Fear Based Dog Reactivity – Use Desensitization & Counter Conditioning

Image of fear reactive dog

What is Fear Based Dog Reactivity/Aggression? 

In dog training fear based dog reactivity is usually defined as “a feeling of apprehension associated with the presence or proximity of a person, dog/animal, or situation (either social or environmental)

What Causes Fear Reactivity/Aggression? 

The #1 reason is generally lack of quality and positive socialization.   Dogs who are not socialized when they are young never learn how to approach or handle new situations, people, animals, or environments.  But fear aggression can also be caused by a traumatic experience or can gradually increase in intensity as the dog experiences situations that make him uncomfortable over and over again and gradually learns to be more and more reactive.  Read article: “Aggressive behavior is reinforced” by Karen Pryor

How is Fear Reactivity Different from True Aggression?  

True aggression carries the intent to do harm.   A dog that is truly aggressive will attack and sustain that attack, repeatedly biting and moving forward to bite over and over again.   He is on the offensive.  A fearful dog will generally try to avoid the situation first, or will signal that they are fearful or uncomfortable.  But if these signals go unacknowledged, or if they are just ignored, then a fearful dog will escalate their behavior continuing to attempt to communicate that they are fearful.  They do this through body language, then maybe they will growl, then maybe do an air snap (air bite that had no intention of landing), and finally, the will actually bite.   Generally they will bite and retreat.   It is not a sustained attack unless the person/dog keeps moving towards them.   A fearful dog is on the defense.

 Dog Body Language:

Dogs are masters of body language.   That is their means of communication.   We humans we are oral beings and we expect everything else to communicate the same way we do.   But unfortunately, there are very few animal species that speak/communicate orally like humans.  And guess what?  Dogs assume the body postures mean the same thing in humans as they do in dogs.   And this could not be further from the truth.   For example, from a dog’s perspective, another dog who stares at them,  leans forward, bares their teeth, and reaches out to them is all very threatening behaviors, rude, and puts the receiving dog on the defensive.   But to humans all of those postures indicated a greeting.  When we greet someone, we look them in the eye, was stand up straight and move in close, we smile, and we reach out our hand to shake the other person’s hand.    It’s no wonder we humans mis-communicate with our dogs!

It is the human’s (your) responsibility to recognize your dog’s body language and understand what that body language is trying to convey.

Signs of Fear (Submissive/Appeasement escalating to Aggressive Behaviors)


What Training Techniques to use with Fear Reactive Dogs?


Desensitization exposes a dog to a fear trigger, such as touching their feet, or approaching another dog in a gradual and incremental manner.    The process begins at a very low level to avoid a fearful response and incrementally builds to the level that the dog was originally fearful.   Rewards are used at each increment if the dog can remain calm and not present fear signals in the presence/proximity of whatever the fear trigger is.   Example.  Dogs is fear reactive to other dogs.  Create a desensitization program that will allow the dog to see the dogs at a distance (distance depends on the fear threshold distance which has to be established first!).  So let’s say that the fear threshold is 10 feet, Desensitization program  might go something like this:

1)       Both dogs on leash.  Dog with reactivity issue is practicing obedience training with owner.   A person with another dog on leash comes into visual contact @ 12 feet away.  Dog with reactivity issue glances at other dog, but does not react.  Dog owner jackpot dog for not reacting.  Jackpot means giving your dog 3-5 treats one at a time.

2)       Every time reactive dog looks at other dog with no reaction, reward… Repeat this many times

3)       When reactive dog is completely calm and ignoring other dog.  Other dog moves closer by 1 foot

4)       Repeat steps 1 and 2

5)       When reactive dog is completely calm and ignoring other dog, other dog moves closer by 1 more foot.  Now the other dog will be at the 10 ft threshold.   Owner should jackpot reactive dog for not reacting frequrently

6)       Repeat steps 1 and 2

7)       Keep following this process moving dogs closer and closer over time.

When gradually going through all of these steps, you will reward each time you can complete a step without the dog presenting a fear/stress signal.   If dogs does present a fear/stress signal, then you go back a few steps.   It generally takes days to months to work through all of these steps.   You must always remain calm, relaxed, and positive throughout the entire process.  Each session should only be a couple of minutes to 5-10 minutes per session… You can have a couple of sessions every day if you want to try to work through the process faster.   Also perform the exercise in multiple rooms/places, so that your dog does not make an association this bad activity only happens when…..    DO NOT MOVE thru the process too fast.  You can actually set your dog back.

Counter conditioning: 

Counter conditioning looks to change an unpleasant emotional response to a trigger into a pleasant one.   Once the dog’s underlying emotional response changes, his reaction toward the trigger will change as well.  It goes hand in hand with desensitization.  And this is where clicker training comes in!  So for example, if a dog is afraid of men specifically, then every time the dog is in the presence of a man, and does not present any fear signals, he will receive a special and most awesome treat.  Gradually as this exercise is repeated, the dog will make a positive association with the presence of the man with getting the treats and eventually will anticipate something wonderful with the presence of that man and this then changes the dog’s reactions towards that man.   Upon repeating the same exercise over and over with many different men, the dog will gradually build a safety history that is filled with only pleasant things when men are around… In other words, the dog will learn to assume that all men are good.  This is called generalization.

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