Does Walking Your Dog Up to Something Scary “Cure” Their Fear?

Does Walking Your Dog Up to Something Scary “Cure” Their Fear?

Animal statues can be pretty scary for dogs

Will walking your dog up to something scary make their fear go away? Possibly, if your dog is not very scared in the first place. But it’s not a good method for helping a fearful dog.

Fear Rarely “Goes Away”

I am afraid of flying. I hate it but I do it if I have to.

I have tried a lot of mind tricks to try to mitigate that fear. First among them is telling myself to notice all the people who aren’t afraid. Look at the flight attendants! They do this several times a week and they are fine! Look at that family, that guy over there, that frequent flyer. They are engrossed in their own affairs and not trembling. Those are my fellow humans. I should emulate them!

Guess what? It doesn’t work very well. Neither does reviewing the statistics in my mind about the safety of flying.

You know why? It’s because I’m not dealing with a rational part of my brain. My mind is not going to say, “Oh, nobody else is afraid. I guess I’ll stop.” Or, “Flying is the safest form of transport, so I’ll stop being afraid.”

It doesn’t work that way, not if you are already in the thick of it. I’m not arguing against cognitive therapy here or various forms of desensitization. But those take preparation. They aren’t spur of the moment thoughts you try to press into your mind in the middle of the feared situation.

Now, if I were just a little unsure because it was a new situation, yes, the fact that other humans are coping might be helpful. But again, I’m dealing with fear. I can’t just talk it away.

Stage Fright

I went to music school and grew up performing from a young age. I had a fair amount of stage fright. It wasn’t usually disabling, but it could get pretty bad. It’s not uncommon among musicians.

For some world-class performers, stage fright never goes away. Pablo Casals, the cellist, was famously fearful of playing in public. I have been in a green room with a world-famous violinist, who shall remain nameless, who talked non-stop before performing, telling jokes a mile a minute and fidgeting.

When I was a young performer, my mother tried to help talk me out of my fear. She assured me the audience wished me well and wanted me to succeed. I was supposed to think about that. I was also supposed to look at all the other kids who went onstage and survived. I should rationally consider these social cues and thereby be freed from my fear.

Nope, it didn’t work very well then either.  Nonetheless, I continued with such mind tricks into my adult performing career. They helped abate the fear by, perhaps, 15–20%? Deep breathing worked better. Practicing every aspect of performing to fluency helped the most, but even that didn’t eradicate the nerves.

My point in mentioning human fears is that we have cognitive skills that dogs don’t have. We ourselves can’t generally reason away fears (again, I’m excluding long-term approaches such as cognitive therapy and desensitization), so why would we expect that dogs’ fears could be easily coaxed away? But that is just what some people suggest.

Fear in Dogs

So nowadays, one of the common online responses to people who are concerned about their dog’s fear is the advice to “show the dog there is nothing to be afraid of.” Walk up to the huge statue of a bear and tap it. Go hug the male family member your dog has confused with Satan and make your dog come along.  Go stand next to the low battery beeping smoke alarm so they see you don’t die.

I’ve trained only six dogs in my life. I’m not a professional. But two of those dogs had extreme fears that were, at times, disabling. Even with my limited experience, I can instantly tell when talking to another hobby trainer (or even sometimes a pro) when they have not experienced dogs with strong fears. Because they say things like “I just show them that it’s fine.” Or, “I just make sure I project confidence and leadership, and my dogs are never scared.”

Lucky you.

If someone has worked only with dogs who were mildly afraid and just had to get used to something to be able to accept it, this “just show them” method would seem fine. Take a look, for example, at this photo of my god-dog Kaci at seven weeks old, the first time she saw this houseplant.

Puppy Kaci checks out a giant houseplant

Kaci was in the sensitive period for socialization. The plant didn’t hurt her, she got over it, and she went on to explore other new things. It might’ve even helped if I had walked up to the plant while talking to her happily about it (see below about social referencing). 

Now look at this photo of Zani as a mature adult. This was during a very hard time for her. She was having general anxiety and panic attacks. I feel pretty comfortable in saying that if you are dealing with a dog that is this shut down and afraid, you can’t “show them” everything is all right. The vet, the veterinary behaviorist, and I hadn’t even figured out the main things that were scaring her! What would I even try to show her?

Zani was petrified, and I still don’t know why

These methods that have you demonstrate things and act nonchalant to a petrified dog to fix them have one thing in common. They do not respect that the dog’s fear is real. Real fear is not something someone else can brush off or “cure” with the right attitude or simple actions.

When applied to fear, these methods do not show respect for the dog as an autonomous being. Using this as your go-to method is very self-centered. “If I just act right, my dog won’t be scared.” Sorry—it isn’t about you.

Statements about how you just have to show the dog everything is OK (or for that matter, statements about how you can calm the dog down by being a better leader) come from people who think they have the answer because it worked for a dog or two. (Or maybe the methods didn’t even work at all; that person might be very bad at observing dog behavior.) I remember those days of overconfidence! Most of us go through them.

Social Referencing

Dogs do take cues from us about how to respond to things in some situations. This is called social referencing, and there are at least two studies that show evidence of this happening between dogs and humans.

Social referencing has two parts. When social referencing is happening, first, the dog watches the human’s response to, for instance, a novel object. Then the dog performs similar behavior toward the object to the human’s.

In the studies, the humans, in the presence of their dog, either approached an object and spoke about it in an upbeat way, or retreated from the object, with fearful vocalizations and body language. The data showed that a significant percentage of the dogs responded to the human’s behavior by responding similarly to the object.

I’m not going to talk about the research in much more detail because Zazie Todd has already done a wonderful job of that on her Companion Animal Psychology blog. You can read about it on her site (and I hope you do!).

The Differences Between the Study Conditions and Real Life with Fearful Dogs

So, what they did in the study sounds exactly like what I talked about at the beginning of the post and said doesn’t work. The people’s behavior helped “show” the dog it didn’t need to be concerned about the object. This is an evidence-based blog. How can I be saying we can’t talk dogs out of their fears?

It’s because the experiments didn’t involve large magnitude fear responses.

There are several crucial differences between the circumstances of the study and the situations we find ourselves in with truly fearful dogs.

Clara would have been excused: this loud flapping thing doesn’t bother her at all
  1. The dogs in the research were all well adjusted enough that they could go to an unfamiliar lab, be around strangers, and cope well enough to be part of a study. These were not fearful dogs, or if they were, they weren’t afraid of anything involved in the lab environment. My formerly feral dog, Clara, likes novelty. She stuck her head straight into the streamers when we tried the fan test at home—here’s the video if you want to see it. But she could never have made it calmly past the front door for the study because of human strangers. And while Zani loves new people and copes well with new environments, if there were any odd sounds she might have gotten too upset to do the study. Summer might have been able to do it, bless her, because of all her dog trial experience. I point all this out to indicate that the dogs in the study had to have been generally well adjusted, well socialized, and not particularly fearful.
  2. The “novel object” used in the study was chosen to be only mildly concerning to these well-adjusted dogs. The object was a floor fan with streamers attached to it. The streamers floated in the air and blew around when the fan was turned on. In one of the studies, 18 of the 75 subject dogs were excused because they weren’t bothered by the fan at all and walked right up to it. Only one dog was excused because of more extreme fear of the fan. That tells us something, right? The goal was to be able to evoke a cautious, but not terrified response from the dogs.

There are two other things of note. First, the dogs were not leashed, so they were not forced to approach or retreat from the object. Second, the behavior of the humans was very specific. This was not something so abstract as “being a good leader” or “controlling the energy traveling down the leash.” The dogs took their cues from the humans’ approach or avoidance of the novel object, along with the human’s vocalizations.

Evoking social referencing or emotional contagion are good things to try with stable dogs when encountering something novel or a little weird (and throw in a treat while you’re at it!). But they are not the tools to use when dealing with fears, phobias, or even reactivity.

How To Help Our Fearful Dogs

Take their fear seriously. Respect them as autonomous beings. They are not an appendage that will feel everything you feel. You can’t use mind control.

Make use of behavior science and medical science. Find a good behavior consultant and a veterinary behaviorist or a veterinarian who is conversant with behavior issues: someone who knows what physical conditions to rule out and who can make good recommendations for maintenance or situational medications.

I’m going to borrow fearful dog expert Debbie Jacobs‘ three steps:

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe. If they need a place to hide, help them with that. Don’t force proximity or hand feed. Talk to a vet about medications. And be sure not to flood the dog.
  2. Classically condition a positive response to formerly scary stuff. Gently toss a piece of steak every time you pass your fearful dog, if you are the scary thing. Or do this when the doorbell rings or when that awful beep happens on TV—whatever the trigger is.
  3. Use positive reinforcement to train fun and useful behaviors. How long before the reorientation and approach to you that starts developing out of the classical conditioning can be converted into a hand target? Or a target to a wooden spoon if hands are still too scary?

Don’t fall for quick fixes. They aren’t fixes at all. Again, think about fear. Would you walk a person with acrophobia up to the edge of a cliff to “show them it’s fine”? Do you think if you made them stay there that a special garment or special music or special aromas would help? Not likely, and not likely for your dog in the presence of what they fear, either.

Marge Rogers’ Bria checks out a boot scraper

And start keeping a behavior diary as early as possible, ideally before you start with medical or training interventions with your dog. It is very hard, in the uncontrolled environment of our home, with all its variables, to parse out what may or may not be helping our dogs. We are full of biases and are programmed to fall for things like regression to the mean.

And as for helping a non-fearful dog check out novelty—pair it with food and fun! As my friend Marge Rogers says:

What is the risk of giving your dog a treat? Zero. None. What is the risk of happy talk only? You underestimated your dog’s comfort level and he has a negative experience.

Marge Rogers, Certified Behavior Consultant Canine – Knowledge Assessed, Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed

And the next time you see someone on social media recommend that you just walk the dog confidently up to the thing that is scaring the crap out of them, post this article.


Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E., & Marshall-Pescini, S. (2011). Social referencing in dog-owner dyads? Animal Cognition, 15 (2), 175-185
Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E., & Marshall-Pescini, S. (2012). Dogs’ social referencing towards owners and strangers PLoS ONE, 7 (10)

Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

California bear statue photo courtesy of Mrbeastmodeallday through Wikimedia Commons This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Photos of Kaci, Zani, and Clara copyright Eileen Anderson. Photo of Portuguese Water Dog Bria copyright Marge Rogers.

6 Ways to Prepare Your Dog for Fireworks Starting TODAY

6 Ways to Prepare Your Dog for Fireworks Starting TODAY

firecracker exploding in the air with lots of orange sparks

Is your dog scared of fireworks? Don’t wait until the holiday hits, be it Canada Day or US Independence Day. You can make a plan and take action now to help your dog be a bit less afraid of the unpredictable scary sounds of fireworks, firecrackers, whistles, and even guns.

Get Ready

Here are some things you can do today.

1. Check into medications
If your dog gets very anxious about noises and you have never talked to your vet about it, do so now. He or she may be able to prescribe something to help. And if you can’t get in before the holiday, do your best with some of the other ideas here to get through it and call your vet as soon as you can. This is a long-term problem. Sound phobias tend to get worse and are not something to be taken lightly.

2. Countercondition to noises
Get some great treats and start carrying them around. Whenever there is any kind of sudden or startling noise, but especially stray bangs and booms as people start to test their noisemakers, rain treats down on your dog. Use those special treats only for noises. Don’t pass them out for nice behavior (use something else for that!), and don’t ask for any particular behavior from your dog when the noise occurs. Just give the special treats.

You may wonder why I am not recommending buying an app, CD, or YouTube video with fireworks sounds to “practice” with. Performing desensitization/counterconditioning with sounds is tricky.  People who haven’t done DS/CC before run a real risk of scaring their dogs further instead of helping them. This is why I am suggesting this method, which uses environmental noises that are happening anyway. Save the formal training for well after the holiday, when you can keep your dog safe from accidental exposures to the sound.

3. Create a safe place
Make (or adapt) a safe place for your dog. Keep in mind that the flashes of light that come with big fireworks displays can be scary too. Consider a method to darken any windows nearby or shield the safe place with a cover if necessary. Be aware that the low frequency sounds of thunder are physically impossible to mute with the amount of absorbent material such as blankets or foam we can use at home. But being underground can usually help a bit, so basements are a good option for some dogs. Get the best protection you can in a basement or your most internal room. Despite the marketing, dog crates with walls a few inches thick can’t dampen low-frequency sounds to an effective degree.

4. Play sound or music
Experiment with sound masking or music to find out what is most helpful for your situation. Try some kind of recorded white noise, natural noise, or music to mask the pops and booms. (Even a noisy food toy can be helpful.) This approach is evidence-based and called sound masking.

And here’s a tip: the lower the frequencies included in the masking or music, the better it can hide those low-pitched booms (Kinsler, Frey, Coppens, & Sanders, 1999, p. 318–320). So if your dogs are already habituated to pounding rock music or some other music with a lot of bass or percussion, play it! It can mask some of the scary noises from outside your house more effectively. Taiko drumming is great if your dogs are accustomed to it. You can buy a few songs and loop them or find some on YouTube. But first, be absolutely certain that the music itself doesn’t scare your dogs. If they are already sensitive to booms, it probably will.

Household appliances can help. Some floor fans hit fairly low frequencies and can be helpful. You can run the dryer (no heat) with a pair of sports shoes in it for some booms that will probably be familiar and not scary. You’ll need to find the line of best fit for your dogs.

A new resource is the Bang-Dog Playlist from Triplet Noir Studios. These are heavy metal selections (be aware that some of the language is not family-friendly). Before anyone mentions it: heavy metal has not ranked well in the dogs and music studies, tending to make shelter dogs more agitated. That’s not surprising. But if you play it already and your dogs are fine with it, they are habituated. In that case, these playlists could be the very thing for you.

5. Practice going out
Make a plan for taking your dog out to potty. Do you know when the noise is usually at its worst and can you work around that? Are your fences and/or leash and harness secure? Dogs who are usually sedate have been known to panic and run off on noisy holidays. Don’t let that happen.  Keep your gates locked, your dogs’ ID tags on, and put some redundancy into your safety system.

6. Comfort your dog if that helps
LOSE that idea that there’s something wrong with comforting your dog if that’s what your dog wants. Helping a dog through a tough time is not “coddling.” Assess what is most helpful to your dog: a cuddle, food after every thunderclap, some lap time, sweet talk, being in their crate with a food toy, or hiding by themselves in a secluded place. Then help them do it.

The best part of thunderstorms: spray cheese!

The best part of noisy holidays for Summer was spray cheese!

Check out lots more resources and tips on my page “You Can’t Reinforce Fear.

Another good resource is this article by Val Hughes: My Dog Fears Fireworks and Thunderstorms—What Should I Do To Help?

Thanks for reading!


Kinsler, L. E., Frey, A. R., Coppens, A. B., & Sanders, J. V. (1999). Fundamentals of Acoustics (4th ed.). Wiley.

© Eileen Anderson 2015 

If Your Dog Is Afraid of Fireworks, See Your Vet Now

If Your Dog Is Afraid of Fireworks, See Your Vet Now

What are we here for this time?

Every year I post an article about last-minute things you can do to help your dog who is afraid of fireworks. We are coming up on Canada Day and U.S. Independence Day, and that means bangs and booms. Over the years I have tweaked my list. I’ll be posting it in a few days.

But here is an early reminder with the most important tip of all.

  1. See your vet.

If you see your vet now to discuss prescription drug possibilities, you have time to make sure they work for your dog and your vet can adjust them if necessary. There are new products on the market, as well as several options that have been around for years.Here is what Dr. Lynn Honeckman, veterinary behavior resident, says about the benefits of medications.

Now is the perfect time to add an anti-anxiety medication to your firework-preparation kit. The right medication will help your pet remain calm while not causing significant sedation. It is important to practice trials of medication before the actual holiday so that the effect can be properly tested.

There are a variety of medications or combinations that your veterinarian might prescribe. Medications such as Sileo, clonidine, alprazolam, gabapentin, or trazodone are the best to try due to their quick onset of action (typically within an hour) and short duration of effect (4–6 hours).

Medications such as acepromazine should be avoided as they provide sedation without the anti-anxiety effect, and could potentially cause an increase in fear.

Pets who suffer severe fear may need a combination of medications to achieve the appropriate effect, and doses may need to be increased or decreased during the trial phase. Ultimately, there is no reason to allow a pet to suffer from noise phobia. Now is the perfect time to talk with your veterinarian.

Dr. Lynn Honeckman

Sound phobia is a serious condition. The best way to help your dog get through the coming holidays in the U.S. and Canada is to contact your vet for help. Call now.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

Related Post

Trump’s Ellis Island Award for Being a “Developer” of German Descent

Trump’s Ellis Island Award for Being a “Developer” of German Descent

Two views of an award medal, front and back. The front says, "Donald Trump, Grandson of a German." The back says, "Oh yeah, and a real estate developer."
This is not the actual medal, but does present the truth about the reason for Trump’s award

In 1986, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor was established. The goal of the Ellis Island Honor Society, which sponsored the award, was to “herald the importance of immigration to America’s prosperity and celebrate the contributions immigrants and their progeny have made to our nation.”

Eighty people received the award that introductory year. Among them were Victor Borge, the comedic Danish-born pianist; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; the singers Andy Williams and John Denver; athletes Martina Navratilova and Joe DiMaggio; the activists Rosa Parks and Aloysius A. Mazewski; businessman Michel C. Bergerac; and 70 more.

One of the other 70 awards was for Donald Trump, who was honored for being a developer and the grandson of a German immigrant.

You can see the list of all 80 winners from this archived New York Times article from October 16, 1986. But more on that later. The image below includes the last 16 award recipients from the alphabetized list. Note what Trump was recognized for.

The names of 16 of the Ellis Island Award winners from the end of the alphabetical list: Paul Sanchez, Puerto Rican, labor leader. Domenick S. Scaglione, Italian, banker. Prof. Leo Schelbert, Swiss, educator. The Rev. Wallace R. Schulz, German, cleric. Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, Swedish, scientist. Elsbeth M. Seewald, German, activist. Alexander Spanos, Greek, executive. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, German, publisher. Dr. Zoltan Szaz, Hungarian, lobbyist. James Tamer, Lebanese, activist. Donald J. Trump, German, developer Andrew Udvardy, Hungarian, activist. Barbara Walters, Rumanian, broadcaster. Andy Williams, Welsh, singer. Dr. Vera von Wiren-Garczynski, Russian, educator. Prof. Chien- Shung Wu, Chinese, physicist.

The Ellis Island Honors Society and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor

The Ellis Island awards have continued until the present day, after a hiatus between 1986 and 1990. The language describing their purpose has evolved and become loftier over the years. But luckily we have the Congressional Record from October 10, 1986, when the House of Representatives passed a resolution in support of the initial awards. This tells us exactly what the awards were about and what the criteria were for winning one in 1986.

If you want to see the whole thing, you can read the motion to support the Ellis Island Medals of Honor in the Congressional Record (House of Representatives, 1986). (Note, it is slow to download.)

But I’ve provided a screenshot of the pertinent part, and also printed the wording related to the purpose of the award as text next to it. We can determine the exact intent of the award at its inception. This is how the honorees were selected.

Screen shot of newspaper clipping, text as follows:
Whereas on October 28, 1986, in honor of the actual dedication of the Statue of Liberty, there will be an official rededication ceremony in New York: 

Whereas on that occasion the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, to be awarded by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation and the New York Statue of Liberty Centennial Commission in cooperation with the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations will be presented to a group of distinguished American citizens:

Whereas the Ellis Island Medal of Honor will be awarded to individuals who exemplify the ideal of living a life dedicated to the American Way while preserving the values and tenets of a particular heritage group;

Whereas the Ellis Island Medal of Honor will be awarded to individuals who have made special contributions to the reinforcement of the bonds between a heritage group and the people of its land of origin; and

Whereas the Medal will be awarded to individuals for distinguished service to humanity in any field, profession, or occupation...

Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), that the Congress of the United States endorses and supports the awarding of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, on October 28, 1986, as an appropriate symbol of the Statue of Liberty centennial celebration. The concurrent resolution was agreed to.  motion to reconsider was laid on the table.

Whereas the Ellis Island Medal of Honor will be awarded to individuals who exemplify the ideal of living a life dedicated to the American Way while preserving the values and tenets of a particular heritage group;

Whereas the Ellis Island Medal of Honor will be awarded to individuals who have made special contributions to the reinforcement of the bonds between a heritage group and the people of its land of origin; and

Whereas the Medal will be awarded to individuals for distinguished service to humanity in any field, profession, or occupation…

In short, these awards were for individuals with distinguished service to humanity in any field, profession, or occupation, and they needed to be immigrants or their progeny.

The honorees were recognized for both representing the American way of life and connecting the heritage of their culture of origin.

The New York Times archive from October 16, 1986, has the names of all 80 honorees and their professions.

Why Am I Writing About This?

Some of you have probably guessed my motivation here.

A photo was taken at the 1986 awards ceremony that shows Joe DiMaggio, Victor Borge, Anita Bryant (yes, that Anita Bryant), Muhammad Ali, Rosa Parks, and Donald Trump. I can’t post it here because the rights cost too much, but please take a look at it.

A conveniently cropped version of the photo is circulating as a meme. It usually includes only Ali, Parks, and Trump. The false text says essentially that Trump can’t be a racist because he received an Ellis Island award for “patriotism, tolerance, brotherhood, and diversity” along with Rosa Parks and Muhammed Ali. This is a lie. Another version says he received the award for “contributing to the conditions of inner-city black youths.” This is also fabricated. But in a very sad way, it might accidentally be true. It doesn’t specify that their conditions were improved, or what his “contributions” were, after all. In light of his stance and behavior with regard to the Central Park Five, it’s particularly pernicious.

But both of these representations and the other variants that group his award with Parks’ and Ali’s are completely made up. They are false. Trump received the award for being a real estate developer with a German granddaddy, with the understanding that he was bringing German culture to the U.S. while still living in the “American Way.” It’s a part of the public record.

That photo was well suited for deception because of the arrangement of the people. With the other three cropped out, it shows Trump standing with two Black Americans. It might even appear chummy if you don’t look too carefully. A closer look reveals that Trump shows little awareness of the people around him (except possibly to lean away from them). Instead, he preens at the camera. The cropped photo is also used to imply that Ali, Parks, and Trump were the only recipients of the award when they were actually 3 out of 80.

Nope, Trump was a well-known real estate developer whose grandfather was from Germany. That’s why he was one of the 80 honorees that year.

An Award for Being an Immigrant? For TRUMP?

Trump demonstrates nothing but hatred for immigrants unless they are white or otherwise benefit him personally. He loves to build walls and create travel bans on whatever countries he is currently scapegoating. He is happy to encourage harm and inhumane treatment of people who try to immigrate here, even children. And treat immigrants of color like dirt even when they become citizens.

There’s more irony. Trump doesn’t appear to qualify even for the award that he did get. He and his father hid their German roots for many years, with Fred Trump even telling people they were Swedish. This falsehood was included in Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, which was published the year after he won the award. The falsehood was even included in Fred Trump’s obituary in the New York Daily News in 1999. Lying about their ancestry doesn’t seem to be a great way to reinforcethe bonds between a heritage group and the people of its land of origin.”

It Takes More than a Medal. Trump Is Demonstrably Racist.

What if Trump really did win some anti-racism civil rights award with some famous Black activists? It still wouldn’t matter! Receiving an award doesn’t somehow protect you from being a racist. Racism is judged by behavior, including verbal behavior.

We get evidence of Trump’s active, central-to-his-platform racism virtually every day. Remember the rapists from Mexico? His reference to “shithole” countries and desire for more immigrants from places like Norway? His predictable hostility to Black female reporters?

But we can look at the bigger picture, too. We can see that Confederate flags are common sights at his rallies, with no objections from him. We can read the research about the rise in hate crimes associated with his campaign and presidency:

President Trump’s election was associated with a statistically significant surge in reported hate crimes across the United States, even when controlling for alternative explanations. Counties that voted for President Trump by the widest margins in the presidential election experienced the largest increases in reported hate crimes.

(Edwards & Rushin, 2018)

Even if the study missed something and this trend is not related to his behavior, a normal president, a president with American values, would consider such an increase an emergency. He or she would take action. But not Trump. To him, black lives do not matter. He supports systemic racism and white supremacy.

In 2019, the Department of Homeland Security added white supremacy to its list of domestic terrorism threats. Has Trump ever spoken out against white supremacy terrorist groups in a convincing way? No, he only dog whistles to his base that there are some “fine people” among them and retweets white supremacists.

Trump’s behavior tells us he is a racist, that it is central to his platform and approach. Trying to “prove” that Trump is not a racist with a cropped photo and a lying caption is puerile and ridiculous.

But yet. We respond to those damn pictures and simplistic slogans. That’s the problem with memes. Even when clumsily made, they can say so much wrong stuff in such a small package that it takes a whole blog to unpack them.

Anyone can make a meme. They can crop a picture, cherry-pick information, or lie completely. We seem to be wired to believe things presented in that format. I check the information on every meme that catches my attention, whether I am prone to agree or disagree with it. And either way—I don’t share them unless they are purely for humor. The simplistic thinking they encourage is dangerous.

Sharing the Truth

I’m careful about arguing against stuff in such a way that it propagates bad info. Research and experience indicate that it is very hard to change someone’s mind, and that writing about myths can strengthen them. It’s a tricky business. So you notice that I don’t include the meme here, nor did I lead with the lies. I led with the most accurate information I could determine. 

But you are going to run into that ridiculous meme. If no one speaks up, it slips into our collective culture. Those of us who have paid attention to Trump’s behavior at all will probably have that fishy feeling: something’s not right here. And we’ll decide whether it’s worth looking into.

Some of us may want to address the meta issue. Medals can be connected to behavior, but they are no substitute for observable behavior. But some of us might want to point out that the meme is yet another lie. By pushing back on falsehoods, we break up the appearance of unanimity on a topic. I offer this post with that in mind, for those who are interested in truth and who want to push back on lies and deception. And you never know. When you do make a statement based on evidence, some people lurking may be listening.

So here’s a review. 

  1. Trump won an award in 1986, but it was for being a real estate developer with an immigrant grandfather. 
  2. He didn’t win his award for the same reasons that Muhammed Ali and Rosa Parks won theirs.
  3. Eighty people won awards that year. 
  4. Awards—for anything—do not speak as loud as behavior.

I thank Kevin Kruse for writing about this issue on Twitter. Be sure and check out his thread. I wouldn’t have known to look into this without his series of tweets. There are other “debunking” articles about the photo and Trump’s Ellis Island Medal of Honor. But Snopes only verifies that the photo (uncropped) is real. Politifact addresses the context better. But I wanted to dig a little deeper and present some resources from the time. It’s easy to show that the meme is a deliberate lie.

Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson


Edwards, G. S., & Rushin, S. (2018). The effect of President Trump’s election on hate crimes. Available at SSRN 3102652.

Response Latency in Dog Training: What’s Your Dog Telling You?

Response Latency in Dog Training: What’s Your Dog Telling You?

A small black and tan dog is standing and looking up at the person. This is during a period between she heard a cue and responded to it. Her response latency was high.
This is during a period of high response latency

What happens when you ask your dog to do something they don’t care for? We are not all perfect trainers, plus sometimes we are forced to compromise. Let’s say you’ve worked on teaching your dog to get her nails trimmed and teeth brushed but suddenly she has an ear infection and needs ear drops. You haven’t gotten to ear handling yet.

So you get out massively high-value treats and start following your dog’s ear drops with ham, Romano cheese, or whatever your dog finds amazing. But you didn’t have time to condition this gradually, starting with approach, then ear handling, and working up to ear drops. So you are doing something weird and unfamiliar, plus your dog’s ears are sore.

But you have worked a lot with your dog, and she doesn’t run from the room when you get the drops. She lets you do it, and you do it with the least restraint and most kindness possible.

What might you notice over time about her behavior as you prepare for this procedure when you compare it to other things you do with her?

She is probably not going to be eager to get into position. She will likely have high response latency to your cue.

Response Latency

Response latency, or reaction time, is:

The time that elapses between the onset or presentation of a stimulus and the occurrence of a specific response to that stimulus.

Online APA Dictionary of Psychology

Dog trainers usually refer to response latency as just plain latency, but there are other types of latency, both in psychology and applied behavior analysis, so I’m making the distinction.

Note that response latency does not include the time it takes the animal to perform the behavior. But doing the behavior slowly is another good thing to pay attention to.

Generally speaking, we want response latency to be low, zero even. We hope to see the dog start to respond immediately after our cue. And not only that, to quote my friend and wonderful trainer Lori Stevens, we want to see the joy. We don’t just want fast; we want happiness and enthusiasm. And with positive reinforcement training, fast and happy often go hand in hand.

It’s possible to get high latency for reasons other than a reluctant or worried animal. A common reason is that we haven’t worked hard enough on cue recognition or proofing. Or perhaps the behavior is challenging, and it takes the dog a bit of time to get ready. Or there may be a competing reinforcer. Bob Bailey wrote a great article about latency years ago for the Clicker Solutions Yahoo group. You should check it out if you are having latency problems due to training mishaps, or are interested in this little-discussed training issue. Just keep in mind that his latency protocol is not designed to address an untoward emotional response.

When a dog is uncomfortable or afraid of something, high latency often roughly means, “I know what you want but I don’t wanna.” This is tricky territory because it’s risky to say the dog “knows what you want.” It’s such a common mistake for newbie trainers or force trainers to believe that and then assume any lack of response is due to stubbornness or other “character flaws” in the dog. If we are using reinforcement well and the dog doesn’t respond or responds slowly, it’s generally because we haven’t been clear. We haven’t trained the dog to fluency (which is a better description than “knows what you want” anyway). But I’ll go out on a limb for my particular examples and say that I think Zani knew exactly what the circumstances predicted. She just didn’t have good feelings about it.

Eva Bertilsson and Emilie Johnson Vegh

I credit the lovely Swedish trainers Eva and Emilie for starting a conversation about latency that a lot of us needed to hear. We talk so much about body language and learning what our dogs’ behavior can tell us. We study stress signals in general and observe our individual dogs and their palettes of behaviors. But as far as I know, response latency as an emotional indicator was rarely discussed before Eva and Emilie started speaking about it. (Feel free to correct me on this if I’ve missed earlier discussions of it.)

They have a whole protocol they developed after noticing how important latency was, first in an agility setting. I’m not qualified to discuss that, and it’s not what I’m talking about here. My focus is more basic. I want to show you this one piece. I want to show you the difference between a low latency and a high latency version of the same behavior.

Mounting the Klimb for Husbandry

I have one of those cool platforms called a Klimb next to my bed. I got it so Zani would have an easier time getting on my bed, which is high. But it’s such a convenient thing that we use it for general training, physio exercises, and husbandry. Lots of fun stuff happens on the Klimb. And one not-so-fun thing: face holding for teeth brushing.

Face Holding

A black and tan dog is sitting on a platform. Her head is tilted and she is looking at the camera.

I brush Zani’s teeth every night. She is going on 12 and gets plaque easily. And now with the pandemic, I want to avoid unnecessary vet visits more than ever. So, although I’m not always great at being consistent about things like this, I have forced myself to be good about brushing her teeth every night. (And it’s helped immensely, by the way.)

I did a decent job with our beginning toothbrush practice. I found a video I liked, made myself a task list, nicely split out, and practiced with Zani. I didn’t work hard to develop a positive response to the toothbrush itself since she wasn’t bothered by it. I just got her used to different manipulations of her head and mouth and gradually introduced the brushing. It went fine.

But in the meantime, I had one of those husbandry mishaps going on where I had to go ahead and do something even though she didn’t like it. I won’t go into the whole unfortunate eyedrops story here. It, too, started out fine, but took a bad turn.

And after that, she started some mild avoidance maneuvers when I brushed her teeth. Not because of the actual brushing, but because I have to approach her head with my hands in a way similar to eyedrop application.

So the outcome is this.

  • She is happy to get her toenails trimmed on the Klimb.
  • She is not happy about getting her head positioned to get her teeth brushed on the Klimb, but she will cooperate.

And I can show you her attitude to both of those activities without showing the activities themselves. I can show you her response latency and her behavioral speed when mounting the Klimb.


One more bit of background! In both clips, you’ll hear me give a verbal cue. Now Zani is a clever little dog, but she isn’t great at verbal cues. That is not surprising, given her genetics, which likely include hound and terrier, breeds that were historically meant to work independently. But she reads situations superbly. When we are going to work on toenails, it’s usually during the day. I take her into the room by herself, pick up my headlamp and the trimming tools, and invite her onto the Klimb. But I always brush her teeth late at night, before going to bed. Clara is in the room with us. I do my going to bed routine, then get the toothbrushing gear.

These two situations are super easy for her to discriminate. They are screamingly different to her observant little self.

I go into these slightly personal details to make it clear that the words I say to her in the two different situations are not important. She’s reading the situation loud and clear. Her responses to my invitations to get on the Klimb are very different because she knows before I cue her up there what we are going to do.

Latency Rundown from the Movie

The first time I invite Zani to get on the Klimb for a nail trim, she is caught off guard, but then so enthusiastic that she jumps all the way onto my bed instead. And the time between my verbal invitation and her response—the latency—is 2.0 seconds. The second time, she actually anticipates my cue, but then waits. Then I give the verbal cue, and her latency is 0.6 seconds.

When I invite Zani to get on the Klimb to get her teeth brushed, her first response latency is 4.8 seconds and the second is 5.3 seconds. Remember, those are the gaps in time before she moves in response to the cue. And her responses themselves are both slow. She takes several seconds and in one case a false start to actually get on the platform. Recall that in one of the nail trim videos she mounted it (from several feet away) in less than a second.

And note her body language. I slowed down part of the video so we can see her body language as she reluctantly approaches the Klimb for teeth brushing. There are some more “I don’t wanna” signals.

By the way, I’ll send a free PDF of my book to the first person who comments (here on the blog, not on social media, email, or message) to identify what I did in the video that was unconsciously applying negative reinforcement. I didn’t catch it until I watched the clips. (All blog comments are moderated, and there is often a delay before I approve them. But they are queued in order of receipt, so I’ll be able to tell who was first.)

Congratulations to Camille Asmer, who pointed out that I was repeating my verbal cues when Zani was hesitant. In my own words, I was adding pressure to the situation, which I immediately released when Zani got on the Klimb.

Black and tan dog rushing up steps
We have very low latency on recalls, though!

Am I Going To Leave Things Like This?

The focus of this post is to show some examples of latency and attendant body language. I’m providing some video of my dog who is not happy to show up for some husbandry procedures that I must do. Am I going to leave things like that? Of course not.

One of the things that is most important to me in training is to get my dogs not only comfortable with, but happy about the stuff I need to do. Zani is relaxed and waggy during nail trimming, which took a bit of work on my part. There are several ways to approach the teeth brushing issue. I could teach her to bite a stationary dowel so I could take a hands-off approach. Or I could just work in lots of gradual face approaching and handling that doesn’t predict ouchy eyedrops, which will probably be the way I go.

But that’s another post.

Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

Space Invaders: How Humans Pressure Dogs & Other Animals

Space Invaders: How Humans Pressure Dogs & Other Animals

Let’s say you are standing at a party, or in your office, or on your front lawn. Someone you vaguely know walks up to you. He walks up very close, face-to-face like the Seinfeld close-talker. Close enough that you can see up his nose and smell his breath. He starts a conversation. What do you do?

You will probably have a strong urge to step back. You may or may not do it, depending on the social situation and a host of other factors. But when someone we don’t know well enters our personal space bubble, it can be very uncomfortable.

Everyone has his or her own bubble. In addition to individual preferences, bubbles vary according to age, gender, and culture. And species. The German psychologist David Katz first coined the “bubble” term in 1937. For humans, one of the well-accepted definitions of personal space is from Leslie Hayduk of the University of Western Ontario.

We can define personal space as the area individual humans actively maintain around themselves into which others cannot intrude without arousing discomfort.

Hayduk, 1987, p. 118

Dogs have space bubbles, too. As members of a domesticated species, they respond somewhat differently from wild animals. But they are still keenly aware of how close humans, dogs, and other animals are to them and respond accordingly. I am convinced that even when we are on our best behavior, dogs find us to be insensitive clods. Compared to us, they are hyper-alert to movement and body language, and they have been bred for centuries to pay attention to us. Their own language with each other, and to us, is extremely subtle. But we don’t always return the favor. If only we paid attention back!

I wrote the original version of this article in November 2016 for “BARKS in the Guild” after Susan Nilson suggested I expand on what I had written about my dog Zani and how she reacted to pressure. Little did I know the scope of the topic at that time and how much I would learn while investigating it.

In the article I investigate different types of personal space: for humans, dogs, and animals in general. I discuss the types of pressure we put on our dogs. The physical and the gestural. The accidental and deliberate. And the mismatch between the signals of our two species that can result in our being space invaders to dogs.

Animals and Space

I wasn’t stepping out on a limb when I said dogs have space bubbles. Personal space for individuals and groups of animals has been well studied. Different spaces have been defined depending on distance and what happens when the space is entered.

Some of the many terms used for an animal’s immediate personal space have been social force field, personal field, personal sphere, and personal area (McBride, 1971).

But ethologists have defined several other types of space for animals. It can be useful to think of them as concentric ellipses. Here they are from the largest to smallest.

Flight distance (or escape distance) is the distance at which the approach of another animal or human will cause the subject animal to flee. Here are what some eminent scientists have to say about that.

The primary duty of the individual, to ensure its own existence, and thus the preservation of its kind, lies in being prepared to escape. By far the chief occupation of the free wild animal, therefore, is constant watchfulness; eternal alertness for the purpose of avoiding enemies.

Hediger, 1955, p. 39
Hare making a run for it

An animal that hopes to keep alive among the dangers of freedom must be constantly on the alert It is extremely hard to get near them, simply because all animals are so busy keeping an eye open for the possible approach of enemies. As soon as one gets too close, as often happens, they take to flight. Only when this specific flight distance, which differs for each species, is overstepped by an observed enemy does flight reaction follow; i.e. the animal in a typical manner runs away from it, far enough to put at least its specific escape distance between itself and the enemy once again.

Hediger, 1955, p. 40

Dog and wolf experts Raymond and Lorna Coppinger state:

Flight is a hazard avoidance behavior, an essential component of a wild animal’s survival. There are two measurable components to flight distance: 1) how close you can get to the animal before it attempts to flee, and 2) how far away it runs.

Coppinger & Coppinger, 2002, p. 64

Fight distance (or critical distance) is the distance at which the subject animal will aggress toward a predator. It is generally closer to the body than flight distance. To most species, humans are responded to as predators.

When animals are cornered, they are unable to observe the flight distance from an approaching man The animal cannot maintain its personal area free from intrusions by flight, so it must either submit or fight. Hediger named this distance the “fight distance.”

McBride, 1971, p. 63

Social distance, on the other hand, is defined inward, toward a group of conspecifics or animals of similar species. It does not involve distance-seeking behavior.

Among animals in groups, social distance was defined by Hediger as “the maximum distance an animal will move away from the group.”

McBride, 1971

Inside the social distance, each animal has its personal space, which is defined outwards.

Gregarious animals normally move in a living space between the personal fields of neighbors and social distance.

McBride, 1971

For animals and humans, one’s personal space area is larger in front than on the sides. Flight distances are similarly elliptical (McBride & James, 1963). In humans, there is evidence that not only do we respond at a greater distance to the front of a person than to her back, but we actually perceive the person as closer if she is facing us than if she is not (Jung et al., 2016).

Invasion of personal space doesn’t stop at our skin. The ultimate invasion of personal space is bodily harm. In general, a threat is much more dangerous once it has touched, then entered our body, through ingestion or a wound.

Dogs have a delicate sense of this that we appreciate. Mentally healthy dogs who are socialized to humans generally develop bite inhibition with us for play and even when aggressing.

Domesticated Species

Hediger pointed out that the reduction or elimination of the flight or escape reaction is essential for the successful domestication of a species. That gives us an operationalized definition of domestication.

The artificial removal of the flight distance between animals and man is the result of the process of taming, defined in animal psychology as the disappearance of flight tendency in the presence of man.

Hediger, 1955, p. 41

Dogs, as a domesticated species, demonstrate this well. But dogs dwell in a variety of niches in our world. They can be house pets, livestock guardians or other working dogs, village dogs, or completely feral. Their flight distances vary greatly. Also, a dog can already be a tame and happy house pet, but we may work via behavior modification to alter his flight distance because he is overly fearful of various things.

Raymond Coppinger takes the definition of “domestication” one step further:

My argument is that what domesticated—or tame—means is to be able to eat in the presence of human beings. That is the thing that wild wolves can’t do.

Public Broadcasting Service, 2007

Proxemics: Personal Space Dynamics for Humans

Proxemics diagram

Space bubbles in humans have been well studied. Proxemics is a subdiscipline of the discipline of non-verbal communication in humans. The term was coined by anthropologist Edward Hall, and refers to the way humans arrange themselves in space in relation to others (when they have a choice). Other fields that involve personal space are cognitive spatial mapping and psychological distance.

Edward Hall (1968) wrote about interactions between humans of different cultures, in fact, observations of these are what prompted him to study proxemics.

Hall identified four zones for human interaction that can be visualized as concentric spheres. From the smallest to the largest, they are the intimate zone, the personal zone, the social/consultive zone, and the public zone. They are largely self-explanatory. Very approximate measurements could be that the intimate zone goes about 2 feet out from the body; the personal zone extends from 2–4 feet; the social/consultive zone extends from 4–12 feet; and the public zone is greater than 12 feet from the individual.

Interpersonal distance is a constellation of sensory inputs that is coded in a particular way. (Hall et al., 1968, p. 94)

Human senses help tell us what is acceptable and safe within each sphere. Kinesthesia helps determine what gestures and touch are permitted. Think of expressions such as “having enough elbow room.” What we hear can affect the zone and we also respond by adjusting our voice level. Olfaction can have strong effects on our desire to be near someone or get away.  Can we smell the other person? Are we comfortable with that? Scented body products can modify our responses—in either direction. Our eyes determine whether we are near enough to see what we need to see, and also whether our orientation is appropriate. Movement is sometimes used for escape, and sometimes to approach or optimize.

Hall also identified whether features in space were fixed, semi-fixed, or dynamic. Walls and other structures are fixed. Your dog’s fancy bed in a wooden frame is fixed. But the mats I strew around my house for my dogs to get on are semi-fixed. I move them according to where I need the dogs to be, and the dogs move them, for instance, to pile several into a bed. Interpersonal space is usually dynamic. The space between a human and her dog is dynamic as well. That mutual space moves with us, and our comfort zones (ours and our dogs’) change according to the activity and for many other reasons.

Much of this is unconscious behavior on our parts. For example, when we sit down to have a discussion with someone, we may adjust the position of our chairs. Some of this may have to do with optimizing communication, for instance, being able to see the other’s face better. But threaded through our movements is also a sense of personal space. I may behave differently if I am the host of a meeting, the guest, or if I am with peers in a neutral area. Hall noted large cultural differences not only about optimizing space but also in what situations it was even permissible to move one’s chair:

For example, a German subject (an immigrant to the United States), who treated furniture as fixed, had bolted to the floor the chair on which visitors sat in his office. This caused great consternation among American visitors. One of my Chinese subjects informed me that in China a visitor would not dream of adjusting the furniture to conform to his unwritten definition of an interaction distance unless specifically instructed to do so by his host. American students in my classes, who cover a wide spectrum of ethnic, class, and regional cultures within the United States, have been evenly divided between those who adjust the furniture to conform to an informal norm and those who do not.

Hall et al., 1968, p. 91

The Size of Personal Space

Many factors have been identified that affect our arrangements in space vis-à-vis other individuals. Some factors are environmental, such as the space available and noise in the environment. 

There is also evidence that modifying our sensory input can have an effect on personal space. One study showed that persons wearing headphones enlarged their own space bubbles (Lloyd, Coates, Knopp, Oram, & Rowbotham, 2009). Conversely, seeing that others were wearing dark glasses or mirror glasses altered the personal space of some research subjects (Yoshida & Hori, 1989).

Fear and anxiety affect personal space. In a study of humans who were afraid of dogs, the auditory signal of a dog growling (as compared to the sound of a sheep bleating) extended the subjects’ personal space (Taffou & Viaud-Delmon, 2014).

For humans, there are countless other variables having to do with personal characteristics. Hayduk (1978) lists the following as possible factors:

  • gender
  • age
  • personality
  • race
  • socioeconomic status
  • various physical and psychological situations
  • liking
  • acquaintance
  • attitude similarity
  • a history of cooperation
  • a stigmatizing condition
  • violence
  • whether the subject is approaching or being approached
  • eye contact
  • social stimulus intensity
  • whether the subject has had assertiveness training
  • the intimacy of subjects being discussed
  • whether the other person smiles

If we have the ability to do so when our personal space is at risk of being infringed, we erect temporary barriers with whatever furniture, possessions, and other objects are available (Fisher & Byrne, 1975).

There is a commonality among all these, and even though they are uniquely human, the common factor is one we share with other animals. Decisions we make regarding our personal space are connected to our safety.

Amygdala Involvement

The slightly uncomfortable feeling you get at a public gathering when someone gets too close; the downright creepy feeling you get when a man comes and sits next to you when the rest of the bus or subway car is empty; the fear and panic that floods over you if said guy pulls a knife: these are all on a continuum. The sympathetic nervous system is becoming engaged. Having our space bubbles invaded is not trivial.

There is a reason that humans, dogs, and other animals are wired to be keenly aware of the spaces between them and other individuals. It’s because it can be a matter of survival. Parts of the neurological responses involved in personal space awareness have been identified, and it’s not surprising that the amygdala is involved.

Most of the general public has heard by now that the amygdala is involved in fear responses. But neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, who has been studying the amygdala for three decades, points our that the amygdala is not the fear center, as it is sometimes described. He considers the amygdala instead as a threat processing center. The brain circuits that control defense responses and those that give rise to feelings of fear interact, but this does not mean they are the same (LeDoux, 2015, p. vii).

LeDoux also points out that humans can be shown pictures of threats in such a way that fear is not triggered, but the amygdala is still activated, and bodily responses occur as a result.

It turns out that one of the threats the amygdala is tuned to is the approach of someone or something into our personal space. The amygdala involvement has been determined with a human study, followed by animal research. A woman with complete bilateral damage to her amygdala was found to have no sense of personal space. She reported to examiners that she felt perfectly comfortable at nose-to-nose proximity to one of the researchers with full eye contact. She understood the concept of personal space cognitively and sought to act within societal norms, but had no “sense” of it (Kennedy, Gläscher, Tyszka, & Adolphs, 2009).

Subsequent animal research showed that monkeys with bilateral amygdala lesions stayed closer to humans or other monkeys than monkeys with functional amygdalas. In addition, a preliminary fMRI test of eight healthy humans showed more amygdalar response when the subjects knew the experimenter was standing right next to the fMRI unit than when he was standing farther away (Kennedy, Gläscher, Tyszka, & Adolphs, 2009).

Our sense of personal space is part of our basic wiring.

Space Hierarchies

Recall that the study of proxemics in humans has to do with how humans arrange themselves when they have a choice. But there are certain members of human society to whom we allow less choice. The respecting or entering of space tends to be hierarchical, as Hall (1968) quoted from his Chinese acquaintance. We grant children less space than adults; babies the least of all. Pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to space invasion, such as when perfect strangers touch their abdomens.

Most women have noted, and it has been documented, that men claim more space, even accounting for their larger size. (La France & Mayo, 1979).  People with disabilities are often afforded less space (Kilbury, Bordieri, & Wong, 1996).

So this thing we sense so strongly—how close we will stand or sit next to another human—is largely unconscious but is also situational and hierarchical. But what we don’t seem to have is an unconscious respect for a dog’s space, unless the dog is giving out explicitly aggressive signals. If the dog is relaxing or otherwise minding its own business, we assume access.

From Humans to Dogs

In the United States, there is no law against simply entering another’s personal space. However, many crimes involve space invasion, including simple assault, menacing, harassment, battery, and sex crimes. Human rights declarations generally include rights to bodily integrity, individual self-determination, and rights to privacy.

Although considered property under historical law, pets and other animals are gradually gaining more protection and even explicit rights in some countries. But most can’t have complete bodily integrity, self-determination, and privacy because they don’t have the human-like cognition required to understand the consequences of their choices in human culture. We are accustomed to making decisions for them and it’s likely we will always have to do so to some extent. For instance, veterinary surgery and other intrusive procedures are “violations” of a dog’s bodily integrity. We don’t generally have ways to communicate with our dogs to ask their consent for such complex actions.

But I’m arguing for giving them these rights when we can. The right to personal space without thoughtless invasion. The right to bodily integrity to the extent possible. Most of us can do a much better job facilitating that for our dogs.

Space Invaders

Zani doesn’t want to be petted right now

We humans typically don’t respect dogs’ space bubbles to the degree they would probably prefer. Instead, we assume access, taking for granted that they want our petting and touching. Even when we are respectful, our species’ different ways are hard on them. As primates, we express affection by frontal proximity and hugging. For many dogs, this constitutes restraint and invasion. Additionally, as their caregivers, we must sometimes do intrusive things to their bodies or take them to strangers who do so.

Many people even assume access to other people’s dogs. People with fearful and reactive dogs have to go to great measures to prevent intrusion from strangers who see a dog and are driven to pet and touch him. It is becoming more common to at least ask permission of the owner, but few think to check with the dog, or know how to do so.

There is still a common expectation that dogs should automatically like or at least get along with all people and all other dogs. Fearful, shy, or just plain introverted dogs really suffer from this. But even the most extroverted dog still has personal space. We need to learn to respect it.

The Types of Pressure We Put on Dogs

Here are some of the common human behaviors that can easily constitute space invasions. Most are the result of our differences in size and ways.

  • Direct eye contact. (In human proxemics, eye contact is said to narrow the distance between two people and can make an approaching person feel suddenly closer. This appears to be true of dogs and other animals as well.)
  • Standing still, facing them straight on.
  • Standing tall or leaning over them, especially for small dogs.
  • Reaching out with our hands.
  • Walking into a dog’s space.
  • Petting.

I have a dog who grew up without human contact and she responded with flight to every one of the actions listed above when they came from anyone but me. I worked hard with behavior modification (for her and for me!) to make her more comfortable.

Here are some human behaviors that are even more intrusive and difficult for dogs.

  • Crowding too many animals/people in a space that’s not large enough.
  • Using molding in training: physically pressing a dog into position.
  • Using body pressure in training.
  • Confining a dog to a crate or any small space without conditioning.
  • Not allowing the dog to withdraw from human interaction.
  • Not allowing the dog to hide.
  • Keeping a dog who is trying to get away from us on a short leash.
  • Holding a dog immobile, whether for management, punishment, or medical procedures.

Many of the above involve two space invasions: restraint, then another procedure. The following is also a twofold invasion.

  • Removing an object the dog is guarding.

Resource guarding includes issues of personal space. It is a natural dog behavior that can quickly get a dog in trouble. The dog asserts possession of something, and the assertion typically becomes more aggressive as an intruder gets closer. Many humans are offended at a basic level when a dog takes possession of an item and guards it, even if the dog does not aggress. But whether we are offended or only trying to protect the dog from a dangerous object or situation, there are times we must take things away.

Then we have procedures that actually cause pain. Some are the temporary, sometimes necessary discomfort of veterinary procedures. Note once more that invasion doesn’t always stop at the skin.

  • Ear, eye, mouth, and anal exams and treatment.
  • Wound dressing.
  • Injections.
  • Surgical procedures.

Finally, there is the deliberate use of discomfort, pain, or fear in training.

  • Training using startling.
  • Training using intimidation.
  • Training using body pressure.
  • Training using pain.
  • Training using loud noises.
  • Training using flooding: the deliberate restraint of a dog and exposure to something frightening or painful.

Veterinary Visits: A Potential Triple Whammy

Clara as a scared youngster at the vet

As the owner of a formerly feral dog, I have gotten a firsthand look at how a simple veterinary visit can be terrifying to an unsocialized dog. First, she is trapped in a small, enclosed space: the exam room. Second, one or often two strangers enter the room and interact with her. Even experienced vet staff can have a very hard time not making unnecessary intrusions that raise her fear. Attempts at “making friends” that include leaning in, lots of direct eye contact, etc., are scary.

Third, add to that whatever handling of her body is necessary, including intrusive or painful procedures. With my dog, the biggest challenge is the proximity of other humans—it seems to my observation that the handling, even painful types, is less bothersome. Although she is far out from the center of the bell curve, all of these threats she feels so keenly are potential, albeit milder threats, to a more normally raised dog.

But vet visits are changing, and are becoming so much easier for many dogs. The same year that this article was originally published, the Fear Free Certification for veterinary and other animal professionals was launched. Fear Free Certified professional dog trainer Kate LaSala of Rescued By Training explains, “The Fear Free approach focuses on letting the pet go at their own pace and including the owner in the process as much as possible. This can be the owner feeding while the dog gets examined or other ways of keeping the dog comfortable, sometimes including pre-visit anti-anxiety medications. They also recommend happy visits and only doing what the dog can handle, and have excellent teaching materials on reading dog body language.”

As a dog guardian and a hobby trainer, I have seen the effect of the Fear Free movement, even in some vet practices that aren’t yet certified! More animal professionals in all fields are learning to read body language, and more pet owners are learning how to introduce their young animals to the vet clinic with visits where nothing intrusive happens and nothing goes too fast. There will be little space invasion beyond the minimum of some physical procedures, and even those can be made to be as non-threatening as possible.

Exposure Protocols

Recall Hediger’s definition of domestication as the artificial removal of an animal’s flight response. This gives us a new way to think about what we do in desensitization protocols. As a domesticated species, dogs have a truncated flight response in general to humans, which is a result of selective breeding. Even some dogs born feral can quickly gain a positive response to humans (Zimen, 1987). But anyone who works with fearful dogs is still dealing with flight distance; we are seeking to humanely reduce or eliminate their flight distance for specific triggers.

We proceed by getting a trigger within sight and incrementally adjusting distances for exposures accordingly. But keep in mind the different things that can modify flight distance. Angle of approach, speed, and auditory and olfactory information all come into play. My formerly feral dog can walk among pedestrians with a flight distance of virtually zero to her sides and a couple of feet directly in front of her. But she will get alarmed if a person 15 feet away stops, turns, and looks at her for two seconds. The pause, the squared up line of sight, and eye contact instantly enlarge her flight distance. Even if they are 15 feet away, her response is as if the human teleported right up into her face.

Having a dog on leash interferes with the distinction that might otherwise exist between a flight distance and a fight distance. Recall that the fight distance exists when an animal is cornered or restrained, and dogs learn quickly just how much a leash restrains them. So we can’t imagine nice neat concentric ellipses for flight and fight under these circumstances.

I have no doubt that we make invasions of dogs’ space that we will never even sense. Dogs, with their keen senses of smell, have a world of sensation we lack. Just as sights and sounds can expand their needed personal space, odors that carry a threat likely can as well. A friend who works with fearful dogs reports that the lingering odor of cigarette smoke brought into the house on a garment triggered escape behavior in one client dog.

Husbandry procedures such as trimming nails, grooming, checking eyes, ears, nose and mouth can be thought of as exposure protocols as well. Most of these actions are not intrinsically enjoyable for a dog and many are actively unpleasant. Using desensitization and counterconditioning to create positive associations, or at least change the association from unpleasant to neutral, can help a dog cope with these often necessary invasions.

Protecting Dogs

Although dogs seem to comprehend very well that humans are a separate species, they also appear to appreciate any efforts we make to “bridge the gap” and be more sensitive to their personal space.


One of the best instructions I have seen regarding requests to touch dogs in public comes from Madeline Clark Gabriel in her 2011 video, “Dogs Like Kids They Feel Safe With.”

Gabriel states:

Parents and children need a whole new way to approach dogs. Asking the owner isn’t nearly enough. Children barely wait for an answer before they’re moving in on the dog, and owners often feel pressured to say yes. And nobody is asking the dog.

Gabriel, 2011

She goes on to suggest that children follow three steps if they want to visit with a dog who is strange to them:

  • Step 1: Stop and stand still before asking.
  • Step 2: Ask the owner if you can ask the dog: “May I ask your dog if it would like to be petted?”
  • Step 3: Invite the dog over with welcoming body language. Do not come towards the dog (Gabriel, 2011).

Although I’m sure there are many dog owners who would be nonplussed by such a request, this is the right direction. Think of how many dogs’ lives would be improved if children and adults asked the dog if he or she wanted to interact—and respected the answer. Also, think of the dog bites it could prevent.


My own video, “Does Your Dog REALLY Want To Be Petted” (Anderson, 2012) shows one dog enjoying petting and another one enduring it but not happy about it. It discusses using a consent test—another way to ask the dog—to see if the dog is interested in being touched. In short, the human pets the dog for a few seconds and then stops. If the dog leans in with relaxed body language, and especially if she nudges the human’s hand for more petting, she is probably happy with the touch. The person can continue petting. But if the dog exhibits stress, turns or moves away, or even if she stays in position but is neutral, we can conclude that the petting was not pleasurable to her at that time. In that case, the human should stop the contact.


Many husbandry and medical tasks that must be performed are unpleasant. We and the dogs have no choice about it. Desensitization and counterconditioning and lots of preparation at home can help a dog build resilience for many procedures and for handling in general. And although in our training the dog should always have the right to leave or to say, “wait a minute,” I believe those moments are best used as litmus tests. Repeated and formalized use of escape shouldn’t be a substitute for doing all possible work to create a situation the dog doesn’t want to leave to begin with.

Taking Things Away

We need to practice creating pleasant associations for the dog to our approach when she has food or another object. This will prepare us for the day when we must take something away from the dog for her safety or the safety of another.


We also need to condition any gear we use that is potentially restraining. It is humane for the dog and helpful for the owner if the dog is happy about collars, harnesses, leashes, muzzles, coats, boots, seatbelts, crates, autos, and other enclosures.

Dog Body Language

Most people tend to misunderstand or disregard dogs’ body language. There are thousands of videos on the Internet of dogs who are desperately indicating they would prefer that the humans back off, while the humans actually talk about how happy the dogs are.

If we don’t learn all we can about dog body language, our efforts to not intrude on our dogs’ space and preferences will be in vain. We won’t be able to tell if and when we are distressing them. So ongoing observation and learning about the dogs we share our lives with, and dogs in general, is crucial.

Even though Zani’s spacial sensitivity inspired this article, the little stinker can dish out the pressure, too

Everyday Interactions

Perhaps the biggest differences we can make are not the dramatic ones. They may be in the ways we can change our everyday interactions with our dogs. I got interested in this subject because I have a dog, Zani, who is unusually pressure sensitive. She is fairly resilient, but is still very sensitive about her space. To her I am that “looming guy” who stands too close, reaches toward her too abruptly, and makes too much noise.

Whatever I do, I will probably always be “that guy.” But I am learning. I have several strategies. I am proactive about helping my presence be a positive thing for her. I play games with her where she enters my space. I also condition a “happy zone” close around my own body.

But I am also learning better doggie manners. I give Zani space in whatever ways I can. I don’t walk straight at her. I use a curved path. In some situations, she prefers not to be looked at, so I don’t. I don’t thrust my hands in her face. I don’t come plop down right beside her. I try to let her initiate necessary approaches at close quarters.

I dedicate this article to Zani.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Photo credits: Proxemics diagram and fleeing hare, Wikimedia Commons. Man hugging dog, CanStock. Other photos copyright Eileen Anderson.

This article was first published in the Pet Professional Guild’s Barks from the Guild in November 2016.


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Are Dogs Ever Irritated by Sights, Sounds, or Smells?

Are Dogs Ever Irritated by Sights, Sounds, or Smells?

That’s a serious question on my part, not clickbait. I don’t know the answer. And I’m not talking about fear; I’m talking about being bothered. I’m wondering about it because of a recent experience.

My little Zani is clinically sound phobic of high-frequency sounds such as beeps and whistles. Because of meds and careful application of desensitization and counterconditioning, her default response these days to hearing any sort of digital beep is a positive one. She turns to me or even runs to me to look for a treat. Take a look/listen.

Continue reading “Are Dogs Ever Irritated by Sights, Sounds, or Smells?”
Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy—A Review

Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy—A Review

I don’t know how she did it. How could anyone write a book so comprehensive, so authoritative, and so readable all at once?

Book cover: Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy

I was privileged to be an early reader of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, by Zazie Todd. It’s a revolutionary book. Dr. Todd identified the major aspects of caring for pet dogs and shared with us what scientific research says about how to do it best. Why do I call it revolutionary? When we consult the research, most often we seek research about dog training. Even though we want to train humanely, we are often seeking the best ways we can get dogs to change or do stuff for us. This book covers training, of course, but the theme is using the existing research to cover what we can do for our dogs, not the other way around.

I believe a whole, evidence-based book about this is unique in all the literature.

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Lower the Pressure! Adapting Play for a Sensitive Dog

Lower the Pressure! Adapting Play for a Sensitive Dog

Black and rust hound type dog leaning on a green and black squeaky snake toy. This toy was part of our low pressure play
Zani has always loved those toy snakes

Play between a human and a canine is a magical thing. I’ve always loved to play with my dogs, and I’ve appreciated the courses I’ve taken on play and the techniques I’ve learned from trainer friends over the years. (This means you, Marge Rogers! See a great example of her work in the “Holy Grail” section below.) Yes, readers, there really are courses on how to play with your dog! And the cool thing is that many of them can help you observe what kind of play your dog loves the best and figure out how to do it. In other words, the human is the student, even more than in most other training classes.

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What To Do When People Approach Your Reactive Dog

What To Do When People Approach Your Reactive Dog

TL:DR: There is no law that states that you have to interact with them in any way. Leave before they get started if you can.

It is a perennial problem. How can you get people to leave you alone when you are out with your fearful, anxious, or reactive dog? There you are, out with your anxious dog, minding your own business. You went to a secluded spot. On a rainy day. And at a time when nobody else should be out. But here comes that person with the “All dogs love me!” look. Or the “I’m about to give you ridiculous advice about training your dog, whom I’ve never seen before” look. Or the “Can-my-kid-pet-your-dog-here-we-come” look. These folks often have this inexorable zombie walk straight at your dog and just Will. Not. Stop.

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