chi see the treat before he has completed the command. Barbra my colleague says , ‘Look at me’ and taps her glasses. The object of the exercise is for your dog to remain looking at you until you give him a release command. Practice 3 or 4 times in a row every day and build up the length of time you have your dog’s attention.
When you are out and something that may trigger your chi comes towards you then move them off to one side away from the tigger and get them to focus on you until it has passed.
Spaying and neutering
Anyone who reads the blog will know I am not a fan of automatically spaying or castrating dog’s. Apart from the ethics involved it can cause serious behaviour problems. In male dogs, rather than make him less aggressive, as we are told, it can have the exact opposite effect. Removing his testosterone takes away his bravery and confidence. This is likely to result in a fearful, yappy, nervous chihuahua.
That said I appreciate there are times when it’s necessary, I have had to have mine done now because I have multiple dogs, but this is not something that should be done to cure behaviour issues.
If an owner is dead set on de-sexing their dog, then at least wait until the dog is mature. For a chihuahua this is about a year. Never buy a puppy that has been spayed by the breeder. That is far too young to undergo such a serious operation and you may end up with a dog with hormone issues as well. You can read more about spaying and neutering in this article
Positive positive positive
It goes without saying that you should never punish or shout at your dog for his anxiety. Even if you are getting frustrated with progress. Never use your chihuahua’s name in a negative way. Praise and reward your chihuahua for making even the smallest amount of progress. It does take time to turnaround a nervous chihuahua but with patience and understanding you can make a difference.
Give yourself (and your chihuahua) a break
You are aiming for a chihuahua that is happy and confident to go out walking not one that is shut down and fear aggressive. If, like our Prince, your chihuahua goes berserk and is fighting and struggling to get away then re-think where you are walking him or even if he needs to go out. Putting a small dog in such a stressful situation is not good for him or you. Prince likes to be out but meeting another dog, even in the distance, causes him much distress. So, while we work on his confidence with shaping games we keep him well away from other dogs. We have a safe field we walk him in and make no attempt to get him to interact with other dogs or children. As long as your chi gets stimulation and exercise then it’s not essential that he heads for the great outdoor every day.
It takes a couple of days for a dogs stress to go back to base level after a nasty incident. So if your chihuahua has an altercation , then keep him home. Play games in the garden. Get him a bone to chew or a snuffle matt, activities that induce calmness. Try to avoid letting him get all riled up by barking out the window, running the fence, all things that keep your chihuahua’s stress levels high.