A great deal of my business centers around dogs who are fearful, and therefore reactive or possibly aggressive. Some express their fear through barking and lunging, or even growling and snapping or worse. Others appear more typical for what people would expect out of a fearful dog: cowering, turning their head or body away, or trying to hide, for example.
While it’s true that fearful dogs are likely to cower and try to get away (the “flight” response), the “fight” response dogs are often labeled as aggressive or corrected for what they do. They’re “bad;” they act inappropriately through their lunging, barking, baring of teeth and more. These dogs tend to embarrass their owners more, and the scene they cause can make people think they are in need of a good, firm hand.
In my experience, these dogs that are on the offense are doing so because it is the best DEFENSE. It is a great way to make space, and it usually works, as people or others are more likely to move away when a dog is offering such behaviors, and it is therefore reinforced.
A lot of clients with these dogs try different approaches to solve the problem. They may pull at their dog, or give a leash correction, or they may try to hold or restrain their dogs, adding to the tension. These methods may work to repress a behavior for the immediate short-term, but they are not going to give the dog what he needs to truly resolve the problem for the long-term. Others may ask for too much self-control, like sitting and looking at them. While admirable, the dog is not in a thinking state of mind to be able to comply, and it only adds to the frustration and stress for both the owner and dog.
Clients will give me a puzzled look when one of my first pieces of homework for these dogs is to get a very high-value food (real people foods like bits of deli or boiled meat without additives/flavors, cheese, etc., tend to be most economical and effective) whenever the dog notices the other person, dog, etc., (the “trigger” for the “bad” behavior). I tell them to be generous and do it as SOON as the dog notices the trigger.
“But even if he’s barking?”
“Yes, even if he’s barking.”
Of course, the end game is to end the barking or lunging or whatever is happening, but the crucial part in the beginning is to make these triggers THE BEST THINGS EVER. I always want clients to make space to keep the dog in a place where he is less likely to react, and that is what we always work toward, but in the beginning, I want these dogs to “snap out” of their emotional responses. If it rains hot dogs every time a dog sees that other dog, then he’s going to start seeing dogs as something very wonderful, and will associate this if the client is very committed to the technique.
I also explain this in a way that is hopefully easier for humans to understand: If you are afraid of snakes, for instance—someone pushing you into a pile of them to just “get over it” usually doesn’t work, and makes you more stressed and actually makes your fear stronger. We want to try and keep distance and make things easier for the dog. This may mean taking shorter walks in less popular areas to lessen the chance of encounters as opposed to going to Wash Park on a weekend, or it may mean walking away as needed to help give the dog more space before he feels the need to react in the way we don’t want him to. Or it may mean limiting his ability to go outside and bark at the fence, or placing a curtain or other visual barrier at a window, and so forth. This will ensure he doesn’t get more practice reacting wherever he is likely to react.
Then, if we expose the dog to these triggers gradually, and make them very valuable, we are going to lessen stress and set up the dog—and person—for success.
“Oh Benji, see that dog over there?” (Benji looks over at the trigger as you look over at the trigger. Then feed food continuously as he looks at the trigger. Trigger goes away = food ends. Repeat many times.) When that stranger, other dog, or whatever goes away, the hot dogs go away, which is so sad! 🙂
Even if the dog reacts, if I go a little over threshold, I will feed. I may try to turn and run away with the dog in a light-hearted way and then feed for him moving away, or sometimes I will drop treats on the ground as I’m moving away to have the dog find the food by sniffing it out. This can interrupt and stop the behavior, give him a way to hopefully calm himself as sniffing can help dogs calm down, and will help him feel better about what has happened—instead of giving a jerk on the leash which can make him feel worse. Making space to ensure the behavior doesn’t happen is very important, but if I flub up, I want the dog to have a positive experience, and hopefully refocus on me by following a treat line away from the trigger.
With these kinds of dogs, the key is ALWAYS addressing the emotional state first. By doing this, we can help the dog calm down, and then learn what is appropriate. Being mindful of the threshold and level of stress is also key. Going over threshold every time will certainly not help either, which is why getting training help is so crucial for owners to have success.
So please, don’t think that when your dog is afraid of something, or doing something “bad” that it is because he is needing “correction.” Very likely the dog just needs a good plan to make that thing the best thing in the world, and once that is the case, he can give you his best!
We highly recommend reaching out to us if you are experiencing problems with a reactive, fearful dog. We have a great track record for success, and would love to help you!
Owner, Delightful Doggies