Fear Reactive Dogs

  • Understanding Reactivity

  • Can Dogs Smell Fear?

  • Snakes, Clowns, & Elevators

  • Goal

  • Management

  • Strategy & Tactics

  • Don’t do this!

  • Invisible Introductions

  • Comforting a Dog

  • Additional Considerations

  • Supplements to effect behavior

  • Children and Dogs

    Fears, Phobias, & Reactivity (Sound Desensitization)

Recently I witnessed an apparent stranger place their hand on the protruding belly of a pregnant woman and then attempt to sniff her long hair.  The pregnant woman screamed “back off” and pushed the stranger away. The pregnant woman’s husband was clearly embarrassed with his pregnant wife’s behavior and it was obvious he was upset with her reaction when he loudly asked her “why did you do that, she was only showing her excitement and trying to be friendly.” Several people who witnessed the encounter could be heard saying the stranger was just being nice and meant no harm. Others commented that the husband should have left his rude antisocial wife at home because of her inappropriate behavior in public. Another commented that the pregnant woman could have handled the situation better if she would just learn to smile and start rubbing the belly of the stranger to drive the point home of how uncomfortable she was with the stranger’s behavior. The husband and store manager’s quandary is how do they get the pregnant woman to understand she must stop acing aggressively toward others if she is to be permitted back in the store.

In all seriousness rational people would not think the pregnant woman’s reaction in the imaginary story above was unjustified. Dogs are sometimes placed in the same no win situations. Some dogs enjoy contact, others tolerant it, and still others have no desire and are very clear about their desires.  A dog does not need to learn to accept touch or affection from strangers any more than people need to learn to accept unsolicited neck massages and inappropriate hugs from people. Yes a dog should learn to accept necessary handling (vet visit, bath, grooming, nail trim, etc.…) but necessary handling is different from an individual intruding on personal space and initiating contact.  

Dogs just like humans have an area around themselves that is considered personal space. How big this space is for humans will often depend on what country/culture the person is from. Intrusion into this invisible bubble can cause discomfort for both us and our dogs for a number of reasons.

Reactivity/Aggression can be motivated by:

  • Protection of self (fear, self-defense, or pain) 

  • Protection of others

  • Protecting territory (e.g. home)

  • Protection of resources (food, toys, possessions)

Insecurity/fear of people generally gets its roots during the first 12-weeks of life during the critical socialization period. Traits such as nervousness, reactivity, body sensitivity, sound sensitivity, may be attributed to genetic factors but these can also develop due to early life experiences or the lack thereof during the first 12-weeks of life when experiences can both positively or negatively affect a dog’s confidence, emotional stability, timidity, fear, and phobias. A puppy may have never met or had any positive experiences with men, people with glasses, tall people, people wearing hats, helmets, differing ethnic groups, non-dog people, etc… In these early weeks of life a puppy may have learned to only trust the people they live with. Dogs are all individuals so what affects one dog may not have the same affect on another dog with the same life experiences.

Fear/insecurity can inhibit or activate an individual. Dogs may react/respond in fearful situations by fight, flight, freeze, or avoid. There is a difference between responding and reacting. We would prefer to hear a doctor say we are responding to the medication rather than reacting to the medication. Responding is functional and appropriate, and reacting dysfunctional. A dog can calmly respond by avoiding a person and moving away creating distance between them and the person of concern by moving to a place they feel secure. Whereas reacting could be a panic response where the dog uncontrollably runs from someone. 

Dogs may respond or react in differing ways to people in differing circumstances. Dogs may react to specific people if they lack previous experience with people with facial hair, low voices, high voices, heavy accents, etc… When on a leash outside the home a dog may feel as though escape (flight) or the ability to create distance from those they do not trust is outside of their control so they may react. Or the dog may be inhibited from reacting due to the close proximity and feeling trapped. A dog may not overtly react in a crowd of people but may react if they must pass by a single person. In the home, outside the home, on-leash, off-leash, behind a barrier, owner(s) present, the environment, etc. can all have an impact on whether a dog is activated or inhibited in their behavior in differing situations.

Dogs are very perceptive of all of our movements and non-verbal signals in addition to being sensitive to the tone and pitch of our verbal communications. When people move in proximity to a dog in what they consider a nonthreatening manner it can be considered threatening or unsettling at the very least to a fearful dog.     

Dogs can smell fear

In addition to being highly sensitive to our verbal and non-verbal signals research has shown that dogs can detect the scent of fear in human perspiration. The research showed that when dogs detected the chemosignals (fear sweat odors) they showed signs of stress-related behaviors. This may be why a dog appears to be so unpredictable in whom they react to. There may be no outward sign visible to us, but a dog may be reacting to an odor. The person they are reacting to may have experienced an event earlier in the day that caused a moment of panic; e.g. small child running in front of their car, someone running a red light and almost colliding with their vehicle, etc…

After a period of time a dog may approach a person(s) to investigate them but that is not an indication that the dog wishes to engage with them. Often they are just investigating the person’s scent to collect more information about the person. There is a big difference between a dog that approaches someone with a soft fluid body and a look of relaxation, and another who slowly or cautiously moves toward someone they do not trust. What determines the level of discomfort if any is dependent on the context and the relationship of those who enter this space.  A person does not need to enter this space with hostile intentions to make someone feel uncomfortable. Just observe the behavior of people when someone enters an elevator. People will enter and move away from others to create distance and avoid physical contact while diverting their gaze to avoid eye contact. The body language communicates to others that they are not interested in engaging others in that situation.


It’s important that we don’t misinterpret what we consider to be “no reaction” as “calm”, “comfortable” or “confident.” A dog can be activated/on-alert or highly aroused (fearful, etc.) and be “still” at the same time. A dog that is sitting on its own or having been asked to sit in the presence of people they do not trust is not necessarily calm, comfortable, or feeling secure. And asking a fearful dog to focus on the owner with or without a food treat to distract them or interrupt their behavior will not make the dog any more comfortable if they don’t feel safe because the person of concern is still present, or at least too close. It does not work for humans either. To test the theory invite a friend who trusts you to join you at a location where you will surprise him/her by having variety of their most favorite foods prepared and placed on a dining table. In the same room stage a spider, snake, mouse, lizard, alligator, or clown, etc… or whatever thing that would frighten them under normal circumstances at the other end of the room. Your friend’s reaction and level of comfort will likely be affected by the distance. You can test their reaction by using an average size dining room, and a extremely large warehouse. If the creature or clown is far enough away you may be able to convince them to sit at the table to enjoy the food you had prepared. Or you may find there is no way they are going to sit at the table let alone take their eyes off the thing or clown of concern no matter how fabulous the food on the table. If the distance from the thing of concern is great enough and they do sit at the table sit down next to them and place a cloth napkin in your lap. Then without drawing any attention to what you are doing let the napkin fall from your lap onto their leg or foot. Did they scream, jump up, run away, etc… Even if people or your dog trusts you the trust alone will not provide any magic to help them overcome fear.

Having a dog sit in some circumstances may be appropriate, but for a fearful dog having them sit in close proximity (from the dog’s perspective) to those they are unsure of can add to the insecurity. Much like us humans, we likely would not choose to sit on a park bench if there were an unruly group of individuals close by that caused us concern. We would likely choose a posture like standing to facilitate a quick departure if we felt the need.

Establish Control

It’s important to understand that all reactive/aggressive behavior is caused by the need to establish control. For a fearful dog they will react because the humans have missed or ignored their signals showing their discomfort so the behavior is for the purpose of increasing distance between them and the person.  A common reason this will happen is often due to repeated encounters with people they do not trust so they continue to increase the intensity of their actions to get people to listen and respect their need for time and distance. What humans have considered positive interactions in the past may not be the way our dogs interpret the interactions.  These events can result in each one stacking on top the last and each event just continues to intensify the distrust/discomfort.  When “reaction” will not accomplish time and distance, “action” almost always will. It’s important to understand a dog was not totally fine and then just snapped either figuratively or literally. Please honor what the dog is telling you if your dog does not want to interact with people they do not trust. 

Dogs often start with non-verbal communication that show they are not comfortable with a person’s presence or approach regardless of the person’s intentions. You may observe when a dog is stressed or uncomfortable in a situation the dog may resort to a behavior that is out of context for a given situation;  e.g. sniffing the ground, starts to scratch, looks away avoiding eye contact, or flicks its tongue and licks its nose. But not everything a dog does should be interpreted as communication, or that they are uncomfortable in a given situation. Some people will notice a behavior change when a dog becomes tense/stiffens, mouth closes, or a hard stare long before they move to a lip lift, snarl, growl, or bite.  

Pre-Incident Indicators of Potential Impact

Dogs often start with non-verbal communication that shows they are not comfortable in a given situation. We may observe when a dog is stressed or uncomfortable in a situation the dog may resort to a behavior that is out of context for a given situation;  e.g. sniffing the ground, starts to scratch, looks away avoiding eye contact, or flicks its tongue and licks its nose. But not everything a dog does should be interpreted as communication, or that they are uncomfortable in a given situation.


Avoidance behaviors

  • Moves away

  • Sniffing the ground

  • Looks away avoiding eye contact

Stress/anxiety behaviors

  • Starts to scratch

  • Flicks its tongue and licks its nose

  • Lowers head

  • Crouches

High-arousal escalating behaviors (pre-incident indicators)

Exercise caution: a dog may only stiffen and close its mouth before moving to a bite.

  • Stiffening or freezing

  • Closes mouth

  • Whale eye: Turns head slightly to side and whites of the eyes are visible

  • Hard stare

  • Lip lift

  • Snarl

  • Growl

  • Snap (air-snap/ warning) if you have ignored/missed the other indications you may not receive this last warning.

  • Bite

Some people will notice a behavior change when a dog becomes tense/stiffens, mouth closes, or a hard stare long before they move to a lip lift, snarl, growl, or bite.  We must be watching for a yellow caution signal so we are aware that the green light is about to turn red. Some dogs have a long yellow light and others have one that flashes quickly before we are confronted with a red light. Car accidents don’t happen in miles-per-hour (MPH) they happen in feet-per-seconds (fps) and it’s the same for dogs that come in contact with people. Incidents happen in feet and seconds. The sooner we see the yellow light the more reaction time we will have to avoid an impact.

It’s important that we do not place our dog’s unnecessarily into a situation where they feel uncomfortable or unsafe.  When we do this the dog learns that we cannot be trusted. It’s common for people to tell you that the dog will feel comfortable with people as long as you are comfortable. There is an element of truth to that statement in the right context. But this is not a guarantee the dog will feel safe or be comfortable with others. Our behavior can have a big impact dogs. It is important that the humans look truly relaxed, and in control. When we get concerned you can be sure the dogs pick up on this. We need to be the role model for the behavior we want to see in our dogs.  How we interact with guests can affect our dog’s view of them. If we greet people at the door then back away and create distance we can find our dogs doing the same thing but in a bit different context.  With some guests our dogs will feel much more comfortable quickly as long as it looks like we are comfortable with the guest. With some it can be as simple as hugging your guests (which also transfers your scent to them) and sitting next to them rather than backing away and sitting apart from them. But don’t misunderstand, even if a dog trusts you that trust alone does not provide any magic to help them overcome fear.

People often move toward a dog in what they consider a nonthreatening manner either ignoring the dog’s nonverbal communication, or unaware of it. It would be the same effect as a stranger getting into an elevator and standing facing you with a big smile and staring directly at you. Even when you look away and turn away from their gaze they continue to look directly at you ignoring your nonverbal communication. Even if their intent was not hostile, you would feel better about their presence if they turned and stared at the display showing the floor designation like other “normal people”.  

We should always attempt to recognize a dog’s non-verbal communications long before the dog feels the need to growl, bark, or bite.  When we compare how perceptive dogs are of all our signals both overt and unconsciously, they must believe us to be unfathomably dull or indifferent to their communication.    

Correcting Fearful Behavior?

Unfortunately some believe you can “correct” fearful behavior. It is not appropriate to correct or punish a fearful dog for reacting e.g. growling, etc… when dealing with human reactivity/aggression. Trying to “correct” (punish) fear based behavior is like saying “the beating will continue until you learn to trust” and stop reacting. Punishing fear does not remove the fear; it will likely make the dog more anxious. It may even inhibit the dog from giving future warnings (growl, bark, etc.) since they were “corrected” for such behavior previously.  This could result in only the subtlest signs of discomfort which is easily missed by the untrained eye. It’s wise to have a signal that changes from green to yellow (caution) so there is a caution signal before red. I much prefer a clear caution signal from a dog rather than  a fleeting flash of yellow (caution) before being confronted with a red light. Car accidents don’t happen in miles-per-hour (MPH) they happen in feet-per-seconds (fps) and it’s the same for dogs that come in contact with people. Incidents happen in feet and seconds.

Most fearful dogs that I have encountered I would classify as “reactive” and not “aggressive”.  I consider “aggressive” as the intent to do harm. Most fear based dogs default to being reactive in order to accomplish what they need; time and distance. If we overwhelm a dog by backing them into a corner or applying to much pressure they may act out of self-defense.

The first rule is to only do what is safe and things you are completely comfortable doing. You are ultimately responsible for your own safety.

Anytime there are behavioral issues it is always good to rule out any health issues that may be contributing to the problem which can result in irritability or anxiety.

The first place to start is to remove the opportunities for the dog to continue to practice the wrong behavior. Behavior that is practiced becomes stronger and opportunities/patterns create habits and expectations on how to act around others. When a negative behavior is predictable, prepare by limiting the chances of the behavior occurring. It all starts with management not confrontation. Attempting to use physical force on the dog can be seen as a confrontation and the dog may accept your challenge. The goal is to “take control” and not “fight for control”.  Taking control steers away from being confrontational but still places you in control.

How we work with dogs that have fear/trust issues depends completely on the individual dog’s level of fear and the context. I highly recommend you find a knowledgeable and experienced trainer to assist in in evaluating and working with your dog. Avoid any trainer who advises the use of choke, prong, e-collars, or other aversive tools or methods. My “tool” of preference is a properly fitted martingale collar. I use and recommend all fabric martingale collars that do not have chains or buckles. (Chains are for prisoners) When fitted properly they prevent the dog from backing out of the collar. Martingales collars should not be left on unsupervised dogs.

Territorial Behavior

Humans have bred some dogs to naturally be more territorial. Guarding breeds often will start to bark at strangers near their home at about 9-10 months of age. Territorial displays differ from fear aggression. We can control this behavior by understanding each breed type and seeing that our training is designed to put those instincts and behaviors under control. It’s important to understand we do not “fix” normal, but we can have a guarding breed with guarding tendencies that is not reactive/aggressive.

If a dog’s behavior is strictly territorial (vs fear, over-arousal, etc.) the behavior can provide clues about their relationship with their owners or the people they live with. A dog needs to realize that they are not responsible for the humans and the territory, but rather they are responsible to the humans. A dog that realizes they are responsible to the humans does not believe the environment allows them the liberty to act as they please. Dogs should feel responsible to us, not for us and should accept visitors into the home as long it is clear they are invited guests. I’m sure it goes without saying, but you need to act calm and under control (not concerned) around people your dog does not trust. You don’t need to establish an authoritarian relationship to be considered the one responsible for the territory, you just need to lead. Dominance:  Alpha's & Leaders The 60 page book "Finding A Balance" by Suzanne Clothier is a great place to start.

A dog can be both territorial and fear aggressive so it’s important to get fear under control.

Personality and Temperament

A dog’s personality is the combination of temperament and character. Temperament (pre-disposition / genetics & inherited traits) refers to the aspects of the dog’s personality that changes little over a lifetime.  Genetics give the ability and environment provides the opportunity for these traits to develop to their full potential.

We cannot change a dog’s temperament (pre-disposition), but we can affect their character (disposition). Character emerges as our dogs mature and have more life experiences. We can affect character and our dog’s behavior by helping them learn coping skills and better ways to navigate the world. To what degree and intensity will be influenced to some extent by past experiences and the approach we take moving forward.

Dogs nor humans “just snap” or have sudden behavior changes unless there is a medical reason or impactful experience. If there is a sudden change in behavior it is advisable that dogs be evaluated by a veterinarian. Behavior does not change without a reason. Often times behavior changes gradually but people are not aware of the changes until it has moved further across the continuum.


Many times people say they would like their dog to be friendly toward invited visitors or people they meet. I think a more reasoned position would be how do I keep my dog from reacting to strangers who act appropriately and respectfully, and not rude. A realistic and reasonable primary goal is to prevent dogs from feeling the need to react to people and having our dogs at a minimum ignore or tolerate appropriate respectful guests.

Its important to understand that some dogs will never trust anyone outside the family they live with. Other dogs after learning to accept (or trust) new people may become less suspicious of others and may start to seek out contact with new people in a social manner. With some dogs they may start to seek out or enjoy contact with people after maybe 10 positive experiences. And others it may never happen. With some dogs in the shelter it may only take befriending one person before they start to realize people at the shelter can be trusted.

Although dogs may come to enjoy guests as they learn to trust them, always working with the primary goal of teaching skills that help your dog learn to avoid or at least not react will increase your success and go a long way toward preventing a bite. 


If you have a reactive dog that has gone after people start by removing any opportunities for the dog to continue to practice the wrong behavior. Start with management, meaning avoid having anyone the dog does not already know and trust get close enough that the dog feels the need to bark, growl, or snap.  Every situation can be different. It may mean using a barrier like a baby/dog gate at the greatest distance possible, or secured in another room, outside, or just a leash and soft collar. (no punishment or corrections) I’m not a fan of using crates except in very limited circumstances. A dog placed in a crate can feel insecure and vulnerable for the same reasons as the dog that has been asked to sit in close proximity (from the dog’s perspective) to a person or thing of concern. When we remove their ability to facilitate a quick escape we often only leave them with becoming “reactive” in hopes of maintaining a comfortable distance.  The overriding principle when using a barrier or restraint is that the distance must be such that dogs feel safe and comfortable. I never recommend you install or use the buried perimeter wireless electric dog fences which are marketed as hidden pet containment systems.

If using a leash to control your dog it’s important to note that we should avoid having tension in the leash any longer than absolutely necessary. Tension on the leash contributes to tension in the situation. Tension should be used only to direct the dog to where we want them and then quickly release tension. This is why it’s important to use a leash. If you try to control the dog by holding the collar it is difficult to not maintain tension.

I’m not an advocate of spay or neutering, or drugs for dogs with fear/insecurity issues since I believe the majority of problem behaviors are not due to the result of circulating hormones or a neurotransmitter imbalance.

Strategy and tactics

Reduce reactivity

Manage every situation so dogs have the time and distance they need in order to feel more comfortable with a guest’s presence by teaching dogs that are concerned with people to keep their distance and move to a place they find secure. Super important they find it secure! I like Suzanne Clothier’s approach in how she works with dogs. Suzanne is always asking the dog “How is this for you”  When we start there we can work with dogs to build skills and their comfort around people that are trustworthy.  We will never make our dogs something they are not. If they are not a social butterfly just exposing them to people will not turn them into one. But if we get our part right we can help them be more comfortable around people.  Just keep in mind the words “How is this for you”.  We must always move at the dog’s pace.

Whenever possible before your dog encounters an untrusted person make sure they have been given plenty of exercise so that we can hopefully lower the reactivity and intensity. We need to be sure we are meeting all of our dog’s needs. A dog needs social interaction, exercise, and mental stimulation. If it is appropriate to take your dog out in public it’s generally a good idea to engage them in fun games or other activities before the walk to reduce his energy and to lower the intensity of the reactivity. Engage your dog in entertaining activities to help relieve boredom, stress, and frustration. Engage all five of the dogs' senses, to make their days more interesting. I would be playing interactive games, fetch, nose games, and self-control games with them to channel their energy into a productive outlet. Variety can be the key to an enriching life for dogs. Have toys you can rotate every day. Anything that is unchanging is no longer unique and loses its value quickly. To provide more mental exercise and burn some energy you could feed some of their morning meal/ or treats from a treat dispensing toy.

It is important that you use your own judgment and common sense if following the any of the approaches in this outline and not place people, pets and property at undue risk.


The tactic or approach we use will depend on the dog we are attempting to help. It’s important to understand not every method or tactic is appropriate for every dog. By using the wrong method you may be creating the very problem you were hoping to prevent.  It should go without saying but if a dog is reactive we do not permit them access to people or permit an approach where an outburst is possible. 


It is often recommended by others to pair the presence of untrusted people with something positive like a food treat. But this only works if the dog feels secure and comfortable. And just because a dog will take food it is not an indication that they feel secure. With some dogs it is fine to offer a food treat to break the ice and start to build trust, but this is only appropriate for dogs with a mild concern with people.

With food motivated dogs we never want to put them in conflict. Meaning they have no real desire to move toward people they don’t trust but they desire what is being offered. It’s important that we do not place our dog’s unnecessarily into a situation where they feel uncomfortable or unsafe. If a dog is reactive please do not entice them to approach people they do not trust by using a food treat or something else the dog’s desires. You may be creating the very problem you were hoping to prevent. I never want reactive dogs approaching anyone. I understand that this advice is recommended by trainers but it is not the approach I recommend.

There are several problems with teaching dogs to approach people they don’t trust:

  • First we are teaching them to approach people they don’t trust when we should be teaching them to keep their distance and move to a place they find secure. (avoid)

  • Another issue is that the dog can form the habit of approaching people with the expectation of something desirable. (because we patterned it and created a habit) Often times they will approach people and realize there is no reward in the person’s hands. Normal reactions are freeze, flight, or fight. But a common reaction now is an “outburst” because they are in close proximity and now have the option of fight or flight. If we continue down that road with some dogs we may be setting the stage for “fight” as the default and now a bite occurs because we did not teach avoid. Avoidance no longer comes into play because we taught dogs to approach people instead of avoiding those people they were not comfortable with.  


Always keep in mind your ultimate goal. Do you want your dog to pay attention to people, or ignore and tolerate appropriate respectful people they do not trust?  We want to prevent dogs from feeling the need to react to people. Distance is a good thing; keep in mind your dog needs to be in close proximity to someone to bite them, so it’s best to avoid training them to approach people they do not trust.

Create Distance (Running from or Running to?)

At times it’s appropriate to use a treat or toy for the purpose of tossing it past (behind) the dog thereby creating a pattern of the dog moving away from people they do not trust. If a dog is reactive we never want to entice them to approach people they don’t trust by using a food treat or anything else for that matter. We may be creating the very problem we were trying to prevent. I never want reactive dogs approaching anyone.  By showing the dog we will repeatedly toss a food treat at an even greater distance from their current position you may find its builds trust much quicker and removes suspension of people’s motives.  Even if the dog moves closer to the person they are concerned with we keep sending them away to seek/chase/find the food treat or toy.  This can be practiced from behind a barrier like a baby gate so the dog never has access to people they do not trust.

Ignore the dog

One approach to take is to is to slowly let our dogs get used to people they do not trust by giving them what they need, time and distance. We ask everyone to ignore the dog, meaning don’t look, talk, or attempt to touch.

After a period of time many dogs will move toward the person(s) to investigate them. I still ask everyone to ignore the dog, meaning don’t look, talk, or attempt to touch. Even if the dog comes over to check them out continue to ignore them. It should go without saying but if the dog is reactive we do not permit them to approach where an outburst is possible.  At some point the dog may solicit attention when they feel comfortable.  Even than it’s often best to be sure the person is relaxed and continues to ignore the dog until you are certain the dog wants to interact/greet. If the dog truly does wish to greet and be greeted, the human should start with just a smile and a brief hello no longer than one-second and then turn away and play “hard to get” for some time.  It’s important we work at the dog pace and not so fast we break something as important as trust. This can take time as we move at the dog’s pace. Every outburst is a big setback.

Visitors at the door


What is your dog’s reaction to the doorbell or knock at the door?

Does the doorbell or knock at the door unsettle your dog to the point you have lost control? Does your dog bark uncontrollably?

Does your dog run and hide when someone is outside the door?  

Would the reaction be the same way if the doorbell was replaced with one with a differing tone?

If your dog is unsettled (startle/anxiety/fear based behavior) when they hear someone at the door start by having everyone who lives in the home knock and ring the doorbell before entering the home. With the caveat being that he likes and trusts everyone who lives in the home, and he is not motivated to approach the door with ill intent.  When you enter smile offer some brief pleasant conversation with your dog (about 2-seconds) but don’t approach him just speak with him briefly as you busy yourself with another task allowing him to process your entrance and settle. Also at random times of the day exit out a different door and return through the primary door after being out of the home for random periods of time and always knocking and ringing the doorbell before entering. The goal being over time we want to remove a knock at the door as being a reliable indicator that there is someone outside that he does not know and trust.  Lowering the dog’s reactivity level say from a 9 to a 6 when someone knocks at the door over time will make it easier for the dog to settle quicker.    

Meet outside the home

In some cases it is recommended to take the dog outside (on a leash) to meet guests down the street further from the home and then to walk back to the home together. The choreography of how and who enters the home first may be important in some cases. Some dogs will be uncomfortable going through a chokepoint like an entry knowing an untrusted person is close behind out of view as they enter. With some fearful or territorial dogs if they enter first some will immediately turn around to confront the guest in hopes of preventing their entry. With others it will make no difference in how they react. Just keep enough distance to keep everyone safe and as comfortable as reasonably possible.  

Once inside the home if a dog is given enough distance to stay below the reactivity threshold I recommend the owners give the dog a large food stuffed toy.

Food stuffed toy

If a dog is given enough distance to stay below the reactivity threshold I recommend the owners give the dog a large food stuffed toy when people arrive. This toy can be staged without the knowledge of the dog before guests arrive. It can be left outside the front door or just inside the home out of view. The guest can handle the toy so their scent is on it and then they can hand the toy to the dog’s owner who can give the gift the visitor has presented to the dog.  By giving the dog something large they will need to lie down somewhere to enjoy it. They will take that item to a place “they” feel comfortable and safe to enjoy it. Often another room or out of view of guests. My favorite is a West Paw Qwizl with a chicken strip, fish skin, or beef filet forced inside.  This approach does a couple of positive things. First it gives the dog time and distance it needs in order to feel more comfortable with a guest’s presence, and second the arrival of guest’s results in something valuable for the dog. And territorial or resource motivated dogs see that the person is not a risk for taking anything, but on the contrary their arrival brings stuff of value.

Depending on the dog, once the dog leaves the area/room with the food stuffed toy it may be advisable to place a barrier so the dog does not have full access to the guests should they choose to reenter the area later. 

Invisible introductions


One safe way to start introducing your dog to people he/she does not know and trust is via scent. There are several ways to do this. You can borrow a recently worn article of clothing like a jacket, sweater, shirt, scarf, etc. of someone your dog does not know or trusts. Wear that article of clothing when you enter your home and keep it on for a period of time. (it can be tied around you waist) This can associate their scent with you who he trusts. Borrow clothes from a variety of friends to start to introduce your dog to all types of people they do not know in a non-threatening manner. Be sure to get clothes from both people who own dogs and those that do not. Your dog will know the difference.


Borrow a recently worn article of clothing then place it in a large plastic bag and close. Take several dog toys your dog enjoys and place in the bag. Every day take a toy from the bag and play with your dog, and when play is finished place the toy back in the bag and put the bag away.




You can ask your friends to do the same with a few paper towels. Have them take the paper towels and rub them on their face, arms, and hands and then place it in a large plastic zip lock bag and close. Put lots of your dog’s favorite treats into the bag to transfer the scent onto the treats. Each day share some treats with your dog that have the scent of people he/she does not know or trust. But just as in training don’t be a food dispenser!  Don’t show or offer a treat, instead smile and talk to your dog, praise your dog, and if they like to be touched; stroke, pat, or scratch, whichever touch that they enjoy. Your interaction and praise should produce excitement and enthusiasm resulting in tail wagging. When you see the tail wagging then you can then present a treat and give it to them. Then repeat the sequence. e.g. smile, praise, touch, & present a treat, repeat, and repeat. Don’t just dispense treats, give praise and show appreciation before you give a dog a treat.

It is the same as you would use treats in training. Ask your dog in a pleasant voice to do something they know well; sit, down, etc…(Don’t act like a drill sergeant, act like a leader) Being pleasant with your dog does not make you a pushover; it only makes you enjoyable to be around. When your dog complies, smile, praise, and touch and when you see the tail wagging present a treat and give it to them.   WRONG ORDER – treat/good girl.

Tail must be wagging before any food is presented or offered. Express positive emotion to communicate what you want. Sadly too many training methods are nothing more than a sterile transaction.    

If you are lacking your dog’s cooperation in training I highly recommend the small 50 page e-book by Suzanne Clothier. Attentive Cooperation

If you are planning on introducing your fearful dog to someone you know well you can also incorporate sound in addition to scent. Make a recording of your friend speaking to you or someone else to use to habituate your dog to the sound of their voice. Just make sure there are no other concerning sounds on the recording in the background that would cause your dog concern. Then take this recording and play it during the day when you dog is home and relaxed and let the recording play for at least 4 hours. Just let the recording continue to loop/repeat so it becomes non-eventful background noise. Guidance can be found here: Fears & Phobias

By introducing our dogs to the scent and sound of someone we increase the odds that our dog will be less reactive when they do meet at some point in the future. Ideally we want your dog when he meets these people to pause with the thought “I think we have met before”. Do this often and as many times as you can with differing people.  When these guests arrive at your home you can then follow the procedure with a food stuffed toy as outlined above.

Emotionally reactive or cognitive

Dogs like us cannot be processing both emotionally and cognitively at the same time. They can quickly bounce back and forth between extremes so the goal is to work to focus them on a productive behavior.  Simply, engaging them cognitively so we have the ability to decrease their emotional engagement/reactivity.  One way to achieve this is to get dogs to run to something, not from someone.

Over threshold

When dogs are beyond their current abilities to maintain control and don’t have a feeling of safety they will often become reactive and choose fight or flight. Remember all reactive/aggressive behavior is caused by the need to establish control.

Sometimes people are confused by a fearful dog that will approach a person of concern and then nip or bite. It’s not that the dog really wants to approach the thing of concern just like the person who is terrified of spiders, mice, etc.… a person will approach a spider as a last resort to smack it with a broom if no one else is available to deal with it and then they quickly jump back to create distance. They can feel the need to control the situation since they are uncomfortable with the close proximity. For a fearful dog distance will determine whether they approach or just retreat. For some people and dogs this is the preferred option to attempt to control the person hoping to drive the person or mouse away rather than take the chance of the person or mouse getting close and surprising them. But, if a dog will run 50’ to approach a person you are not exactingly dealing with a fearful dog.

Comforting a dog

Our behavior can have a big impact dogs and I’m all for comforting and doing what’s necessary and beneficial for the dog. You can’t reinforce fear, but you can validate fear. It comes down to how we attempt to comfort a dog. If done incorrectly we can actually validate anxious, nervous, and fearful behavior. This short 6-minute video of Suzanne Clothier gives a brilliant understanding of the subject. 

Spay & Neuter  “fixing dogs”

Often it will be recommended that reactive/aggressive dogs be “fixed” (spay or neuter). Understand that physically healthy dogs are not broken and “fixing” a dog may contribute to the problems we were trying to resolve or prevent.

“For most behaviors, spaying/neutering was associated with worse behavior, contrary to conventional wisdom.”  - Effects on Behavior By Dr. Deborah Duffy

I often tell clients that if this was my dog I would wait until we have built a solid foundation of trust with people. Imagine it from the dog’s perspective. You lack confidence, you don’t trust people, and you are taken to a place with strangers, people you don’t trust, or infrequent acquaintances and you wake up, in a strange place, scared, injured, and in pain. This experience has a way of confirming what you believed all along and can lead to more serious problems.  (Ideally I would only neuter after the growth plates have closed, or better yet only sterilize and not spay or neuter.)

Additional Considerations


To lesson the chances of a dog biting you can use a correctly fitted basket muzzle. Do not use a sleeve or groomers muzzle. More information here: Muzzles

A muzzle is not a tool to use to unnecessarily place a dog into a situation that they may react. Understand that a dog with a muzzle on should not be unrestrained around people or animals they could harm.

Dogs nor humans “just snap” or have sudden behavior changes unless there is a medical reason or impactful experience. Behavior does not change without a reason. Often times behavior changes gradually but people are not aware of the changes until it has moved further across the continuum. If there is a sudden change in behavior it is advisable that dogs be evaluated by a veterinarian.

Supplements for Behavior


“In a study of 24 dogs, Dr. McGowan’s team found that, “from both a behavioral and physiological standpoint, increased intake of fish oil had a calming effect on anxious dogs.” [1] For guidance on selecting an Omega 3 product start here.

Bifidobacterium longum  BL999

Bifidobacterium longum BL999

Behavior & Mood

Bifidobacterium longum BL999 has been reported to help with behavior and mood. Its easy to find Bifidobacterium longum, but to date I’ve only found the BL999 strain in the “Calming Care” product made by Purina. You may need to inquire of the manufacturer to determine strain.

Genus - Bifidobacterium

Species - longum

Strain - BL999

Probiotics for Behavior / Mood

Probiotics for anxiety or behavioral issues. See video at right.

  • Bifidobacterium longum BL999

  • Lactobacillus acidophilus

  • Bifidobacterium bifidum  

  • Lactobacillus casei

  • Bifidobacterium lactis

  • Bifidobacterium animalis

  • cats for stress

Aggression & Medical Issues

Is your dog sound sensitive (startle) to other sounds/noises? If your dog is sound sensitive to other sounds/noises work to desensitize them to as many of the sounds as possible.  Done improperly you can make the behavior worse so use a controlled desensitization plan.  (not habituation, counter-conditioning, or flooding) There is guidance here: Fears and Phobias

How we ultimately help dogs with reactivity will be dependent on what is motivating the behavior. What’s their temperament and personality? Is the dog generally confident, anxious or fearful, territorial? Is the dog acting out of excitement? What is your level of control over the dog in other circumstances? Does your dog suffer with any pain or discomfort?

Leadership is important when we live with dogs but leadership is often misunderstood. The focus of leadership should be about taking care of those in our charge, not being in charge. Dominance:  Alpha's & Leaders

Dogs need to see and believe that we will take care of them and protect them so they do not feel the need to become reactive.

Noise Sensitivities in Dogs: An Exploration of Signs in Dogs with and without Musculoskeletal Pain Using Qualitative Content Analysis

“In this study, concerns over musculoskeletal problems were confirmed using a range of procedures (some individuals having multiple procedures): four clearly demonstrated pain during physical examination in the clinic, eight were radiographed, and one underwent magnetic resonance imaging. The problems identified or inferred related to the hip (including dysplasia–five subjects), degenerative joint disease of the limbs (four subjects), and focal spondylosis in L2 and L3 (one subject). In six of these cases, the owner commented that the dog seemed to be in some pain and/or the pain worsened after exercise.”

“There was a large proportion of neutered dogs: 9 of 10 of both controls and “clinical cases,” whereas the Pet Animal Welfare Report (29) suggests that nationally only about 71% of dogs are neutered. A study by Spain et al. (30) found that decreasing age at gonadectomy in shelter dogs was associated with an increased risk of developing a noise phobia, but it could not be concluded that neutering is causative of noise phobias.”

Fears, Phobias & Noise Reactivity

Children and dogs

Some dogs like children, some tolerant, and others want nothing to do with them. Young children don’t have the ability to make a distinction between appropriate and provoking behavior when interacting with dogs. Dogs should not have to tolerate constant touching, handling, restraining, or abuse by children. Hugging often times is annoying for dogs, and can be viewed as a threatening gesture. Dogs will not enjoy everything the child wants to do or play. While it is polite to ask, it is not polite to pester, whether you are a dog or child.

Here are some additional resources that will help you with moving forward.

Counter Conditioning and Safety (5-min video) https://youtu.be/KwnSdvHI8mg      

Anxiety and Fear https://youtu.be/NcaXxE0N1eM

For additional information on how to make dogs more comfortable around people get a copy of the book “The Dog Vinci Code” and read chapter 44 Fear and Aggression. https://www.homeskooling4dogs.com/books-1

Aggression towards other dogs

The Dog  Its Behavior, Nutrition, and Health  Second Edition  Linda P. Case

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