So you have a dog that hasn’t read the canine code – must love all people and other dogs.  Fearful and reactive dogs may look like Cujo but are often much more Cowardly Lion. It can be embarrassing having a dog that barks or lunges at other people or dogs but it can be equally awkward if your dog is a shrinking violet who hides behind your leg or distances herself from your friends. What to do?

Fearful and reactive dogs may be more Cowardly Lion than a real Cujo.

First off, just like people, some dogs have preferences about interacting with others. While some love everyone and everything, many don’t. And that is absolutely ok. While some people and dogs may like busy environments and the option of interacting with lots of friends, there are people and dogs who prefer calmer environments and the company of just a select few. And yes, there are even canine introverts who are totally happy living a single-dog existence. There are also plenty of dogs that really couldn’t care less about other dogs – their person is the most important thing in the world to them. What the human half of the relationship needs to determine is “What does my dog need for a fulfilled life?” And the answer to that is largely for the dog to decide – not the person.

For the dogs who prefer the company of a select few people or other pups, a smaller world for them is absolutely fine. We do want them to be comfortable in environments that are likely to be a part of their life but don’t try to force a square dog into a round hole. Just because we may want something for the dog, it doesn’t mean it’s in their best interest. While it might be a nice idea to take your dog paddle boarding or canoeing with you, if the dog is terrified of the water this may be a hobby that you’re not going to do together.  If your dog is noise sensitive, don’t take it to a fireworks party. We want to spend as much time as we can with our dogs but this shouldn’t be at the expense of the dog’s clear preferences.

Lunging dog

Lunging dogs are often reacting out of fear.

Personality is one thing but there are also dogs that for one reason or another may have developed fears or phobias. There can be different reasons why dogs bark and lunge on leash but fear is a frequent explanation. Many dogs have had the unfortunate experience of unleashed dogs charging up to them. Others have received shocks or harsh corrections when they’ve barked at another dog. Whatever the reason, the dog has a learning history that led to its current state of emotion. We can take steps to change the dog’s behavior but this isn’t a case of flicking a switch. For anyone who has ever tried to diet and lose weight, or who has tried to learn a new hobby or speak a foreign language, change takes time. So it is with our dogs. The process consists of a series of incremental steps – only proceeding to the next step as the dog relaxes at each stage. Repeatedly putting your dog in a situation that it finds highly stressful is not the answer. It is likely to lead to further behavioral struggles. 

Scared dog

Overwhelmed dogs will often “shut-down”. It’s like they’re trying to disappear.

There are many dogs who rather than overreact, have instead learned that shutting down when confronted with something they perceive as scary is the safest option. If they’ve previously been in situations that they found overwhelming, and if fight or flight responses didn’t work, they may have decided their only option is to try and block the situation out of their mind.  It’s upsetting to see a dog trying to shrink inside himself – hiding, cowering, refusing food, and generally being unresponsive to the world around it. 

Overly fearful and anxious dogs can have a really hard time adapting to new environments. While mild stress can be a good thing – think about pre-race nerves or wedding day jitters, chronic or prolonged stress is not helpful for learning better coping strategies or for changing an opinion that something is scary. When a person or dog is more relaxed they can process new information and form new associations. 

If you’re hoping to change your dog’s unwanted social awkwardness, the first thing to do is set the dog up for success by providing the best learning environment possible. Maybe that means giving the dog a little more space, not forcing it to interact with people, or reinforcing calm behavior in different contexts. But you have to listen to the dog. If the dog is not coping, we are not helping.

Changing unwanted behaviors in our dogs is possible but it is a process, not a pill. As much as we may want things to move faster or to see immediate improvements, effective change takes time. It starts with ensuring the environment is one in which the dog is capable of learning. 

Do you have a dog that is struggling in a particular environment? Reach out to us so we can discuss how we may help. A private consultation can provide you with great training strategies while a group class like “Please and Cues” gives you an opportunity to put those skills into action.