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Adult Fear & Reactivity Starts in childhood and puppyhood

Preventing fear and reactivity in young dogs.

When we use guidance and patience a puppy will become a Socially accepted adult dog in our confusing human world. It must be allowed to get used to environmental change naturally with your help. If we make no big deal about things and situations then the puppy will neither.

Help them to understand that we are there to guide them through,be their support, safe house and adviser. then can then make great choices when the going gets a little hairy. Be as a parent to a child.

Educating dogs runs parallel to how we bring up children to become confident adults.

We need to be the ones dogs and children look to, to keep them safe. By understanding their fears and how to best show them that we will be their ultimate guide. What we say many times can be translated into children growing up with a parent who teaches by example. Be their rock.

As Caroline and I wrote in “Parenting Your New Puppy” the similarities in bringing up, educating and preparing them for the fast world we live in is so comparable when we talk about both children and dogs in our care. When we write and talk about deep seated fears (and other behaviours actually) in dogs you could so easily be talking about children and adults post trauma.

Fear can be a result of an on going situation or a one off past incident

We are often called  for help with reactionary / fearful dogs. Sometimes this is the result of a ‘one off’ incident, where something startles the dog – usually when it is a puppy – and therefore as a general rule, fairly easy to deal with (if you are aware, and quick off the mark) effectively and forever. With de-sensitisation and patience alone. However, if a dog has become reactive or fearful of a situation, object, person, or dog, and the issue has developed over time, the triggers stack up day by day. The solution is trickier than prevention. A cure for aggression will be hard to find and its then that management needs to take a role also.

Fears in Dogs Can Become Deep Seated Unless You Help Them Through

We may fear certain things (as an example, mice or spiders) but we know that our fear is irrational. We can work on ‘curing’ ourselves. A dog does not have this rational mind. To him, something he does not understand and  causes him to feel uncomfortable is to be feared. If he is continually exposed to this without guidance , the fear will become deep seated.

We need to show him either that it is nothing to fear by putting ourselves in the position of his seeing us dealing calmly without fear, with the object of his distress, or in the case of (for example) fear of loud noises – fireworks, thunderstorms, traffic passing close by – to build the bond of trust which tells him that WE are not afraid. We will protect him, he is safe with us, so no need to fear. However, thunderstorms are elemental, and fireworks mimic this. Dogs instinctively know there is danger. Sometimes classical music, a calming substance such as Pet Remedy can work alongside your calm reassuring presence to combat this natural (and justified) fear.

So fear can strike on many levels,with various triggers from noises to experiences. The main point is that what ever our dog is fearful of. Do not force them to confront those fears. Look to how your dog copes with life in general. The key is to be that person who guides your dog away from their fears and be the calm confident presence.

Fear of a vacuum and household gadgets

The vacuum, broom, dishwasher and the good old laser light, are prime suspects, and can result either in fear  or obsession in a dog. Obsessions often start as a bit of fun then gets out of hand’.

How hilarious to see your puppy dashing after the vacuum, puppy legs like Bambi on ice, or chasing the broom and latching on as you sweep, or chasing a beam of light up and down the wall! Not quite so funny as he grows up and the light cast on the wall from a wristwatch in the sun sends him into slavering hyper-drive and barking, or the sound of a vacuum ditto, and don’t even think you can sweep the floor without a fully grown dog clamping adult teeth onto the bristles!

Apart from being extremely irritating to you, these triggers cause your dog to obsess, and stress out.

With patience and sensitivity, these obsessions/fears can be very successfully addressed and pretty much eradicated.

Fearful & Reactive Dogs To People & Other


There are so many scenarios which cause this, but all are down to the human not noticing a potential trigger immediately and defusing the situation. T allows the fear to grow – and the dog feeling the need to find coping behaviours of his own.

These ‘coping’ solutions can take many forms – from a dog growl that escalates to a bite. This keeps over exuberant and invasive children or humans at bay (or more sadly and darker – abusive humans from hurting him).To a dog which has been attacked by another dog deciding that attack is the best form of defense, thus becomes a ‘5 am walker’

Some dogs find that shutting down is the way to deal with stressful situations.

A dog will gather a blanket or old towel, cuddle it between their front legs, clamp their teeth around it and zone out. Fine if you steer well clear, but not so fine if you intrude, you may well be bitten. In any case it is not good for a dog to feel the need to take himself out of a world that is too stressful to face. Understand him and his fears, guide him through, be there for him. Do the right thing so he can see you are his protector.

What Can You Do To Retrain Reactive Dogs?

With the right help there are very few problems which cannot be reduced to the level where the dog can lead a safe and good life. However you have to be realistic.

A deep seated coping behaviour is never really eradicated. It can be successfully addressed and managed to the point where it is well within acceptable boundaries. If you are fully aware that this is what you have achieved – and no more.

I call these coping strategies ‘default mode’. The dog has found something which either soothes him, or has worked to repel unwanted ‘invaders’. This never really goes away, but if you are vigilant, not to put your dog in situations which you know could trigger this default mode. If this is unavoidable, to be extremely watchful and ready to take action. You and your dog will be fine.

3 Top Tips For Retraining Reactive Dogs

  • Walk away with your dog when or before they show any anxiety
  • If you are using an appliance at home and your puppy attacks it, that puppy isn’t playing, they are feeling vulnerable in the main with no understanding of this noisy vacuum. So stand between you and the appliance and if its a moving one,then point it away from your dog or puppy, dont attack the dog with it.
  • So. have your dog on a lead and either guide it behind you or walk your dog away.

Once a habit has become ingrained at an early age it rarely leaves completely.

My favourite human comparison is nail biters.

You can school yourself to leave your nails alone, you can find lots of reasons not to do it (dogs rarely can), but in the end no matter how old you are, stressful situations will see your fingers creeping up to your mouth for a good old chomp! You don’t know you are doing this, it is an unconscious coping mechanism learned as a child and buried so deep in your psyche that it is part of you.

Remember this when you become so confident that your dog has let go HIS coping behaviour that you feel it has gone and you can call it ‘job done’.

It almost certainly has not. Enjoy your rehabilitated friend- but remember always to be vigilant.

Lesley Harris
May 2018

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