A nervous dog will need extra care when being introduced to new situations or people, as it will naturally be more cautious than other dogs. It is vital that puppies are properly socialized (see the webpage "Socializing and Training Your Dog") and regularly exposed to situations where they will receive positive experiences. Great care must be taken not to overwhelm or scare a puppy or adult dog. Some of the signs the dog may give when nervous may be subtle and go unnoticed. The dog may lick its lips, look away, yawn or try to back away and hide. If you notice these signs you can prevent increasing the dog's nervousness by either moving it away or doing something it enjoys to help take its mind off the situation. This will also help the dog to associate the situation with something pleasant. If the first, subtle, signs are not noticed (or ignored) the dog may begin to cower, tuck its tail between its legs and pant.
Don't force your dog into situations like this in an attempt to help it `get used to it'. If your dog is continually forced into situations and is unable to escape, it may have to resort to growling, lunging forward or snapping in an attempt to remove whatever it is nervous of. If this happens it is important that the dog is not punished for its behavior,as it will intensify its reaction and it will learn that aggression is effective at keeping `scary' situations away. Punishing the dog while it is afraid may also result in it being frightened of you and even biting you as it tries to defend itself. It is better to watch out for the early signs and move your dog away before it needs to protect itself.
Some dogs may only be nervous of specific things such as loud noises or strangers. This usually happens after one or two really frightening encounters, or if the dog has never before met a similar situation. These dogs can be helped by controlled exposure to the specific event, linked with something the dog likes such as play or food treats. However this must be done under the guidance of your vet or recommended animal behaviorist. If you have a nervous dog (that has not shown any aggression) you can help prevent it having to defend itself by being patient and taking things slowly. Observe your dog carefully and when you notice the first signs of nervousness move it far enough away from the situation for it to relax. Keeping your dog in the situation and trying to reassure it will reinforce its nervousness but by moving it away you have taken control and shown your dog that it can trust you to protect it. When you are aware of what situations your dog is afraid of you should avoid them, but meanwhile start building its confidence by encouraging it to play with you and a favorite toy. You can also teach your dog simple commands so that it is under your control. Keeping your dog occupied is a useful way to take its mind off `scary' situations and the physical effort will also help to keep it relaxed and comfortable in its surroundings.
When your dog is keen to play with you and responds to your commands you can gradually begin to re-introduce it to the situations in which it was nervous. Keep your dog at a safe distance and watch for any signs of nervousness. Before it reacts nervously, encourage it to have a short game with its toy or have a short, fun training session. Repeat this at the safe distance as often as you can. As your dog gains confidence and relaxes (and this may take many weeks) you can gradually move it closer and closer until it no longer shows any sign of nervousness. Whenever it copes well with a scary situation, reward it with food and lots of praise. If your dog has learned to defend itself it is important that you discuss the problem with your vet who may refer your dog to a behavior counsellor to help you resolve the problem. Meanwhile walking your dog in a head collar specifically designed for the purpose such as a `gentle leader' will give you much more control of the situation.
Gradually building up your dog's confidence will ensure it will enjoy a more active and varied life, as it will be able to accompany you to more places. It is also very rewarding to help a nervous dog turn into a happy family dog that can fully participate in the family's activities.