Category: Fear

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

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.

Continue reading “Lower the Pressure! Adapting Play for a Sensitive Dog”
6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms Starting NOW

6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms Starting NOW

Is your dog scared of fireworks? Don’t wait until the holiday hits. Even with just a couple days’ lead time, 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.

Continue reading “6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms Starting NOW”
Desensitization of Disgust

Desensitization of Disgust

two images of a bearded man in 19th or early 20th century clothing looking disgusted
Two versions of a “disgust” response. See note in the photo credits about the non-universality of emotions and how they are portrayed.

Disgust can save your life. But sometimes it gets attached to weird stuff, just as fear does.

I’m interrupting this dog blog to talk about human beings for a little while. I have to share something fascinating I learned back while researching a previous post.

I have written a fair amount about desensitization and counterconditioning. One of my more extensive posts was “You Can’t Cure MY Fear by Shoving Cookies At Me!” In that post, I designed a hypothetical DS/CC protocol for my phobia of crawdads. While reading studies for that post, I ran across a pocket of research about desensitizing the emotion of disgust.

Continue reading “Desensitization of Disgust”
Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training

Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training

Aggressive, dangerous dogs (a.k.a. “Red Zone Dogs”) should be trained with positive reinforcement, desensitization, and counterconditioning. Here’s why.

Training with pain, startle, and intimidation carries huge risks. Decades of science tell us that aggression begets aggression. It’s that simple.

Two of the most common side effects of attempting to use pain or other punishment on an animal are called “operant aggression” and “redirected aggression” (Azrin, Holz, 1966). In operant aggression, the dog attempts to stop the aversive stimulus by aggressing against the individual who is delivering it. For example, you jerk the dog’s collar; the dog bites you. In elicited aggression, the dog aggresses against nearby individuals who may have had nothing to do with the punishment. For example: you jerk the dog’s collar; the dog bites your child.

black and brown dog barking in the snow. Some would call this a Red Zone Dog

When seeking to change aggressive behavior, you shouldn’t use methods known to create aggressive behavior.

So even though it is very tempting to believe we just need to “carry a bigger stick” than the dog and keep him intimidated and subdued, that is neither safe nor sensible. And of course, it’s not humane.

A recent study found a correlation between behavioral euthanasia of dogs and the owners’ use of punishment. 

Dog- and owner-related risk factors for consideration of euthanasia or rehoming before a referral behavioral consultation and for euthanizing or rehoming the dog after the consultation (Siracusa, Provoost, & Reisner, 2017)

I do understand how seductive the “overpower and subdue them” idea is, especially when a dog’s behavior is scary. The approach is imbued in our culture.

Our Typical Response to Aggressive Dogs

Many years back, when I was still new to the dog training world, I audited a workshop. One of the working participants’ dogs was aggressive. His owner and the people in charge of the workshop wanted him to be able to take part but were worried about the safety of other dogs. The person hosting the workshop provided a prong collar and recommended that the owner use it on the dog. The owner did so.

prong collar

Prongs work by poking into the dog’s neck when he moves out of position or when the trainer applies pressure or a jerk. I remember talking to a friend at the workshop. I said I didn’t like the idea of prong collars, but I was glad they put one on that dog “because the prong would keep the rest of the dogs and the humans safe.”

I had it exactly backward. I was caught in one of the biggest misunderstandings about behavior. Using an aversive method can quite likely make a dog more dangerous.

For aggressive dogs, aversive methods often mean putting a prong collar on them and jerking on it whenever they react. For some dogs at some times, this will subdue them. They may shut down and offer very little behavior at all. This is another known result of aversive methods: the reduction of all behavior. To the untrained eye, such dogs may appear calm. But some education about dog body language will show us that such dogs are generally petrified. They have “left the building” in their heads. Unfortunately, that outcome is fine with some aversive trainers. Shutting the dog down is the goal.

But the shut-down response is not guaranteed. The dog, alternatively, might start to aggress. Also, over the long term, the dog will develop a classical association between the target of its aggression and the pain of the correction. The dog will acquire a conditioned negative response. That, also, is exactly what we don’t want. The fear and aggression increase in a vicious circle.

I need to mention that not all use of prongs is so ham-handed. Some trainers use them with more skill and (possibly) less risk. But any use of a prong is aversive. They cause pain or discomfort. They don’t work any other way.

Witnessing the Fallout of Aversives

I don’t know what happened to the dog at the workshop. But let’s fast forward a few years, to another “problem” dog. This time I did see what happened.

I was at another event and had noticed an adolescent corgi. The pup was full of beans and a handful. I didn’t envy the owner, but the pup was a typical feisty teenager and was fun-loving, friendly, and full of life. This dog also received a prong collar and I watched a tragedy unfold. The owner would jerk on the collar, as directed, and the pup first shrieked, then snarled, and by the fourth jerk on the collar, he was biting the owner’s ankles and whatever else he could reach. These weren’t careless puppy bites. The dog started landing repeated, serious bites to get the pain to stop. The owner was advised to escalate. In the course of an evening, the dog had been hurt by the person he trusted, responded in kind, and thereby acquired a bite history. It was a living example of how “Red Zone Dogs” can be created.

Here’s another example of “operant aggression” that happened in my own household. I used to have a very benevolent shepherd mix, and at the same time a feisty rat terrier mix. The terrier, Gabriel, would get in Shadow’s face every day. Shadow was three times Gabriel’s size and weight. When they ran somewhere, Gabriel would leap and snap at Shadow’s neck. Shadow put up with this for years. Then one day he had had enough and bit Gabriel. The bite was inhibited, but it was still serious enough for a vet trip. If the bite had been to a toddler, that might have been the end of Shadow’s life. I always think of Shadow when someone says, “He’s so sweet; he puts up with so much from the other dogs.”

Try to make it so the nice dog doesn’t have to put up with aversive methods from other dogs, either.

Here’s my standard reminder about anecdotes. I only relate anecdotes that are solid examples of highly accepted science. The ones above could be textbook cases. My goal is not to “prove” a point. Anecdotes can’t do that. My goal is to show “this is what that well-understood principle looks like in real life.”

Are “Red Zone Dogs” a Thing?

No, they are not really a thing. The term “Red Zone Dog” was made up by a TV personality to describe aggressive or reactive dogs, usually big strong ones. “Red Zone” implies danger. The term propagates the false myth that “some dogs are qualitatively different and need forceful training.” I wouldn’t give the “Red Zone” phrase any screen time except that people use it as a search term and I want them to get good information. 

The word is already spreading. If you search on “Red Zone Dogs,” many of the links listed on the first page of Google are from positive reinforcement-based trainers who are pushing back against the term.

This number includes Debbie Jacobs, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in fearful dog behavior cases. She has a great post about “Red Zone Dogs.”

How Do We Use Positive Reinforcement-Based Training on Aggression?

That’s a good question. If we are not going to subdue the dog with force, what are we going to do instead?

Here’s what it looks like. A qualified behavior consultant will first observe the dog in person or via a camera interface and possibly interact with it if she’s there in person. She will perform a functional assessment, which has as its goals the determination of the function and antecedents of the aggressive behavior. When does it happen and what does the dog get out of it? She will almost never need to see or provoke the actual aggression to treat it. Unlike aversive trainers who need the dog to perform the aggressive behavior so they can punish it, evidence-based trainers prevent the dog from practicing (and perfecting) aggressive responses.

The behavior consultant will make recommendations for keeping the dog and its family safe. She will recommend a training plan that depends on the function of the dog’s aggression.

In the case of fear aggression, she may recommend a visit to a vet who specializes in behavior to ask about possible medications. She will create a training plan that centers around counterconditioning, either classical or operant, to address the dog’s fear. That’s right. The plan aims at the root cause of the aggression and doesn’t merely suppress the symptoms.

What Do The Experts Say About Fear and Aggression?

Fear and aggression are more intertwined than most of us realize.

Ethologist Dr. John Archer argues in his classic paper that the same kinds of situations are capable of evoking either escape or aggressive responses and that those fearful and aggressive responses are closely intertwined (Archer, 1976).

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall lists 13 distinct varieties of canine aggression (Overall, 2013, p. 223-224). It’s no surprise that none of the varieties is called “Red Zone.” Aggression in response to fear and pain are two of the most common. We don’t immediately think of great big threatening dogs as being fear aggressive, but it is not uncommon.

She spells out what a bad idea it is to punish a dog for fear aggression:

Physical punishment/discipline has no role in the treatment of an aggressive dog, but it is particularly awful for dogs with fear aggression. Fearfully aggressive dogs become worse when punished/disciplined and may have no recourse except to bite.

Dr. Karen Overall, Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Cats and Dogs (Overall, 2013, p. 185)

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ilana Reisner says something similar in her scholarly and practical article about aggression in dogs (Reisner, 2003):

Punishment of any kind should be avoided, including hitting, leash corrections, ‘‘hanging’’ by holding up the leash, holding the dog by the scruff, shocking the dog at the moment of aggression (using an electric shock device), rolling the dog onto its back, and other misguided actions. Any of these can increase anxiety and is almost certain to result in further biting. Reacting to an anxious or fearful dog with such a display also guarantees increased aggression at the next exposure to whatever situation sparked the aggression in the first place.

Dr. Ilana Reisner, “Differential diagnosis and management of human-directed aggression in dogs”

Do you think I’m cherry-picking these quotations? I’m not. You’d be hard-pressed to find a doctoral-level behavior professional who recommends punitive treatment for aggression. The science about aversives and aggression has been well known and based in evidence for decades. This is why people who focus their dog training on punishers have to resort to cults of personality, claims of magical energy, or misplaced talk of dominance to justify their training. Most avoid science like the plague.

If Your Dog Is Aggressive…

Find a behavior professional from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, the Certification Council of Pet Dog Trainers, or the Pet Professional Guild.

Even with these well-credentialed professionals, make sure you understand and agree with the methods they will use. Demand transparency from any trainer you consider. Don’t accept euphemisms. You could be risking your dog’s life if the trainer uses painful methods, no matter what terms they use and what arguments they make.

Seek a remote consultation if you can’t find a qualified behavior consultant in your area. Even before the pandemic, more and more qualified trainers started offering consultations via Skype, Facetime, and online meeting programs.

Get the right kind of help for your “Red Zone Dog.”

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson


Archer, J. (1976). The organization of aggression and fear in vertebrates. In Perspectives in ethology (pp. 231-298). Springer, Boston, MA.

Azrin, N.H, Holz, W.C., “Punishment” from Honig, W. (1966) Operant Behavior: Areas of Research and Application, 380-447.

Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Reisner, I. R. (2003). Differential diagnosis and management of human-directed aggression in dogs. The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice33(2), 303-320.

Siracusa, C., Provoost, L., & Reisner, I. R. (2017). Dog-and owner-related risk factors for consideration of euthanasia or rehoming before a referral behavioral consultation and for euthanizing or rehoming the dog after the consultation. Journal of veterinary behavior22, 46-56.

Photo credits: prong collar, copyright Eileen Anderson. Standing dog courtesy of CanStock Photo. Snarling dog on couch copyright Eileen Anderson (and thank you to the anonymous friend whose dog is pictured. Astute observers may have guessed that this is likely not a dangerous dog, and they’d be correct.)

6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms

6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms

Firecrackers exploding in the air

I’m sorry I’m so late with my fireworks post this year. But there are still some things you can do. You can take action now to help your dog be a bit less afraid of the unpredictable scary sounds of fireworks, firecrackers, whistles, and even guns.

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My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training

My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training

I always flinch a little when people start to discuss dogs’ emotions. What’s coming? Relevant, evidence-based observations or woo? I’ve removed some words from my own vocabulary when talking about dogs because of this. Even though my relationships with my dogs are primary and important, I hesitate to talk about “bonds” or “trust” anymore.  It sounds so…I don’t know…West Coast. (I can say that because I’m from California.)

I believe that the people who are out there focusing on magical energy and bonds and leadership and trust and all those other things we can’t describe concretely are doing dogs (and competent positive reinforcement trainers) a real disservice. Because emotions—the dogs’ emotions—do have a place in training. We can’t see them, but we can often see their results. Emotions and internal states have a place in behavior science.  They drive observable behavior.

Continue reading “My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training”
Scared Dog vs. Happy and Engaged Dog

Scared Dog vs. Happy and Engaged Dog

Black dog with brown ears, shot from the back. Ears express alert dog body language

Here’s a little dog body language study.

My dear Zani shows a lot of emotion, which means she is a good dog to observe. She is pretty easy to read and can teach us a lot.

The short video below consists of two quick clips taken less than two minutes apart. In one clip, Zani is afraid, and in the other, she is having a good time.

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