Working with Fear Issues

By the late Leah Roberts (one of the founder admin)

Aggression is almost always a fear issue. When we feel threatened, it triggers a fight, flight, or freeze response. Dogs have similar ways of responding to threat. They may hide behind something and shake, lunge and attack, or just freeze on the spot. In all cases, you want to address the underlying fear, not the behaviour. Once you have healed the fear, the behaviour will change on its own.

There are two methods of dealing with fear that work beautifully. Both are ways of associating good things with the trigger (object of fear) and changing the perception that the trigger is threatening.

Open Bar/Closed Bar

As long as the trigger is in sight, chicken (or a very special yummy treat) is being shovelled into the dog’s mouth. I also like to ‘cheerlead’, that is, praise in a happy tone of voice. When the trigger moves out of sight, the chicken and cheering stop.

Click the Trigger

Watch the dog’s eyes. As soon as the dog looks at the trigger, click (or use a verbal marker) and immediately hold the chicken to the side of the dog’s nose, so that his eye contact is immediately broken to take the treat. Repeat. Repeat.

In both cases, it is extremely important to start at a distance or level of intensity where your dog notices the trigger but is not bothered by it. If he’s already reacting, you are too close. In both cases, you are working toward getting a ‘yay, there’s the trigger’ reaction. Not just tolerance, but happy excitement. Once you get that, you move a teensy bit closer and start again.

If even once during the therapy your dog is placed over threshold (where he feels threatened), you have lost your progress. So, you may have to change your routine. If you normally walk your dog where there are other dogs who are too close for comfort, walk elsewhere for a while until your dog is fine with that level of intensity. If you have your dog out in the house when visitors come and he gets upset by them, put him away before you have visitors until he is happy to see them.

The best-case scenario would be to find a force-free trainer who uses these scientific principles of counter-conditioning. Never ‘correct’ a reaction, because you will create an association between ‘bad things’ happening and the trigger, and lose your progress.

NOTE: if you get a reaction, you made the mistake, not the dog. You’re too close.

Quote from Debbie Jacobs of

“I hate to sound flippant when people ask what they need to do to help their fearful dog and I say, “stop scaring them. Don’t do things to them that scare them. Don’t put them into situations that scare them. Don’t let other people or dogs scare them. Just stop scaring them”.

Once that’s accomplished we can move on to the next routine question which is, “But how will they ever learn to be ok if they aren’t exposed to the scary thing?” We’ll get there, but you can’t keep exposing them to the scary thing and having them be scared and think that’s going to help them learn to stop being scared by it. It just does not work that way. Sorry. It doesn’t.

Figure out how to manage them so they aren’t scared.
This may require thinking outside the box, doing something for awhile that you hope to not need to do forever. It may not be simple or convenient. It may mean you need to reassess your willingness or ability to help the dog.

Among the unfortunate things anyone handling a fearful dog can do is try to rush them, make matters worse and then decide that since that didn’t work, the dog needs to go to someone else. Any odds the dog had in their favor may be decreased or eliminated.”