Fear-Based Barking
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

Is your dog worried about other dogs? Strange people? Bicycles? Scooters? These are all commonly “spooky” things that can be concerning for some dogs. And in response, we may get what is often referred to as “fear based reactivity.” In other words, a dog that puts on a big scary show (barking, lunging, growling) when faced with something they find frightening.


Unfortunately, these dogs often appear to be “aggressive” and people often make the mistake of punishing the behavior. This is generally not a super successful way of reducing this behavior, and even if it does scare the dog into ceasing these responses, worse behaviors may crop up. So what can we do?


The most important thing is to figure out what exactly your dog’s triggers are with as much specificity as possible. For example, a dog that is dog-reactive may be fine with a dog at 20 feet away but not fine with a dog 15 feet away. They may be fine with a dog walking away, but not a dog walking towards them. Other dogs may be fine with a kid walking quietly with an adult, but not fine with a kid running and yelling. They may be okay with a bearded man standing near them, but not looking directly at them. All these nuances are important to begin observing.


Having observed what is okay and what is not okay, your next task is to keep your dog under threshold. This means keeping them at the point where they are able to perceive the trigger (scary thing) without reacting. From that point, we begin counter-conditioning. Scary thing = food. Scary thing = food. Scary thing = food. We do this until we see our dog’s body language relax. Over time, the threshold will change. Now you may be able to be 15 and then 10 feet away from the other dog. 


When we get too close, because life isn’t perfect, we still do not punish the dog for reacting. We just create as much distance as possible and continue to counter-condition. Remember, counter-conditioning is NOT contingent on the dog’s behavior! They are not being reinforced for being quiet or for sitting or anything like that. We are simply letting them know that in the presence of this scary thing, delicious food happens.


When you’re working on counter-conditioning, you’re looking for a conditioned emotional response. Usually this means that the once scary stimulus (dog, kid, bike, bearded man) elicits a response of “hey, where’s my food” (which often looks like the dog making eye contact with their human) instead of the fear response. This can take quite a bit of time! In order to make it most effective, it’s crucial to reduce the occurrences of the dog experiencing the trigger in an uncontrolled way. This may mean making changes to your dog's daily routine. For dog reactive dogs, for example, this could mean taking walks in more remote areas or focusing on in-home exercise and enrichment during peak walking hours.


Keep in mind that other factors can influence the threshold. A dog that's had other stressful experiences is likely to be more sensitive to their particular triggers. On days when something else stressful is happening (say you have visitors in the home), it's a good idea to reduce exposure to triggers and give them an even wider berth (don't walk by the playground if your dog is a little freaked out by kids).


Photo by Family Paws Parent Education