Anxious dogs - when is friendly too friendly?

For dogs who suffer from anxiety, being approached by another dog or an unfamiliar person can be overwhelming or intimidating, instead of exciting. Having the skills to recognise when a dog is feeling anxious will empower all owners to avoid any miscommunication that could lead to distress and/or negative situations. 

So, our resident Proposition Manager, Katie, will be sharing her experiences of being pet parent to an anxious dog, and offers actionable advice for other owners that may be concerned about what to do in these situations. 

Katie’s 10-year-old Border Terrier, Spud, started his adult life as a friendly, carefree dog. Unfortunately, Katie and Spud’s relocation to London led to many unexpectedly negative interactions with off-lead dogs. Spud eventually learned that the only way to communicate his anxiety was to bark and lunge at approaching dogs, which prevented them from getting too close and frightening him. 

Thanks to Katie’s ongoing efforts to ease Spud's anxieties, Spud is now much more able to enjoy being a dog again. A lifelong training programme helps him enjoy his walks without fear or reaction, and the consistency means he's even able to stay relaxed when seeing (and sometimes greeting) other dogs. But it can still be challenging when there's an unexpected encounter, and things don't go to plan – which is why Katie’s the best person to offer her perspective on this topic!

Let’s explore several ways to support your dog if they’re anxious, as well as discovering the best strategies to lessen the anxieties of others if your dog is being too friendly…

Understanding and identifying anxiety in dogs

Recognising the signs a dog is feeling anxious, whether your dog or somebody else’s, is the first step to ensuring that the correct actions can be taken to relieve the situation.

Signs that indicate a dog is feeling anxious

Here are a few of the indicators a dog may be feeling anxious:

  • Moving away.
  • Hiding behind owner’s legs.
  • Trembling.
  • Panting.
  • A lifted paw.
  • Lowered head.
  • Lowered tail (which may or may not be wagging).

an illustration of an anxious dog

Potential causes for canine anxiety

We can enhance our understanding of anxious dogs by consider the possible reasons behind their anxiety, which could include:

  • Strangers, loud noises, unfamiliar environments or situations.
  • Past trauma (e.g. they’ve been attacked by another dog or human).
  • Recovering from illness, injury, or surgery.
  • Loss of a canine companion.

Top tips for supporting your anxious dog

Whether you’ve welcomed them into your family from a rescue centre or registered breeder, your dog will need plenty of patience and support if they suffer from anxiety.

Thankfully, there are many ways you can make life less scary for your anxious dog. Here are some of our top tips: 

Identify your dog’s anxiety triggers

Knowing the cause(s) of your dog’s anxiety can empower you to deal with situations safely and effectively.  

Your dog is likely to let you know if their anxiety is pushed too far, but it’s important to get to know their individual subtle signals before a reaction happens. When seeing their trigger, lip licking, freezing or avoidance may be signs your dog is uncomfortable. Recognising these signs early can be your magic answer to begin eliminating stress.” – Katie with Spud

To help you recognise signals that your dog may be feeling anxious, check out the canine ladder of communication.

Help your dog feel safe and protected

A significant aspect of anxiety is fear of the unknown. By finding ways to help your dog feel safe and protected while in your company, you’re enabling them to face situations with confidence instead of fear. 

Spud is afraid around other dogs. We never know when we’ll bump into one on his walks, and we simply can’t avoid walks forever. 

But we can create consistency. Spud’s training teaches him that seeing a dog doesn’t have to be scary and he doesn’t need to protect himself. Instead, he’s learnt to turn away when he sees a dog and he looks at me for a treat. I’ll praise him and we’ll then create space from the dog together. This approach has achieved the same result (the dog moving away from Spud) that he would have probably got by barking or lunging, but in a much more enjoyable and rewarding way for us both!” – Katie 

Dress anxious dogs in yellow clothes

The plight of anxious, nervous, and reactive dogs led to the creation of yellow products designed to convey a universal message of ‘please keep your distance’. 

Using a yellow harness, coat, collar, and/or lead – with or without a written message, like ‘nervous’ or ‘keep away’ – allows owners to communicate their dog’s needs from afar. So, if you own a social dog and see another wearing yellow, it’s always best to recall your dog and pop them back on the lead to help avoid any potentially difficult or upsetting situations from happening. By recognising that there is an anxious dog nearby and taking positive steps, you are not only supporting the anxious dog and their owner, but you’re also safeguarding yourself and your dog. 

When other dog owners recognise Spud’s yellow accessories and take helpful actions, it’s an immediate relief and it allows for successful training on our walk. I always want to shout ‘thank you’ to those owners, but often I can’t because it might mean Spud wonders why I am shouting, and he might think I am stressed.” – Katie 

You’ll find lots of amazing yellow products, for both you and your dog, via the ‘My Anxious Dog’ website.


Despite the assumption dogs just wear muzzles because they’re aggressive (or required to by law), a muzzle may also signify a dog’s anxiety about interacting with strangers and/or other dogs. Additionally, some dogs wear muzzles to prevent them from eating foreign objects while out on walks. 

Reactive dogs might wear a muzzle to protect others from their fear-induced behaviours. Whereas some owners opt to use a muzzle to protect their anxious dog, by discouraging people from approaching them or allowing their dogs to approach. 

If you feel your dog would benefit from wearing a muzzle, have a chat with your vet and visit our guide to introducing your dog to wearing a muzzle. 

Use reward to create positive associations

Praising your dog for staying calm in situations they’ve previously found stressful can be a positive way to reframe their association with certain experiences. 

However, using positive reinforcement to ease your dog’s anxiety about a situation may not completely remove their concerns about it; so, it’s essential to manage expectations before you begin. 

Take it step-by-step, and work with your dog at a pace they’re happy with – for example, if they’re nervous walking around a busy park, start practising positive reinforcement somewhere quiet.

It’s also important to find the right reward for your dog, so you can make sure their experiences are as positive as possible.

I began with high reward treats, for Spud this was hot dog sausages, and I associated these with the word ‘follow’. Now (years later), I can use the ‘follow’ command and Spud knows it means that he can turn back to me, and I’ll lead him away from an anxious situation, always with a low-fat treat now he’s older.” – Katie 

Speak to the professionals

Should your dog continue to struggle with anxiety, despite your best efforts to support them, it’s essential to speak to your vet. If needed, your vet may refer you to a qualified canine behaviourist. 

Alternatively, you could contact Dogs Trust’s Behaviour Support Line – which is available Monday to Saturday, 9:30am until 5pm.

Dogs meeting in a park

How to behave around an anxious dog

Sometimes, it’s tempting to assume that any dog who’s out walking in public, without a muzzle, must be friendly with people – even if they dislike other dogs. However, all dogs require daily exercise, so those who are anxious around strangers still need to be walked every day; meaning they’ll have to use public spaces, like local parks.

The kindest, most respectful thing you can do around any dog you encounter is to ask their owner’s permission before attempting to interact with them. 

If an owner refuses your request to interact with their dog, it’s important to respect their wishes and not to feel offended. Although it can be easy to assume that the owner is being overly cautious or stand-offish, it’s worth considering the reasoning behind their decision. After all, if you were in their shoes and your dog was highly anxious, what would you do when faced with the same situation?  

Managing interactions between your dog and an anxious dog

When we’ve worked hard to develop our dogs’ social skills, and trained them to have excellent recall, it’s natural to want them to enjoy the freedom afforded by their friendliness. It’s also easy to assume that by calling to a fellow owner that our dog is friendly, we’ll lessen their anxieties as our dog approaches theirs. 

But the reality of the situation is that it can be incredibly stressful for the owner of an anxious dog when another dog approaches them – irrespective regardless of their friendliness.

When our training is going well, and Spud isn’t showing signs of anxiety in a challenging situation, sometimes people question my choices and tell me Spud isn’t anxious, or they try to let their dog get closer with their owner shouting things like ‘they’re friendly’ or ‘it’s okay, they need to learn that not all dogs are nice’.

Unfortunately, every interaction like this damages Spud’s trust in me and our training approach because we’ll try to stay calm, turn away together, and focus on treats, but he’ll still face a threatening situation with only a reaction (barking or lunging) successfully making that dog go away. The impact on the ‘friendly dog’ is minimal, but for an anxious dog, it can take days, or sometimes weeks to lower their anxiety again and re-build trust in less reactive methods.
It’s important to remember that, especially if they are in yellow, a calm and relaxed dog is the ultimate goal. It’s important to continue respecting their space and helping to keep their anxiety levels low. Unknowingly, your respect is making a huge difference to their confidence and the positive lessons they’re learning about their environment.” – Katie 

Having a friendly dog is wonderful! However, it can be nerve-racking for anxious dogs, and their owners, when another dog approaches them without invitation. 

So, in case another dog may be anxious, it’s worth putting your friendly dog on their lead as you approach them. Then, it gives you an opportunity to check with the other owner that their dog is happy to socialise before letting your friendly dog greet theirs. 

By embarking on training exercises like loose lead walking (LLW) and strengthening your dog’s recall, you can make sure every encounter with another dog is as positive and safe as possible.

It’s also helpful to limit the time your dog initially spends greeting another dog, because that’ll allow you to safely assess both dogs’ reactions to each other and avoid confrontation. For instance, keep your dog’s lead loose for three seconds, to let them to sniff the other dog, then move away and praise them for staying calm.

To find out more about managing your dog’s behaviour while out and about, whether they’re anxious or friendly, listen to our podcast episode all about dog training and behaviour! In the podcast episode, Patricia discusses canine anxiety and communication with the founder of My Anxious Dog and an animal behaviour expert from Joii Pet Care.

Ultimately, then, any dog or person who approaches an anxious dog without consent could be considered ‘too friendly’. So, please always check that your dog, whether on or off the lead, is able to approach another. 

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