Fearful and reactive dogs

I’ve noticed that there seem to be more reactive dogs in our neighborhood than I’ve seen before–dogs who lunge and bark at everything, or dogs who are very timid and scared of the world at large. Anxious dogs have always been around, but during the pandemic, without the ability of owners to socialize their dogs to a variety of people, dogs, cats, vehicles etc. when they were puppies, the current wave of adolescent dogs are at a disadvantage. There has also been a huge increase in the number of adoptions during the past year, and with limited access to dog classes, and since many dogs were initially relinquished for their behavior issues, this has placed this group of dogs at an even greater disadvantage.

Dogs need to be socialized to a wide variety of stimuli when they are puppies (by 12-16 weeks) if they are going to feel comfortable as adults. That means that they must be gently and safely exposed to whatever they might need to cope with as adults before the age of sixteen weeks. If they’re isolated, limited in their exposure to dogs of different ages and sizes, humans (male and female) at a variety of ages, not to mention cats, horses, goats, traffic, etc. they will react with fear when they encounter these stimuli later in life. At best, the fearful dog will do what we would expect (shake, whine, tuck his tail, hide between our legs); at worst, he will “react” (bark and lunge) in an effort to keep the scary thing away. Both these behaviors (and everything in between) tend to be worse when the dog is on leash, as they are trapped and can’t increase the distance between the scary thing and themselves. Both behaviors are fear based.

Reactivity can be a devastating problem that requires a huge amount of training and desensitization to resolve–or at least, to improve. Our reactive German Shepherd, Vera, was chained up and abused as a pup, so although she was a sweet, affectionate dog in our home, taking her for a walk was almost as scary for us as it was for her because she was so powerful, and her barks were loud, angry, and terrifying for the person or dog at whom they were directed. Having visitors to our home was an ordeal too, because in order for Vera to feel safe, everyone’s behavior had to be predictable, and safe distances had to be maintained until she was ready to venture closer to them. Our lives changed significantly for twelve years.

If I have a fearful dog, What should I do?

  • Learn as much about fear, reactivity, and aggression as you can so that you understand them. Dogwise has several good books on these topics. Also, I wrote the novel, Finding Vera, and attempted to understand what was going on in her mind from her perspective to show what it might be like to be a reactive, fearful, and potentially aggressive dog. Many people with reactive dogs have found Finding Vera helpful in increasing their understanding of their companion.
  • Have your dog checked out by a vet. Pain and illness can cause irritability and a reduction in the ability to cope with stress thus increasing anxiety and reactivity.
  • Find a positive-rewards trainer who has experience with reactivity. Your dog will need to learn attention skills, impulse control, to walk beside you on a loose leash (a tight leash adds to a dog’s anxiety), and skills that will help you and your dog to escape tricky situations safely. A good trainer will also use desensitization exercises and Behavior Adjustment Training to help your dog become more comfortable with his trigger(s).
  • Be as calm and confident as possible when out with your dog. Take deep breaths, sing a silly song, keep the leash loose, praise your dog for good behaviors.
  • Don’t take your reactive or fearful dog off leash until you have had them assessed by an experienced trainer. A fearful dog who responds to scary things with “flight” may well run off and get injured or lost, while the dog who responds with “fight” could injure another dog or person, or get injured themselves.
  • Learn to understand canine body language. You can find many in-depth books on canine body language at Dogwise.com.
  • Don’t use corrective techniques with your dog e.g. shouting, hitting, kicking, intimidation, jerking on the leash or collar, wolf-rolling, shock collars etc.
    • Using corrective techniques will aggravate the fear that drives the behavior, making it worse. Think about it. How would you feel as a child if a bear approached you, and your parents hit and yelled at you, shocked your neck, and jerked you by a multi pronged metal collar when you screamed for help? (Keep in mind that a dog’s skin is actually thinner than ours.) As primates, we are hard-wired to yell and hit when we are frustrated or angry, so it’s very gratifying for us to respond to behavior we don’t like (lunging and barking) in this way. I cringe when I hear a dog who is already very frightened scream and run in response to the shock from a shock collar. Unfortunately, this is something I have witnessed many times in the past year.
  • Choose times to walk when there will likely be fewer encounters with the thing that triggers your dog. I used to run with Vera at 5:00 a.m. year-round, rain or shine. Ugh! But she got the exercise she needed, and the additional serotonin released in her brain from the exercise helped her to cope with the world. Midnight is also a good time to walk. Please wear a headlamp when you walk in the dark so a) other people can see you coming and b) so you can see potential threats and respond to them before your dog reacts.
  • Keep a safe distance from the thing that is making your dog react–make a U-turn and go the other way before your dog tenses or starts staring hard at the trigger.
  • If you must pass the dreaded trigger, place your body between your dog and the scary thing. If you can, go up a driveway, into the bushes or woods, or make a wide arc away from the trigger, herding your dog’s shoulder away from the scary thing with your leg.
  • Carry high-value treats such as cooked chicken or steak cut into small cubes, salmon treats, or something very special that your dog LOVES. The instant you see the trigger, start feeding your dog rapidly, one treat at a time and move away from it if you are too close. The treats help to have your dog make a positive association with the scary thing, and increasing distance will help him feel safe.
  • Some dogs have a strong prey drive and will lunge and bark at anything that moves, such as squirrels, runners, cars, deer, cats, bunnies etc. This reaction is not caused by fear necessarily, but is hardwired as part of the chase-bite-kill sequence of hunting. Having your dog sit, “leave it” (you need to teach your dog what “leave it” means) and watch you, and then feed high value treats for leaving the prey alone, will help to dampen this drive for that particular object or animal. It is a very difficult compulsion to modify and finding a trainer to help with this will be worth your while.
  • Make your dog’s life as routine as possible. When his world is predictable, he will feel less fearful. If there is construction going on within earshot, if you mix up your routine, if you move your household, etc., your dog’s anxious behaviors and reactive displays will most likely worsen.
  • If you get a puppy, be sure to socialize him carefully and consistently for the first two years of his life. Although the first sixteen weeks are the most critical, maintaining his socialization is essential.
  • Be aware that fear is the most genetically transmitted emotion, so if a puppy’s parents are very anxious and fearful, the puppies stand a good chance of being fearful too.

Featured photo courtesy of Motoko Lewis and Cedric Meerkat Lewis

Dog attacks part 2: Ways to protect your dog.

In my last blog, “Dog Attacks”, I promised to share some ideas that might help you protect your dog from potential dog attacks. First, however, I want to give you some information about why any dog might want to attack a perfectly happy, well-socialized dog.

Fear drives aggression in dogs 95% of the time. Genetics, lack of socialization before the age of 12-16 weeks, or an attack or scare from another dog (particularly if the injured dog was between 7 and 9, or 18 and 24 months when the attack occurred) could be at the core of the problem. However, it is important to realize that any dog will bite if put in the right situation.

If a dog is already fearful, the approach of a happy, well-socialized dog can be terrifying. These fearful dogs have the choice of freezing, attacking, or running away, and dogs who are on leash don’t have the option of escape–they can only freeze, attack, or hide behind their owners. Even if they are off leash, fearful dogs might feel that offense is more effective than defense, offense being a strategy that dogs learn quickly. It makes the scary thing back off, and they are rewarded by this.

Here, you can see that even though Vera knows Annie well, she is worried about Annie’s nose being just centimeters from her shoulder. The minimum safe distance Vera could be from a strange dog was 30 feet.

Another thing that owners of happy, healthy, well socialized dogs should realize is that no one (with the exception of the rare trainer out looking for a challenge), purposefully adopts a dog who is aggressive. They fall in love, then the behaviors unfold or develop, often between the ages of two and three years as the dog matures socially. This certainly happened with our girl, Vera.

The owners of the dog with dog-aggressive behaviors are then saddled with a choice: to work with the dog continuously for years, re-home the dog (and who would willingly adopt a dog with a bite history) or take the dog to a shelter where he would risk euthanasia. If the owners lie about the dog’s history when they relinquish the dog (which certainly happens), the dog will end up injuring another dog (or human if the bite is redirected).

Having an aggressive dog is like living with a loaded gun. At first, owners are in full-blown denial and make extensive excuses for the dog. Then it slowly dawns on them that they need help and they start the slow process of discovering the dog’s triggers and how to keep him safe.

We kept Vera safe by choosing her outings carefully–the right place in the right season at the right time of day–and, of course, always on leash. Always a 6 ft leash unless there was no risk of a dog approaching.

The process is long and arduous as the dog’s freedoms are slowly relinquished to a point where the dog feels safe enough to live a relaxed life, and the owners feel safe enough to comfortably live with the dog. These owners are often stressed for years as they struggle through this quagmire–they want to give their dog a quality of life that makes life worth living, but are challenged to keep their dog feeling protected from friendly dogs, (remember, the aggression is fear-driven), and keeping other dogs safe as well.

My novel, “Finding Vera” tells the story of our experience with our wonderful reactive German shepherd, Vera (with a few embellishments to make it a better novel).

Tips and suggestions to protect your dog from potential attacks:

  • Consider dog parks with caution. I would recommend reading my comprehensive blog post on Dog Parks. Other blog posts that enhance the Dog Parks article are: Kids and small dogs at dog parks, and Dog parks vs off-leash trails.
  • When walking your dog on leash, don’t allow your dog to greet other dogs. As I mentioned above, dogs are limited in their responses when on leash and tend to be more likely to aggress or act out. Check out the video on how to pass another dog on leash safely. I have been lax about this with Annie, but since Milo’s attack have decided to adhere to this advice unless Annie has already established a friendship with the other dog.
I block Annie from Bruno with my body in this technique of arcing around dogs.
I feed her constantly as I pass Bruno.
  • Follow leash laws. People walk their dogs in on-leash areas for a reason. There is nothing more upsetting than to have your on-leash, anxious, reactive, rambunctious, or injured dog approached by an energetic, friendly dog (or to be accosted by a loose dog if you don’t like dogs or are unable or unwilling to deal with their exuberance). At the very least, the leashed dog will feel threatened, out of control, or overstimulated because he is handcuffed in his response to the loose dog. If the leashed dog is under-socialized, he may feel the need to attack because he is confined. Also, even a well-behaved off-leash dog will often take advantage of his freedom to harass the tethered dog.
Annie practices recall on an off-leash trail.
  • If you walk your dog off leash in on-leash areas when no one is around, realize that you could could be ticketed. Be sure your dog has a strong recall (will return to you at least 80% when you call him), and leash him up as soon as you see a person or dog in the distance.
  • Keep your dog on leash and under control in your neighborhood. Over the years, I’ve had clients whose dogs were killed by cars because they were loose in an unfenced yard, even while under supervision. Also, many of my reactive dog clients have been accosted by loose dogs in their neighborhoods. A fight between your loose, friendly dog and a leashed aggressive dog can end badly, both for the dogs and the handler. Redirected bites onto the handler are not uncommon when trying to separate dogs in a fight.
  • Teach your dog a “sit behind.
I’m training Annie to sit behind me. This way I can block her from any approaching off-leash dogs I don’t trust.
  • Watch people and dogs carefully in off-leash areas and read their body language. If the dog looks tense and is not giving out calming signals as he approaches (such as looking away, sniffing the ground, licking his lips, yawning, or doing a play bow), or if the human looks tense and worried, take your dog off the trail, stand in front of him, and block him. You can feed your dog treats, talk to him, or hook a finger through his collar or harness to maintain control while the dog passes.
  • Don’t walk your dog on leash in an off-leash area. As I said above, off-leash dogs might take advantage of his vulnerability. Likewise, if you see a leashed dog approaching in an off leash area, leash your dog and steer clear–there is probably a reason the dog is leashed. It isn’t a good time to get into an argument with the owner.
Annie checks backwash me on an off-leash trail.
  • Practice “check backs” with your dog so that he doesn’t run off when on the trail. Mark any eye contact with a word such as “yes” (or click) and treat him when he returns to you. You will find that your dog starts to check back often and will be more responsive when you call him back.
  • Carry a small air horn to keep loose dogs at bay. One small blast will often stop loose dogs in their tracks. A second short blast has always worked for us. The air horn works at a great distance to keep both well-socialized dogs and reactive dogs safe without sensitizing them to shouting (yelling at the dog, or shouting at the owner to call their dog rarely works anyway). Don and I wouldn’t go out of the house without one when we had Vera. The dog the horn was aimed at would stop, eye us with curiosity, then choose to change direction. They never looked scared.
  • To desensitize your dog to the sound of the horn:
This is a 1.5 oz horn that fits into my treat pouch so I can have it handy in case of an emergency.
  1. Have a second person beep the horn at a distance of 50-100 feet, pointing the horn away from your dog, then feed him several high-value treats.
  2. Always be careful to point the horn AWAY from your dog.
  3. Repeat no more than 3 times in a day, decreasing the distance the horn is from your dog by no more than 5 feet at a time.
  4. Only decrease the distance between the horn and your dog if the dog is relaxed and anticipating the treats.
  5. If your dog is scared, stop using the horn that day, and follow the session with treats and a favorite game.
  6. The next day, double the distance between the horn and your dog and try again.