Fear-based Barking: How to Stop a Dog from Barking at Dogs and Other Scary Things
Step 7 of 14 in the Dogly Barking Channel
with Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw, Training Advocate

Is your dog worried about other dogs? Strange people? Bicycles? Scooters? These are all commonly perceived as “spooky” things that can be concerning for some dogs.

Your dog may be responding to all those perceived-as-threatening things with what is often referred to as “fear-based reactivity.” In other words, your dog's emotional response might translate into putting on a big scary show (with your dog barking, lunging, growling) when faced with something he or she finds frightening.

Fear-based barking/fear-based reactivity is a fairly common problem among pet parents. In fact, a frequent question with fearful dogs is how to stop a dog from barking at other dogs.

So let's jump in and take a closer look at fear barking and talk about some answers. For more on reactivity specifically, go to the Reactivity Channel on Dogly here.


Fear-reactive dogs are not to be confused with "aggressive" dogs

Unfortunately, fear-reactive dogs often appear to be “aggressive” and people can 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 because of it. So what should and can you do?

What specifically are your dog's triggers?

The most important thing is to figure out what exactly your dog’s triggers are with as much specificity as possible so you know what makes your dog bark, lunge, growl, or any of the other expressions of reactivity based in fear.

Give me an example, or a few...

  • A dog who is dog-reactive (when a dog barks repeatedly at other dogs to make them disappear, also known as a leash-reactive dog when a leashed dog barks at other dogs walking), for example, may be fine with a dog at 20 feet away but not fine with a dog 15 feet away.
  • That dog may be fine with a dog walking away, but a dog walking toward your dog might trigger your dog's barking.
  • Other dogs may be fine with a child walking quietly with an adult, but not fine with a child running and yelling.
  • A dog may be okay with a bearded man standing near them, but not looking directly at them. 
  • A dog may be fine with close encounters with calm dogs on a walk but not fine with dogs barking even when the other dogs bark from a good distance.

All these nuances are important to begin observing as you take note of triggers with your dog - whether that's on a dog walk, in pubic spaces, or around your home.

Try this

  • It helps to literally "take note" and write down your observations of the what and when of your dog's triggers.

Making a physical list not only clarifies it for you, but is extremely helpful for any family members, dog sitters, etc. who need to be consistent with you in supporting your dog and keeping your training on track.


Having observed what is okay and what is not okay, your next task is to keep your dog under threshold.

What does that actually mean?

"Under threshold" means keeping your dog at the point where he or she is able to see the trigger (scary thing) without reacting. From that point, we begin counter-conditioning:

  • Scary thing = high-value dog treats/food.
  • Scary thing = high-value dog treats/food.
  • Scary thing = high-value dog treats/food.

Do this until you see your dog’s body language relax when he/she sees the trigger. Over time, the threshold will change. Now you may be able to be 15 and then 10 feet away from the other dog as your dog is gradually counter-conditioned to feel differently at the sight of triggers.

That means plenty of practice and always being aware of your dog's body language. You want to know when/why your dog starts barking and when/why your dog stops barking so you can more easily predict your own timing and be able to help your dog relax and feel comfortable despite triggers.

Remember, as you teach your dog to anticipate really good stuff (treats! food!) at the sight of a trigger, you're changing an ingrained emotional response with a new one!

Trouble-shooting when you get too close

When we do inadvertently get too close, because life isn’t perfect and neither are we, we still never want to punish our dogs for reacting. Just correct the mistake by creating as much distance as possible and continue to counter-condition.

Remember, counter-conditioning is NOT contingent on your dog’s behavior! Your dog is not being reinforced for being quiet or for sitting or anything like that. We are simply letting our dogs know that in the presence of this scary thing, delicious food happens.

What success with counter-conditioning looks like

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 your dog making eye contact with you) instead of the fear response. This can take some time and patience as you and your dog practice till the new emotional reaction comes naturally.

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.


What is "trigger stacking" & what does it mean for your dog

Keep in mind that other factors can influence your dog's threshold. A dog who has had other stressful experiences within a short period of time is likely to be more sensitive to their particular triggers. Trigger stacking is when a lower threshold is overwhelmed by combining multiple triggers.

What does that actually mean?

It can happen with having two (or more) things happen at once, like seeing a dog and hearing a loud noise. Or, encountering triggers in succession - for example, starting off your walk by seeing a barking dog, then quickly after a bike or scooter appears. In both cases, there's a cumulative effect making each successive trigger more concerning than it would be by itself.

By recognizing the concept of trigger-stacking, you will be able to anticipate how your dog may react in certain situations. You’ll then be able to modify the environment and make sure you have enough distance or even switch your route to avoid being in a situation where multiple triggers are present at once.

A final note on fear-based barking and counter-conditioning

In short, patience and consistency are key when it comes to successful counter-conditioning. Be mindful of the environment you’re in, watch for body language changes that signal an approaching threshold, and generously reward your dog with treats or food as soon as you see that trigger.

On days when something else stressful is happening (say you have visitors in your home), it's a good idea to reduce exposure to triggers and give your dog an even wider berth (don't walk by the playground if your dog is a little freaked out by kids or a dog park if your dog feels threatened by other dogs).


Next up in the Barking Channel on Dogly

Now that you know how to counter-condition fear-based barking, continue to the next guide to learn how to help your fearful and barking dog be comfortable with visitors. Or check out the other guides in the Barking Channel on demand barking or attention seeking barking and alarm barking.

If you have any questions, just ask the Advocates in our Community Discussion in the Barking Channel!

Or if you ever need more personalized dog training guidance, please reach out!

Tressa Fessenden-McKenzie of PathandPaw

Training Advocate
Dogly loves Tressa because she sees training as a journey to better canine communication.

Tressa guides you

Anxiety - Kids & Dogs - Manners - Bite Prevention - Reactivity - Walking

Tressa is certified

Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner - & Family Paws Parent Educator