Category: Reactive Dog



Can We Reinforce Fear?

We are taught that touching, talking to our dogs, trying to soothe them and feel better will reward the behaviour. It’s not possible. Fear is an emotion, and your dog is not in a state of mind in which they are making a choice to react this way. In fact, it is counterproductive for an animal as this takes a great amount of energy and is upsetting for them as well. Has anyone ever tried to make you feel better when you are frightened, which resulted in you being MORE frightened? 

Clients often ask me if using food when an animal is growling or barking is rewarding the behaviour. The behaviour of the growling or barking is a RESULT of fear, so again, this is not possible.

The Function of Fear

Fear is the feeling of perceived danger or a threat. Fear is not abnormal, however higher levels of fear and anxiety in our companion animals is a health and welfare issue. This often is something that needs to be addressed with a board certified veterinary behaviourist. You can discuss with your regular veterinarian as well.  The behaviour you can see as a RESULT of fear is what humans dislike; growling, lunging, barking, flight/running away, chasing…. this behaviour is often a sign that your dog is fearful and it’s something that needs to be addressed.

It Won’t Get Better On Its Own

A common error is to continue exposing the animal to the trigger or environment in the hopes that they will “get over it”. This can in fact cause more harm, and we can create an even more intense response or cause an animal to shut down completely.  

What Can We Do?

Above all else, we need to make our dogs feel safer in situations they are showing fearful behaviour. 

1. Identify common triggers 

2. Identify environments that cause fear

3. Identify frequency

4. Identify severity

5. Identify body language

6. Avoid any type of physical punishment/corrections/reprimanding or forced interactions

Keep a notebook and track how many instances your dog displays fearful behaviour. I recommend becoming an expert in reading dog body language; a great resource is

Classical counter-conditioning is an effective way to reduce fear. It is recommended you contact or work with a force-free dog behaviour consultant that is well versed in worked with dogs suffering from fear and anxiety. There is so much more to counter-conditioning than using food. It must be used effectively, with precise timing and at a point in which your dog is under threshold and not showing triggered behaviour. 

Prevention and management is a huge portion of behaviour change. We must manage the environment to prevent reactions and triggered behaviour while you are working on behaviour modification or you will not make progress. 

A great resource to help you if your dog is struggling with fear is 

Top 10 Behaviour Myths via Jean Donaldson

The dog training industry is rife with opinions and theories, very few of them are actually truth. Scientific evidence is something we should strive for when working with animals; outlandish fiction muddies the water for everyone.

1) Dogs are naturally pack animals with a clear social order.

This one busts coming out of the gate as free-ranging dogs (pariahs, semi-feral populations, dingoes, etc.) don’t form packs. As someone who spent years solemnly repeating that dogs were pack animals, it was sobering to find out that dogs form loose, amorphous, transitory associations with other dogs.

2) If you let dogs exit doorways ahead of you, you’re letting them be dominant.

There is not only no evidence for this, there is no evidence that the behaviour of going through a doorway has any social significance whatsoever. In order to lend this idea any plausibility, it would need to be ruled out that rapid doorway exit is not simply a function of their motivation to get to whatever is on the other side combined with their higher ambulation speed.

3) In multi-dog households, “support the hierarchy” by giving presumed dominant animals patting, treats, etc., first, before giving the same attention to presumed subordinate animals.

There is no evidence that this has any impact on inter-dog relations, or any type of aggression. In fact, if one dog were roughing up another, the laws governing Pavlovian conditioning would dictate an opposite tack: Teach aggressive dogs that other dogs receiving scarce resources predicts that they are about to receive some. If so practised, the tough dog develops a happy emotional response to other dogs getting stuff – a helpful piece of training, indeed. No valuable conditioning effects are achieved by giving the presumed higher-ranking dog goodies first.

4) Dogs have an innate desire to please. This concept has never been operationally defined, let alone tested.

A vast preponderance of evidence, however, suggests that dogs, like all properly functioning animals, are motivated by food, water, sex, and like many animals, by play and access to bonded relationships, especially after an absence. They’re also, like all animals, motivated by fear and pain, and these are the inevitable tools of those who eschew the use of food, play, etc., however much they cloak their coercion and collar-tightening in desire to please rhetoric.

5) Rewards are bribes and thus compromise relationships.

Related to 4), the idea that behaviour should just, in the words of Susan Friedman, Ph.D., “flow like a fountain” without need of consequences, is opposed by more than 60 years of unequivocal evidence that behaviour is, again to quote Friedman, “a tool to produce consequences.” Another problem is that bribes are given before behaviour, and rewards are given after. And, a mountain of evidence from decades of research in pure and applied settings has demonstrated over and over that positive reinforcement – i.e., rewards – make relationships better, never worse.

6) If you pat your dog when he’s afraid, you’re rewarding the fear.

Fear is an emotional state – a reaction to the presence or anticipation of something highly aversive. It is not an attempt at manipulation. If terrorists enter a bank and order everybody down on the floor, the people will exhibit fearful behaviour. If I then give a bank customer on the floor a compliment, 20 bucks or chocolates, is this going to make them more afraid of terrorists next time? It’s stunningly narcissistic to imagine that a dog’s fearful behaviour is somehow directed at us (along with his enthusiastic door-dashing).

7) Punish dogs for growling or else they’ll become aggressive.

Ian Dunbar calls this “removing the ticker from the time bomb.” Dogs growl because something upsetting them is too close. If you punish them for informing us of this, they are still upset but now not letting us know, thus allowing scary things to get closer and possibly end up bitten. Much better to make the dog comfortable around what he’s growling at so he’s not motivated to make it go away.

8) Playing tug makes dogs aggressive.

There is no evidence that this is so. The only study ever done, by Borchelt and Goodloe, found no correlation between playing tug and the incidence of aggression directed at either family members or strangers. Tug is, in fact, a cooperative behaviour directed at simulated prey: the toy.

9) If you give dogs chew toys, they’ll learn to chew everything.

This is a Pandora’s box type of argument that, once again, has zero evidence to support it. Dogs are excellent discriminators and readily learn with minimal training to distinguish their toys from forbidden items. The argument is also logically flawed as chewing is a ‘hydraulic’ behaviour that waxes and wanes, depending on satiation/deprivation, as does drinking, eating and sex. Dogs without chew objects are like zoo animals in barren cages. Unless there is good compensation with other enrichment activities, there is a welfare issue here.

10) You can’t modify “genetic” behaviour.

All behaviour – and I mean all – is a product of a complex interplay between genes and the environment. And while some behaviours require less learning than others, or no learning at all, their modifiability varies as much as does the modifiability of behaviours that are primarily learned.

“Why Can’t My Dog Be Normal?”

Some days it can be a real challenge living with a reactive dog or one you find a challenge. They may pull on the leash like a freight train, bark at crows and try to attack them, or they may have more serious issues such as reactivity/fear towards people or other dogs, or guard items or spaces.

We love our dogs; there’s no doubt about that. Regardless of their imperfections, we really want to do best by them. When we face social pressures and judgment from those around us, it only makes things more difficult. Many of us live in shared spaces and close quarter with others. Some of us still live with family members. It may seem sometimes like everyone else has a “normal” dog while you struggle to make minute changes towards the better with your own. How can we cope?

Realize There is No “Normal” Dog

What is the definition of normal? “Conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected” (Websters Dictionary)

When it comes to animals and behaviour, there really is no “normal”. It may appear to you from the outside looking in that your neighbor across the street has a very normal and perfect dog. He doesn’t lunge, bark or pull. However, what you might not know is that when he is off leash he indulges in poop-eating and dashes out the front door when not restrained, many times almost being hit by a car. Is this “normal” behaviour?  Absolutely, this behaviour is normal for an animal! But, the dog is not perfect, and it may drive the guardian nuts wishing his dog was “normal”. So these a few things to keep in mind when you feel as though you are fighting an uphill battle.

Recognize Small Successes

It’s human nature for us to focus on imperfections and dismiss the progress we make in life. Give yourself, and your dog, permission to feel good about the progress you are making. If you are not making progress, seek help from a qualified force-free trainer. Keep a log of some of your successes during the day, even if they are small. Give your dog feedback (think snacks and play) when he gets it right, even for the little things. Don’t look for perfection; we want progress.

Ignore the Haters

You’re going to be judged by your dog’s behaviour and you need to get over it. You cannot change others’ reactions to you, but you can develop a thicker skin and remember that you and your dog are a team. Keep your eye on the ball and focus on your dog, the training you are doing and the progress you are making. If a slip-up happens, it’s just a blip on the radar and part of the learning process. If someone in your life is constantly criticizing you or your dog, then have a script that you repeat to them. “We are working on it, no perfect dogs out there but we are making progress with our training.” Don’t let the negativity get you down and find as many situations as possible to set your dog, and you, up for successes you can use as benchmarks.

The Ball Is In Your Court

Remember that it’s up to us to provide training and guidance for our dogs if we are looking to make changes. The learning process for animals isn’t always an easy road; us humans tend to be inconsistent, confusing and we change the rules for our dogs quite often… leaving them to guess what the heck it is that we want from them! Slow and steady, consistent and clear. If training “isn’t working” then you either need a new trainer, need to clean up your own training, or you aren’t giving things enough time for your dog to make the connection.

Connections and Support

Realizing you aren’t in the minority when it comes to your dog and their “abnormal” behaviour can really shed some light onto the subject and reassure you that there are many dogs out there that are misunderstood and perfectly imperfect. If you have a family member or friend that is supportive – lean on them. Ask for help if you need it, find a reactive dog class and make connections so you can meet up when the classes conclude to practice or find an online group that shares accurate information so you can learn more about dogs and their behaviour.

The more we know about animal behaviour and the learning process, the better we can understand why our dogs do what they do. Appreciate your dog for the individual he is, quirks and all.

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