Having a fearful reactive dog can be absolutely overwhelming for the owner.
Undertaking fearful dog rehabilitation is no easy feat, and the progress is painstakingly slow. Fear aggression can have many different root causes, some easier to rehabilitate, while some are impossible.
I have found that working on my perspective is as important as the training I am doing with my dog. If you own a fearful reactive dog and are struggling with discouragement, today’s post will help you gain perspective and set realistic goals for you and your dog.
Believe it or not, your perspective can directly impact your chances of success.
My Fearful Reactive Dog Journey
My introduction to fear aggression in dogs began with this face:
Rose, along with 50+ other dogs, came from a horrible hoarding situation. The dogs had been living inside an abandoned house.
Two brothers who lived nearby would periodically dump food inside on the floor, and the dogs had to fend for themselves to get any of it.
The dogs were never let outside. Ever. The walls and floors of the house were covered with feces.
When animal control seized the dogs, most were terrified of people and severely malnourished.
After seeing that face, we immediately offered to foster Rose. During her first two months at our house she slowly but surely got used to us and began to love attention. She exhibited some guarding behavior (trying to keep other dogs away from her newly cherished people and attention), but that disappeared with proper management and training.
When Rose had lived with us for about 3 months, however, she began to bark and lunge at approaching dogs on our daily walks. To us, this happened “out of the blue.” We could not figure out why she suddenly started behaving this way; what had changed?
We now know that Rose didn’t “develop” aggression. She had been afraid of other dogs all along, just was too afraid to show it. As Rose gained confidence, she also became confident enough to act on her fear of other dogs.
My Horrible Journey into the WRONG Fearful Dog Rehabilitation Method
I was young and naïve and had never heard of, nor dealt with, fear-based reactivity before. When I contacted the rescue I fostered for and asked for advice, the person they put me in contact with told me I needed to walk Rose with a chain correction collar, and when I passed another dog give a jerk of the collar (a “correction”). If she still reacted, I was told to roll her on her back.
Today I get sick to my stomach even writing this. I trusted that person. I thought she knew more than me and assumed I was too young and stupid to know what to do. When someone tells you that doing something will make your dog get over its fear and live a happy normal life, and you want the best for your dog, you assume they must know more than you.
What happened? When I did what they said, Rose got WORSE. Much worse.
My Ah-HA Moment
Fortunately, after about 2 weeks, I made a huge step forward as a dog owner. I looked at what was happening to my dog and acknowledged to myself that what I was doing did not feel right. At a gut level.
And I realized that the dog world isn’t defined by people who know more and people who know less. It is first defined by people with different opinions and approaches, and only then, within those who share your philosophy of training, are there people who know more or less than you.
Once I made that huge step as an owner, progress happened. I read everything I could get my hands on about working with Rose’s fear instead of trying to dominate her. I learned that because of her first horrible year of life, Rose needed time to adjust to new dogs. We used distance when on walks, and yummy treats to help her learn that seeing a dog meant guaranteed juicy ham and chicken treats.
She learned that I would keep her at a safe distance, so instead of lunging and snapping she could relax and enjoy treat time. We played games like “Look at That” and “Watch” (read more about calm dog training games for walks) to help her change her negative, fearful response to seeing a dog.
Rose made progress, and just as importantly, I had a good gut feeling that what I was doing was the right way to handle her fears.
Enter Fearful Reactive Dog #2: Tico
I’ll make this story shorter.
Tico is a border collie/German shepherd mix that we believe was taken from his litter much too early. He came into rescue small enough to fit in my coat pocket!
As soon as we got Tico, we worked with a phenomenal puppy trainer to make sure we did the right things for raising a balanced dog.
We socialized him, created a home environment with varied toys with different textures and noises, took him to different places, played with other puppies, met people, you name it.
Yet, when he hit puberty, our sweet happy puppy turned into a fearful reactive dog. Just like that. It was so heartbreaking.
His fear-based reactivity is exacerbated by his genetic tendency to be protective (German shepherd) and some slightly obsessive-compulsive traits that I’m betting come from his border collie genes. Once he exhibits a new fear-reactive behavior, it’s like he picks up a new compulsive habit and immediately adds it to his repertoire and does it more and more and more.
We know his issues were exacerbated by being taken from his litter too early, missing important socialization time with his littermates and mother.
On top of all of these issues, we have figured out that Tico has food sensitivities that manifest behaviorally. Certain foods make him act a lot more aggressively. I’m not kidding.
For example, we added oatmeal to his meals and within a week he started growling, then muzzle punching, then all-out attacking one of our other dogs.
When we took away the oatmeal, he stopped.
Currently, when on a walk he may bark and lunge at: people, dogs, bikes, cars, trucks, roller skaters, skateboarders, deer…you get the gist.
Progress with Tico is a bit of a roller coaster.
We have decreased the distance he needs to feel “safe” and not go over threshold and bark like a lunatic. I have learned more about dog body language so I can recognize subtle signs that he is getting worked up, and recognize subtle details about approaching dogs or people that may trigger Tico.
We make some huge steps forward, think we’re getting somewhere, then suddenly he will take 2 steps back.
And we’ve learned the importance of something I had never considered before: Perspective.
Perspective is Something Many Trainers and Vets Don’t Think to Discuss with Fearful Reactive Dog Owners
There is a lot of advice out there about fearful dog rehabilitation. A LOT.
But before you read about training philosophies, tools, and success stories, here are 10 pieces of advice to help you gain perspective:
1. Accept That in Many Cases There is no “Magical Cure”
Fearful behavior can occur due to lack of early socialization, traumatic events, or genetics.
When you watch all the success videos on the internet, you become hopeful that you can cure the issue just like the people in the video magically cured their dogs.
If you listen to force-based trainers, you might believe that forcing your fearful dog to deal with the situations that scare them (sometimes called “flooding”) will make them get used to their fear and it will disappear.
All of these views are SO tempting. We all want to have a miraculous breakthrough; to find that one “thing” that we need to do that suddenly changes our dog’s reactions.
The reality is, however, that any progress you make probably won’t be magical. It will be two steps forward earned by a lot of training and hard work, followed by setbacks that occur when inevitable circumstances pop up and catch you and your dog off guard.
It’s not that you won’t make progress, it just may not be miraculous or quick. Progress will be slow and steady and will take patience and hard work.
2. Think Carefully When Setting Goals for Your Fearful Reactive Dog
List your goals, read them, and then ask yourself: “Do I think these goals are realistic?”
Really think through your answer to this question.
When my awesome vet asked me what my goals were, I had to stop and think. My first answer was what I “dreamed of.” I would love to be able to take walks on trails and be able to pass people and dogs. I would love to be able to take Tico to a dog park where he can run and sniff and just be a dog. And maybe not have him bark like an idiot at every.single.person who walks by our house.
My vet smiled, kindly, and said “Are you remembering his genes when you make these goals? German shepherds have a genetic history of protecting, and border collies have a genetic history of herding things that move and are a very high energy breed.”
She had a point.
She then pointed out Tico’s other realities: being pulled from his litter too early (missed important dog-dog socialization) and having food sensitivities that caused behavioral changes.
Once I looked realistically at who Tico was, I started setting more realistic goals. And I started to accept that not all dogs can have the Cinderella stories you read about where you try a new training method and they instantly morph into a dream dog with no issues.
3. Have Realistic Expectations
In the story above, my vet was ever so gently trying to get me to see that expecting my higher-than-average energy border collie/German shepherd not to announce passing people and dogs was probably not very realistic.
Alerting me is wired into his brain at a genetic level that most likely can’t be changed unless I want to hang out with him 24 hours a day at-the-ready with my treat pack.
BUT, she reminded me that I can shut the curtains at certain times of day, or gate certain rooms off, to minimize these incidents. And then when I have the time I can be in the room with him working on our training.
She told me that by doing this, I would lower the overall cortisol level in his body (which got a nice boost each time he barked). This lower cortisol level would increase Tico’s chances of success when we saw other dogs on a walk and worked on our training protocol.
4. Journal Your Dogs Progress – Good and Bad
This is an incredibly helpful tool. Jot down successes and failures when they happen, and any other factors that may be important.
If you start a new food or supplement, jot down the date. When you start a new medication for something, jot that down too.
If you see positive or negative trends in your dog’s behavior, it’s helpful to be able to look through the journal over the last few weeks; you may find a correlation.
It’s also helpful to determine if your dog is making significant forward or backward progress. With a journal you can go back 6 months or a year and see what your dog’s behavior was at that point. You would be amazed what things you forget that your journal will remind you were happening months ago.
Doing this is how I figured out oatmeal was triggering Tico. I had entered the food change, and had also entered the behavior incidents when they happened. When Tico escalated to full out attacks, I went back to my journal trying to figure out what had changed in the previous 1-2 weeks.
The only thing was oatmeal (I knew this because I log all changes in my Tico log!). It seemed ridiculous, but since it was the only change, I tried stopping it – and the aggressive outbursts at my other resident dog disappeared.
I am still shaking my head at that one. I mean, seriously: oatmeal?? What the heck.
5. Find a Trainer Who Can Create a Training Program That Sets You up for Success
I am so lucky in this respect.
I found an incredible trainer named Laska who was not only knowledgeable about training methods that would help minimize Tico’s deeply ingrained genetic fear response, but who also had an encouraging, positive outlook.
No matter how many times I did something wrong, she would suggest how I could improve in a kind and encouraging way. And whether Tico had a bad or good session, she would see what he did right and praise him.
This, in turn, taught me to focus on his successes, not his failures. So many people assume there is something you’re doing that makes your dog reactive. Having a trainer who encourages you and helps explain what different factors are playing into your dog’s reactivity is important.
And she is crazy smart about dogs and their behavior. Believe it or not, a lot of trainers out there are good, but not great. Finding a great one is a jackpot. Most sessions I would end up shaking my head saying “how does she NOTICE that?” See more stories in the next section.
Shameless plug: Laska does phone consultations and can help set up training plans remotely. Check out her website, AllEarsTraining.com, and contact her to see how she can help you (she does both cat and dog consultations).
6. Look at the Situations That Trigger Your Fearful Reactive Dog from the Dog’s Point of View
This is where having a trainer like Laska is a game-changer.
I can remember training sessions with Tico in which he would calmly watch 9 dogs walk by and I would think our training was going swimmingly well, and then the 10th would walk by and Tico would explode into a barking lunatic.
I would turn to Laska and say “why in the world did he do that, he didn’t care at all about the 9 previous dogs and this one didn’t look any different!” She would proceed to tell me exactly why Tico had barked: things like “oh that dog gave Tico the stinky eye and raised his tail 20’ before Tico barked,” or “the owner had a hoodie on and too 2 steps off the trail in Tico’s direction.”
Over time I began to learn the subtle details that triggered fear in Tico:
- Someone walking with a shuffle or a limp.
- A high tail on a friendly dog: Tico has a hard time distinguishing between a tail raised high to send an aggressive message, and a naturally high/curly tail on a completely friendly dog (they are all scary to Tico).
- A person wearing a hat or hood.
- A sudden change of direction (as in angling towards us for a step or two), even if they are 25 yards away.
- Intense eye contact from the dog passing by.
- Trigger stacking: three medium-level scary things happen within a few minutes. The third one by itself seems like no big deal, but because Tico had been somewhat scared by the first two, the third one sends him into a barking frenzy.
These are just a sampling, there are so many small things that can make your dog feel uncomfortable or threatened. A good trainer will notice them, and teach you to notice them too.
When you are walking your dog, be observant. Watch oncoming people and dogs carefully. If you have a friend who can help, have them video your training sessions. When you watch situations again and again you start to notice things you missed when the event happened, and you also can watch your handling and see things you could have done better.
7. Create Better Walking or Training Scenarios
Fear aggression in dogs involves some detective work. Figuring out exactly what made your dog react allows you to adjust your training setup to set your dog up for success. Examples of changes include:
- Changing your training location so passersby walk completely parallel (not slightly towards you)
- Changing the time of day to a busier or less busier time based on your training needs
- Increasing distance when you see a person or dog with a “trigger” such as a high tail or hoodie sweatshirt
- Changing your walk route based on your dog’s behavior that day (bad day = quieter route, good day = busier route with more training opportunities)
8. Have Dreams – But Set Realistic Goals
This has been a huge one for me. Before you decide on any training plan or goal, you need to ask yourself if that is realistic for your dog.
It seems so obvious, but it isn’t that simple.
We all have dreams about what having a dog will be like. Dreams that involve taking walks and enjoying each other’s companionship, going everywhere together, and your dog making every new person they meet feel happy and loved.
Adjusting your dreams and expectations is hard. It is a process, and it takes time.
Being realistic means when your dog has a behavioral issue, you learn to take a step back and try and look at the situation with an openness to seeing what you realistically can expect from your dog.
When my vet pointed out that expecting a border collie/German shepherd mix not to alert me to passersby was probably a bit unrealistic, it prompted a huge shift in my thinking.
I now have accepted certain traits about my dog. He will never see a bunny and not crouch and go into stalking mode. And he will never handle being startled without sounding an alarm. That is who he is genetically.
Here is the difference:
When Tico sees a bunny now, instead of telling him “leave it!” and getting angry when he doesn’t, I have a certain routine that I follow. “Yup, there’s a bunny! Should we get some chicken out and work on heeling? Yes? Good boy! (reward) Such a nice job!” As we heel along towards the bunny, Tico’s eyes focused on me, the bunny runs away. At that point, we finish with a nice sit and final piece of chicken, then we walk to the tall grass where the bunny disappeared for a good sniff.
When a bicyclist sneaks up behind us and startles us (setting off manic barking and pulling), instead of getting angry, now I talk calmly and acknowledge it. “Easy buddy, it’s just a bike, did he startle you? (soft hand on rear) Let’s sit down, good boy! (stroking chest as his heart pounds a million times a minute) Should we go over here in the grass and find some hidden treats?” (Tico steps off the trail with me and I scatter some treats into the grass) He then snuffles around for the treats, and this calms his brain down so it’s not on high alert as we continue our walk. (Read more about this calming effect in my article on decompression walks)
Acknowledge Your Dog’s History
Accept that there may be parts of your dog’s history that will always play a part in their current behavior.
Rose had to fight the other dogs in the hoarding house for food. If she didn’t, she would die. So she will always be nervous about new dogs.
If I acknowledge this, I can set her up for success. Over the course of 10 years, she has progressed from needing a gate up to separate her from the new dog for hours (to allow her to sniff it from a safe distance and get used to it) to needing a gate up for about 10 minutes.
This is because I realized I could not force her not to be afraid. I acknowledged and worked with her fear, not against it.
Tico missed an important socialization period by being pulled from his littermates and mother too early. We can’t change that, or teach his brain the things it would have learned had he stayed with his litter.
He will never be the dog I can take to breweries, or take to my favorite (and popular) lake trail for walks. I have to let go of that, even though it still makes me sad.
Are there still days I whimsically wish for a magic pill that would allow him to be the sweet dog I see in my house all the time? Sure.
But now I work within his limitations.
We know how to introduce Tico to other dogs in a way that allows him to feel safe and get used to the new dog at his pace. And guess what? 99% of the dogs that visit my house, or that I foster, become his friends. And when one comes that is not a good match and tensions persist, I’ve learned to trust my gut and have the dog moved to a new foster.
That can be hard. People judge. Some may treat you as if you are overreacting, or that your dog is the problem. I used to bite the bullet and put Tico and myself through a huge amount of stress, losing a lot of our training progress because I was subjecting him to a high-stress situation.
Now I have more confidence and advocate for what is best for my dog.
9. Re-think What Outings you Take With Your Dog
For some, this may mean asking yourself things like “does my dog really enjoy going to breweries and coffee shops?” or, “would my dog be happier walking the scenic, busy trail, or walking with me in an empty soccer field near my house?”
I can’t begin to tell you how many unhappy dogs I see at social places like breweries or coffee shops. They are hiding under tables and shrinking away when someone tries to pet them. Watch your dog if you’re not sure, if their ears are flat or their tail between their legs, they would probably rather be at home while you enjoy a coffee or beer on your back patio!
10. Savor the Small Victories When it Comes to Fear Aggression in Dogs
Many of my walks are a mix of successes and failures. I used to come home disappointed if Tico barked at anything.
Now I focus on the encounters where he didn’t bark.
Situations that used to make me walk home crying, either from embarrassment or discouragement, are fewer and far between.
I have developed a thick shell: if Tico goes nuts in public, instead of getting angry or sad I think “Wow. Top embarrassing moment yet, I will have to tell Laska about this one.”
If I’m discouraged, instead of getting teary, I hear my trainer’s voice in my head saying “that was just a hard one, wasn’t it Tico?”
On difficult days I still record details in my journal, but then look back and review progress I’ve made to remind myself that this is a journey, and we are making progress overall.
How are Rose & Tico Today?
Rose now can get along with 99.9% of visiting dogs. She will always need time to assess them, sniff them, and get used to them, behind a gate. Most times she only needs 5-10 minutes. If it’s an energetic in-your-face dog she will need longer.
She will never be able to walk up and meet a dog off leash, or walk right by them on a trail. But, thanks to years of hard work, we only need to take one or two steps off the trail and sprinkle treats in the grass and she will happily snuffle as the dog walks by.
She is just grateful I won’t force her to meet them, and can relax and enjoy her treats because we have built a bond of trust and she knows I won’t let another dog come close.
Tico is still quite a work in progress. He is sensitive to so many things: different foods, weather changes, moon phases, you name it.
We have days where I can clearly see our work pay off. He will see a dog a ways away, and instead of barking and lunging, he will turn and go the other way, many times walking to something to sniff (a tree or bush) to decompress and self-calm.
We have other days when I can tell his energy is different the minute we leave the yard and he marks and scratches every 10 steps. Those are the days I take routes that have long sightlines (we can see and avoid dogs from a greater distance) and spend a good chunk of the walk in a grassy or woodsy areas doing a decompression walk.
We continue to try new supplements, and we’ve tried three medications. We did Jean Dodd’s Nutriscan Test so I can avoid foods he is sensitive to. I continue to scour the internet to read more about natural approaches and supplements that help reactive dogs, and try to find others who have dogs this sensitive to food and environmental changes.
Tico has been a journey I never expected. I am a better person and better dog owner because of what I have learned, and we have a deep bond from going through this together.
Does Your Fearful Reactive Dog Journey Need a Healthy Dose of Perspective?
Having a healthy perspective of your dog’s limitations and challenges can change how you view your dogs and have a positive impact on your fearful dog’s rehabilitation.
Set goals – goals that challenge you as a handler and that build and stretch your dog’s abilities. But, also set goals that are achievable and realistic given your dog’s history and genetics.
Focus on successes! Don’t see setbacks as failures, see them as learning opportunities. If you can think through a challenging situation and come up with things you could have done differently, now you can view the situation as having had a purpose that will help you move forward.
Don’t Give Up
All this talk of perspective makes perfect sense. But it doesn’t make it easier to live with a fearful reactive dog.
Do I still dream of walking Tico through the park, without having to worry about passing dogs or people? Yup.
Are their days when I long to just have a normal dog, and literally ache I want to find a way to help Tico so badly? Absolutely.
Don’t give up. If there is one thing that bonds me to Tico more than anything else, it’s that I have never stopped trying. Because maybe, just maybe, the next thing I try will help him.
Deep down our dogs know we won’t give up on them, and they love us for it.
Kudos to each one of you working to rehabilitate your fearful aggressive dog.