Pugs playing
One of the most common behavior problems I see among adult dogs is overly reactive or fearful behavior. People frequently think that when they see a dog that barks and lunges at other dogs or people on the leash that the dog was not properly socialized as a puppy. However, this is a common misconception. There are many owners who have put a lot of time and effort into socializing their dogs and still have animals that may cower or bark and lunge. Why would this be the case? Sometimes the socialization techniques used might not have been appropriate for these dogs. Or the dog may just have a genetic predisposition to being fearful and anxious. As most owners of these kinds of dogs soon find out, they will often receive a great deal of unsolicited advice from people when their dogs exhibit these behaviors out in public. Your best source of advice should always be your veterinarian or a local certified animal behaviorist.  

Whether your dog has been fearful or reactive since he was a puppy or a youngster or you are encountering this behavior in a newly adopted adult dog, the most commonly given advice is to “socialize your dog.” You will typically hear such recommendations as:

  • Take him to the dog park
  • Take him to daycare
  • Let the dogs “work it out”
But how practical — and safe — are these suggestions?

Dog Parks

For some dogs who seem only mildly reactive, meeting other friendly dogs at the dog park can help bring them out of their shells. Some canines are less defensive or fearful when they are not on leash around other dogs. If you want to try this technique, then you must set your dog up for success. Before you take your dog to the off-leash park, make sure he is up-to-date on his vaccinations and make sure he reliably responds to a recall clue. If your dog will not return to you when called, you may not be able to retrieve him or remove him before an encounter with another dog gets out of control. If your dog responds to your call, then take him to the off-leash park during a time of day when there is the least number of dogs present. Choose a quiet area of the park and allow him to see other dogs at a distance. Work on counter-conditioning, which is offering your dog a treat when he looks at another dog and does not react. We want him to associate the sight of another dog with a positive emotion. Sometimes you giving your dog a treat will attract other dogs to you, so be discreet with your food rewards! Stay for short periods of time, such as two to five minutes or less, depending on your dog’s body language (for example, if he appears fearful with his head lowered, ears pulled to the side or tail tucked, it’s time to leave!).

This is a technique that may work for some dogs. However, for many others, the dog park may be a nightmare where they are bombarded with new sights, sounds and smells. It may be overwhelming to meet numerous new dogs and strangers in an unfamiliar environment. Owners often stay too long and do not recognize when their dogs have had enough. This may lead some dogs to become even more fearful or aggressive. For all these reasons, if your dog is exhibiting these behaviors, it is best to seek help from your veterinarian or local certified animal behaviorist first.

Doggie Daycare

All the cautions we discussed regarding dog parks apply to this setting as well. Sometimes this can be a good option to carefully introduce your dog to other dogs. Some daycares will take a dog in for one to two hours and slowly introduce a shy, fearful dog to other calm dogs in a controlled setting and set them up in a small play group. But not all daycares are alike. Some facilities may not have the time, room or ability to accommodate a special needs dog. If the facility does not offer this option, then this might be another situation in which your dog may be set up for failure. Some facilities have great staff that are well trained and can read the dogs’ body language and intervene before a problem arises. But sometimes there is poor staff training and too many dogs for the staff to keep track of every dog. I cannot imagine a more frightening experience for a fearful dog than being confined in a small area with nowhere to retreat. Even when provided with dog beds and rest areas, this does not guarantee that your dog will be left alone. Other dogs may approach at any time to investigate the new dog in the group. 

‘Work It Out on Their Own’

If you have already realized that your dog is fearful and anxious in certain situations, does it makes sense to expose him to such triggers in the hopes that he eventually will no longer be affected by them? The answer to this question is NO! This technique is called “flooding.” If the technique works at all, it may take hours, days or weeks before your dog does not react and all the while your dog will be under a high degree of stress, which is physically and mentally unhealthy for him. This is a technique dog owners frequently engage in without realizing it. What people do not realize is that their actions will actually make the dog’s behavior worse. Every time they place the dog in the situation that scares him, he will remember the last time he was in the same situation and was also scared and upset. The dog either gives up or becomes frantic in an effort to escape the situation. This technique only escalates anxiety and fear.

A Kinder, Gentler Way

Socialization is the process through which an animal learns how to interact with other animals of the same species — ideally in a calm and safe way. Dogs tend to be social creatures but they still need to learn how to be “social.” Many people consider socialization in our companion dogs to not only involve exposure to other dogs but also to other people and animals, different noises and environments. Why? Because this is the norm for our society. Not only do we want dogs that can interact with our family, friends and other dogs, but we want dogs that we can take to different places, such as the pet store, to go hiking or to sit outside at a café. Keep in mind it will take longer to socialize an adult dog than a puppy to this extent, so please be patient. You’ll want to slowly build up your dog’s confidence by using positive association. Every time your dog sees another dog or another person or you take him to a new place, you need to assess your dog’s body language to make sure he is not overwhelmed and pair it with plenty of treats and praise.

Sounds simple, right? Tell that to the many people who have dogs that hide, cower, avoid, bark, growl, snarl or lunge at other people, dogs, bicyclists, vehicles, etc. A brief 10- minute walk may end up feeling like you have run a half marathon or gone through an obstacle course. People adopt various strategies such as ducking behind trees, bushes, garbage cans, making U-turns, going up someone’s driveway until the coast is clear, etc. But sometimes we cannot always avoid our challenges.

Socializing your dog should involve a slow and careful introduction to another calm dog in a safe environment at a slow and steady pace. If you do not know someone who has a calm dog, then you can try purchasing a realistic-looking stuffed dog to use as a decoy. Or you may need to hire a professional trainer or behaviorist who has a calm dog to use as the decoy dog. You’ll want to start off in an area where you know you will not encounter other dogs or people that may prove distracting. This should also be an environment where other dogs will not be around and able to run up to you. This could be a backyard, a quiet street, a large parking lot or a quiet park.

Other ways to help set your dog up for success while slowly teaching him to be more social include:

  •  First, take the time to teach your dog several cues for different activities, such as find it, leave it, target and turn. You can then use these cues to help redirect or focus your dog’s behavior as needed while working on socialization.
  •  Next, you’ll want to pair your dog’s exposure to another dog with a positive association, such as receiving tasty treats and praise. Start with both dogs on leash at some distance from one another and then gradually have one dog move closer to the other. Both dog owners must pay careful attention to make sure their dogs appear calm, relaxed and excited to take the treats and perform their fun activities. The sessions should not exceed 15 minutes and you should try to end on a happy note. It may take a number of sessions before your dog is comfortable and excited about seeing the other dog. Another option is to position both dogs a distance apart where both are relaxed and perform a parallel walk. Over subsequent walks together, gradually move the dogs closer together. Remember to use praise and food rewards to help the dog form a positive association with the other dog. 
  •  Finally, do not force or rush your dog to accept other dogs but allow him to proceed at his pace. When your dog appears fearful or anxious based on his body language (ears pulled to the side, hyper-vigilant, tail down or tucked, head lowered, panting, lip licking or yawning, to name a few signals), then you are moving too fast and you need to slow it down. Through careful and slow exposure many dogs can learn to tolerate or even like other dogs. 
For dogs with severe fear, anxiety or reactivity, keep in mind that your veterinarian may recommend that you seek professional help with a highly skilled trainer, certified animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist. Also keep in mind that not all dogs want to socialize or interact with other dogs or people.  Just like you do not want to talk to every person on the street, your dog may not be that interested in meeting other dogs or interacting with people who are not their owners. Tolerance may be the best outcome you can hope for in this situation.

More on Vetstreet:
  • Should My Dog Meet Other Dogs On Leash or Off?